The press, the polls and Terri Schiavo

By a wide margin, the American public disapproves of congressional intervention in the Schiavo case.

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 22, 2005 4:58PM (EST)

ABC News had to go and ruin everything by commissioning a poll to find out exactly what Americans think about Congress' unprecedented intervention into the Terri Schiavo saga. Up until yesterday morning, reporters and pundits, always nervous about labeling the GOP Congress as being out of the mainstream, had done their best to tip toe around existing polling data that showed Americans supported, by an overwhelming majority, Michael Schiavo in his attempt to remove the feeding tube from his wife.

But the ABC poll laid everything bare: By the wide margin of 63 percent to 28 percent, Americans support removing the feeding tube. Even more telling, 70 percent thought congressional intervention was inappropriate, while 67 percent said that Congress acted "more for political advantage than out of concern for her or for the principles involved."

Its just possible that right after midnight on Sunday, Congress passed the most unpopular piece of legislation in modern times -- not that Republicans had to worry about any bad press. Even with the ABC polling data on the table, notice how the Beltway press did its best to ignore the elephant in the room. On Monday, ABCs The Note, which relishes its ability to mirror, in pitch-perfect tone, the conventional wisdom of the Beltway media establishment, took things to comical extremes when it noted that Congress' intervention had been met with "some public opposition." Only in today's Beltway media environment, where the Republican administration is treated with kid gloves, could a GOP measure panned by a broad, bipartisan swath of Americans -- including 58 percent of self-identified "conservative Republicans"-- be described, with a straight face, as having been met with "some public opposition."

The rest of the press has done a half-hearted job of relaying ABCs slam-dunk poll results. Since they were released Monday morning, they have garnered approximately 24 mentions, combined, on ABC, CBS, CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC. To put that in context, during that same time span those same outlets mentioned "Schiavo" 1,823 times, according to TVEyes, the digital, around-the-clock television monitoring service. Last night's telecast of ABCs "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings," which covered the Schiavo story extensively, made no mention of the poll results. If ABC News itself puts such little stock in the poll, why should others?

Meanwhile, the New York Times continues it news blackout regarding polling data on the Schiavo case. Since the story crashed page one late last week, the Times, according to a search of the Nexis electronic database, has not yet reported on a single poll indicating just how strongly the American public supports the idea of removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. The most Times readers got today was a mention on the editorial page about how "polls show that the public recoiled at the sight of elected officials racing to make hay of this family's private pain." Times reporters though, have yet to print the results of any of those polls.

At least the Washington Post finally ended its silence on the polling issue, with todays A6 article, "Analysts: GOP May Be Out of Step With Public." Notice two things about that story, though. First, the Post reports in the lead that Americans are "divided" about the Schiavo case, suggesting some kind of public opinion tug-of-war. Not true. To date, every single poll commissioned has come back with the same result: Americans, by margins that range from 20 to 30 to even 40 percent, support Michael Schiavo's decision to remove his wife's feeding tube. How is that "divided?" Second, notice how the Post has to rely on "analysts" to read the polling data. The Post's reporters shouldn't need an analyst to tell them the obvious: When nearly 70 percent of the American public disagrees with you, you're out of step with the mainstream.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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