Published on Saturday, June 23, 2001 in the New York Times
Death With Commercials
by Frank Rich
On Monday June 11, NBC broadcast a new show that The Wall Street Journal condemned as "the most depressing, nauseating and just plain disgusting" TV premiere ever. George Will called it "televised degradation," and Ted Koppel went so far as to convene a "Nightline" to address the question of whether it might "move us any closer to the end of civilization."
The entertainment that prompted all this fulmination was — what else? — yet another new reality show. But it wasn't the one you might expect. Though June 11 was the day of the first federal execution in 38 years — an event that was packaged by network news organizations into reality programming with a capital R — the target for all this invective was instead "Fear Factor," a typically idiotic new prime-time series in which a contestant shared a pit with 400 rats in pursuit of a $50,000 prize. Civilization may not be ending, but you do have to wonder about our priorities in moral outrage. Ludicrous as "Fear Factor" was — especially coming from NBC, whose president has declared "The Sopranos" too vulgar for network TV — it was but a blip on June 11 next to the Timothy McVeigh show, a true television landmark.
In the 1960's, a dark joke had it that the fastest way to get America out of Vietnam was to broadcast the war on ABC, then the perennial lowest-rated network, because it would be canceled in weeks. By similar logic, it's possible that the blanket broadcasting of the McVeigh execution may prove the beginning of the end for the death penalty. McVeigh is by common consent the best argument for capital punishment imaginable — a remorseless mass murderer of unambiguous guilt — and yet his execution, by defying the widespread expectations for civic satisfaction that it promised, may instead have had the reverse effect, undermining confidence in the value of this distinctly American form of justice. McVeigh's death didn't bring "finality, closure, satisfaction, peace," as Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma smugly promised Katie Couric on TV. It instead left a palpable unease that was reflected everywhere in the televised theatrics that surrounded it and in the queasiness that has lingered since. When the second federal execution after the 38- year gap, that of Juan Garza, took place in Terre Haute, Ind., on Tuesday, even the usually rapacious cable news networks averted their eyes as quickly as they could.
True, the actual images of our government taking McVeigh's life weren't on the air, but their very absence made the show more grotesque. Left to the audience's imagination, a death by lethal injection may be more disturbing than its depiction — especially when the four- minute act itself is padded out with flashbacks to the greatest (i.e., goriest) video hits from the murderer's crime and promoted with logos like "Date With Death." Anchors across the TV spectrum talked incessantly about how "somber" the day was, but not so somber that their bosses forsook selling commercials. Wal- Mart, which banned the sales of a journalistic book about McVeigh in its stores, did not refrain from hawking household wares to those tuning in for his execution. When Home Depot's ads for Father's Day presents and snappy trailers for Eddie Murphy's summer yukfest blurred with interviews with Oklahomans whose loved ones had been slaughtered in the Murrah Building, death not only lost its sting but became merely another sales tool.
The "Today" show tried to make the spectacle more dignified by laying on some easy-listening pseudo- classical chamber music, heavy on the violins. There was also a zippy video-game-style "news animation" depicting the death house's layout as if it were the playing board for a round of Clue. But if the intention was to render a state killing palatable as breakfast-TV fare, the results still proved more Charles Addams than Hallmark. As Anthony Amsterdam, a longtime legal advocate against the death penalty, says, the application of show-business cosmetics to an execution has all the appeal of "a mortician painting up the face of the dead."
Scantly noted in most coverage was the fact that so few of the survivors and victims' family members accepted Attorney General John Ashcroft's invitation to witness the death-chamber drama up close and personal via closed-circuit TV. Fewer than a third of the eligible 1,000- plus viewers signed up, and in the end there were so many no-shows that the actual audience numbered only about 230. The official media witnesses to McVeigh's demise added a surreal note. Parading across a makeshift stage decorated with flags and speaking in exaggerated Jack Webb jus'-the-facts-ma'am deadpan, they at times looked and sounded like the scripted participants in a show trial staged by a totalitarian state.
Polls consistently indicate that Americans favor the death penalty — and overwhelmingly favored its application to Timothy McVeigh. But well before June 11 the poll numbers had started to drop — and not without reason. It's been harder than ever to argue that the penalty is doled out fairly in the months since George Ryan, the conservative Republican governor of Illinois, called a moratorium on executions in a state where, it turned out, half of the guilty verdicts in 260 capital cases had been reversed. In Oklahoma last month, Governor Keating belatedly ordered an investigation of a police scientist whose allegedly faulty lab work, some of it in conflict with DNA findings, has figured in cases leading to 11 executions. Last week The Times reported that 30 death-row prisoners in Alabama didn't even have lawyers to pursue what could be legitimate appeals.
No such doubts about fairness or legal wherewithal apply to McVeigh, and yet what came through on June 11 was still a sense of shame about his punishment. Like the TV anchors, the officials who had to carry out the sentence talked about "the protocol" and "the process" and "the procedure" and "the execution facility" rather than speaking in plain English. If we feel so certain about the justice of the death penalty, why do we talk about it in code? Why do politicians who support it — chief among them George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Al Gore — often try to avoid the subject (except in election- year campaign commercials) and lie about it?
Confronted by the European press last week about the application of the death penalty to the feeble-minded, Mr. Bush declared, "We should never execute anybody who is mentally retarded." But the record shows that in Texas alone two mentally retarded people — one with an I.Q. between 58 and 69, another with an I.Q. between 64 and 76 — were executed during his governorship. Only a week before the McVeigh execution did the Supreme Court throw out the sentence of another retarded Texas death-row inmate, Johnny Paul Penry. Since then, the new Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has vetoed a bill that would have banned future executions of that sort — but such a ban is now in effect in 12 of the 37 states that have the death penalty.
Timothy McVeigh was not mentally defective. He was a cold-blooded killer carrying out a premeditated act of carnage. But now that he's dead, it seems that he got everything he wanted out of his crime — that, as his final invocation of "Invictus" would have it, he was indeed the master of his fate in the perverse ways that mattered to him. He is eternally famous. He publicized his anti-government absolutism and repeatedly exposed the ineptitude of his Waco nemesis, the F.B.I. He sowed enough doubts about the government's account of his crime that a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll on the eve of his execution found that two-thirds of the country believed that he had successfully withheld names of accomplices. Only 23 percent think that everyone involved in the bombing has been caught.
The media were so geared up for an incendiary final statement by McVeigh from his gurney that ABC accidentally put a false one up on screen, then hastily retracted it. But once again he was the master of his fate — refusing to supply the words or even the facial expression that would provide the theatrical climax TV craved or the catharsis of rage or remorse that some of the survivors prayed for to the very end.
"We didn't get anything," said Paul Howell, a witness who lost his 27-year-old daughter in Oklahoma City, when he described the execution to reporters. Aside from McVeigh himself, and the commercial sponsors who benefited from the pumped-up ratings of his final show, it's hard to say who did.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company