The following is a transcription of the March 26, 2005 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: (voice-over): This week on "Fox News Watch," Terri Schiavo (search) and the media. We will cover the endless coverage.
The pope and Easter weekend 2005.
Is Jesus about to get a new TV show?
Are the new charges about Princess Diana's death accurate?
[VIDEOTAPE OF OPRAH] And if she's so rich, why is she going to live in the ghetto?
"Fox News Watch" coming up after the latest news.
BURNS: The Terri Schiavo story is "made-for-24-hour cable news" but in a good way. So says Mark Effron, an executive at MSNBC. Is he right? What does he mean?
Those are among the questions for Jim Pinkerton of "Newsday"; syndicated columnist Cal Thomas; Jane Hall of The American University; and media writer Neal Gabler. '
I'm Eric Burns. "FOX News Watch" is coming right up.
Mark Effron with MSNBC goes on to say that, "The Terri Schiavo story is important and agonizing, and we" — meaning television — "we've been able to explore all the facets.
Have we, Neal?
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Oh, boy, where do you begin with this one? First of all, I'm not sure it's "made for cable TV." In some respects, I think it's been engineered for cable news by the right wing and by cable news itself.
BURNS: And the right wing did what to make more of the story?
GABLER: Well, I mean, expediting this whole thing with the congressional vote. Now they know that they're going to initiate a number of twists and turns in the courts. All of this is just fodder for cable news, which just kind of loves this stuff, in addition, obviously, to the personal elements of the story and whatever.
But there are so many elements to the story, so many dimensions. So many of them very — so complex. The legal, the medical, the religious, the moral and the personal, and I don't think that the media have done a very good job of covering them. In fact, this, to me, is the journalistic equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
BURNS: Well, if it has all of the — you're saying it's simple enough to cover this better than it has been covered.
GABLER: I'm saying this is a very, very difficult story to cover. And I don't think that the media have covered it very well.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": It's very difficult...
BURNS: But all of the elements Neal mentions tell us, Jim, don't they, why we are giving this story so much coverage?
PINKERTON: Exactly. I think it is difficult to talk about even on this show, because we're here to talk about the media coverage, as opposed to the merits of the case. And so it's hard — it may seem sort of flip and cynical as we discuss whether or not it's made for TV or not.
I do tend to think it's natural for the cable television forum in that there's an ongoing drama. It's like a girl fallen in a well, like the Jessica McClure case way back when in Midland, Texas.
There's legal stuff going on. There's political stuff going on. There's protesters, frankly, who are visual. They're doing things, they're carrying around crucifixes and Madonnas and so on.
It is a great story for cable news, but I think along the way, almost by accident, the ethical, moral issues, even the technological issues about MRIs and living wills, are getting a good airing. I think the media's done a good job on the story.
BURNS: Let me move this, Jane, to an angle, specifically a media angle. And that's word choice.
There's a Web site called Media Matters that has criticized Jon Scott of this network for referring to those people who want Terri Schiavo to live, referring to them as "Terri Schiavo advocates." Mark Strassmann, CBS last night, called those same people "supporters." Amy Robach, MSNBC, talked about Congress passing a bill on Terri's "behalf," meaning that she would continue to live.
Is that an example of bias? Because certainly the people who want her to die are her advocates as well. They do not want her to die out of punitive reasoning.
JANE HALL, THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, I think language is a very big piece of it. Her family, the Schindler family has said she's being starved to death. I've seen only in print...
BURNS: And many doctors, by the way, strongly dispute the use of the word "starvation."
HALL: Many doctors say that that is not the case. I think that cable has not done a good job of this. I think this is a terrible tragedy for both families, and obviously for Terri Schiavo.
I think that this ultimately is opening up a lot of serious issues. But especially in the early days, I saw people asking the brother, Bobby Schindler, on this network and others, "Is this murder?" And he says, yes, that the husband was basically trying to murder the wife. There was no contradiction on many shows.
You had this family obviously very aggrieved, feeling very deeply about this with very little response. And the best things I've seen were Dr. Tim Johnson and Sanjay Gupta, who's a neurosurgeon on CNN. There's very little information.
It's emotion. It's one side versus the other.
BURNS: Mostly emotion.
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: I think a piece of evidence that indicates how cynical much of the media have become about this story is that ABC and FOX News Channel did polls on what people thought. They found, irrespective of the language that was used, or the methodology, as Neal refers to it, and other contexts, they found that most people were on the side of the husband, Michael Schiavo.
So what happened? They stopped airing the polls because they wanted the controversy.
This is a perfect media storm, life versus death, husband versus wife, parents versus husband. These are important issues. And I do agree with Jim that a lot of them have been aired and a lot of people who don't have living wills are going to get them.
