Was showing an assisted suicide an attempt to inform the public about a controversial issue or a cynical attempt to boost ratings during a TV sweeps period?
Thirteen minutes and 36 seconds was the amount of time that television's preeminent news magazine, "60 Minutes," devoted to the complex issue of euthanasia. On Nov. 22, 1998, correspondent Mike Wallace interviewed euthanasia advocate Jack Kevorkian in a widely heralded show and, more significant, showed a tape of Kevorkian's injecting potassium chloride into Thomas Youk, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The Supreme Court earlier had denied talk show host Phil Donahue the right to televise an execution, and the Kevorkian tape was the first telecast of euthanasia by any major network, although an assisted suicide of another ALS sufferer had been broadcast in 1994 on ABC's "Primetime Live."
ALS is a progressive neuromuscular disorder caused by the death of the motor nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement. While progressing at different rates in each individual, the disease results in paralysis and death, with the average time of survival being three to five years from onset. The incidence of ALS is about two per 100,000 people, meaning there are thousands of cases in the U.S. at any given time. The financial burden to families of persons with ALS is enormous, reaching or exceeding $200,000 a year in the advanced stages.
Kevorkian's killing of Youk represented a total departure from his earlier actions in which he acknowledged helping about 130 people kill themselves. In the other assisted suicide cases, he had rigged up machines to permit people to kill themselves. In the Youk case, though, Kevorkian personally administered the lethal injections, albeit with Youk's consent. (Following the airing of the tape, Michigan prosecutors charged Kevorkian with first-degree murder. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance in a trial which highlighted the "60 Minutes" tape and had Kevorkian acting as his own attorney. It was the first time in five trials that he was found guilty, but also the first time Kevorkian, not the victim, injected the lethal drugs.)
Reaction to the "60 Minutes" broadcast of the "death tape" was swift, varied, and intense. Frank Rich, a New York Times op-ed columnist, said that the show may have set in motion a "frank, humane and long-overdue national conversation about the boundaries of life." Walter Goodman, television critic of The New York Times, Howard Rosenberg of The Los Angeles Times, and "ABC Evening News" anchor Peter Jennings also supported the decision to air the tape, the latter saying he had "no problem" with the televising of Youk's death.
On the other side, Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, called it "the awfulness of death transformed into [a] form of news entertainment," The Washington Post's Judy Mann wrote that it compromised the privacy of an "intensely private event," and Stephen Smith and Ira Brock of U.S...