Televised executions: evolution or devolution?

The drive toward putting criminals to death on TV leaves little time for examining its reasons -- or effects.


May 06, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

As the May 16 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh approaches and the debate over a closed-circuit telecast of the event grows, one thing seems dead certain: Soon, we are all going to get the chance to see executions on our television screens -- perhaps very soon.

We are on the slick and fast part of a downward slippery slope in our cultural history. Night after night, prime-time entertainment television speaks to some of our worst impulses, while new communication technology offers ever more ways to capture and disseminate stupefying images that pander to those impulses. The momentum toward public executions delivered in the privacy of our living room seems inescapable.

"It is just one more level up from what we've already come to think of as entertainment with all the prime-time reality shows," says Shirley Peroutka, chair of the communication and media studies department at Goucher College. "I think there's a mean-spiritedness in our culture, as well as a level of great cynicism.

"There's also something strange going on with our inability to empathize," she added.

"When you combine those aspects ... with the way television has contextualized everything from animal torture to police shootings as entertainment in recent years, you can't help but believe the televised execution of a human being is just the next step on that continuum."

Debate is just starting

A troubling discovery in assembling this report over the past few weeks is how swiftly the current appears to be carrying us toward media executions -- with actions by those in media and government running far ahead of our ability to even frame the public debate coherently. While those interviewed concur that we seem to be on the verge of televised executions -- and that an informed civic debate should take place before we get there -- no two can agree on the terms of that debate.

Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, supports the idea of televising executions. But he disagrees with Peroutka's belief that there is a connection between that possibility and reality shows like "Survivor" and "Chains of Love."

"This argument that televised executions are the bottom of the barrel to which reality television is leading us really bothers me," Thompson says. "These are two entirely different things. Reality television is entertainment that's contrived with people coming in on their own volition. They audition to be on these shows and all of that," he argues.

"An execution, on the other hand, is news. This is a state-sanctioned event. What goes on with that execution is a public event in every sense of the word. I've always argued along with Phil Donahue that if we're going to have state governments executing people, the citizens really ought to know what that's all about."

Thompson's argument for televised executions is essentially First Amendment-based; it says journalists ought to be there to tell the public what went on. In today's media universe, that means pictures as well as words. He calls the refusal to allow cameras a "kind of Luddite paranoia."

For Thompson, the other side of the debate is whether "we want to give killers like McVeigh a bully pulpit to cause mischief even into death."

"By televising the death of someone like McVeigh, are we doing a dangerous kind of martyring? That's what you have weigh against our right to see it, and that's the debate we should be having," Thompson says.

Phil Seib, author of "Going Live: Getting the News Right in a Real-Time, Online World," cites a variation of Thompson's position regarding executions.

"One argument in favor of showing executions -- with some restriction as to what hour it appeared on the air, for example -- is that the public overwhelmingly says it's in favor of the death penalty. If that's true, maybe they ought to see what they're getting."

But his counter-argument speaks more to how watching the execution might debase us, rather than the danger of its inciting others to emulate McVeigh.

"The argument against showing it," he says, "is that it takes us back to the era of the gladiators. We have Timothy McVeigh ... in the center of the Coliseum, and the crowd turning their thumbs down and watching the execution. I don't know what that does for the civic psyche to have that as part of our daily news fare."

Ultimately, "you really can make a good argument for either side," says Seib, the Nieman professor of journalism at Marquette University.

Already on the air

As the experts struggle to even define the debate, the culture rushes headlong to broadcast executions. Last month, it was U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft approving the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution for some 300 relatives of the 168 persons he killed. Last week, it was radio station WYNC-FM in New York and other National Public Radio affiliates across the country airing audio tapes of two executions carried out in Georgia during the 1980s.

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