Restricted viewing

Public access denied in closed-circuit airing of execution

A few hundred people—no more—will watch from a prison in Oklahoma City as Timothy McVeigh is strapped to a gurney in another prison in another city and put to death by the government.

Federal officials last week selected an Oklahoma City prison facility as the site of the closed-circuit broadcast from which the families and survivors of McVeigh's bombing in that city six years ago last week will be allowed to watch him die. McVeigh's execution is scheduled for May 16 at 8 a.m. in Terre Haute, Ind.

The government's two-front approach—pioneered when it offered a closed-circuit feed from McVeigh's Denver trial to Oklahoma City—is reflected by television networks, which seem to recognize that the drama of one man's death reverberates at least as much in the place where he left 168 people dead.

"Of course, it's a two-front story," says Thom Bird, senior producer for news specials at Fox News Channel. "Obviously, on the 16th, the news is in Terre Haute. But following that, and before that, the story is in Oklahoma with the victims."

ABC News believes it's making a statement about the importance of the victims by sending Charles Gibson, who will be the network's ranking anchor in the field that day, to Oklahoma City. But like other networks, ABC will also have crews reporting from the execution site.

The execution will not be open to the general public, nor will there be any sound or video record of McVeigh's death. The Justice Department says that that no video cameras, tape recorders or cell phones will be allowed, to "ensure that the closed-circuit viewing is not recorded or otherwise made public." Potential remote spectators will have until May 1 to reserve a seat.

The government's continued policy to deny public access to the execution via TV news has brought no protest from networks, with the exception of online soft-core porn vendor Entertainment Network Inc., which has sued to offer paying customers the opportunity to see McVeigh die via a Webcast.

Networks and network executives have uniformly rejected the notion of televising McVeigh's execution, even if the government were to allow it.

But networks have voiced opposition to policies announced earlier this month by Attorney General John Ashcroft to limit access—particularly by television and radio—to McVeigh prior to his execution. Ashcroft said that reporters would not be allowed extended interviews with McVeigh and that interviews could neither be videotaped nor recorded.

The attorney general said he wants to "restrict a mass murderer's access to a public podium. As attorney general, I don't want anyone to be able to purchase access to the podium of America with the blood of 168 innocent victims." McVeigh himself has asked that his death be televised.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association immediately protested the mini-gag rule as government censorship and a violation of free speech and free press.

Individual broadcasters agreed. "The solution to unpopular speech is more speech, not less speech," one network executive said.

However, several networks contacted last week said that, while they disagree with the policy, they will respect Ashcroft's decision. But some networks appeared to be hoping for a policy adjustment, and CBS would not comment on the possibility it might take legal action for greater access to McVeigh.

The Net-porn entrepreneur trying to stream the execution said last week that the firm will appeal a federal-court decision denying access to the death chamber and said he is prepared to ask the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to make the execution public.

A federal judge in Indianapolis Thursday rejected a lawsuit from Entertainment Network—best known for its and an online special chat with O.J. Simpson—seeking to either bring its own wireless camera to Webcast the execution or use the closed-circuit feed the Justice Department will be providing in Oklahoma City.

In his decision denying ENI's First Amendment right to access, Judge John D. Tinder said that any notion that the prison site of McVeigh's execution is public is doubtful and added that the public is represented by proxy at the execution.

"Whatever First Amendment protection exists for viewing executions," the judge said, "it is not violated by the [Bureau of Prisons'] explicit regulation against recording or broadcasting them to the public." In its argument against access, the government noted that no state in the nation makes executions public today.