MediaWatch: November 30, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 21

Double Standard on Death

60 Minutes Aids Kevorkian’s Crusade

CBS’s landmark magazine show 60 Minutes made its name in hunting down killer corporations — Audi’s supposedly dangerous accelerators, Uniroyal’s allegedly harmful Alar pesticide. But when Jack Kevorkian came to 60 Minutes with a videotape of a death he inflicted in his crusade to make euthanasia legal, Mike Wallace gave him most of a 14-minute segment to air his tape and make his case.

Wallace promoted the death to come: "In a few minutes, you will see Dr. Kevorkian end this man’s life. First, though, we’ll tell you why Mr. Youk [the man requesting death] wanted Dr. Kevorkian to do it, and why Dr. Kevorkian wanted you to see it even though it could get him charged with murder." After the CBS audience saw Kevorkian’s willing victim suffocate on camera, Wallace asked him: "You were engaged in a political , medical, macabre publicity venture, right?" And so was CBS.

A medical ethicist from the University of Chicago was allowed 90 seconds of rebuttal. But the rest of the time was dedicated to Kevorkian’s crusade to move from docter-assisted suicide to active doctor-inflicted euthanasia. Youk’s family was included to testify to his suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Wallace asked: "And I take it you would not be sitting here unless you thought it was useful, socially useful to have this broadcast?"

So would CBS apply this "socially useful" standard to other forms of death, like abortion? When a congressional candidate presented a campaign ad in 1992 showing grotesque images of aborted babies, CBS condemned him on the April 20, 1992 Evening News. Reporter Wyatt Andrews attacked: "Michael Bailey, an anti-abortion candidate for Congress in Indiana today began airing what could 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 blurred the images into a blank gray screen. "While we have altered these pictures, Bailey’s ad explicitly shows full-term human fetuses and the bodily remains he says are the products of abortion. Video shock therapy comes to abortion-era politics."

Andrews finished: "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."