Media Beat: IN MEDIALAND, IT WAS TIME TO KILL
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- Minutes after a federal judge ruled that the execution of = Timothy McVeigh should proceed on June 11 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-cir= cuit telecast of the execution, her reply was unequivocal: "I'll be there w= ith bells on."
Overall, major news outlets were more discreet as they looked forward to= the long-awaited execution. Yet media enthusiasm was transparent. And cabl= e news channels -- seeking a spike in ratings -- made the most of the oppor= tunity.
For CNN, which came into its own a decade ago as a national and global n= ews network during the Gulf War, the latest chance to lure a big audience c= ame courtesy of McVeigh, a former U.S. Army sergeant who was a bit player i= n 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 fir= epower (for instance, in Baghdad or Belgrade), they serve as mere dots on P= entagon-produced videos of missile strikes, rapturously shown on this count= ry's TV networks. In diametric contrast, when outsized celebrities (Princes= s 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 Yugosla= via later on -- the victims and their mourning relatives have gotten scant = empathetic news coverage in the United States. Consciously or otherwise, jo= urnalists 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 = was executed.
America has been 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 provided some of what the other needed, or = at least craved. In any event, a huge media spectacle moved to its grim cli= max.
No staged episode of "reality TV" could replicate the scale and scop= e of the government's real-life murder of an unrepentant murderer.
Genera= lly, when death claims a loved one and changes our lives forever, we feel t= hat the world should take notice, that respects should be paid. We may reco= gnize, 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 ac= tions such as the one that McVeigh took on a Spring day in 1995. It's under= standable that after six years of mourning and anguish, a relative would ju= mp 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 was about to be snuffed out.
Complete with horrific criminality and lethal vengeance, the drama on th= e nation's main stage was both a real-life calamity and a choreographed mor= ality play produced largely by news media. With official enthusiasm from ag= encies with names like "Justice Department," the taking of a human life was= rendered as affirmation of the sanctity of human life.
The equation can be understood as Orwellian; we revere life by inflictin= g death. "The Execution of Timothy McVeigh: The TV Show" featured a numbing= blitz of show-biz solemnity, complete with black suits worn by network anc= hors on execution day. But the coverage rarely questioned a key premise of = capital punishment: Our society must kill in order to emphasize that killin= g is wrong.
For this grisly media show, there was no understudy available for the le= ad role. Strict procedures, spelled out in the government's Execution Proto= col, required that guards continuously monitor the condemned prisoner durin= g his final days and hours -- to make sure that he didn't try to harm himse= lf.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Me= dia." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.