TV's fickle 'fever pitch'

National | The political furor over Texas' death penalty

Issue: "Supreme arrogance," July 8, 2000

Convicted murderer Gary Graham is dead, but the fever-pitch coverage of the death penalty "debate" in Texas is alive and growing. The state of Texas executed Mr. Graham by lethal injection on June 22, after ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN had broadcast 38 morning and evening news stories publicizing his appeals to Gov. George W. Bush.

"Over the past ten days, we've been bringing you reports raising questions about the soundness of the death penalty across the nation and in the state of Texas," boasted Charles Gibson, the co-host of ABC's Good Morning America, the program with the greatest imbalance on the subject, interviewing nine Graham advocates and only two Graham opponents. Mr. Gibson added, "As in so many death penalty cases, this one is reaching a fever pitch."

But not every execution in America receives fever-pitch coverage, and few are reviewed by a presidential candidate. On Jan. 24, 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton returned to Arkansas for the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a self-lobotomized killer of two people, one of them a policeman. While George W. Bush had to contend with 38 network news stories on Gary Graham, only CBS aired a single evening news story before the Rector execution. ABC did not announce it had spent a week sowing doubt about the death penalty.

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The national media's interest in Texas executions began well before Gary Graham's execution.

Newsweek, The New York Times, and PBS's Frontline documentary series have also devoted major resources to casting doubt on Mr. Bush's criminal justice record. Newsweek ran a cover story titled "Rethinking the Death Penalty" which concluded, "if, over time, we can't do it right, then we must ask ourselves if it's worth doing at all."

But Newsweek never did a cover story on Ricky Ray Rector: in fact, Newsweek never printed his name until its recent cover story. The magazine never devoted a cover story in 1992 to any facet of Bill Clinton's administration of Arkansas, including the 67 executions CBS counted during Mr. Clinton's tenure before Mr. Rector's death. In 1988, Newsweek never devoted a cover story to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and his peculiar criminal-justice policy of putting murderers like Willie Horton out on weekend furloughs.

Newsweek also ordered a poll asking Americans what they thought of Mr. Bush's 30-day stay for Ricky McGinn, who was convicted of raping and murdering his stepdaughter. The magazine reported 59 percent thought Mr. Bush's move was for political reasons. This kind of coverage underlines the unfairness of such questions: Is it really fair to ask the American people for an instant-poll judgment on murder cases that have been through 15 years or more of the judicial process? Are poll respondents qualified to comment, for example on the McGinn case, without being sequestered for a few weeks, like the supposedly unjust jurors were, and forced to confront all the matters of evidence?

In focusing on the potential innocence of convicted killers, journalists project their sympathy for the accused, but their victims never had the privilege of having a Nightline or a Good Morning America or a Newsweek cover story devoted to them before they were killed. In the process, the media threaten to make criminals like Graham sympathetic figures-"that poor man," repeated NBC star Geraldo Rivera. On MSNBC, Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Mr. Bush to Pontius Pilate, and Gary Graham to Jesus: "Pontius Pilate knew that the thief and the robber were guilty. He was not sure whether Jesus was or not, so he said 'Well, let me check with the polls. Let me ask the crowds.' and they said 'Crucify him.'"

But was the press uniformly anti-Bush? Al Gore, too, received plenty of unwelcome publicity on the night of the Graham execution. Robert Conrad, the latest man appointed to oversee the Justice Department's investigation of Democratic fundraising in 1996, recommended to Attorney General Janet Reno that a special counsel should investigate Al Gore (see "Classic Clintonism," page 22). The week before, Mr. Gore switched campaign chairmen from Tony Coelho to William Daley.

But here's the difference: Journalists had no role in generating the Gore news. They made no public attempt to suggest to Mr. Gore that Mr. Coelho must be replaced. They certainly never pressured the Justice Department to act against Mr. Gore. Mr. Conrad's finding relied on Mr. Gore's answers in April to the very first Justice Department questions to the vice president about his role in an illegal 1996 fundraiser at a Buddhist temple. Ironically, if reporters had pressured Janet Reno for an independent investigation in 1996 or 1997, these questions might have been answered long before this presidential campaign began.


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