But I think it's part of a continuing narrative as to who we are as human beings. And especially the religious versus secular. You've seen a lot of stuff in "The New York Times" and other places blasting people for their faith and for their convictions, especially Catholics, on this issue. It's a subtle kind of religious bigotry that slipped in along with all the other stuff.
PINKERTON: I agree with what Cal just said. But I'll disagree with what Jane said.
Look, if Mr. Schindler, Terri's brother, says it's murder, it's not the job of the reporter to argue with him.
HALL: The reporter set it up and said, "Is it murder?"
PINKERTON: Well, OK. If he — that's what they clearly think. It doesn't take much to get the Schindlers to say...
HALL: But their side was not — the other side was not represented.
PINKERTON: Well, I didn't see this particular segment. But I will say it is not the reporter's job to argue with a source.
GABLER: Listen, the issues have been not aired well. But let me just pick up on what you just said, Jim.
Carol Iovanna, right here on this station, here's a question she asked: "So, essentially, we have on the one hand the issue of starving someone to death and the other hand a loving family that wants to take over this responsibility."
Is that pretty much how the argument is going? Now...
BURNS: Well, was she paraphrasing what someone — what an interviewee had just said before that, or...
GABLER: Let me say this, the disconnect between the mainstream media and cable news on this story has been tremendous. If you watch cable news, you see a nurse who says that Terri Schiavo was laughing at her jokes, you see a doctor who was purportedly nominated for a Nobel Prize — which he really was not — saying that Terri Schiavo was going to recover.
You see — you know, again and again and again you see this kind of idiocy. And it stacks the deck very, very heavily.
THOMAS: Well, if she's not being starved to death, what is she being, exercised of her spirit? Of course she's being starved to death. She's having food...
BURNS: The proper term is dehydrated.
THOMAS: Well, but food and water...
BURNS: But the objection, Cal, people have to the word "starvation" is that it suggests suffering. And some doctors say it's the wrong word.
PINKERTON: Actually, Eric, I'm pretty sure that dehydration is an unpleasant way to die, too.
HALL: But the point is there's debate about this. There's debate about whether she is able to feel pain. There is debate about a lot of this. And I think the narrative has been way to one-sided on this.
BURNS: We have to take a break. We will be back this Easter weekend with this...
ANNOUNCER: The pope's health seems have to improved. But the media are still watching, still waiting.
More "FOX News Watch" after this.
BURNS: A pope is always news. But when he has made as much news as this one has, and when he's 84 years old and in failing health, he is bigger news than ever, especially on Easter weekend.
Jim, what kind of news is he these days?
PINKERTON: Well, this has got a lot of elements of the Schiavo case in terms of potential death with, frankly, more...
BURNS: The media staked out to cover it?
PINKERTON: The media staked out to cover it. More dramatic elements because, if Terri Schiavo dies, that's it. If the pope dies, you've got all the succession issues, who's the next cardinal — who's the next pope going to be, and so on. So in many ways it's a more rich story.
Also, let's face it, this pope is an historic figure. But he's also a very media savvy guy.
"The New York Times" quoted Archbishop Foley, who's the director of communications for the Vatican saying — the pope saying — "If it doesn't happen on TV, it doesn't happen." This guy is right out of the Marshall McLuhan (search) playbook.
BURNS: And Cal, he was asked by somebody else, too, about whether he was upset about all the vans outside the window when he was in the hospital. It was a death watch.
And I think, Jim, it may be then that he said this. You know, he understands...
BURNS: ... he's news and the media have to be there for him.
THOMAS: Well, he understood it certainly when he teamed up with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, three very other media savvy people, too — other media savvy people on the campaign to bring down the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I want to mention that wonderful column written by George Weigel, who is the "Post" biographer in "The Washington Post" this week. He talked about suffering and how this, especially on Easter weekend, is a metaphor that much of the media and much of the country now ignores or doesn't fully understand.
The pope truly believes that the process of dying is a redemptive act. He is pro-life in every category, and Weigel's piece in "The Washington Post" I thought was something we just almost never see in the media anymore.
HALL: I think that's an interesting point. I think that it makes reporters and the general public uncomfortable seeing this man suffering, and obviously ill, and unable to speak. And it's moving to see him wave an olive branch, the symbolism of that when he cannot speak.
I do think there's another element that the American media in particular are very reticent to go at, which is who might be the successor. I saw a piece on the BBC about how that's considered something you shouldn't ask, and yet in some ways there may be some consideration.
It's not unlike if a president were gravely ill. Would it be all right to be asking this question?
BURNS: Neal, talking about something that sounds ghoulish but really has a practical side, I was reading that a CBS producer took out a 10-year lease on a rooftop near the Vatican to cover the pope's demise. This was nine years ago. She was thinking 10 years ought to be plenty, but he is obviously out — seeming to outlive this time frame.
