In the prime of his death Sweeps: As a life slipped away, '60 Minutes' televised it. But was it to shed light on issues or to boost ratings?

November 25, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Death comes to prime time. That's the way the November sweeps ratings period that ends tonight is surely going to be remembered.

But, when it comes to death on television, there's death and then there's death. The difference is worth worrying about.

Millions of us witnessed two remarkable deaths this week in our living rooms. One was the real death of Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old Michigan man, at the hands of Dr. Jack Kevorkian on the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes" Sunday. The other was the death last night of a fictional character, Detective Bobby Simone, played by Jimmy Smits, on the ABC police drama"NYPD Blue."

One grabbed me by the throat, made me feel the agony of death in my bones and made me care deeply about the person who was dying. The other left me feeling nothing except a little flat or empty and, maybe, embarrassed for watching.

The problem is that the death I cared about is the fictional one -- not the one of a real man who I saw pass from this life shortly after Kevorkian injected him. The problem might be with me, but I believe it is with CBS and the way it presented Youk's death.

On Monday, Don Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes" was talking the high-road talk of public-affairs journalism. He defended the broadcast of Youk's videotaped death by saying, "Our job is to shed light on the issues America talks about." But the way Youk's death was presented by CBS News was not about issues or light.

There are all sorts of journalistic questions about how "60 Minutes" handled the report. For example, if you are legitimately interested in exploring such complex issues as assisted suicide and euthanasia, why not devote the whole show to them and examine more than one case and one point of view? Did "60 Minutes" really have to air a segment Sunday on Tom Wolfe, who did not win the National Book Award?

Furthermore, the Youk case is not even particularly to the point because there is no evidence that Kevorkian offered any kind of palliative care before going to the extreme of euthanasia, according to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a medical ethicist at the National Institutes of Health.

And what about showing the actual moment of death? This was not the first time we have seen someone die in such circumstances on TV. In May 1994, the ABC newsmagazine "Turning Point" showed a man with AIDS drinking a potion of drugs that put him to sleep and eventually killed him.

Then, in December 1994, the ABC newsmagazine "Primetime Live" showed portions of a Dutch documentary, "Death on Request," which featured a physician-assisted suicide. However, the actual moment of death was not shown.

I do not think it is categorically wrong to show someone die on television, but it is wrong to do it the way "60 Minutes" did. Youk's death was presented without any real sense of the man's life and, therefore, without context. The on-screen death was mainly spectacle -- just a chance to show someone die on camera. It could have been anyone. CBS News did not have the decency to take the time to humanize Youk -- to make him anything more than a Kevorkian case study taken at face value by "60 Minutes" -- before exploiting him and violating one of the last realms of privacy in our media-crazed culture, the moment of death.

Showing the life that precedes the moment of death is the difference between an experience that can enrich the viewer and one that debases both the viewer and the deceased.

In 1993, PBS aired a landmark documentary, "Silverlake Life: The View From Here," that chronicled in excruciating detail the death of a man from AIDS. It took us right up to the moment of death and then picked up right after it. While the film did not show the actual moment as CBS did Sunday, it was far more graphic in the way the camera explored the face of the dead man and then his disease-ravaged, naked body as health officials came to take it from the home in which he died.

"Silverlake Life" made me care deeply about Tom Joslin, the man I watched die. And it made me care because virtually all but maybe 10 minutes of the 1 hour and 56 minutes of running time was spent on his life.

And that's why I also became so emotionally invested in the death of Bobby Simone last night -- it was presented within the context of his life. The montage of moments from Simone's four years in the 15th precinct that opened the episode were included for that very reason. Not that regular viewers of the series needed it; the clip reel lives in our heads. You'll get no apologies from me for caring so much about this make-believe character.

As for the real man who died on "60 Minutes," America is talking about the telecast, I'll give Hewitt that. But I doubt it's the kind of talk that will clarify the issue of euthanasia. Most of us can't even agree on what we saw.

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