March 15, 2005

Weasel Lead of the Year, But the Year Is Young

IN THE WASHINGTON POST'S REPORT,Schiavo Autopsy Shows Severe Brain Damage, the lead to the story by staff writers David Brown and William Branigin reads: "Terri Schiavo died of the effects of a profound and prolonged lack of oxygen to her brain on a day in 1990, but what caused that event isn't known and may never be, the physician who performed her autopsy said today."

It is hard to conceive of a more tone-deaf lead. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive that such a lead was put into the newspaper without a full awareness on the part of all concerned of its meaning and its less than subtle editorial message.

An editor with a normal sense of ethics and balance would, at the very least, sent this construction back for a rewrite, or have cut it out right. As it stands, in tone and intent, it poisons all that comes after.

First of all note that it is a statement attributed to the "physician who performed her autopsy." At the same time, it is not contained within quotation marks so it cannot strictly been seen as a statement by the physician in question. If that is the case, is it
then a paraphrase of his remarks -- some sort of "condensation" of a longer statement? We can't know. We can't be sure. On the one hand we are presented with a controversial assertion (Death by lack of oxygen to the brain) which, as the writers and editors must surely know, will be seen by others as death by starvation following the removal to a feeding tube. This latter view is essentially dismissed by the lead assertion in what is supposed to be a news story.

Following this set up the story does relate the "facts" as revealed in the autopsy, but it has already, thanks to the very first sentence, sacrificed its credibility on the altar of "the world as the WAPO staff thinks it should be." In this world, even the reporters of the the news get to slip in a veiled assertion on the point when life ends ('Why, shucks, its the time when your brain doesn't get enough oxygen.... Everybody agrees with that, don't they?')

Well, actually, if you'd been paying attention to the entire Schiavo controversy you might have noticed that a lot of people don't agree with that. It is just that it would seem that none of those people hold writing or editorial positions at the Washington Post, where it would seem experts on where life ends are as numerous as experts at when life begins -- as long as it doesn't begin at conception.

Indeed, if you read the rest of the report, there's nothing to support the attributed statement of the physician on the death of Terry Schiavo. The only direct quote we are given is "Removal of her feeding tube would have resulted in her death whether she was fed or hydrated by mouth or not." This, of course, contradicts the lead since Schiavo could have been killed by a lack of oxygen to her brain in 1990 or starvation in 2005, but not both.

For the sake of a smarmy "gotcha" in the lead, the Washington Post again throws credibility into the garbage dump of its many past editions. This habit won't come up at any meetings trying to figure out why circulation is dropping. It never does.

UPDATE: If you wish to read something that is fresh about this case, try Joan Didion: The Case of Theresa Schiavo

Posted by Vanderleun at March 15, 2005 4:55 PM
Bookmark and Share



"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

The triumphalism in the press accounts about the autopsy results is annoying, but not surprising: "see, she was as good as dead, so her husband that already had two kids with another woman actually did her a favor."

How convenient for her. And him. And his new wife. Golly, everybody wins! YAY!

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at June 16, 2005 11:45 AM