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Battle Over Terri Schiavo; Are Journalists Paying Enough Attention to Religion?

Aired March 27, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Life and death soap opera: Did television turn Terri Schiavo into such a symbol that Congress and the president rushed to save her life, even as thousands of other critically ill patients are allowed to die?

Are the media being fair to religious conservatives on subjects from euthanasia to displaying the Ten Commandments to the teaching of creationism? And are journalists paying enough attention to religion or just waiting for holidays like Easter?

Plus, "A Current Affair" makes a comeback, Jerry Springer's second career, and New York's "Daily News" says sorry to thousands of readers who thought they'd won big bucks.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

On this Easter Sunday, we turn our critical lens on the media's coverage of faith, how journalists portray religion and morality, especially in the non-stop coverage of Terri Schiavo. The headlines and updates on the brain-damaged woman kept coming this past week, ruling after ruling in state and federal court, the intervention of Congress, the president and his brother, the governor of Florida. As the Schiavo story utterly dominated the media, the pundits weighed in with sometimes heated rhetoric.


CLIFF MAY, FMR. RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: If I had a dog who became disabled and I deprived it of nutrition and water, I could be arrested. Shouldn't Terri Schiavo have that same level of rights at least?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see it as really an atrocity. I think that this woman should have been allowed to complete her dying 15 years ago.

RABBI SHMULEY BOTEACH, RADIO HOST: A helpless woman is being put to death for no other reason than she lacks our IQ level.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR OF THE NATION: I've never seen such an egregious act of political opportunism or shameless trafficking in human misery.


KURTZ: But the Terri Schiavo saga was about far more than politics. The family members, lawyers, doctors, commentators and protesters on both sides invoked God, religion and morality in arguing their case. But were news organizations fair to all sides in this emotional struggle?

Well, joining us now, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic," Steve Roberts, syndicated columnist and professor of media and journalistic ethics at George Washington University, and Joe Watkins, radio talk show host in Philadelphia who is also a Lutheran minister.


Steve Roberts, it's a heartrending case, but did the media turn this into some kind of national soap opera by playing that hospital video over and over again, despite the fact that there are thousands of cases over the years that are not that dissimilar from this one?

STEVE ROBERTS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: Well, yes, they did. They did over-play it. But it is a very compelling personal story. You can talk about thousands of people, it doesn't mean anything. When you reduce it to one individual, that's what television does best. Television needs personalities. It needs individual stories. It needs conflict and drama. That's the nature of the medium.

And so I'm not surprised. But, yes, there are a lot of other cases that never get this attention.

KURTZ: Well, some of them are now being resurrected by newspapers to show that this has happened before.

Michelle Cottle, has the press ridiculed, or maybe I should say marginalized, religious people who believed the Terri Schiavo must be kept alive as a matter of Christian morality?

MICHELLE COTTLE, THE NEW REPUBLIC EDITOR: Well, it's not that they get out there and make fun of them. It's just you come with a ready-made kind of visual here. You have people on the streets praying. They're (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you have very dramatic and even melodramatic protests and things like this.

These people are very easy to kind of just poke fun at without even saying anything. You just kind of show these people. And the majority of Americans who don't get out there and do this kind of, you know, really dramatic displays feel a little bit uncomfortable on that level.

KURTZ: Do you believe, Joe Watkins, that religious conservatives got short shrift in the coverage of this story?

JOE WATKINS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, there's a way that religious conservatives get pictured by the media. Usually it's in the heat of battle, like in the Terri Schiavo case, and religious conservatives are always made to look like they're on the fringe.

KURTZ: Is that because the camera gravitates towards those who are the most extreme or the most...


WATKINS: Well, usually, by the time it gets to this kind of thing, of course, people are doing extreme things. People are showing up -- if you're talking about any kind of a vigil, be it a vigil for somebody in a prison or a vigil at somebody's hospital or what have you, you're going to get the most extreme elements to come out there because of the nature of what's happening.

