A Culture of Death, Not Life

By FRANK RICH

New York Times

April 10, 2005

It takes planning to produce a classic chapter in television history. "We've rehearsed," Thom Bird, a Fox News producer, bragged to Variety before Pope John Paul II died. "We will pull out all the stops on this story."

He wasn't kidding. On the same day that boast saw print, a Fox anchor, Shepard Smith, solemnly told the world that "facts are facts" and "it is now our understanding the pope has died." Unfortunately, this understanding was reached 26 hours before the pope actually did die, but as Mr. Smith would explain, he had been misled by "Italian reports." (Namely from a producer for Sky Italia, another fair-and-balanced fief of Rupert Murdoch.) Fox's false bulletin - soon apotheosized by Jon Stewart, now immortalized on the Internet - followed the proud tradition of its sister news organization, The New York Post, which last year had the scoop on John Kerry's anointment of Dick Gephardt as his running mate.

Yet you could also argue that Fox's howler was in its way the most honest barometer of this entire cultural moment. The network was pulling out all the stops to give the audience what it craved: a fresh, heaping serving of death. Mr. Smith had a point when he later noted that "the exact time of death, I think, is not something that matters so much at this moment." Certainly not to a public clamoring for him to bring it on.

Mortality - the more graphic, the merrier - is the biggest thing going in America. Between Terri Schiavo and the pope, we've feasted on decomposing bodies for almost a solid month now. The carefully edited, three-year-old video loops of Ms. Schiavo may have been worthless as medical evidence but as necro-porn their ubiquity rivaled that of TV's top entertainment franchise, the all-forensics-all-the-time "CSI." To help us visualize the dying John Paul, another Fox star, Geraldo Rivera, brought on Dr. Michael Baden, the go-to cadaver expert from the JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson mediathons, to contrast His Holiness's cortex with Ms. Schiavo's.

As sponsors line up to buy time on "CSI," so celebrity deaths have become a marvelous opportunity for beatific self-promotion by news and political stars alike. Tim Russert showed a video of his papal encounter on a "Meet the Press" where one of the guests, unchallenged, gave John Paul an A-plus for his handling of the church's sex abuse scandal. Jesse Jackson, staking out a new career as the angel of deathotainment, hit the trifecta: in rapid succession he appeared with the Schindlers at their daughter's hospice in Florida, eulogized Johnnie Cochran on "Larry King Live" and reminisced about his own papal audience with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.

What's disturbing about this spectacle is not so much its tastelessness; America will always have a fatal attraction to sideshows. What's unsettling is the nastier agenda that lies far less than six feet under the surface. Once the culture of death at its most virulent intersects with politicians in power, it starts to inflict damage on the living.

When those leaders, led by the Bush brothers, wallow in this culture, they do a bait-and-switch and claim to be upholding John Paul's vision of a "culture of life." This has to be one of the biggest shams of all time. Yes, these politicians oppose abortion, but the number of abortions has in fact been going down steadily in America under both Republican and Democratic presidents since 1990 - some 40 percent in all. The same cannot be said of American infant fatalities, AIDS cases and war casualties - all up in the George W. Bush years. Meanwhile, potentially lifesaving phenomena like condom-conscious sex education and federally run stem-cell research are in shackles.

This agenda is synergistic with the entertainment culture of Mr. Bush's base: No one does the culture of death with more of a vengeance - literally so - than the doomsday right. The "Left Behind" novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins all but pant for the bloody demise of nonbelievers at Armageddon. And now, as Eric J. Greenberg has reported in The Forward, there's even a children's auxiliary: a 40-title series, "Left Behind: The Kids," that warns Jewish children of the hell that awaits them if they don't convert before it's too late. Eleven million copies have been sold on top of the original series' 60 million.

These fables are of a piece with the violent take on Christianity popularized by "The Passion of the Christ." Though Mel Gibson brought a less gory version, with the unfortunate title "The Passion Recut," to some 1,000 theaters for Easter in response to supposed popular demand, there was no demand. (Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that at many screens the film sold fewer than 50 tickets the entire opening weekend.) "Passion" fans want the full scourging, and at the height of the protests outside the Schiavo hospice, a TV was hooked up so the assembled could get revved up by watching the grisly original on DVD.

As they did so, Mr. Gibson interjected himself into the case by giving an interview to Sean Hannity asserting that "big guys" could "whip a judge" if they really wanted to stop the "state-sanctioned murder" of Ms. Schiavo. He was evoking his punishment of choice in "The Passion," figuratively, no doubt. It was only a day later that one such big guy, Tom DeLay, gave Mr. Gibson's notion his official imprimatur by vowing retribution against any judges who don't practice the faith-based jurisprudence of which he approves.

This Wednesday the far right's cutting-edge culture of death gets its biggest foothold to date in the mainstream, when NBC broadcasts its "Left Behind" simulation, "Revelations," an extremely slick prime-time mini-series that was made before our most recent death watches but could have been ripped from their headlines. In the pilot a heretofore nonobservant Christian teenage girl in a "persistent vegetative state" - and in Florida, yet - starts babbling Latin texts from the show's New Testament namesake just as dastardly scientists ("devil's advocates," as they're referred to) and organ-seekers conspire to pull the plug. "All the signs and symbols set forth in the Bible are currently in place for the end of days," says the show's adult heroine, an Oxford-educated nun who has been denounced by the Vatican for her views and whose mission is underwritten by a wealthy "religious fundamentalist." Her Julie Andrews affect notwithstanding, she is an extremist as far removed from the mainstream as Mel Gibson, whose own splinter Traditionalist Catholic sect split from Rome and disowned the reforms of Vatican II, not the least of which was the absolution of Jews for collective guilt in the death of Jesus.

It's all too fitting that "Revelations," which downsizes lay government in favor of the clerical, is hijacking the regular time slot of "The West Wing." Perhaps only God knows whether it will prove as big a hit as "The Passion." What is clear is that the public eventually tires of most death watches and demands new meat. The tsunami disaster, dramatized by a large supply of vivid tourist videos that the genocide in Darfur cannot muster, was so completely forgotten after three months that even a subsequent Asian earthquake barely penetrated the nation's Schiavo fixation. But the media plug was pulled on Ms. Schiavo, too, once the pope took center stage; the funeral Mass her parents conducted on Tuesday was all but shunned by the press pack that had moved on to Rome. By the night of his death days later, even John Paul had worn out his welcome. The audience that tuned in to the N.C.A.A. semifinals on CBS was roughly twice as large as that for the NBC and ABC papal specials combined. The time was drawing near for the networks to reappraise the Nielsen prospects of Prince Rainier.

If there's one lesson to take away from the saturation coverage of the pope, it is how relatively enlightened he was compared with the men in business suits ruling Washington. Our leaders are not only to the right of most Americans (at least three-quarters of whom opposed Congressional intervention in the Schiavo case) but even to the right of most American evangelical Christians (most of whom favored the removal of Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube, according to Time magazine). They are also, like Mel Gibson and the fiery nun of "Revelations," to the right of the largely conservative pontiff they say they revere. This is true not only on such issues as the war in Iraq and the death penalty but also on the core belief of how life began. Though the president of the United States believes that the jury is still out on evolution, John Paul in 1996 officially declared that "fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis."

We don't know the identity of the corpse that will follow the pope in riveting the nation's attention. What we do know is that the reality show we've made of death has jumped the shark, turning from a soporific television diversion into the cultural embodiment of the apocalyptic right's growing theocratic crusade.