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Media Circus

Dead Wrong

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/27/2001

If you need another reason to oppose the death penalty, consider the national media's coverage of the execution of mass murderer Timothy McVeigh--a feeding frenzy disguised as a twisted Last Supper. For the occasion, the big media put on pious faces and attempted to play the story straight but failed to suppress their sheer fascination with the condemned man. The strange result was that McVeigh--"Tim," as some media folks kept calling him--got something resembling a hero's send-off, solemn yet celebratory. Consider how much less dignity--and how much less ink--would have been afforded McVeigh if he'd been consigned to life without parole.

Perversely, the banning of news cameras from the death chamber at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., contributed to the romanticizing of the crew-cut terrorist. Instead of seeing what happened for ourselves, we were told a story. On-site coverage was restricted to a post-execution press conference featuring testimony from witnesses, including local and national reporters and the warden who supervised the lethal injection. Relatives of McVeigh's victims brought up the rear.

The briefing started with federal warden Harley Lappin, who delivered a deliberate play-by-play recap of the execution ("Inmate McVeigh was calm throughout the entire process") and Oscar-style acknowledgments to those who provided support "in the process of this execution." Then, in a similarly pious mode, came Byron Pitts of CBS News, who noted that McVeigh "died with his eyes open" and read--dramatically, in its entirety--the now-infamous poem "Invictus," which McVeigh left as his last words. Shepard Smith of Fox News painted word pictures of McVeigh making eye contact with witnesses and nodding to each and described the insertion of the IV needle into McVeigh's leg. "My sense was that he was killing himself instead of allowing the government to do it for him," Smith intoned. The studied solemnity came off as reverence. As the minutiae described by the Fox and CBS reporters were repeated by witness after witness, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was hearing the first draft, not of history, but of Scripture.

The Sun, in its own way, played along with the myth-making. The giant headline on Page 1 of July 12's paper read, "U.S. executes McVeigh, 'unbowed' till the end"--an allusion to "Invictus"--while over the headline ran a small mug shot of McVeigh and another "Invictus" quotation, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." What purpose was served by echoing McVeigh's delusional self-aggrandizement? Besides selling newspapers, that is.

Others have suggested that killing McVeigh turned him into a martyr. That's probably true for a small, loony fragment of American society. More insidious, I think, is the way the media's obsession with this killer has turned him into a pop icon, rendering him less abnormal, less odious, more "understandable." By making McVeigh more glamorous, sensational media coverage undermined whatever deterrent value his death sentence might have had.

Yet the event had to be covered. It was news, and McVeigh was, much as I hate to say so, an interesting character. So I'm left wondering: Is there a better way--a classy, a tasteful way--to cover a celebrity execution?


Every now and then, my wife and I will be watching the local TV news when a well-told news story slaps us out of our vegetative state. We turn to each other and say, "Wow! That was actual journalism!" Although I haven't kept a tally on these moments, I'm confident that most of them have occurred during WBFF's Fox 45 News at Ten. I've felt for some time that channel 45 has the best TV-news operation in Baltimore--faint praise, perhaps. Let's just say that I frequently watch the entire Fox broadcast without gnashing my teeth and scowling. Now my opinion has backup. The Capital Region Emmy Awards for the year 2000 were announced on June 16, and WBFF's news programs garnered seven prizes, compared with two for WJZ (channel 13) and none for WMAR (channel 2) or WBAL (channel 11). In general, however, Washington-area stations mopped the floor with their Baltimore counterparts. WTTG, the Fox affiliate in D.C., led the pack with 20 Emmys. Who'd have thunk that the local outposts of Rupert Murdoch's empire would be the stations raising the bar?

A couple of Fox 45's outstanding news segments have stayed in my memory from last year, and I'm pleased to see that one of them captured an award: "Baltimore: Dusk to Dawn" was an artful montage of clips about police, street people, bars, and WJHU-FM's nighttime DJ Andy Bienstock, and an extremely unusual use of a TV news hole. It took an Emmy for editing. My other favorite Fox 45 story of last year escaped notice--reporter Craig Demchak's hard-hitting, well-documented story on pollution of the Potomac River in Allegany County by the Westvaco paper company. Demchak did take home an Emmy for a story about snow on the Eastern Shore, though.

I must, of course, close with my usual disclaimer: The very best of local TV-news journalism generally ranks with the average good journalism churned out by newspapers. But maybe if enough praise is heaped on the TV people for raising their standards, they'll be inspired to do it more often.

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