But the media seems to have a lot of difficulty talking to folks, when we're not in the heat of the battle, about religious faith. Religious faith is something that most media folks try to stay clear of.

And I think it ought to be discussed. It ought to be discussed -- I think it ought to be discussed outside of issues like the Terri Schiavo case. I think that it ought to be something that journalists ask during the course of a regular interview with somebody who's an elected official or somebody's who's in politics.

KURTZ: I'm going to come back to that point. But I want to ask Steve Roberts, is it fair in the coverage for journalists to note that Republicans, who pushed the bill through Congress, usually support states' rights and usually oppose judicial activism? In other words, to raise the hypocrisy question? Is that perfectly fair given the...

ROBERTS: Oh, it's not only fair, it's essential. There's an enormous amount of hypocrisy here. But the truth is, most people are not very consistent. They say they are for states' rights when it fits their political values and their political goals on both sides.

KURTZ: On both sides of the spectrum?

ROBERTS: And there are a lot of Democrats now who are saying "states' rights" when, in fact, if it were a question of civil rights, say, in the '60s, when they were all for federal control, and states' rights to them was a code word for religious bigotry and racial bigotry. And so they hated the notion of states' rights. It was George Wallace that was all that they opposed.

So there's not consistency on either side. But, in this case, it's essential that journalists point out the enormous hypocrisy on the part of Republican conservatives who have invoked the notion of federal control.

KURTZ: What about the conservative commentators who have said that anyone who was in favor of letting the courts and Terri Schiavo's husband have their way was heartless and wanted to starve this woman to death? COTTLE: I think this has been a perfect example of why these matters are best handled in the relative privacy of the courts. I mean, it's really easy to demonize people in this situation.

KURTZ: "You're in favor of murder."

COTTLE: Exactly. And that's the way you generate political support. And that's, you know, the way Tom DeLay gets his base excited.

ROBERTS: And contributions.

COTTLE: And that's the way Governor Jeb Bush gets written up on the front page of the newspapers as, you know, the conservative standard-bearer for the 2008 presidential election.

KURTZ: Since you brought up Tom DeLay, I want to put this question to Joe Watkins.

He's the House majority leader and he has been a champion of Terri Schiavo. And some people in some articles and journalists have said that he was trying to change the subject from his own ethics problems or ethics allegations.

Now, CNN obtained an audiotape of DeLay speaking to the conservative Family Research Council. Let's listen to some of that.


REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: This is exactly the issue that's going on in America, that attacks against the conservative movement, against me, and against many others. The point is, is the other side has figured out how to win and defeat the conservative movement.


KURTZ: Now, CNN obtained that videotape from a liberal group, the Americans United for Separation of Church and States.

Fair game -- that audiotape, I should say -- fair game? Is that whole issue fair game with DeLay?

WATKINS: Well, I think Tom DeLay, with regard to the Terri Schiavo issue, just wants to do the right thing. I mean, he's wanted to do the right thing. I think that's the case with all of the politicians involved.

That's why you don't see unanimity with regard to Democrats or Republicans on this issue. That's why you see liberal Democrats who supported the president and Republicans on this issue because they feel, at the end of the day, it's the right thing to do.

And I think for many of them, nobody has posed the question to a Barack Obama or to Harold Ford -- Democrats, by the way, who voted in support of this... KURTZ: So you're saying the...


KURTZ: ... press has given the Democrats a pass as to their position, whereas the skeptical, aggressive -- "Do you really believe this or is this just for political scoring points with your base?" A little double standard there, in your view?

WATKINS: Well, I think so. I think so. I think...

COTTLE: Of course, there's no reason that anybody would think that Barack Obama is trying to score points with his base because his base is not social conservatives. And he's also not up there like Tom DeLay shrieking about medical terrorism.

I mean, one of the things that changes this from an issue of wanting to do the right thing to a question of kind of political expediency is the tenor of the debate, which has gotten really crazy...


