Frank Jarvis Atwood is a killer. He is also a guest columnist. It is a combination that has caused great offense in Tucson, Ariz., and one that raises an important issue to people in all parts of the country.
In 1984, an eight-year-old girl named Vicki Lynne Hoskinson disappeared while riding her bike; she had been sent by her parents to mail a letter and never came home again.
In 1987, Frank Jarvis Atwood was convicted of the murder after a three-month trial that was televised locally from the opening arguments to the pronouncement of the death sentence.
The sentence, however, has not yet been carried out, and Atwood remains, as he has been for a decade and a half, a resident of death row.
Recently, however, Atwood branched out, writing a column for the Arizona Daily Star in which he expressed his opposition to the death penalty. He insisted that, because of the expenses involved in filing appeals and pleading for stays of execution, life imprisonment is cheaper for the American taxpayer than the electric chair. And then he said: "While there will always be some individuals who insist on seeing those convicted of murder suffer as much as possible, this attitude serves only to reduce society to the level of those it seeks to punish. The far superior course is to hold to the high moral ground."
Readers were outraged. Says Penny Waldron: "This is absolutely unforgivable. I would cancel my subscription if my husband would allow me. What he did was unspeakable."
Says Gustaf Van Acker: "I feel so bad for the family. . . . It brings up the hurt all over again."
Paul Pedersen said it was "a slap in the community’s face to publish this. It shows that the editorial staff is totally out of touch with the community."
Actually, it is not. For one thing, some readers wrote in to the Daily Star to express their support for the column. As the paper’s reader advocate, Debbie Kornmiller, puts it: "Many of them cited free-speech rights and opposition to censorship in their support."
For another thing, the paper apologized for the column, and in no uncertain terms. According to editor and publisher Jane Amari, "Choosing to run the piece was a serious lapse in judgment. If we felt making that point was so important, I feel sure we could have located an author who is not on death row for a heinous crime."
Precisely. And Ms. Amari deserves to be commended for so forthright an admission.
But there is in the wording of her apology an important clue to the paper’s decision to run the column in the first place, and in fact an important admission about the present state of journalism, whether it be print or broadcast.
For the reason that the Arizona Daily Star did not initially seek another author to make the points made by Atwood is that Atwood is a celebrity. The paper was attracted by his fame as a local figure rather than repulsed by his notoriety as a killer. It was not interested in a serious exploration of the death penalty issue, which could have been provided by someone who had researched the matter thoroughly, perhaps a criminologist or sociologist or investigative journalist; instead, the paper opted for the titillation of a firsthand account, however biased and self-serving. It wanted to engage people viscerally rather than intellectually; its goal was heat, not light. Unfortunately for the paper, the column generated so much heat that its reputation was singed.
Ultimately, there is in cases like this something that matters more than a criminal’s right to speak freely. It is, simply put, good taste.
The Arizona Daily Star was a little late in recognizing this. But recognize it the paper did, and it is a recognition that should come to all media outlets.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .