Last week television networks engaged in the biannual battle for ratings called sweep week. It is common practice for networks to air outrageous programming to seize the public’s attention for one week. On November 23, the CBS program “60 Minutes” featured a videotape of Dr. Jack Kevorkian fatally injecting Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old Michigan resident who suffered from Lou Gherig’s disease. In an atrocious demonstration of bad taste and pandering to the masses, CBS stepped over the line, sensationalizing the death of a human being and validating a fringe spokesman for euthanasia merely to generate ratings.
The explicit tape showed Kevorkian kill Youk of Waterford, Mich., by administering three injections. In a previously recorded videotape, which was also aired, Kevorkian explained to Youk what the procedure would be and received Youk’s written consent. Following the video Mike Wallace, the host of “60 Minutes,” interviewed Kevorkian. During that interview Kevorkian stated that the broadcast of Youk’s death at the hands of Kevorkian was meant to tempt the government into making a statement about euthanasia by either arresting him or leaving him alone.
CBS should not have allowed its Sunday news digest to be used by such a fanatical person as a forum to speak out against Michigan’s laws regarding euthanasia. While euthanasia is certainly a worthy topic for a show like “60 Minutes,” its producers chose the wrong person to represent the issue. The show crossed an ethical line when it broadcast Kevorkian’s videotape, knowingly turning death into entertainment. This is not the first time that death has been shown on television. In December 1994 ABC’s “Primetime Live” showed segments of a Dutch television documentary, “Death on Request,” which contained the death of a consenting individual who was suffering without hope of a cure. This precedent hardly makes CBS’s decision to follow suit any more palatable and at the least makes it redundant.
The producers of “60 Minutes” chose to use a fanatical euthanasia frontman to discuss the practice’s place in today’s society. Kevorkian lost his license to practice medicine. He has already been acquitted in three earlier trials for assisting individuals committing suicide, and has claimed that if he were tried and convicted, he would go on a hunger strike as he did in 1993. Kevorkian relayed his message through the Oakland Press after the Sunday broadcast, “Either charge me within a week or I will resume my practice and I will resist with all my power any attempt to arrest or hinder me.” He went on to say, “They must charge me because if they do not, that means they don’t think it was a crime.”
Kevorkian took advantage of CBS’s desire for ratings by continuing his pattern of extreme behavior, all in the name of a cause which is best discussed with decorum and rationality. Sadly, CBS did not agree and its viewers had to suffer.
Rather than choosing to discuss the topic of euthanasia in such an extreme light, “60 Minutes” should have resisted the sweep week temptation and handled the topic more academically. Licensed doctors and ethicists with logical arguments would have led to a better informed and less insulting program than the one which featured a fanatic and his home videos.