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Daily Howler: In Scarborough Country, viewers got worked by a brilliant ''Nobel nominee''
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THE TWO AMERICAS! In Scarborough Country, viewers got worked by a brilliant “Nobel nominee:” // link // print // previous // next //

THE TWO AMERICAS: What are the two Americas? In this morning’s Washington Post, a front-page news story purports to list elementary facts in the Schiavo case. The reporter is Manuel Roig-Franzia:
ROIG-FRANZIA (3/22/05): Terri Schiavo, whose husband said she had bulimia, suffered severe brain damage after a potassium imbalance caused a heart attack in 1990. Her husband and her parents have been locked in a legal battle since 1998 that has bounced through at least a dozen and a half courtrooms...
One America reads those facts. Terri Schiavo suffered brain damage as the result of a heart attack. But last night, visitors to Scarborough Country heard a different set of facts. Cable viewers live in one America, newspaper readers in another.

What did Scarborough viewers hear? Scarborough introduced a neurologist named William Hammesfahr—a man whom Scarborough twice described as a “nominee for the Nobel Prize.” And Hammesfahr, the brilliant Nobel nominee, completely contradicted Roig-Franzia. (Hammesfahr has provided expert testimony on behalf of Terri Schiavo’s parents.) Terri Schiavo did not have a heart attack, he said. She never had an eating disorder. And she isn’t in a persistent vegetative state. In fact, according to Hammesfahr, Terri Schiavo can “stand up or sit up and can sort of moan and make sounds that get [her] wishes known.” Indeed, “she follows a lot of commands,” the brilliant Nobel nominee said. At one point, Hammesfahr and Scarborough even shared a good laugh about Terri Schiavo’s condition:

HAMMESFAHR (3/21/05): It`s interesting. She actually responds to people in different ways. When I went in initially, she acknowledged my presence and then ignored me, as she ignored her husband and she also ignored the videographer.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, that`s what my children do all the time. They ignore me.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Playfully, Terri Schiavo had just ignored everybody! Just the way kids sometimes do!

Soon after, Hammesfahr gave his overall view of the case, which his host had summarized earlier in the program. According to Scarborough’s accurate summary, Hammesfahr “says [Michael Schiavo] is pulling a huge hoax simply to kill his wife!” If you live in non-cable America, you probably should read it in full:

SCARBOROUGH: Well, how did she get in this bad of a situation if she didn`t have a heart attack?

HAMMESFAHR: Well, we don`t really know. What we do know is that she was—she apparently told her family she was going to leave Michael. And they asked that she not return to him that night. And the next morning, she is found face down on the floor unresponsive. The ambulance—

SCARBOROUGH: I have got to stop you there. Who told you that?

HAMMESFAHR: That`s in the record, the medical and legal record. So, we know that for a fact. And then she was taken into—

SCARBOROUGH: Are you suggesting foul play here?

HAMMESFAHR: I`m suggesting that an investigation needs to be done of this case.

SCARBOROUGH: Doctor, thanks for being with us. Explosive allegations.

What are the two Americas? If you read the Washington Post, you read about a woman who had a heart attack and suffered brain damage in the process. In Scarborough Country, you hear something else. You meet an impressive Nobel nominee—and he makes “explosive allegations.” He tells you she had no such heart attack. Instead, he suggests she was strangled by her husband.

These two Americas have existed for years. If you live in cable America, you routinely hear whole sets of things that never appear in the Washington Post, things that the Washington Post rarely attempts to discuss, describe or debate. Cable viewers live in one world; newspaper readers exist in another. Newspaper readers rarely hear what’s being said in the other America. And for that reason, people who live in the cable America sometimes get played for plain fools.

Like last night, for example. Consider the impressive Hammesfahr, the brilliant Nobel Prize nominee. Here’s what we found when we ran a search: Three years ago, David Sommer of the St. Petersburg Times reported that Hammesfahr “advertises himself as a nominee for a Nobel Prize based on a letter his congressman wrote to the Nobel committee.” Yes, Hammesfahr was “nominated” for the Nobel Prize by his Republican congressman, Peter Bilirakis, back in 1999! And uh-oh! In 2003, William Levesque of the St. Peterburg Times described more of Hammesfahr’s brilliance:

LEVESQUE (10/25/03): In a 2002 order by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer ruling that Mrs. Schiavo could not recover, Greer labeled Hammesfahr a "self-promoter."

The judge noted that Hammesfahr testified that he had treated patients worse off than Mrs. Schiavo yet "offered no names, no case studies, no videos and no test results to support his claim."

Of course, viewers weren’t told that in Scarborough Country, just as they weren’t told that the brilliant expert’s “Nobel nomination” came from his local Republican hack. We’ve lived in two Americas for years. This week has been no exception.

AND NOW FOR THE REST OF THE STORY: Does Terri Schiavo respond to commands, as cable America heard last night? In 2003, Stephen Nohlgren of the St. Petersburg Times reported on a Schiavo court hearing. Tapes had been played in court. In the tapes, a “Nobel nominee” tried to elicit response:

NOHLGREN (11/10/03): The single most dramatic moment occurred when William Hammesfahr, a Clearwater neurologist picked by the Schindlers, asked Schiavo to open her eyes.

At first, her eyelids barely flutter. She slowly turns her head toward Hammesfahr, gradually opening her eyes. Then her eyebrows lift into an exaggerated arch—the kind of face a cartoonist might draw to show astonishment.

A lay person could easily conclude that she somehow tapped into a latent reservoir of cognition, even if just for a second. Hammesfahr and her parents bubble with excitement.

"Good job!" the doctor exults. "Good job, young lady!"

But she never pulls it off again, or anything remotely like it. For nearly an hour, her parents and the doctor tell her to open her eyes, close her eyes, look this way, look that way—with little apparent response.

Judge Greer counted.

"By the court's count, (Hammesfahr) gave 105 commands to Terri Schiavo and, at his direction, Mrs. Schindler gave an additional six commands," Greer wrote. "He asked her 61 questions and Mrs. Schindler asked her an additional 11 questions. The court saw few actions that could be considered responsive to either those commands or those questions."

In cable America, viewers weren’t asked to hear about that. Hustlers like Scarborough know a good story. And they know facts can mess such tales up.