WATKINS: ... to do with the time span. I mean, when you talk about somebody's life and the fact that they may not eat for days, of course, the tenor has to be rather high-pitched.

COTTLE: Absolutely attacking, you know, Michael Schiavo and talking about how abusive he was, and, you know, we've had the word "killer" bandied about.

KURTZ: Since you brought up that point, I've been really struck by the coverage of the family members. Obviously, this whole thing grew out of a legal dispute between the parents and the husband. And it reminds me of the Elian Gonzalez case, where the media suddenly made stars out of the various relatives of the 6-year-old then-Cuban boy and everybody took sides of who they liked and who they didn't like.

So, in fact, Michael Schiavo has gotten a lot of criticism on the airwaves. Let's take a look at some of that.


JOHN FUND, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Michael Schiavo, the closer you look at him, the more unsettling the whole case gets, because, frankly, he has not been a good husband.

PAT BOONE, SINGER: Terri's husband is determined to let her die, not let her die, put her away.

PAT ROBERTSON, THE 700 CLUB: I blame her husband, who obviously wanted to kill her.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROBERTS: Well, that's obviously unfair, but, you know, again, the nature of television wants drama. And so we all become characters in a soap opera. The president becomes -- why is the president now called the entertainer-in-chief in America? Because we want national soap operas. We want national stories. They can be very powerful waves.

KURTZ: Are you comfortable with that?

ROBERTS: Not entirely.

KURTZ: You understand how it works, but I sense a little unease.

ROBERTS: I am a little uneasy because I think people get demonized and stereotyped.

WATKINS: I think you have to consider this. I mean, at the end of the day, whether you like Michael Schiavo or you don't like Michael Schiavo, Michael Schiavo is a guy who did not honor his wedding vows. He's a guy who is married still to Terri Schiavo and who, at the same time, took up with another woman and has two children by her.

Now, you can think whatever you think about that, but in my understanding of life, and of marriage, and of the importance of those vows, that's not a good husband.

ROBERTS: You know, one of the stories that I covered years ago that this reminds me of -- I covered the MIA and POW families in the '70s in California. Often, a lot of the wives wanted to end this drama and move on with their lives. The parents could not have another child, and those who are the ones who hung on.

KURTZ: I want to read some poll numbers from a USA Today-CNN survey about how everyone's doing here in the eyes of the public. President Bush, 31 percent approval rate on this matter, Schiavo; Republicans, 26 percent; Democrats, 28 percent; the media, 43 percent, so a rare better-than-expected, you might say, performance on the part of the press.

Let's broaden this to other religious-related issues: teaching of evolution in Kansas schools, a lot of coverage there, whether it should be required, whether creationism should be included; the Ten Commandments display in Alabama and elsewhere; even gay marriage in San Francisco. Isn't there some built-in media bias by the East Coast journalists toward those who have a different view of these matters?

COTTLE: I think there is. I mean, it's not that they -- again, it's not that they say unpleasant things. But they do behave as though the people who believe these things are on the fringe, when actually the vast majority of the American public describes itself as Christian.

You know, a huge percentage, somewhere between a third and a half, actually say that they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. And another huge chunk would be comfortable with evolution being taught in the schools. And this... (CROSSTALK)

COTTLE: This is not what you find in the New York media.

ROBERTS: That is a very point. I worked for "The New York Times" for 25 years. I could probably count on one hand in the Washington bureau of "The New York Times" people who would describe themselves as people of faith.

WATKINS: That's right.

ROBERTS: And I think one of the real built-in biases in the media is towards secularism. And I think that, when you talk about diversity, you want diversity in the newsroom, not because of some quota, but because you have to have diversity to cover the story well and cover all aspects of a society. And you don't have religious people making the decisions about where coverage is focused. And I think that's one of the faults.

WATKINS: But it's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to have religious people at the same time, because that's a perspective that ought to be covered. We ought not run away from it. You just gave fantastic statistics that show that a huge percentage of the American public believes in God. And a huge percentage of the American public would characterize themselves as Christians or as Jews.

