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Schiavo Case: Media Pander to the Right

Jeff Cohen

Putting aside your view of the Schiavo story, it's clear that right-wing "pro-life" protesters scored a media coup in terms of attention and coverage. On television, their voices and leaders have been front and center in the story and their acts of civil disobedience have been widely broadcast. Their presence has been used as a backdrop for the TV theater.

Segments have often opened with on-the-scene reporters assessing the mood of the protesters, whether "hopeful" or "agitated" or "angry." At times, TV correspondents have seemed to be embedded with the protesters.

The good news is: Despite polls showing that the American people are overwhelmingly on the side of Terri Schiavo's husband, TV has nevertheless given sympathetic (and unprecedented) attention to the views of street demonstrators, even civil disobedients, representing a distinct minority of the public.

The bad news is: For decades, such coverage has not been afforded to progressive demonstrators.

In years of media monitoring, for example, I have never seen such major attention paid to the views of protesters holding vigil outside a prison where an execution was to occur.

To cite a more massive example: When hundreds of thousands of protesters took to America's streets to avert a war with Iraq (at a time that most Americans and some powerful voices in Congress also opposed the rush to war), they were largely ridiculed or ignored by these same TV networks.

In fact, showing a commitment to airing the views of antiwar protesters could get you fired in TV news. I found that out when I worked at MSNBC in 2002-2003. On the eve of the war, MSNBC terminated Phil Donahue's primetime show, the most-watched program on the channel. That day we learned of an NBC internal memo expressing alarm that Donahue would become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors will be waving the flag at every opportunity."

MSNBC's solution: Lose Donahue and the voices of antiwar protesters. Pick up the flag.

(At the time, not all protesters were having trouble getting inside MSNBC studios. Once I was asked to interview a self-appointed Free Martha Stewart leader on-air at length because he'd staged a protest outside a Manhattan courtroom. When I asked him how big his protest had been, he said about a half-dozen people had joined him. On the strength of that, he'd made the rounds of TV studios. Meanwhile, leaders of the mass antiwar movement were deemed unfit for airtime.)

TV coverage of the protesters outside Terri Schiavo's hospice has tended toward the softball. Many viewers weren't told that the "proud father" repeatedly interviewed about his 10-year-old son arrested at the scene is a convicted sex offender. And many viewers may not realize that Randall Terry, identified as a "family spokesman" for Schiavo's parents, is an extremist who advocated death for physicians who've performed abortions.

I wish I could say that mainstream TV's newfound interest in the views of street protesters signifies a fresh understanding that protest, dissidence and minority viewpoints enrich our media debate. More likely, it's a continuation of TV's old habit in recent years of haplessly catering to the Right.

As I learned inside the timid world of TV news, pandering to the Religious Right, Republicans and corporate power is good for one's career. Not so good is doing solid journalism that could get you or your network accused of being "liberal."


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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is jeffcohen.org.

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