Lethal TV

On Tuesday, I watched something more than 99 percent of the St. Louis metro area will never see: a 60 Minutes segment on euthanasia and Dr. Jack Kevorkian (including the act of euthanasia on videotape) that aired Nov. 22 in most of the country.

KMOV (Channel 4) was one of six stations (all owned by Dallas' A.H. Belo Corp.) that refused to show the segment. The station substituted a truncated local newscast that included sports, weather and features on the South Side Rapist and holiday toy shopping. A disclaimer aired before and after the omitted segment noted that the decision was taken by KMOV and A.H. Belo in line with their broadcast policies. It also referred to the inappropriate "time period" for the euthanasia material. Belo is among the largest news operations in the U.S., with a broadcast arm reaching 14.2 percent of the nation's households.

KMOV management wasn't anxious to discuss the decision. Station GM Allen Cohen was out of town, and KMOV operations director Jim Rothschild passed on most questions. Asked whether the station had individual discretion about whether to air the segment, Rothschild said, "I'm not really in a position to comment on that." He also declined to assess viewers' rights to judge such material for themselves. He did say that discussions about the segment began on Friday and that news director Steve Hammel notified his department after the 10 p.m. newscast on Saturday that they would patch a local newscast over the hole left by the excision of the segment.

Rothschild referred further questions to Belo vice president Marty Haag, who didn't return an RFT phone call on Monday. Haag did tell the Houston Chronicle on Monday that he asked CBS for permission to excise 83 seconds of footage from the segment and air it after late local newscasts. He added that CBS declined to do so. "The corporation has a policy of not showing the taking of a life or the moment of death of an individual in its news broadcasts," Haag told the Houston Chronicle.

CBS News spokesman Kevin Tedesco faxed the official CBS News statement on the decision: "It is a hallmark of 60 Minutes to explore complex and often controversial issues in a fair and responsible way. Mike Wallace's report on Dr. Jack Kevorkian goes to the core of an important national debate. CBS News believes this program performed a public service. However, CBS News respects the rights of local broadcasters to determine what is appropriate for their communities." Tedesco also sent the RFT a copy of the segment to review.

On Monday, I read a wide variety of reaction to the segment, including accusations that the timing of the broadcast was a ratings ploy, harsh assessments from religious leaders like Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua (who told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it marked a "new low in journalism") and a scorching review by Caryn James in the Monday, Nov. 23, New York Times. James argues that "in televising this death, 60 Minutes goes beyond reporting into lurid sensationalism."

After viewing the tape myself, I had feelings that have proved difficult to untangle on deadline. I tried to narrow my questions to myself about it down to a few pertinent ones for a media critic to examine:

Was the segment journalistically sound? The answer is a resounding yes. Far from a "new low in journalism," I found the segment balanced and fair. It sought comment from opponents, family members and Kevorkian himself. Wallace asked tough questions and obtained thoughtful answers.

Was it exploitative or sensational? The toughest question, and more a function of taste and personal morality than anything else. We're bombarded with impersonal violence in faraway places on television on a daily basis. We sentence criminals to colder and more inhumane executions every day. What sends a shudder through us in this particular case is the intimacy of the death, the active agency of Kevorkian and the agony of the victim. Certainly 60 Minutes exploited those factors in airing this segment.

Were KMOV and A.H. Belo correct to censor it? No. Balancing the quality of journalism in the segment against its exploitative elements, I still emerge with the opinion that a stronger disclaimer was needed, allowing viewers the chance to wield their remote controls. Belo's decision to be a corporate nanny stifled debate.

Euthanasia is a topic that touches our deepest moral sense. Anyone who's studied the growth of the Holocaust from organized euthanasia in the Nazi medical community knows its extreme perils. Those who claim that we should simply "ease the suffering" of the terminally ill speak to a country where mothers have to fight for extra nights in the hospital after complicated childbirths.

Were ratings a factor? Absolutely. Was it necessary to show a shoddy videotape of an agonizing final decision and its consequence -- a furtive, ignoble death bereft of family? Probably not. But those who would prefer viewers untroubled by a confrontation with these weighty questions are no less culpable in my eyes.

E-mail media tips and quips to Richard Byrne at byrne@rftstl.com.

 
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