And so, why not? Why not have...

KURTZ: You're a religious person. You're a minister.


KURTZ: When you go on television, do you tend to get asked about faith or do you tend to just get asked about politics?

WATKINS: No, never.

KURTZ: Never?

WATKINS: Unless only if I'm on a Christian network. If I'm on a religious network then, of course, I get asked the question, you know, "How about your faith? You've worked in the White House. You're in television. You've been in politics. What about your Christian faith and how does that interrelate with what you have done and what you do?" And on those networks, I get to talk about that. But not on the mainstream ones.

KURTZ: All right. It's a good place to take a break.

When we come back, why is it that the secular networks have no full-time religion reporters anyway?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Michelle Cottle, "Time" and "Newsweek" in the last two weeks have had Easter covers. "Time" went with "Hail Mary," and "Newsweek" magazine, "How Jesus Became Christ." So we can't say that religious is totally ignored by the media, but is it a once or twice a year thing in this...

COTTLE: The newsweeklies know that, if you put Jesus on the cover around Easter time, you sell more magazines than you do any other time of the year, that it's what sells.

KURTZ: Profit motives?

COTTLE: Yes, absolutely. It's absolutely the profit motive. Now, the question is...



KURTZ: Good point.

COTTLE: Why doesn't that necessarily then play itself out throughout the rest of the year? Because, you know, as "The Passion of the Christ," or the "Left Behind" books, or things like that show, there is an interest in these issues out there.

KURTZ: Have religious issues, Joe Watkins, for example, what goes on in churches and synagogues, kind of been ghettoized, as opposed to a controversy over a gay minister, or a priest accused of molestation, or when the pope gets sick, everybody comes...

WATKINS: You're right. I think you're right, Howard.

I mean, this is when, of course, the media talks to folks who are in religion or who have religious faith, they talk to them when there's some horrible or some difficult situation that's brewing that's, of course, made news. And then the questions comes, well, how can this happen?

But hardly ever will you find somebody in a sane moment, in a quiet moment, somebody discussing, perhaps, their political career or some legislation that they're putting forward to be considered by the Congress do you get a reporter to ask the question, "So tell me again, you call yourself a -- I happen to know you're an Orthodox Jew or you're a conservative Christian person. How does your faith impact this? I mean, does your faith have a role in this at all? I mean, how does that interface?"

Or just recently, tell me if I'm -- I mean, you don't see any kind of public discussion ...

KURTZ: But some politicians, President Bush is one, Joe Lieberman is another, sort of interjects it into the public...

(CROSSTALK) WATKINS: That's the precise -- that's the proper word. They interjected it. But never do you see it coming from the media side, anybody questioning...

ROBERTS: Well, that's partly because, I think, religion coverage has been ghettoized. It's been marginalized. It's never considered a plum assignment. It's never considered a stepping stone to bigger things. Everybody wants to cover the Congress or the White House, not religion.

But I think in the last campaign, we saw a perfect example of this. There was so much, say, on the rockers and the sports celebrities who were registering voters. And how many stories did we see about that compared to the pastors and churches in Ohio who were registered 10 times as many voters?

COTTLE: And when you see it, it tends to be negative, in terms of, are they violating the federal...


WATKINS: Of course. It's always got to...


ROBERTS: And that was a perfect example of how the mainstream press missed an enormously important subject. Because they were not familiar with those churches. They weren't comfortable in those churches. They weren't members of them.


ROBERTS: They didn't see what was happening.

WATKINS: They don't see church members as people like them.

ROBERTS: I agree.

KURTZ: And as a classic example of that, there is no full-time religion reporter at any of the networks. ABC News used to have one, Peggy Wehmeyer. She left a few years ago, hasn't been replaced. At the moment, "Newsweek" and "U.S. News" haven't replaced their religion reporters who have left. What gives? I mean, it's obviously a subject of great interest to millions of Americans.

