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It's Killing Time In MediaLand

by Norman Solomon

High-profile death has been very good for the media business
Minutes after a federal judge ruled that the execution of Timothy McVeigh should proceed on Monday as scheduled, CNN was airing live interviews with people who lost relatives in the Oklahoma City bombing. When an anchor asked one woman whether she planned to attend the closed-circuit telecast of the execution, her reply was unequivocal: "I'll be there with bells on."

Overall, major news outlets were more discreet as they looked forward to the long-awaited execution. Yet media enthusiasm has been transparent. With the day of death nearing, cable news channels -- seeking a spike in ratings -- are making the most of the opportunity.

For CNN, which came into its own a decade ago as a national and global news network during the Gulf War, the latest chance to lure a big audience comes courtesy of McVeigh, a former U.S. Army soldier who was a bit player in that war. The media glory went to men named Schwarzkopf and Powell. More recently, infamy has gone to McVeigh.

One way or another, high-profile death has been very good for the media business. When the victims are foreigners on the wrong side of American firepower (for instance, in Baghdad or Belgrade), they serve as mere dots on Pentagon-produced videos of missile strikes, rapturously shown on this country's TV networks. In diametric contrast, when outsized celebrities (Princess Di or JFK Jr.) go to untimely deaths, their humanity looms extra large -- the opposite of blips on screens.

When U.S. taxpayers have footed the bill for bombs taking lives overseas -- for example, in Central America during the 1980s or in Iraq and Yugoslavia later on -- the victims and their mourning relatives have gotten scant empathetic news coverage in the United States. Consciously or otherwise, journalists are often quick to ask for whom the bell tolls, and then shrug.

In the case of the 168 people in Oklahoma City whose lives were cruelly destroyed, the mastermind did not become rich or attain a Cabinet post. He received a death sentence.

America is now in the midst of macabre synergy between ratings-driven TV news outlets and grief-stricken survivors of the explosion at the Murrah Federal Building. Perhaps each has some of what the other needs, or at least craves, right now. In any event, a huge media spectacle is approaching its grim climax.

No staged episode of "reality TV" could replicate the scale and scope of the government's impending real-life murder of an unrepentant murderer.

Generally, when death claims a loved one and changes our lives forever, we feel that the world should take notice, that respects should be paid. We may recognize, as philosopher Corliss Lamont put it, that the tragedy of death "is inherent in the great gift of life." And yet, at the same time, like Dylan Thomas, we may "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Such rage is especially acute when lives are cut short by intentional actions such as the one that McVeigh took on a spring day in 1995. It's understandable that after six years of mourning and anguish, a relative jumped at the chance to stand in front of media microphones -- and, in effect, in front of the world -- to rejoice aloud that the life of the "delusional and suicidal" McVeigh would soon be snuffed out.

Complete with horrific criminality and lethal vengeance, the drama now on the nation's main stage is both a real-life calamity and a choreographed morality play produced largely by news media. With official enthusiasm from agencies with names like "Justice Department," the taking of a human life is rendered as affirmation of the sanctity of human life.

The equation can be understood as Orwellian; we revere life by inflicting death. But it's unlikely that the unprecedented media coverage of this execution will raise a lot of deep questions. Previews of "The Execution of Timothy McVeigh: The TV Show" indicate a numbing blitz of show-biz solemnity. If recent history is any indication, the coverage will rarely question a key premise of capital punishment: Our society must kill in order to emphasize that killing is wrong.

This grisly media show must go on. And there is no understudy available for the lead role. Strict procedures, spelled out in the government's Execution Protocol, require that guards continuously monitor the condemned prisoner during his final days and hours -- to make sure that he doesn't try to harm himself.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor June 8, 2001 (

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