Telling the Full Story

Today in the New York Times, Maria Newman reports on the case of Terri Schiavo, who has been kept alive by a feeding tube since 1990, when she suffered significant brain damage after her heart temporarily stopped beating. In 2003, Schiavo’s husband successfully petitioned to have his wife’s feeding tube removed, but her parents wanted her kept alive, as did Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who ordered that the tube be reinserted. Soon after, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the law that had given the governor the authority to step in, and yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to that ruling, essentially ending Bush’s legal efforts in the case and partially clearing the way for the tube to be permanently removed.

Newman’s piece includes a quote from Robert Schindler, Ms. Schiavo’s father. Speaking from Washington, where he and his wife were attending an anti-abortion march, Schindler said, “What happened here today is judicial homicide. It borders on the criminal. They’ve ignored all the facts. Terri is not a person in a vegetative state. Terri talks. She reacts to the family. She reacts to commands. She needs therapy and she’s been denied it for 10 years.”

The Times does not immediately address Schindler’s contentions, despite the fact that they contradict statements by her attending physicians. Painful as it may be for Mr. Schindler, his daughter is, according to doctors, in a persistent vegetative state. In the final paragraph of the piece — 12 paragraphs after Schindler’s quote — the Times does point this out, adding that Schiavo’s “brain is incapable of emotion, memory or thought,” though her eyes may widen and follow objects.

But that’s far too late in the story for the paper to set the record straight, especially given that Schindler’s quote essentially paints Mr. Schiavo as a man out to murder his wife. If the Times, or any newspaper, is going to use a quote as provocative as Schindler’s, it has the obligation to promptly provide readers with the news that doctors on the scene strongly feel otherwise.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.