Prime-time Death – Staff editorial

The debate about assisted suicide is highly emotional and contentious. Numerous states have dealt with the issue in their legislatures and courtrooms, and have presented the issue to voters in referenda. Around the nation, Jack Kevorkian – or “Dr. Death,” as his detractors call him – has become the symbol for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Sunday night, the assisted suicide debate moved to prime-time television. “60 Minutes” aired a story on a terminally ill patient who died with Kevorkian’s aid. The issue itself is no doubt newsworthy, but the assisted suicide was performed more than two months ago. CBS chose to air it only now during the November television sweeps season, making its motives for airing the story a bit suspicious.

Thomas Youk was 52 years old and suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. The videotape, which Kevorkian provided to the network, shows the doctor inserting a syringe into the man’s arm and administering an injection.

Prosecutors have brought charges against Kevorkian four times in recent years, but never gained a conviction. Kevorkian has helped more than 120 ill and dying patients take their own lives since 1990, according to published reports. But Youk’s death is the first time Kevorkian, who no longer has a license to practice medicine, has taken such an active role in one of his patients’ suicides.

Kevorkian has said he hopes showing the videotape on “60 Minutes” will force a fifth legal battle to settle the issue of assisted suicide in Michigan once and for all. Michigan voters earlier this month rejected a ballot referendum that would have legalized assisted suicide. He says his goal is to set a precedent, but if he is charged and convicted, he says he will starve himself to death in prison to make himself a martyr for the cause.

Kevorkian and “60 Minutes” are using each other for their mutual benefit – Kevorkian gets the national attention he constantly seeks; “60 Minutes” gets a flurry of media hype and high ratings.

But “60 Minutes” must ask itself a tough question: Is its decision to air the videotape simply reporting the news or is CBS creating it? If “60 Minutes” is covering the story just to grab ratings, it is exploiting the issue and not responsibly reporting it – a practice media organizations must avoid at all costs.

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