Timothy McVeigh will probably be dead soon. The issue he is raising for the media will live on.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has ruled the press will not have much access to the Oklahoma City bomber between now and May 16, the date of his scheduled execution. Specifically, Ashcroft will allow no reporters inside the prison for interviews. If McVeigh wants to talk to reporters, says Ashcroft, he’ll have to call them, and as a death row inmate, he is entitled to a mere 15 minutes per day on the phone. Ashcroft has further asked reporters who do receive calls from McVeigh not to record them.
That sound you hear in the background is journalists clearing their throats to sing the blues. The first chorus goes like this:
We feelin’ so lousy, we feelin’ uptight;
We roilin’ an’ toilin’ an’ spoilin’ t’ fight;
The AG he done messed with our Firs’ ‘Mendment right.
It is, of course, nonsense. Journalists sometimes slip into the First Amendment for the same reason that exhibitionists slip into a raincoat: to hide the stuff that is better off not being admitted. This is one of those times.
They use phrases like "the people’s right to know," as in, "the people have a right to know what Timothy McVeigh is thinking."
They use phrases like "to prevent such a thing from happening again," as in, "if we learn enough about men like Timothy McVeigh, maybe we can prevent such a thing as the Oklahoma City bombing from happening again."
They do not, however, use phrases like "higher ratings than usual," as in, "if we can just get this dirtbag to answer a few questions on camera, we can promo the hell out of it and get higher ratings than usual for our tacky tabloid show which we insist on calling a network news magazine because it sounds better that way."
Do the people have a right to know what’s going on in Timothy McVeigh’s mind? Certainly not. Might they be interested in what’s going on in Timothy McVeigh’s mind? Certainly.
Might that interest be a valid one, more sociological in intent than prurient? Yes, of course. But McVeigh has already spoken his mind in more than one forum, including the pages of a new book in which his spoken mind has been transcribed at length by the authors.
Reporters who want to give McVeigh more minutes on the air or more inches on the page at this particular time do not want to inform the public; they want to titillate it. They are not practicing journalism, but voyeurism. And Attorney General Ashcroft does not believe that is a compelling enough reason to give an assassin even more publicity than he is already getting because of his imminent execution.
"I don’t want [McVeigh] to be able to purchase access to the podium of America with the blood of 168 innocent victims," Ashcroft said at a news conference last week, and then, addressing reporters directly: "Please do not help him inject more poison into our culture. He’s caused enough senseless damage already."
Perhaps it was at that moment when reporters, at least under their breaths, broke into the second chorus of the lament.
We feelin’ so lousy, we singin’ our song,
We hummin’ an’ strummin’ an’ bummin’ along,
The AG say we got the Firs’ ‘Mendment wrong.
And they do. With McVeigh’s time on earth rapidly decreasing, interest in him is, as a result, increasing. Journalists simply want to capitalize on it. By placing limits on the extent to which they may do so - not prohibiting the process, simply restricting it - Ashcroft is demonstrating good taste, better judgment and high standards.
Strike up the band.
- Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sundays at 11 a.m ET on the Fox News Channel.