In 1928, New York Daily News
photographer Tom Howard sneaked a camera strapped to his ankle into the witness area at New York's Ossining State Prison's death chamber to photograph convicted killer Ruth Snyder at the moment of her electrocution.
It was a startling front-page image, instantly the stuff of media legend.
But with the scheduled execution of Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh two months away (May 16), even McVeigh's own call last week for his death to be broadcast failed to tempt any TV network or station to try to do it.
None of several networks contacted late last week-including ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News Channel, PBS, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, and Court TV said they had any plans to challenge the federal protocol that now prohibits live broadcast of executions. Nor did major journalism organizations-including the Radio Television News Directors Association, Society of Professional Journalists and Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press. Some suggested, however, they might consider limited use of a videotape if one were available.
"Because there is
an event doesn't mean it is something we should cover," said Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO of Court TV-ostensibly a natural network to pioneer the televising of an execution. "We think a vast majority of our viewers would not think it was appropriate. The vast majority of people witnessing an execution on television would find it perhaps riveting, but also exploitative. Our position is that the death penalty is best debated without seeing the event live."
That contrasts sharply with recent efforts to overcome a similar federal ban-the one to U.S. courts, which have been vigorously challenged. TV has won a few concessions, most notably in the Supreme Court's post-election hearings in December.
In allowing release of an audiotape following the historic arguments, the high court recognized the profound public interest in the procedures that would ultimately determine who would become president. But in the McVeigh case-probably the most closely watched death penalty case since the Rosenbergs' execution in 1953-TV programmers' rush for reality hesitates at the ultimate and inevitable reality.
Washington lawyer and RTNDA counsel Kathleen Kirby, who has researched access to executions, anticipated controversy involving the McVeigh execution and suggested that the media need to see past the "highly charged questions involved, including the morality of the death penalty." Journalists, she said, "should not lose sight of their role as government watchdog and may argue.that it is inappropriate for government to decide what is suitable for public viewing."
Scholars say the federal ban is vulnerable. "Televised executions may not be inevitable, but their prohibition rests on dated case law," Eastern Michigan University Sociology Professor Paul Leighton concluded.
Executions were historically public, transitioning to private events over a period of more than a hundred years. Scholars document public executions in Mississippi as recently as the 1950s. But no U.S. execution has ever been televised, and even still images of executions are rare.
The federal policy is clear. McVeigh's wishes aside, Dan Dunn, communications director for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said flatly: "We're not televising it."
Dunn said any taping or still photos would similarly violate a 1993 federal rule. While a closed-circuit TV witness room similar to the one created for McVeigh's Denver trial may be set up for affected parties in Oklahoma, there will nonetheless be no tape, Dunn said. So, as things now stand, later showings of the execution would be ruled out.
Even in Oklahoma City there may not be a groundswell for televising the death of the man who had so profoundly harmed so many local families. "I wouldn't be interested in broadcasting the execution. It's a question of taste," said one Oklahoma City broadcast journalist.
There will be a strong national media presence on site, however. Dunn said hundreds, if not thousands, of requests to cover the event have been received.
In an industry where ratings often rule, there has been historic reluctance to televising executions. In Ohio's Cuyahoga County in 1994, a judge raised eyebrows and ire when he opened up the execution to all media. But that edict was not well received by both local and network TV-and even drew the ire of the Vatican, which called the idea a "horrendous and offensive spectacle" that "would hold human life up to mockery." That execution never took place.
Bay Area public station KQED-TV sued the state of California unsuccessfully to allow televised coverage of the 1994 execution of convicted double-murderer Robert Alton Harris. A videotape of the execution was made for the American Civil Liberties Union but never allowed to be shown and ordered destroyed two years later by a judge who determined that the tape could not be kept from the public and would violate Harris' wish to further spare his family.
The rare death on television raises controversy networks and local stations generally wish to avoid but sometimes take on when their commitment is strong. Dr. Jack Kevorkian precipitated the death of a gravely ill patient before the cameras of 60 Minutes. CBS said that the 60 Minutes
story was about euthanasia and the few seconds that showed the assisted death of Thomas Youk were part of that story.
Some prominent broadcasters-Mike Wallace, Ted Koppel and Phil Donahue among them-have expressed the opinion that the American people should view the results of the policy they so overwhelmingly support.
"One must kill publicly or confess that one does not feel authorized to kill," said philosopher Albert Camus. "[T]he man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail."
Programmers are not so sure. Adding a practical argument to the moral ones, news executives suggested that the execution would not make particularly good television, even for those who back death as a punishment. "Visually," one executive said of the procedure, in which McVeigh will be strapped to a table for a lethal injection, "it's not that exciting." Hanging, electrocution, or a firing squad would be far more compelling. The relatively antiseptic planned end for McVeigh (in the Federal Penitentiary Terre Haute, Ind.), programmers and scholars suggest, might only make death easier to witness, ironically desensitizing the audience to its impact.