Saturday, November 28, 2009

Death be not public.

A few months back, Katie Couric did a story on stalkers. The narrative quickly honed in on a particularly tragic incident. A young woman was being harassed, followed and spied upon for months by a man she barely knew. He ultimately tracked her to her apartment. The poor girl managed to get away and was running down the street, screaming into her cell phone for the 911 operator to send help, when the stalker chased her down and shot her dead.

A horrible incident, made all the more grizzly by CBS' decision to play the 911 tape. You could hear the panic in the poor girl's voice, and then a shriek, and the sound of gunfire. The senseless, violent death of a private citizen, forever frozen on tape and made public for our evening's entertainment. I felt my stomach contract against my spine. The tape was shocking and literally made me nauseous. It didn't take me long to conclude that the network's decision to air that 911 call was sickening as well.

Prominent in the news these days is the Toyota recall. The issue is a floor mat, prosaic but deadly. It can get wedged under the accelerator, which then jams in the floored position. The car hurtles ahead at high speed and the brake can't override it (an additional problem, this one apparently electronic - way to go, Toyota). Several people lost their lives in separate incidents, including an entire family. As their car hurtled down the highway, they too called 911. On the tape, you can hear the dad yell that he can't stop the car. His wife and child wail in terror as he shouts for them to pray – they're coming to an intersection. And then you hear the family cry out and moan as they crash, and presumably, die. I know this, of course, because CBS played it for us.

I'm all for freedom of the press. Sometimes, graphic evidence is necessary to get a story across. Sometimes, the evidence is the story, as in the cell phone-captured footage of the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman killed by government thugs in Tehran. The video exposes the criminal excesses of a regime interested primarily in perpetuating itself, at the expense of whomever. The Neda video is gut-wrenching, but it's news, as is the fact that Neda has become a symbol and martyr for the Iranian political opposition.

In the case of both the stalker victim and Toyota accelerator tragedy, the graphic audio is not essential to getting the story across. The stalker story is a feature, conceived, compiled and edited at the network's discretion. There was no competing news outlet waiting to scoop CBS and play that 911 call first. The network made a supremely tacky choice to treat the public to a little snuff audio. The Toyota recall is a major story that affects Toyota and Lexus owners all over the country (including yours truly - I am yanking that lethal floor mat out of my Prius, pronto). The fact that there were fatalities is relevant to the news story. The graphic final moments of the ill-fated family are not. What if you were a friend or relative of one of the victims? Would you want to hear your loved one's final moments on the national news?

People should be informed that their car could potentially kill them. Women need to learn how to protect themselves against stalkers. But I fail to see what the airing of these tragic 911 tapes contributes to the public's infamous "right to know". And I am sorry that the stalker victim, the desperate father and his family have had their right to privacy violated from beyond the grave.

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