I’m not sure what combination of firing synapses tweaked this memory in my mind, but recently I was reminded of a particular TV-related controversy from the mid ’90s. This specific brouhaha stemmed from a petition from talk show host Phil Donahue and convicted murderer David Lawson to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and then the U.S. Supreme Court, to permit the videotaping and subsequent broadcasting of Lawson’s execution in North Carolina. Donahue had maintained that taping and airing the execution would be a form of public service, whereby viewers could finally have sufficient information, in watching the event, to make an informed decision about where they stood on capital punishment. Lawson had said that he’d wanted his death to serve as a deterrent to potential criminals.
Rather predictably, the petition was struck down, and Lawson perished in the gas chamber on June 15, 1994. Critics of the attempt cited obvious complaints -rather than being ‘objective journalism,’ they argued, Donahue et al were aiming to sway popular opinion against the death penalty. A smaller number of pundits argued that for some sick individuals, the prospect of getting their 15 minutes of fame via a TV feed of their execution might prove too good to pass up, and actually inspire crime.
Perhaps all of this popped into my head as the result of the recent controversy in Britain over the airing of UK reality TV fixture Jade Goody’s latest chapter in her young, televised life. The former Big Brother star who was told she had cervical cancer while cameras rolled has brought her life-and-death struggle to the public via a series of one-off documentaries on Living TV, with one special, Jade, pulling in a record audience for the channel of over 700,000 viewers. Her PR agent maintains the moment of her death will remain private.
Goody has been completely upfront about her reasons for allowing the cameras to follow her into this most painful part of her life. If she can bring some good to her immediate family (in the form of huge sums negotiated for print and broadcast rights) and help raise awareness of the disease in the process, so be it.
I think the thread that connects these two seemingly disparate events is how we, as media creators and participants, treat the dark stuff. In an era of webcams, blogs and up-to-the-minute Twitter updates, we’ve never been more able to document – and display – every aspect of our lives. And in a world where reality TV participants get vaulted into celebrity by allowing access to themselves, warts and all, such ‘living in public’ can be seen as laudable and lucrative. But how much do we need to see?
How the media deals with the darker side of life – particularly death – will continue to cause debate (as we saw with the airing of John Zaritsky’s The Suicide Tourist in England late last year). Even writing this piece, at a time when Goody’s health is deteriorating, feels macabre. But in documenting real life, television does venture into uncomfortable territory, with different parameters for different cases. Hopefully, even in an age in which everything is on display, it’ll still be done with compassion and care.
Addendum: Jane Goody passed away on Mar. 22, 2009. Her funeral at St. John the Baptist Church in Buckhurst Hill attracted hundreds of fans, who were able to watch the service via a large-screen television set up on the roadside. Her publicist, Max Clifford, told Newsday that he is in discussions with three separate companies about a Jane Goody film.