Engaged, warm and thoughtful: The Jack Kevorkian I know

wallacebradyA week ago I strongly criticized the tongue bath interview that 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace had with Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian was just released from prison for the murder of one of the 130 people whose lives he ended or helped to end.

I believe my words might have been “disgusting and scandalous.” The interview was really that bad.

Some readers got mad at me for harshing on the old man, but I stand by it, particularly since biased and puffy interviews such as Wallace’s make people think the entire mainstream media establishment is rotten. If I may quote Spider-man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or if I may quote Jesus completely out of context (everyone else does!), “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”

So reader Matt notified us of an interesting letter to the editor in the June 10 New York Times. Matt wrote:

For the record, Wallace forsook even the pretence of objectivity in a 10 June letter to the NYT, responding to the NYT’s 5 June editorial criticizing Kevorkian’s actions as counter-productive for the assisted suicide movement. Wallace wants us all to know that Kevorkian speaks Japanese and plays the flute. And though he will refrain from assisted suicides in the future, in compliance with his parole, spokesman Wallace assures us that Kevorkian will continue to advocate for changes in the laws. I’m sure we are all relieved and inspired.

I cannot imagine responding to an editorial by taking sides on an issue or person I’m actively covering. I mean, maybe if I was correcting a factual error, but not for a completely compromising personal defense. Here is the letter written by mainstream media journalist Mike Wallace:

Your June 5 editorial about Jack Kevorkian calls him “deluded and unrepentant.” I disagree.

The Jack Kevorkian I know is a warm, engaged, thoughtful and compassionate individual who speaks Japanese, plays the flute, reads voraciously and is of academic bent. His lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan to commute his long sentence because he was in such bad physical shape.

He was down to a weight of 113 pounds at one point, had to endure waist and leg shackles whenever he was moved around, which resulted in an injury, and was prevented from speaking to the press about his incarceration.

He is a free man now, but must report regularly to his parole officer. He has promised not to assist in any further suicides. He is 79 years old and is being treated for problems with his liver.

In a letter to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist back in September 2000, Mr. Kevorkian wrote, “Today, more than half of all American physicians and an overwhelming majority of the public favor the decriminalization of euthanasia, and a significant number of physicians admit to performing it furtively.”

Mr. Kevorkian, as a condition of his current parole, can no longer evangelize, as he used to, on the subject of euthanasia, but he is permitted to speak out for its legalization. He has told me he intends to do just that.

As I said in the original post: It’s really hard to see why some people think the media are biased on human life issues, isn’t it? Any such personal advocacy as that engaged in by Mike Wallace or The New York TimesLinda Greenhouse is unethical (or would be if journalists had ethical standards to which we were held accountable). But it’s also interesting that the advocacy seems to point in one direction a bit more than another. Or, to be precise, compare the outrage the mainstream media expressed over the unimportant and unread Jeff Gannon’s puffy questions to George W. Bush and the complete radio silence over Wallace and limited and ineffectual discussion of Greenhouse.

Photo of Mike Wallace speaking at a Brady event fundraiser.

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  • jquinby

    If I may quote Superman…

    I think you mean Spiderman.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m so embarrassed. . .
    Fixed. Thanks!

  • Larry Rasczak


    While you are indeed correct in what you say… it’s not worth adding two points to your blood pressure. Most sentient beings have known CBS was untrustworthy and reprehensible since Nguyen Van Thieu was in office.

    The same is true for Bill Moyers, though “self important” and “holier than thou” need to be added to properly describe him.

    Considering that this has been going on for a while now, in spite of well reasoned criticisim (like your own) and an audience share that has gone down like Titanic, they don’t seem interested in, or even able to, change.

    Think about this. Ms. Couric’s audience is something like 5.5 million people, last I heard.

    If I did the math right that is 1/3 as many people as watched CBS back in 1967, even though the population has grown considerably since then.

    I couldn’t find good data so I rolled my own.

    Assume 195,000,000 population in 1967 (maybe a little high) Assume a 27 share for CBS News (maybe a little high). Assume 1/3 of the population was watching TV news (maybe a little low, to correct for the possibility of being high on the other two). That comes in at 15.795 million viewers.

    So at a rough ballpark number, “Uncle Walter” had roughly 3x as many viewers as Ms.Couric does today, even though the US population hit 300,000,000 a few years ago.

    (Moyers audience is probably even smaller than that.)

    The loss of credibilty has hit them hard… yet they still don’t want to change.

    Which leads me to the conclusion that this problem is rapidly solving itself.

    A cynic would say that at least on the issue of assisted suicide CBS is walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

  • Michael

    I assume you would have included in your list of ethics violators Tony Snow, who subbed for Rush Limbaugh, while also heading Fox News Sunday. And would you include Brit Hume for an ethical lashing for his public and on-air support for conservative causes. Or how about CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who testified in Congress against immigration. Because this is a two-way street.

    I agree that journalists should be careful about supporting and advocating causes. But this is not a “liberal” problem as much as it is a journalism problem. And it’s important to look at how it influences how the cover the news. Hume is consistently praised for being balance–in fact, I think he’s gotten that praise on this blog–although I have a hard to seeing it. On the same token, Greenhouse is consistently praised for her balance, despite complaints from some in your camp.

    There’s no question advocacy has affected Dobb’s coverage and, arguably, Wallace’s. And Snow is now flaking for the president, so its clear that his advocacy affected his coverage because he wouldn’t be where he was if it hadn’t.

  • Michael


    While CBS ratings for the news are bad, the rating for 60 Minutes aren’t. And Wallace works for 60 Minutes, not CBS News. There appears to be no credibility gap when it comes to Wallace. The same could be said for the very popular Fox News, which has high ratings despite acting like the house broadcaster for the White House and the conservative movement.

    In some ways, that’s the problem. When people rely on blogs and other biased forms of media, they are less sensitized when bias occurs in “neutral” media. Thus, Fox–and 60 Minutes–are successful despite the impression of being biased.

  • Andy

    It’s a return to the old norm. Used to be towns had a Republican paper and a Democratic paper, now we have CNN & the networks on one hand and Fox on the other. While I still (naively?) hope that both sides will refrain from outright lies I’m not at all surprised if either one ignores that which doesn’t pander to their bias.

  • Martha

    Do these journalists believe they are being objective? I’d like to know, if they are covering a story about something they feel strongly either for or against, do they consider that they can cover it without bias, or do they accept that they will be biased, but maintain that they are acting as an advocate, which they are entitled to do?

    I would say, if you want to do it as a private citizen, go ahead and campaign for Cheeseburgers For Cats. But the minute you start using your slot in the paper (I’m excepting columnists, because everyone expects them to have a hobbyhorse) to either push for Cheeseburgers For Cats, or writing up a puff piece about the group Feline Cheeseburgers Now!, or give us an impassioned article denouncing Joe’s Burger Joint because of their irrational prejudice against serving cats, then you should hang up your hat.

    That goes double for those who have radio and/or TV programmes.

    Beams and motes: if you can spy an advocate of Tortillas For Dogs at ten paces and regularly decry their insidious infiltration of the public square where they poison the wells of discourse by their PR campaigns thinly-disguised as ‘pushing for reforms in the law’, then you should know when you’re doing unpaid PR for your pet cause.

  • http://blog.tellthegoodnews.org Lincoln Winter

    Mitch Albom has a much better report on an interview with Dr. Death. I find it interesting that, although Mr. Albom seems sympathetic to the idea of suicide, he comes to the conclusion that Dr. Kevorkian is simply frightening.


  • Don Neuendorf

    Life issues seem to be reported only at the surface – about how people feel – the pathos of the last illness – that sort of thing. Mainstream press provides little analysis in depth. It was big local news around here when Dr. K. was busily practicing his craft, but even in Michigan I never saw a story that dug into his earlier published views. Nothing that explained what Kevorkian was really about. The debate was all about “compassion” in dying. But is that what really motivated Kevorkian?

    In a 1986 article in Medicine and Law he wrote this…

    The so-called Nuremberg Code and all its derivatives completely ignore the extraordinary opportunities for terminal experimentation on humans facing imminent and inevitable death…[including] the extraction of medical benefit from the process of judicial execution from those dying of irremediable illness or trauma and from suicide mandated by inflexible religious or philosophical principles or by irrevocable personal choice. Other potential subjects include comatose, brain dead, or totally incapacitated individuals as well as live fetuses in or out of the womb.

    That makes things look rather different, doesn’t it? Kevorkian the pathologist was really interested in experimenting on people. Best article I’ve read about the doctor is here. If this were part of the debate on life issues, then we’d leave the more emotional ground and get back to what “assisted suicide” really means. Making people die.

  • Hans


    As a tireless advocate for Cheeseburgers for Cats, I don’t appreciate your glib tone.

