Jewish World Review March 31, 2005 / 20 Adar II 5765

Paul Greenberg

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The big carnival | . . . I brought him a light so he

could see himself die

I warmed myself

at the furnace of his hunger

in the name of mercy and the fourth estate

I stuck my thumb in his agony

and pulled out a Pulitzer

— Donald Finkel

The death watch for Terri Schiavo has turned into one of those periodic carnivals of American law, journalism and general tastelessness that hit with dismaying regularity.

Like tornadoes in the spring.

But the Schiavo spectacle can't compare with the sensation caused by the two-week non-rescue of Floyd Collins, a Kentucky spelunker, back in 1925.

If you think the scene outside that Florida hospice, complete with a guest appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, is fairly awful, consider this verse from an instant folk song that Floyd Collins' ordeal inspired:

"The Pathé cameras ground away/As Dad the sermon preached./The news heard all 'round the world,/To millions it was reached."

Hey, there was money to be made, tourists to attract, souvenirs to peddle, a Pulitzer to be won . . . .

This year's Big Story out of Pinellas Park, Fla., even with all its courtroom drama, congressional intervention, and philosophical questions about the end of life, can't match the one out of Cave City, Ky., in the Roaring Twenties.

A whole tent city soon mushroomed around Sand Cave, where Floyd Collins was trapped. The National Guard had to be called out to restrain the crowds and hawkers, the tourists and local entrepreneurs.

The Scopes and Leopold-and-Loeb trials might have offered more grist for the mind back in the Twenties, but for sheer drama, real and invented, the Saga of Floyd Collins was hard to beat. It would inspire a stark movie ("The Big Carnival") some three decades later.

The poor man might actually have been rescued if not for the dramatic possibilities presented by sinking a shaft directly into the cave rather than trying to find a less dramatic way in. The shaft may have been a flop, but the publicity set new records.

It's hard to beat the Twenties for sensationalism, although each generation of American journalists since has tried. It hasn't been too long since we were bitterly divided over whether little Elian Gonzalez should have been hustled back to Fidel's island paradise by Janet Reno's enforcers, and now a brain-damaged woman is going . . . going . . . going . . . and we can all watch 24/7 as purple-faced opinionators exchange shouts over your favorite cable network.

O, Mencken, thou should'st be living at this hour! Not to mention Hunter S. Thompson, whose gonzo journalism has finally become the norm, only a few weeks after his own death.

Our technology may have changed since Floyd Collins was the epicenter of a worldwide media storm in 1925, but not the entrepreneurial spirit of the sub-species of American belles-lettres that can only be called vulture journalism.

Death has its political uses, too. Consider the story in the Los Angeles Times, for example, that dragged Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, into the Schiavo drama. It painted him as some kind of hypocrite because he'd agreed to cut off life support for his father, who died after a freak accident in 1988, but was now fighting to save Terri Schiavo almost two decades later. To quote just one part of that "unbiased" news story:

"DeLay has denounced Schiavo's husband, as well as judges, for committing what he calls 'an act of barbarism,' in removing the (feeding) tube. In 1988, however, there was no such fiery rhetoric as the congressman quietly joined the sad family consensus to let his father die."

You get the point; the irony is slavered on.

But the two cases are scarcely comparable. Tom DeLay's father had required a tracheotomy; he was on a ventilator; his kidneys had failed; he required steady intravenous injections to fight the various infections that were coursing through his body; he'd suffered a brain hemorrhage, not to mention broken ribs, in the accident.

All Terri Schiavo required was a feeding tube. And her family was split over how she should be treated — unlike Tom DeLay's.

Representative DeLay may deserve to be criticized for any number of things (who doesn't?) but this is not one of them. The congressman's political ethics are, shall we say, checkered, but to dig up the death of a politician's father and use it against him . . . .

Well, let's just say that, of all the low points in the coverage of The Sad Case of Terri Schiavo, this Los Angeles Times story may be the lowest.

And on the basis of the Times' reporting, other newspapers — like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Palm Beach Post — were soon piling on. The smear campaign had only begun.

There really ought to be a kind of anti-Pulitzer Prize in this business for political attacks disguised as news. And the first one should go to the Los Angeles Times. We could call it the Floyd Collins Award.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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