All-Out Coverage of Schiavo Wears Thin; No Real Look at Causes of Bulimia
Published on Tuesday, March 29, 2005 by the Toronto Star
All-Out Coverage of Schiavo Wears Thin
No Real Look at Causes of Bulimia
by Antonia Zerbisias

"It appears the parents of Terri Schiavo have run out of options ... meaning the Schiavo feeding tube will soon be removed from the cable news networks."

You can count on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to inject cynicism into what has been, you should pardon the expression, a media feeding frenzy over a brain-damaged woman.

But then, once the White House and U.S. Congress entered the fray, it was tough to fault news organizations for being all over this tragic story of a beautiful young woman who so desperately wanted to be thin that she destroyed her life, and the lives of those who love her.

Even coverage of the coverage has been copious.

Critics have correctly attacked CNN and other organizations for distorting the presentation of opinion polls on the matter. An MSNBC host intimated that Schiavo's husband Michael is a "Nazi'' for wanting to remove her feeding tube. Fox News has come under fire for failing to identify demonstrators as members of an anti-abortion group. It even invited cancelled TV psychic John Edward to read Schiavo's mind.

And, if all that wasn't disgusting enough, how about the syndicated radio host, Glenn Beck, who claims to have raised $5 million (U.S.) in pledges "to buy" Schiavo from her husband "if he will divorce her and give guardianship rights to her parents."

It was the perfect Easter week story, a life and death drama with talk of miracles and resurrections mixed in with some of the worst coverage of any event ever.

Doctors who never went near the patient were called upon to diagnose her. Politicians spoke as if they were medical experts. Just about any nurse who changed a bedpan in the same hospital at some time during Schiavo's 15-year ordeal might have gotten facetime.

Meanwhile, the media, cowed by the "moral values" crowd, rarely asked legitimate questions that needed asking. For example, how U.S. President George W. Bush, who cut short his vacation to preserve the "sanctity of life," can also justify the death penalty.

Much of the coverage was fueled by clips from some 4 1/2 hours of videotape shot by Schiavo's parents who made them public. They have become a Rorschach in this debate. One sees what one wants to see and many see exactly what the parents hope they see.

That the segments represent only a few moments of Schiavo's life is either ignored or glossed over. That they might be as misrepresentative as, say, shooting one minor scuffle at the edge of a massive but otherwise peaceful demonstration and then calling the protest "violent" is also never said.

What they show is an apparently sentient Terri, vocalizing, tracking a balloon and moving to music.

Kind of like a newborn really.

Which is probably the point.

Nobody can condemn the parents for resorting to manipulative measures to keep their daughter close, and alive.

Yet this is a woman whose body image drove her to risk her health in the first place, a woman who had a deadly obsession about her appearance.

As her brother-in-law Scott Schiavo told the New York Times, Terri would have been mortified by the video.

"She was very, very particular about the way she looked, very proud when she walked out the door," he said last week. "She would be so upset to have the world seeing her that way."

Not surprising.

A once fat teenager who had lost 65 pounds, Terri Schiavo was so terrified of regaining her excess weight that she willingly purged her body of sustenance, and in a rather violent fashion.

"The irony is very cruel indeed," observes Jean Kilbourne, an expert on how women are portrayed in advertising, and author of Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. "I don't think it's an issue of vanity. I think it's much, much deeper.

"Women, young women, get the message that their value depends entirely on how they look and, these days, on being extremely thin."

Of course, nobody knows what, if anything, is in Terri Schiavo's mind right now. Maybe if, somewhere deep down inside, Terri really does have consciousness, she wouldn't mind seeing herself on TV over and over again looking slack-jawed and stupid.

Why care, if it saves her life?

Which brings us back to the media, who are profiting mightily from Schiavo's terrible fate, with this perfectly made-to-measure big ratings story.

Throughout this wrenching moral and political uproar, they alone have escaped castigation.

Yet they have much to answer for. They and the advertisers that feed them are the ones who promote unrealistic images of tall, willowy women without an ounce of excess flesh except of course in the two right places.

"Imagine," says Kilbourne, "if all this energy and media attention focused instead on the self-loathing and hatred of their own bodies that our culture generates in women, and the rampant eating disorders that often result. Now that might save the lives of many young women for whom it is not too late."

© 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited