Watching them die

By Joel Thurtell 

I should have been stunned by today’s (October 21, 2009)  New York Times report about a journalist’s attempt at “objectivity” in the face of calculated killing, but I wasn’t. Thirty or so years working in the news industry have trained me to expect this kind of media cant.

Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk has covered something like 300 executions in Texas, witnessing the killing of convicted criminals, then rushing to write a story that will be published, or maybe not, by members of The AP.

The reporter claims that watching a human being die at the hands of state officials does not affect him emotionally.

Or rather, he’s not going to admit to us that he feels anything about the killing that he witnesses.

“My job,” Graczyk told the Times, “Is to tell a story and tell what’s going on, and if I tell you that I get emotional on one side or another, I open myself to criticism.”

If I tell you that I get emotional…

He hasn’t quite said that he doesn’t have feelings about what he’s seeing.

If I tell you that I get emotional…

It’s a disingenuous remark, meant to shield him from the flak that some journalists and journalism critics would fire at him if he acknowledged that he felt something at the sight and sound of a human being put to death.

If I tell you that I get emotional…

He can’t win with this argument, because if it turns out that he DOES have emotions that he’s hiding, then he’s suppressing a signficant part of the story.

If it turns out that Graczyk DOES NOT have feelings about a fellow creature’s state-sponsored killing, then I wonder what kind of human being Graczyk is.

If I tell you that I get emotional…

He’s opened himself up to criticism either way by suggesting that he may be sanitizing his reports.

Why should not the reporter’s emotional reaction be part of the story?

Would he feel more emotions if, instead of injecting drugs into the victim, the state would have a black-hooded muscle man chop off his or her head with an ax?

Mow them down with a machine gun?

Slice off their heads with a guillotine?

Hoist them by the neck with a rope?

Pull them apart with a quartet of horses?

Wind their intestines out?

If I tell you that I get emotional…

Maybe it’s the seeming inanity of the means of killing by lethal injection of a cocktail of potent sedative and muscle-relaxing drugs that robs judicial murder of its drama. It allows Graczyk to pretend he’s some kind of reporting machine, akin to the mechanism the government uses to off its victims.  Does Graczyk think he’s an editorial robot feeding facts, just the facts, to his AP customers?

Ah yes, the chimera of objectivity, dear to so many journalists.

The act of killing in Texas and many other states has been sanitized. It has been rendered nearly painless, physically at least, to the condemned person. But lethal injection apparently has less horror for newspaper readers than, say, disemboweling, decapitating, strangling, shooting, gassing or electrocuting a person.

If I tell you that I get emotional…

“The act is very clinical, almost anticlimactic,” according to Graczyk in the Times. “When we get into the chamber here in Texas, the inmate has already been strapped to the gurney and the needle is already in his arm.”

Spectators can hear as well as see through a plexiglass window, and what they mostly hear is snoring, because the inmate has been knocked out by that cocktail of drugs.

But there is a hint that Graczyk has some feelings, after all.

Before the drugs are allowed to run into the victim’s arm, he is given a chance to speak. Once, an inmate sang “Silent Night,” and Graczyk reports that “I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.”

Oops. I think he just opened himself to the criticism he says he doesn’t want if he tells us he gets emotional. It’s not exactly a window into his feelings. More like a moral squint hole.

Still, that “Silent Night” memory, the fact that it won’t go away, shows that the reporter has feelings, after all, even if he won’t willingly admit it.

Too bad he doesn’t believe he can reflect those feelings in his reports.

To be fair, his AP editors and their news media patrons would chastize the hell out of him if they caught a whiff of Graczyk’s feelings.

But at least we know he has not abandoned his humanity.

He does, after all, have feelings for the people whose deaths he tries so antiseptically to report.

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3 Responses to Watching them die

  1. Alan Stamm says:

    So how you *really* feel about the death penalty, Joel? Too bad you never were an editorial writer.

    I also oppose “state-sponsored killing” and sure would dislike Mike Graczyk’s beat. But more than 30 years of working in the news industry lead me to respect, rather than reject, the professionalism of someone who know “my job is to tell a story and tell what’s going on” without injecting personal emotions.

