Several years ago, TV talk show sleaze pioneer Phil Donahue drew a raft of negative publicity for claiming it was time to expose the TV public to a criminal's execution, preferably on his show, preferably during a sweeps period. Few doubted that showing an execution on television would weaken public support for capital punishment, which Donahue stated was his intention. But most stories cut through the public-interest spin to see it for what it was: a blatant grab for free publicity and ratings.
Permission was denied. But, as they say, that was then and in enlightened 1998, the rules have changed.
On November 22, CBS's "60 Minutes" walked in Donahue's footsteps, but they actually followed through on the hype and showed an execution by lethal injection, albeit an execution the dead man requested. Mike Wallace and producer Robert Anderson aired a 14-minute video presentation at the request of Dr. Jack Kevorkian in his crusade to make mercy killing legal.
Wallace began with that same Donahuesque public-interest masquerade: "The videotape you will shortly see will disturb some of you, but Dr. Kevorkian who brought us this tape says he wants to use this case to use the public debate from doctor-assisted suicide to euthanasia - death triggered directly by a doctor. Dr. Kevorkian says that's what he did to Tom Youk, a victim of Lou Gehrig's disease. In a few minutes, you will actually see Dr. Kevorkian end this man's life. First, though we'll tell you why Mr. Youk wanted Dr. Kevorkian to do it, and why Dr. Kevorkian wanted you to see him do it even though it could get him charged with murder."
That introduction gave you a precise preview of the 14-minute segment as a whole. Oh, they gave a medical ethicist from the University of Chicago 90 seconds to condemn Kevorkian's taped performance. But the whole piece appeared to leap only from the mind of Kevorkian. Wallace cooperated in Kevorkian's crusade to be arrested by reluctant local law enforcement agencies for euthanasia so he could be acquitted again by a sympathetic jury: "He gave us the tape to force their hand."
That's not to say Kevorkian looked good. After America saw Kevorkian's willing victim suffocate on camera, he no doubt struck most Americans as creepy, as someone just too passionately committed to "getting the deed done," as Kevorkian put it. Wallace asked if he appeared "ghoulish" in that desire, and Kevorkian didn't even seem bothered by that characterization.
Kevorkian knows the public feels empathy for the pain and suffering of the chronically ill, and Wallace promoted Youk as a fighter who couldn't fight anymore. Nothing in Kevorkian's philosophical arsenal is more powerful than the horrendous deaths faced by sufferers of Lou Gehrig's disease. They used Youk's long-suffering family to present more public-interest disclaimers, as Wallace asked: "And I take it that you would not be sitting here unless you thought it was useful, socially useful to have this broadcast?"
But CBS omitted any mention of a religious perspective on euthanasia, even though they showed Youk telling Kevorkian he was Catholic. Couldn't CBS have bothered with a little theological perspective, perhaps from Youk's Catholic brethren, that our lives are not our own to dispose of, that suicide is a mortal sin against God? Obviously, that didn't occur to Wallace, who did several segments a few years back ridiculing Catholic authorities as a band of extremist troglodytes. Religion isn't "socially useful" in this story, CBS suggested.
So if CBS is in the game of presenting heinous video in the service of "socially useful" causes, has this network ever aired footage of one of the 37-million-plus legal abortions in the United States? Actually, when a congressional candidate presented a campaign ad in April of 1992 showing grotesque footage of murdered babies, CBS was there - to condemn it on their evening news show.
Reporter Wyatt Andrews fulminated: "Michael Bailey, an anti-abortion candidate for Congress in Indiana today began airing what cold be the most tasteless ad ever shown on television. What's more, he's a candidate, protected against censorship, no one can stop him." But CBS did stop him: they covered up the pictures with a big gray screen. Andrews concluded: "TV stations in Indianapolis and Louisville are questioning whether Bailey is abusing the law, whether under FCC rules, any zealot with a candidate's filing fee can put anything on TV...Tastelessness in television may not be new, but this case is unique."
In the "60 Minutes" segment's most bizarre moment, Wallace, seemingly oblivious to his own role in this killer's crusade, asked Kevorkian: "You were engaged in a political, medical, macabre publicity venture, right?" Yes. And so was CBS.