Accuracy in Media

For all the criticism leveled at 60 Minutes over Jack Kevorkian?s mercy killing of a man with Lou Gehrig?s disease, the most interesting was issued by the Roman Catholic Church. It?s undoubtedly true that 60 Minutes did it for the ratings, and that the film aired during prime time on a Sunday night, was too graphic for most people. But one of the most controversial aspects of the episode was airing a segment of the film in which the patient emphasizes to Kevorkian that he?s a Catholic and wanted to die. This clearly required a response from someone associated with the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church, which is sensitive to anti-Catholic media bias, has erupted in rage at 60 Minutes. They have bombarded CBS News and its local affiliates with messages of protest. The Catholic position on the issue is that society has the obligation to safeguard the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.

It?s true that Wallace included some comments from an ethicist, who warned about the dangers of the Kevorkian approach. He told Wallace, “We are watching medicalized killing.” When Wallace responded, “It wasn?t dangerous to this patient,” the ethicist pointed out that the patient was dead. But no official Catholic response was included. It was almost as if Jack Kevorkian, Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes were saying, “Here is another Catholic disregarding the teaching of his church.”

Although the controversy is not completely religious in nature, James Cardinal Hickey of the Catholic Archdiocese in Washington, D.C. made some of the most interesting comments about the event. He contrasted the CBS treatment of this incident with how local news organizations had handled a case a few weeks ago of a disturbed man who was threatening to jump off a bridge and kill himself. The incident brought traffic to a standstill for several hours as police and rescue equipment arrived on the scene and the man was encouraged to give up. Eventually, he did leap from the bridge into the waters below, and TV cameras captured it on film.

As Cardinal Hickey points out, the difference was that local news organizations, including the CBS News affiliate, did not show the tape of the man actually jumping into the river?even though he survived. He comments, “[The news media] concluded that it was inappropriate to air footage of a disturbed man trying to take his own life.” In the aftermath of the airing of the Kevorkian death tape, Hickey wonders if the next time that a man jumps into the river, “the cameras will be right [there]…so that we can see the look on his face as he hits the water.”

CBS News President Andrew Heyward was happy that the program had sparked a national debate. Let?s take that one step further. Perhaps with tongue in cheek, conservative leader Paul Weyrich suggests Mike Wallace himself may want to be Kevorkian?s next patient. After all, he says that Wallace is getting on in years and ambitious young journalists at CBS have long complained that it is difficult to break into 60 Minutes. This is not at all comparable to the incident captured on tape, but shouldn?t it be part of a national debate? Is this what Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes want?

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