- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2001

The ABC news show "Prime Time Live" on March 29, a day that should live in television infamy, broadcast a show glorifying Oklahoma mass murderer Timothy McVeigh.

McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 for detonating a massive bomb, killing scores of innocent people outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The justification for the show´s subject was an equally irresponsible publishing of a book written by two reporters for the Buffalo News, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing." There has been other coverage on all the major networks as well as CNN, but the book (including a Newsweek excerpt) and ABC show have been the most irresponsible.

The "Prime Time Live" ("PTL") show was nearly undiluted by criticism of this profanely evil (a word not uttered on the show) killer of 168 people, including 19 children. The title of the show was "American Terrorist: In his Own Words," and the show, like the title, must have satisfied every existential wish the Oklahoma City killer had. Indeed, on the show the book´s authors admit McVeigh claims he had chosen the Murrah Building to bomb since "it offered the ideal photo and the potential for a high body count to ensure bigger headlines." Did it not occur to ABC, if not to the Boston Newswriters, that they were giving a mass killer exactly what he wanted?

Indeed, for literally less than one minute in the show Diane Sawyer discussed with Mr. Michel the issue of whether McVeigh was not "manipulating" him and ABC: "Don´t you become the agent of his purpose?" Mr. Michel´s answer: Without the interviews and book, there would have been "a gaping hole in America´s consciousness." An empty metaphor substitutes for a substantive answer when the embarrassing answer is simply "yes."

"PTL" and the book quote the Oklahoma City killer´s self-serving, but obscene and offensive, description of his act: The children killed were "collateral damage," and he has "no sympathy" for them. Of course not; why would a wholly evil individual feel remorse for a fully intended despicable act. And, further, why would the relatives of those killed and injured want his "sympathy" anyway?

For a full hour, "PTL" provided soft information and hard information regarding their protagonist which ill befit a national network´s obligations. In the soft category, they focused on McVeigh´s very attractive ex-girlfriend who had nothing but kind observations for the murderer. Other "human interest" tidbits were provided: McVeigh was bullied in his youth, and he "retreated into comics"; his sympathetic neighbor remembers McVeigh as "a sweet little boy"; and he thought of the song "Dirty for Dirty" by Bad Company as he fled the bombing. In the area of "hard news," ABC astonishingly and braggingly presented "details on exactly how McVeigh built the bomb."

Some important audiences recognize the recklessness of ABC and authors Michel and Herbeck. Many of the relatives of the bombing victims are scandalized by the book. Kathleen Treanor, mother of a 4-year-old who was killed by the bombing, said to its authors: "Thank you for making him a martyr," and the designated beneficiary of the book, the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Foundation deplores the book and refuses to accept proceeds from it. In addition, Wal-Mart announced it will not even sell the new book on McVeigh.

This is not a First Amendment issue; no one disputes the rights of the authors or the rest of the media to act irresponsibly. But nothing requires decent people to participate.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of communication at Towson University in Towson, Md.,and teaches Media Criticism.

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