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Committed to the First Amendment 5/06/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Backbones wanted

We think it was the right move for individual public radio stations, led by WNYC-AM-FM and ABC's Nightline,
to air audiotapes last week of several Georgia executions, the first time a national audience has had access to them. The broadcasters warned their audiences and put their stories in context with discussions about the broader issue of journalistic access that has been raised by the scheduled federal execution of Timothy McVeigh on May 16.

We were struck by a couple of things about the tapes. The first was the pedestrian quality of the prison officials' "tab A into slot B" narration of the act. Not surprising, perhaps, since the tapes were made to document a procedure (and protect against future litigation). We were also struck by the one execution that almost wasn't, when the condemned had to go through the process twice because he hadn't been killed the first time. That same matter-of-fact delivery was suddenly supplying descriptions of the twitching and breathing that indicated that the chair had failed to dispatch its occupant. It is that sort of information conveyed to a national audience that might generate some public concern for the method of execution, one of the stronger arguments, we think, for allowing electronic journalists to use the tools of their trade to cover these news events. In fact, the tapes aired last week came to light after they were subpoenaed by a lawyer looking to make the case that electrocution is cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional.

Nightline understood the importance of the tapes to the ongoing national debate about executions. "There are people who would take comfort in how calm, clinical—almost banal—these tapes are," says producer Richard Harris. "Critics of the death penalty would look at the tape in which it took two procedures to electrocute the prisoner. Anybody who wants to use these tapes on either side can do so."

Yet neither Nightline nor any other television organization has demanded to air the McVeigh execution live or even a tape of the closed-circuit telecast being done for the families of victims in Oklahoma City. Nightline isn't fighting for the right because it isn't interested in broadcasting the execution. Unlike the killers executed by Georgia in the 1980s, Harris explains with an unfortunate metaphor, "McVeigh is a fresh wound."

We have argued before that TV ought to air the McVeigh execution because it would force more Americans to confront the reality of executions and decide whether they should continue. Beyond that, TV ought to fight to air executions simply because the government says they can't. If it's open to a reporter and his notepad, it ought to be open to a producer and her camcorder.

Georgia has switched from the electric chair to lethal injection for crimes committed after May 1, 2000. Maybe it would have switched sooner if the difficulties of electrocution were pressed immediately upon the public conscience. We'll never know. TV and radio journalists can now add: We didn't try to find out.

March