In the same week that NBC News devoted three hours of prime-time television to a study of violence in America, a federal judge in Dallas issued an order giving permission for television cameramen to be present at executions at the Texas state prison in Huntsville.
The fact that the order by U.S. District Court Judge William Taylor and the NBC News special came within two days of each other was coincidental. But it should give the people in television news, national and local, something to think about in terms of the conflict between their obligation to report the news versus the accusation, rightly or wrongly, of doing nothing more than pandering to a certain appetite in this country for vicarious violence.
But I find myself having difficulty with the question of whether to allow pictures at an execution to be shown over television screens, not simply when children may be watching, but the rest of us as well.
If I were running a network or local news department, I would not permit such footage to be shown. But I say this without necessarily impugning the judgments of others who might disagree with me.
Some with an opinion contrary to mine would argue that an execution is news, just as the war in Vietnam was news, the war in Lebanon, a stakeout by police who are attempting to capture a kidnapper who has hostages in a house or a terrorist trying to hijack a commercial jet.
We watched terrorism unfold at Munich. If live cameras had been present at Entebbe and could have been fed on a live satellite back to the United States, my guess is that every television network and every local station would have shown the brief battle.
There is a question other than one of news judgment. Some would argue that the very film scene of a murderer being executed would act as a powerful deterrent to crime. I have trouble with that reasoning for no other reason than my uncertainty - shared by others - about what does or does not deter criminal acts.
Then there is another argument with a certain perverse logic behind it. Since the Gallup Poll tells us that at present 65 per cent of the public favors the death penalty - its strongest level of support since 1953 - those who favor its application should not be denied the right to witness the ultimate act of their philosophy. Perhaps their support would waver, even weaken. Perhaps support for the death penalty would go up. But surely the public would not be denied "its right to know."
But what of the person who is being executed? We think of convicted felons, both in law and in custom, as being without rights. But surely he or she has a right, surely his family has the right, for the person being executed to die in a private way.
It is true that reporters have been present at executions in years past. Is the barring of film or television cameras then a form of discrimination against electronic journalism? My judgment is that it is not. There is a great difference between an execution being witnessed by a few reporters and it being viewed by a nation of eyewitnesses.