Criticism of the Public Radio Special: The Execution Tapes
May 5, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So far we have no hard evidence to guide us in predicting what the impact might be. The only American experience to date occurred this week with the radio broadcast of the execution tapes. The reaction has been passionate on both sides. One critic who strongly opposed the broadcast is Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Mr. Felling what is your general objection to the broadcast of executions either on television or radio?
MATTHEW FELLING: My first problem was one of an agenda. As much as the producer may have been quoted in the New York Times as saying that this was not a program designed for or against capital punishment, the only reason that these tapes are available is, is because of a - an enormous opponent of the death penalty in Georgia fought to have them released.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how relevant is the source? Isn't it really the impact that we should be assessing here?
MATTHEW FELLING:Well the impact is quote "bringing about a dialogue." Bringing about a dialogue only occurs when someone is unhappy with the, with the current status of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Leaving motives aside for a moment, what are your objections to the broadcast of executions either on television or radio?
MATTHEW FELLING:Mm-hm. Well I believe that the first thing that someone convicted of a capital offense should forsake is to become a political icon or a martyr. Broadcasting these tapes, whether it's audio or television contributes to this as you focus solely upon the death of the criminal and all the detail given to the death walk and the strapping and the mask over his head. You almost completely ignore the crime committed by this person!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you have been more satisfied with our broadcast if it had included a story about the victims?
MATTHEW FELLING:I think that WNYC broadcast this topic as responsibly as possible, but the problem we see occurred within the same evening. You did depict the victims' fates and then later on that night on television these same tapes were simulcast, and the victims' fates were by and large omitted. The only brief mention of them was what the condemned was sentenced for and those details in terms of telling the story of crime and punishment, that's the entire first half.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is your principal argument then that in the hands of less responsible media these tapes would be ill-used?
MATTHEW FELLING: Yes. It's where this could lead. What's to stop broadcast television, commercial television from using this as a precedent?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Should responsible news organizations be held hostage to the actions, the potential actions of irresponsible news organizations?
MATTHEW FELLING:I believe that journalism should not be dictated by the habits of the lowest common denominator, but I don't think we need to - to go so far as to show the graphic nature, even if it's radio broadcast, it's still quite graphic - we don't need to go that far. Press is always represented, and if you want to know the last words of the condemned, you can always read up on that, and that's the main purpose of the media, to, to serve as a conduit -- not to eliminate itself and allow people to see what they are supposed to be covering.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Felling, thank you very much.
MATTHEW FELLING: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Felling is the media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.