Cable news coverage of Congress' late-night debate on March 20 over whether to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case featured several instances of “hard news” anchors making statements in support of those who want Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted. Such statements were most common on Fox News, but they occurred on MSNBC and CNN as well.
Media Matters for America's chronicle of Fox News anchors supports recent findings in State of the News Media 2005, the latest annual report of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The study found that “Fox was measurably more one-sided than the other networks, and Fox journalists were more opinionated on the air.”
During Fox's special coverage of the congressional debate, anchors repeatedly referred to those who support restoration of Schiavo's feeding tube as “Terri's advocates” and “Terri's supporters.” The use of such phrases amounts to taking sides in the dispute, since the court case centers precisely on whether Terri Schiavo would want to continue living in a persistent vegetative state and, by extension, who her true “advocates” are. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, claims his wife would not want to continue living in her current state, kept alive by a feeding tube; her parents, sister and brother disagree.
- JON SCOTT (Fox News anchor): If Republicans can get their numbers, under the sometimes-arcane laws of the House, they can't vote until tomorrow. Well, one minute after midnight is tomorrow, and that's when the House plans to vote. About 3 hours from now. Terri's advocates say every second counts. Her tube that provides her food was removed on Friday under a Florida state court order.
- CAROL IOVANNA (Fox News anchor): Joining us on the phone from Tallahassee, Florida, the spokesperson for Terri Schiavo's parents, Randall Terry. Randall is among Terri's supporters holding a vigil for her in front of the governor's mansion.
- IOVANNA: Susan [Estrich, Fox News contributor], I think it's fair to say that people who are on one side of the abortion issue are certainly going to be on the side of Terri Schiavo in this. I don't think that's necessarily a revelation.
On MSNBC, anchor Amy Robach similarly referred to “Congress stepping in and passing a bill on Terri's behalf.” In fact, the bill that Congress passed was titled “For the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo” (emphasis added). But it's an open question whether the parents, in their effort to prolong Terri Schiavo's life, are truly acting on her behalf. Indeed, it is the central question in the case.
From MSNBC's March 20 coverage:
ROBACH: There will be a hearing at three o'clock this afternoon at U.S. District Court in Tampa. This hearing was due to Congress stepping in and passing a bill on Terri's behalf, but many Democrats who were against the bill said that the congressional vote put lawmakers in the thick of issues best left to state courts and family members.
On CNN Sunday Night, anchor Carol Lin also referred to “action ... on behalf of Terri Schiavo”:
LIN: Bob [Franken, CNN national correspondent] is the federal court prepared to accept the legislation tonight and take any sort of action overnight on behalf of Terri Schiavo if this law passes?
Beyond passing judgment on who is and is not an “advocate” for Schiavo, Fox anchors found other ways to inject their views into the controversy. Fox News anchor Carol Iovanna framed the debate this way:
IOVANNA: 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?