It does seem — and I'm sure some people are going to take it this way — that this death watch notion is a kind of ghoulish thing. But, in fact, it is practicality. We know he's going to die relatively soon, and we would be doing an injustice if we in the media weren't preparing to cover this event and the succession.
GABLER: Well, I think the media sees it as politics. And they love the horserace aspect when it's a presidential race and they love the horserace aspect when it's a papal race. But let me say one thing.
I think I have to give the media a certain amount of sympathy here, because whenever you deal with a religious figure, Muslim clerics aside, there is a whole new set of journalistic rules because you don't want to offend the people who follow. You don't want to offend Catholics in this case.
So you can't criticize the pope ever. You have to kind of take the Catholic view of him. You even sometimes have to accept some of the things that the bishops have been saying, and which Jane said here, that even though he can't speak, he's an even more powerful communicator now...
BURNS: Are you commending the media for this or...
GABLER: No, I'm not commending them. I'm saying that there are two sets of journalistic rules.
For example, if you said about a president of the United States who couldn't speak, "He's even a more effective communicator now that he can't talk," we'd all be sitting here saying that's nuts.
THOMAS: For a politician I'm not so sure.
THOMAS: But look, this is the thing about — about this — first of all, I want to say about what Neal said that it's amazing to me and instructive to me that the media all of a sudden cares about not offending Catholics. With this pope they have been on his case for his position on birth control, on abortion and a whole lot of other things for years. And I think...
BURNS: They're just not doing it now.
THOMAS: They're not doing it now, but they have been for many, many years.
GABLER: And not directly against the pope, either.
PINKERTON: Let me make one prediction on this as a death watch. And again, we're being flip because we're covering this from a media perspective.
BURNS: It's the phrase that people in the media use.
PINKERTON: Exactly — is that as the pope declines, you're going to see false reports about death.
THOMAS: Oh, absolutely.
PINKERTON: You're going to see this phenomenon — the last pope dying was like 25 years ago — BlackBerries and cell phones. Nobody's going to wait for the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) anymore. It's going to be something that some reporter will be reading on his BlackBerry in real time, and quite possibly getting it wrong the first time.
BURNS: We have to take another break. We'll be back with a star- studded version of our "Quick Takes" featuring...
ANNOUNCER: Jesus in prime time, Oprah in the ghetto and new charges about Diana and the paparazzi.
BURNS: It's time for our "Quick Takes" on the media.
Headline no. 1: "A Star is Born... Er, Resurrected."
NBC is planning to produce a pilot for a new TV series in which an Episcopal priest and his partner, a "contemporary, cool Jesus" help to solve the world's problems. The show is called "The Book of Daniel," and it is said to be a darkly comedic drama.
I love darkly comedic dramas, don't you, Jane?
HALL: Well I think that this is a good thing to quote my friend — not really — Martha Stewart. I mean, I think it's interesting there's this new show "Revelations." I mean, obviously...
BURNS: That's a series, "Revelations." I mean a limited series.
HALL: A limited series. And obviously the media have awakened, I think, after the 2004 presidential election to the fact that there's more interest in religion than maybe they thought. Cal...
BURNS: Jim's smirking.
THOMAS: You're not going to get away that.
HALL: Oh, wait. I should have on my glasses so I could see the smirk.
PINKERTON: Well, there again we talk about the culture of life. There's a culture of ratings.
I mean, look, every network saw "The Passion" movie's success and they all want to get on the Jesus train now. And they're going to try and see what happens.
THOMAS: I feel about the networks doing something on the life of Jesus the way I would if the Klan announced it was going to produce Black History Month. What do these guys know about the central figure of the Christian faith? I am probably not going to watch.
Let's remember that "Touched By an Angel" for nine seasons on CBS, five of them in the top 10, really set the standard for this sort of thing and with dignity. I'm not looking for dignity on this.
"Quick Take" Headline no. 2: "He's a Little Late, But is He Right?"
In less than two weeks, Prince Charles will marry for the second time. This week, Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, blamed the press for the death of Charles' first wife — and in strong language. "If we didn't have this paparazzi nonsense, Princess Diana would be alive," the mayor told a radio interviewer. "Bad journalism actually takes people's lives" — Neal.
GABLER: I assumed he's speaking figuratively rather than literally, because there are some people who believe that they...
BURNS: Well, remember, we thought literally...
GABLER: ... actually killed Princess Di.
BURNS: Yes, because they were chasing her.
GABLER: Right. But, look, there's a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the press. They need one another.
Princess Di invited the press in, used the press when she wanted them, and then tried to keep them at arm's length when she didn't want them. So it's a little bit disingenuous to say, gosh, you know, the gossipy press and paparazzi are killing celebrities. Celebrities don't exist without paparazzi.
BURNS: How can you sit there and criticize a politician for disingenuousness? What's he doing?
PINKERTON: What I would add, let's put the media on the spot, too. The mayor of London blasts media; media thank the mayor of London for keeping the Princess Diana story alive eight years after her death.
HALL: You know, I...
BURNS: Very well taken point — Jane.
HALL: ... I think, you know, let me speak up for Princess Diana. She was about a teenager when she married him. And I think the house of Windsor is responsible for inviting the media into her life.
THOMAS: The paparazzi stalk a lot of people. Not all of them die. She made the decision she made, as tragic as it was. There was a switch of cars as well, many other factors, people drinking, driving fast through the tunnel. It's not all the media's fault.
BURNS: "Quick Take" headline no. 3:
"Oprah Winfrey Makes $300 Million a Year!"
But that ain't stopping her.
She is going to live in a Chicago slum for a month and do a TV documentary about it. She will have private security guards with her at all times, but other than that, says a spokesperson, she'll fend for herself, put herself right there on the front lines of poverty. Then when she's done taping she'll buy the whole city of Chicago and airlift the slums to Wichita.
BURNS: The last of that is an exaggeration. The rest of it, Neal, strange to say, is true.
GABLER: Yes, listen, I suppose...
BURNS: Can something constructive come out of Oprah living in a ghetto for a month?
GABLER: You know, I'm not a huge Oprah fan, but I think she's to be commended for bringing attention to this. On the other hand, I mean, she will be the first person in the ghetto who has a full domestic staff.
BURNS: Well, she'll be able to hire people right there in the ghetto.
THOMAS: If she eats the food, she's going to bulk up like some of the others. But, look, I like Oprah. And I think she has raised a lot of serious questions, and a lot of frivolous ones, too, of course. But I think if she can connect her audience with people who are truly poor, that, to quote Martha Stewart, could be a "good thing."
HALL: You know...
BURNS: Don't quote Martha Stewart again. Just go ahead.
HALL: I won't. I'll refrain.
She went to Africa and highlighted AIDS in Africa. I mean, I think if you are a celebrity and you try to make decent use of it, you try to highlight things you think are important issues — I mean, a lot of government officials aren't highlighting some of these important social issues. So bravo to her for trying.
PINKERTON: The so-called Oprah effect works sometimes on best sellers. It failed on the movie "Beloved." It failed on the Pontiac giveaway plan. We'll see. I do think it's a little cynical, though, on her part.
BURNS: Yes, but, you know, we've just completed a segment in which the most cynical person was me, and that doesn't happen very often. Because I'm generally sweeter natured than the others.
We have to take one more break for the others to digest that. When we come back it will be your turn.
BURNS: About John Kerry suggesting that the media might have played at least a small role in his defeat last November, here is Lloyd from Grand Junction, Colorado.
"Why can't he and others who lost just admit to the obvious and simply state, 'While I strongly disagree, the majority of the voters believe that my opponent would do a better job'? Wouldn't that be refreshing?"
About the congressional hearings into steroid use in baseball, here is Carol from Toms River, New Jersey.
"Many in the media were so moved by the weepy steroid parents. The two stories everyone missed are, one, why do high school football players experience unnatural growth spurts that aren't noticed by their parents, and two, why do the chess and journalism clubs seem never to be affected by those same strange growth spurts? Where's the investigation?"
And Doug from Webster, Wisconsin, "Congress is simply throwing stones at baseball from a glass house for their own political careers. The media played right into it."
About media coverage of Ashley Smith, here is David from Covina, California.
"A woman's husband was killed. She saves her life and maybe others, and I hear cynicism from Neal and Jim because she wants to look nice and make some money. Don't you guys do the same? After all, this is America."
About the FCC's decision that this is not indecent, here is Doyle from Orange Park, Florida.
"The American families ruled the NFL the commercial was a bad thing, especially during family viewing times. The FCC is overruled on this point."
And P.F. from Tacoma, Washington, "Many of us have no choice in having cable reception. An aerial on my house brings in two local channels only. Yes, I pay for cable, not by choice. As long as that is the situation, the FCC should watch what you say as well as my local channels."
Finally, here's Andy from Gainesville, Florida. "Thanks for the show. It should be expanded to one hour at least. The mix of opinions and personalities is superb. However, because of Jane's great attractiveness, could she please be given as much camera time as the four fellows combined?"
Here's our address if you'd like to write to us. It's email@example.com . Please write to us. When you do, let us know your name and where you live.
That is all the time we have left for this week. [VARIOUS CAMERA SHOTS OF JANE HALL]Thanks to Jane Hall, Jane Hall, Jane Hall, and Jane Hall.
HALL: And I'm Jane Hall, thanking you for watching. Happy Easter. See you next week.
BURNS: And, by the way, when we do see you next week it will back to normal.
Hope you enjoyed it, Jane.
HALL: I enjoyed my moment.
BURNS: We'll be back on the air again, as Jane said, next week. We hope to see you then.
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