    C’mon now, Joel – – You know he’s a wire guy, not a columnnist, blogger or op-ed writer.

    You want he should try to slip in phrases such as “the agonizing process was difficult to watch” or “the barbarism began at 12:01 a.m.” or what exactly? As you acknowledge, any semi-awake bureau editor would delete that reflexively.

    Do I think it’s easy for him to file, roll home and drift right off to undisturbed sleep? Likely not, I imagine.

    Should he have asked long ago for a reprieve from this ghoulish assignment? I sure would have.

    But I also think “this kind of media cant” about so-called objectivity (unachievable by anyone who creates POV, selects words and determines length, I agree) is NOT what should get you banging the keyboard about The Times’ piece.

    Instead of feeling sorry for a 59-year-old AP lifer who sets aside personal feelings to write “antiseptically,” how ’bout a line of regret — in italics or not — about these reminders of Journalism 2009 in the same article:

    “Of all the consequences of shrinking newsrooms, one of the oddest is this: Fewer journalists are available to watch people die.

    “. . . ‘Our staff is half the size it was three years ago, and so it’s just much more difficult to send somebody,’ said Jim Witt, executive editor of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.”

    Focusing on pitfalls of emotion-stripped reporting in this era seems like commenting on the Titanic’s oddly patterned carpets.

    But this essay is more about “calculated killing” than an injured industry, right?

  2. Alan Stamm says:

    [ P. S. . . . cont. from above ]

    I hope you agree this is a discussion worth having, because I’m genuinely interested in hearing why you feel a reporter’s emotional reaction to what he sees — at an execution or presumably on other assignments — is “a significant part of the story” that shouldn’t be suppressed.

    I ask sincerely, Joel, because after dabbling in New Journalism at The Daily Orange (Syracuse U.), I largely came around (swallowed the Kool-Aid, if you prefer) to believing readers of straight news reports are better-served by copy that’s as free as objectively possible — never 100% — of writers’ emotions.

    Naturally, most ‘objective’ journalism reflects the education, experiences, belief systems, prejudices and overall life experiences of the writer and editors. We’re not robots. (Just treated that way by management — there we agree.)

    Could I cover a convention of faith healers or UFO believers without skepticism or snark? Not without extra effort, which is what I’d apply unless I were a columnist, blogger or editorial writer.

    What about a more common example: A legislative hearing, court case or protest involving the abortion issue?

    “Why should not the reporter’s emotional reaction be part of the story?” you ask in the context of executions. Why should they, I ask in that context and the other examples offered.

    My basic question is: “If it turns out he DOES have emotions that he’s hiding,” why would Mike Graczyk be “suppressing a significant part of the story”?

  3. Javan Kienzle says:

    I’m caught in the middle on this one. I’m against capital punishment (although I’m willing to make an exception for people who don’t return borrowed books), but I wonder where one draws the line at “neutral” or “balanced” or “uninvolved” or “objective” reporting. How could one write an “objective” report at seeing the result of Hitler’s death camps? How could one write an “objective” report at seeing the remains of a lynch victim’s mutilated and charred body dangling from a tree? How could one write an “objective” report at seeing the body of a child who has been tortured and raped? How could one write an “objective” report at seeing the remains of the dogs maimed and killed by Michael Vick?

    On the other hand, I recall reading a book that made me angry because of the author’s noninvolvement. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I realized that it was his very UNinvolvement that drew me in and resulted in my own involvement.

    Maybe this is one of those instances that can’t be 100% black and white; perhaps there IS a grey area and in that area one reporter will operate in one manner and another in a totally different manner.

    If I had to choose one or the other, I think I would prefer that a reporter be involved and show his involvement — whether it be sympathy, empathy, disgust, approbation, enjoyment — or just the ability to say “This is a bunch of baloney.”

    Too much “objectivity” from the news media leads to too many public figures getting away with figurative and literal murder.

    But there is at lease one caveat: Just as the Church talks about making decisions based on an “educated conscience,” I’d like to see journalists cover and report a story based on some knowledge of their subject. And that becomes evermore problematical with the prevalence of Journalism degrees as opposed to Liberal Arts degrees. They write as if they’re robots engaging in mechanical sex rather than human beings who are engaging in loving intercourse.

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