Editorial: Putting execution on television is no simple matter

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The debate over whether broadcasters should televise the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, scheduled for May 16, tends to parallel the argument over capital punishment itself: Death penalty opponents want to put the grim event on the air and let everyone see how horrible it is, while supporters of capital punishment seem to like things done the way they have been all along-quietly and without a lot of hoopla.

Both sides are missing the point. When such a heated issue lands at its doorstep, the television industry must examine its role in society and weigh the likely consequences of its actions. Here it has to balance its responsibility to present the stark reality of what is clearly an important news event against any harm that might be caused by such a broadcast.

Mr. McVeigh has already accomplished much of what he apparently set out to do when he killed 168 people on April 19, 1995. He gave a loud voice to the anger a segment of American society feels toward the U.S. government, helped galvanize the militia movement and set himself up as a potential martyr.

If the execution does end up on TV, care should be taken to avoid giving Mr. McVeigh a platform for a final act of defiance, a gesture that might ensure his martyr status and help incite and unify extremists.

The risk of such an event can be mitigated by reasonable measures, including a brief tape delay and avoidance of close-ups-measures that should also help ease concerns that the execution will turn into a grisly spectacle. At any rate, those risks are outweighed by the rights of citizens to see the impact of the laws that are carried out by their government in their name.

Fears have been raised that broadcasters, given half a chance, would turn the execution business into another cash cow, exploiting it the way they exploit police chases, celebrity drug addiction and presidential elections. Clearly, the industry needs to behave maturely. Inevitably, some in the TV business will sensationalize the event. But those efforts are likely to be thwarted by the inherently unsensational nature of the final act itself. The relative calm of the lethal injection process will inevitably disappoint the more bloodthirsty in the viewing audience. Remember when “60 Minutes” presented a suicide assisted by Dr. Jack Kevorkian a few years ago? It was all anyone could talk about until the day it aired, after which it was quickly forgotten.

It’s unlikely the McVeigh execution will make it to the public airwaves. No execution in this country has ever been televised, and the government typically puts up a fight over letting cameras record its work, whether in the prisons, the courts or the Congress. It’s up to broadcasters to initiate the discussion and to demonstrate their willingness to approach the event responsibly.