Columnists > Voices

Gnats at a picnic

Details don't detract from the larger story of Terri Schiavo

Issue: "Who will be the next pope?," April 16, 2005

Even when you're right about the main point, you can be wrong about the details.

Journalists have to keep learning that lesson. I've had to remind myself of it while trying to report faithfully to you about the Terri Schiavo case.

So now, several days after her ugly death, I want to assure you that WORLD has been getting the big story right. But I also want to share with you the hard challenge of getting all the details straight.

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The big story is that an advanced and supposedly humane society, through its courts, has ordered action that would deliberately bring about the death of a weak and disabled person-deliberately ignoring, meanwhile, the pleas of that person's parents that they be permitted to provide the care society at large no longer wants to give. That is how WORLD has framed the story for several weeks, taking issue with typical mainstream media interpretations. The "big story," if you were to listen only to the mainstream, has been the all-out effort of the religious right to impose its narrow and eccentric pro-life beliefs on the rest of society.

After watching the Terri Schiavo case from a distance for some months, and then saturating myself with it for the last few weeks, I'm increasingly certain WORLD's slant is right and the mainstream's is wrong.

But what about the details? In the end, the big picture is the sum total of dozens and hundreds of details. And if those details aren't right-seen accurately and in context-then neither is the big picture. That's why WORLD is committed to shoe-leather reporting, the kind that happens when you pound the streets and walk the sidewalks, observing things for yourself and asking questions of people who are actually there. I like what the Apostle John said as he wrote his Gospel: "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you."

So first, let me confess that I got a detail wrong two weeks ago. In my report from Florida ("Turnout burnout," April 2), I told you about Guabe Garcia-Jones, a young lawyer who pitched a tent outside the hospice and committed to do without food and water until Terri's feeding tube was reconnected. I told you about my conversation with him on Saturday, and then I reported, pretty pointedly: "On Sunday, Mr. Garcia-Jones and his tent were no longer there." In fact, Mr. Garcia-Jones called me a few days later to report that he had left the site only because he assumed the action of Congress would lead to the reconnection of the tube-and that as soon as he found he was wrong, he went back, repitched his tent, and renewed his vigil. So to the extent that I pictured Mr. Garcia-Jones as a deserter to the cause, I apologize to WORLD readers, even as I have asked (and received) his forgiveness.

I used that detail in my original story because I had observed it with my own eyes and ears, and because I thought it helped accurately portray a bigger picture that was important. I still believe the bigger picture we offered you was accurate. But it does make me go back and look at other details.

In a story like that of Terri Schiavo, you'll hear hundreds of details. Our task at WORLD is not primarily to pass them on, but to test their validity. Details about her hour-to-hour physical condition and her neurological responses, details about how her husband had treated her early in her illness, details about the Christian character of Judge George Greer, who was so persistent in denying her the help so many thought she deserved-all these, while important to the larger story, swirled around the bigger story like gnats at a summer picnic. But many of the details I've heard I've also been unable to document; and you won't hear them from me until I do.

I've just been handed a 300-page packet that is supposed to include the whole court record of the Terri Schiavo case. I expect, by the time you read this, to have digested those 300 pages for myself-and I'm guessing that process will change my thoughts about still a few more details.

But not about the big story. Terri Schiavo's father, Bob Schindler, got the big story right when he issued this response to a story that had gripped a nation for days: "In John's Gospel," he said, "Jesus responded to the questions of the rabbis who asked why a man had been born blind. He said: 'It is so that the works of God might be made manifest through him.' God's plan for Terri is unfolding before our eyes. Our prayer at this time is that our nation will remember the plight of persons with disabilities and commit within our hearts to defend their lives and their dignity for many generations to come."

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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