Published January 13, 2015
The problem with people like me is that we're so negative. Not only that, we're predictable. You can always count on a media critic to ... well, to be critical of the media. We never like what the media do. We never like how they do it. We always tell you so.
Caryn James is like me. She's a media critic for The New York Times, and as is the case with a lot of other media critics, she doesn't like the way the TV networks covered Timothy McVeigh's execution.
"Reporters asked questions that were almost universally wrongheaded and coy," James wrote in Tuesday's Times. TV coverage "turn[ed] McVeigh into a celebrity while pretending not to," she said. The whole thing, according to James, was "a media circus," albeit a "somber" one.
Let me address each of those points, and try to prove that I'm not like Caryn James after all.
First, there is no such thing as a somber circus. Yes, there were a lot of journalists in Terre Haute, Ind., last Monday, more than a thousand of them, but that does not mean they were snapping whips at lions and swinging on trapezes. A media event is not a circus unless the media are behaving irresponsibly: Overstating the importance of what they're covering, trivializing it or acting as if they are more important than the event itself.
None of that happened in Terre Haute. McVeigh's execution was an important national story, and the majority of those who reported on it did so with dignity.
Second, the media did not turn McVeigh into a celebrity while pretending otherwise. It was McVeigh who turned himself into a celebrity by the heinousness of his deed. Even before the age of rampant media, perpetrators of perversity were well-known. Haven't we all heard of Attila the Hun? Lizzie Borden? Jack the Ripper?
True, we know their names because someone set down the facts and started the process of relaying them from the past to the present. But if those people hadn't told us about Attila, Lizzie and Jack, they would have been doing us a disservice, disguising the truth of the past, telling lies by omission. If we criticize them for making Attila, Lizzie and Jack celebrities, we make a sin of honest observation. If we criticize today's media for coverage of the worst mass-murderer in our history, we are issuing a plea for ignorance.
Third, this matter of questions that were "universally wrong-headed and coy." Well, Caryn's pretty much on the money with this one. She refers to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who, the day before the execution, asked one of McVeigh's lawyers what was going through his client's mind at the moment? It was as if Blitzer were doing auditioning for Barbara Walters' job, or Diane Sawyer's.
And there were other troubling aspects of the coverage.
In the days leading up to the execution, Fox News Channel titled some of its segments on McVeigh "Dead Man Walking." Tasteless. And MSNBC did a special on McVeigh in its Headliners and Legends series, thereby lumping him into the same category as such other stars of that show as Ben Affleck and Michael Jordan, and thereby giving credence to James' argument about celebrification.
But for the most part, the coverage of McVeigh was precisely what it should have been. Was there too much of it? Perhaps. But to criticize the all-news networks for reporting on McVeigh as they did is as pointless as criticizing ESPN for an over-emphasis on sports or the History Channel for all those old, black-and-white pictures.
News is what all-news networks do. Remote control tuners and on-off switches are what viewers do when they are not satisfied.
Too bad the media critics can't be zapped, as well.