COTTLE: Well, it is. I think the question is, these reporters are not comfortable in that world, and so it's kind of -- it's almost like a foreign posting, except on some level among the East Coast elite, it's seen as often kind of a creepy world by a lot of people. I mean, really, the political -- the religious right is seen as some kind of creepy political force, and that's what a lot of people associate religious stories with.

ROBERTS: And one of the mistakes that's been made is to associate religion with conservatism, which is a profound mistake. You'll almost see no coverage of progressive religionists. Everybody forgets the Reverend Martin Luther King, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the enormously important part of religious history in America...

COTTLE: And you're seeing this post-election as like -- people like Jim Wallis, who is a left evangelical.

KURTZ: I've got 10 seconds. Do you think one of the reasons journalists shy away from this is that they're afraid of offending people of other faiths, that they see it as too delicate, too controversial?

WATKINS: I think Steve hit the nail right on the head, is that there just aren't enough journalists who have really a background in faith, that know it from a first-hand perspective to be able to share it, and to be able to talk about it and ask about it.

KURTZ: Last word, Reverend Joe Watkins, Steve Roberts, Michelle Cottle, thanks very much for an enlightening discussion.

When we come back, a tabloid pioneer back on the airwaves. Plus, Jerry Springer's new career. That and more, in our "Media Minute," just ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the world of news in our "Media Minute."

Forget about Jerry Springer, the daytime talk maven who presides over salacious and outlandish topics.


JERRY SPRINGER, TALK SHOW HOST: Why would you go be sleeping with your husband in their bed?


KURTZ: Meet Jerry Springer, political figure. These days, Springer, the one-time mayor of Cincinnati, has a new radio show which kicked off earlier this year.

And next week, he'll be joining the liberal network, "Air America," which will give him a springboard to more than 40 stations, and maybe a springboard back into politics, which Jerry keeps threatening to crash after exploring a Senate campaign last year.

It was once the epitome of tabloid television, and this week "A Current Affair" rose from the broadcasting scrapheap and hit the airwaves. The new host of the show, which had a somewhat sleazy reputation during its 10-year run ending in 1996, is FOX Sports commentator and former NFL player Tim Green.


TIM GREEN, HOST, "A CURRENT AFFAIR": Behind every door, there are secrets -- some worse than others.


KURTZ: From sex to murder to grizzly discoveries, the show says it tries to look at ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.


GREEN: Just when you think you have found a perfect life, you find instead horror.


KURTZ: But "A Current Affair" may have trouble attracting attention. Television is far more tabloid these days, as you may have noticed.

It was a fixture for aspiring investors for 35 years, but "Wall Street Week," now worth less than a penny stock, is going off the air. The PBS program never recovered from Maryland Public Television's decision to dump long-time host Louis Rukeyser three years ago and re- launched the show with "Fortune" Magazine. Without Rukeyser, who went to CNBC, the show bombed and can no longer raise money from underwriters. "Wall Street Week" bows out in June.

And finally, some people are famous, although you've never seen their face. Listen.


HOWARD REIG, ANNOUNCER: From NBC News world headquarters in New York...


KURTZ: Eighty-four-year-old Howard Reig, the voice of "NBC Nightly News," going back to John Chancellor, is retiring.

Up next, a big blunder at "The New York Daily News" leaves lots of readers with dashed hopes and empty wallets.


KURTZ: Lots of people -- thousands actually -- are mad at New York's "Daily News." They thought they had won cash, as much as $100,000, for playing a scratch-and-sniff game, only to find out a computer error prompted the paper to print the wrong numbers. So the unlucky winners have filed lawsuits. The tabloid says it's terribly sorry and that the near-winners will go into another drawing, with five awarded $100,000 and another five $10,000.

But is that good enough? One of the people whose emotions were so cruelly toyed with was Lenny Kurtz of Brooklyn, New York. My dad called me and said, "I think I won $10,000."

The way I see it, he scratched, he sniffed, he deserves the money. What about it, "Daily News?" He is a long-time subscriber. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning for another critical look at the media.



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