It's the kind of story media organizations love: dramatic, historic -- and utterly planned and packaged.
The execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh next Wednesday is destined to be the most broadly covered instance of capital punishment in modern history. Some 1,600 print and electronic journalists have applied for permission to enter the federal prison outside Terre Haute, Ind., where McVeigh will be put to death. When prison officials give McVeigh a series of lethal injections at 8 a.m. Eastern time, eight TV networks will be on location.
They won't be able to show the very thing they are reporting about: Federal officials have barred the media from broadcasting any image of McVeigh's final moments (instead, they'll permit the media to pick 10 eyewitnesses). But the rest will be ritual. From press briefings by prison authorities to interviews with the bombing victims' relatives to scenes of protesters, McVeigh's execution is becoming a chronicle of a death foretold.
News organizations, including The Washington Post, have been planning their coverage for weeks. In addition to the hundreds of media types who will assemble before dawn in Terre Haute, a similar number will be stationed in Oklahoma City for interviews with relatives of the 168 bombing victims.
The media pack recording McVeigh's death will be about half the size of the one that covered the Olympic Games in Sydney last summer.
The Washington Post will send three reporters to Indiana and one to Oklahoma City; the New York Times says it will have five or six reporters and photographers on the story. The Tribune-Star of Terre Haute says it will put out an extra edition the day of the execution. Its lead reporter, Karin Grunden, will be an eyewitness.
The federal Bureau of Prisons, which is taking McVeigh's life, is in charge of corralling the media. The reporters will be stationed in tents and will be able to get around the sprawling complex in hired golf carts, but they won't even be able to see the building in which McVeigh will die.
News executives insist their coverage will be devoid of theatrics. They promise, for example, to respect the privacy of the victims' families. About 300 family members have elected to view McVeigh's execution via closed-circuit TV, but it's not clear how many will speak to the media afterwards. Several networks have already made "exclusive" arrangements with victims' relatives.
"We haven't had any meetings to talk about this, but obviously we'll have a solemn tone," says Thom Bird, who is directing coverage for Fox News Channel. "It's a grave situation and a grave story."
"What we really want to do is to serve witness to what is happening," says Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News. "You record what is visible ... which won't be a great deal."
Nevertheless, the networks have already released extensive schedules of execution programming, which will extend from early morning to prime time.
Since the execution will occur during the morning, viewers will see the usual morning news "hosts" anchoring the event. CBS will have "Early Show" star Bryant Gumbel on location. NBC and ABC have chosen to emphasize the victims' stories; "Today" co-host Katie Couric will be stationed in Oklahoma City for NBC, as will Charles Gibson, half of ABC's "Good Morning America" team. Barring unforeseen circumstances, their coverage will end about an hour after the execution.
The cable networks -- Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and Court TV -- will stick with the story throughout the day, and for several days before it. CNN, which has committed about 50 people to the story, will carry all official news conferences live, including one eight hours before the event. It also will cover the opening of the official protest area, starting at 1 a.m. Wednesday.
"On one level, it is a predictable story," said Erik Sorenson, vice president and general manager of MSNBC. But he adds, "there's also some suspense." He noted that McVeigh, who has waived all appeals, has the legal right to change his mind until an hour before he is scheduled to die.
Media critic Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the "scripted" nature of the coverage will be justified if it reopens national debate on the death penalty. "The question is: Is this going to be an exercise in emotional manipulation -- talking about the victims and the heroes, revisiting the bombing -- without a lot of meat?" he said.
TV news executives have agreed not to air a tape of the actual execution if it somehow fell into their hands.
"We're not interested in that," said MSNBC's Sorenson. "We generally, in all circumstances, try to avoid showing human beings dying. That's not in the bounds of good taste."
That could change, he conceded, if a competitor aired such a tape first.
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