  • Jerry

    Given the massive change since the 1950-1960′s to the media, to conclude that the loss of viewers on CBS is due to perceived bias is just wrong. I’m not denying that there is rampant bias on both sides in the media today, but that bias is from both sides from the “Fair and Balanced” FOX network on the right to the networks on the left.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Given the massive change since the 1950-1960’s to the media, to conclude that the loss of viewers on CBS is due to perceived bias is just wrong.”

    I have to disagree Jerry.

    True there are now more alternative sources for news now than the Big 3 networks, but the reason those alternative sources exist is that people were dissatisfied with the Big 3, and I submit that a long history of Bias is the reason for that dissatisfaction.

    CBS/NBC/ABC could get away with bias in the period when there were just 3 networks, there was no alternative… it was like the Monty Python SPAM sketch …just as there was no way to get a meal witout spam in it, there was no way to get TV news that wasn’t biased.

    One might make a case that CNN took off because it offered news that was on at more convienent times, one did not have to wait till 5:30 to see the news, you could catch it when you wanted to. Still their piece on OPERATION TAILWIND doesn’t stand out as a bastion of well researched and unbaised reporting.

    But Talk Radio, and Fox bloomed because of the fact most people west of the Hudson and South of the Patomic don’t like left wing bais of the news. Finally there was a way to get your eggs without SPAM in them, and the vast majority of people (who were throughly sick of having spam forced down their throats) flocked to it.

    Sure the day of the default 20 share are over, but to blame it on “change in media” is like the Detroit automakers blaming Japan for their decline in sales. Detroit lost marketshare dominance because they grew over confident of their dominance and produced crappy cars; when an better alternative appeared in the form of imports, people went for it. Similarly the dinosaur networks (and their dinosaur executives) grew overconfident in their dominance, and produced (and still produce) the quality of news one normally expects from such fine publications as Grandma, Isvestia, Pravda, The People’s Daily, and Signal. When an alternative appeared, people flocked to it.

    But it is not the meer presence of alternatives that is to blame, it is the superior quality of the alternatives that is the killer. (Despite the myraid of alternatives the best selling ice cream flavor in America is still Vanilla.)

    If Detroit built cars that satisfied consumer demand as well as the Japanese cars do, there would be more American made cars on our roads, regarless of competition. Similarly if CBS made a newscast that wasn’t biased and condecending, they would have more viewers.

  • Dennis Colby

    I always thought Wallace went soft on his friends; his interviews with Nancy Reagan struck me as fawning. Anyway, here’s the transcript of an interview from 2005 where he’s asked precisely about this – how do you cover your friends? – and he says, “Reporting comes first.” Interesting, in light of the Kevorkian stuff.


  • Carl

    It’s “Spider-Man” not “Spiderman.” ;-)

  • Dale

    Lincoln linked to Mitch Albom’s column about Kevorkian, and I thought this quote was particularly good:

    [Kevorkian] quoted famous people saying they wouldn’t bring babies into this world. When I said that would wipe out mankind, he said, “What’s wrong with that?”

    My impression of Kevorkian is that it doesn’t take much to get him to say things like this–unless, of course, you’re the huggable Mike Wallace.

  • Jess

    A couple of people are quoting the column Mitch Albom wrote about Jack Kevorkian. The quotes that Mr. Albom uses in his article take place within a context of the radio show interview Mr. Albom did with Dr. Kevorkian. In order to fully understand these quotes you need to hear both sides of the story.

    The interview can be heard on Mitch Albom’s Show site at: http://www.mitchalbomradio.com/default.asp

    The interview was titled “Dr. DEATH MITCH confronts
    JACK KEVORKIAN” It is in 2 parts. When you reach the site scroll down and you will see it half way down the page.

    During the interview I would say both the interviewer, Mr. Albom, and his interviewee, Dr. Kevorkian, seemed to engage in heated disagreements. Both parties raised their voices at points, talked over each other, and clearly after hearing it first hand I felt Dr. Kevorkian was misrepresented in Mr. Albom’s column. Regardless of whether or not you agree or disagree with Dr. Kevorkian’s beliefs or actions when you hear the interview and then read Mr. Albom’s column you wonder if “fair and balanced” reporting exists at all?

  • David

    I think Andy (#6) has hit it on the head. The “neutral” media is largely a way to sell more newspapers. It developed because a “neutral” paper can sell to Republicans and Democrats, effectively doubling its potential audience. It’s been that way for a few generations, so we’ve come to believe it’s always been that way, and any deviation from that ideal is somehow bad.

    I disagree with that. Fox News has to call itself “Fair and Balanced” for marketing reasons, I suppose. But everyone knows they’re not. The difference between Tony Snow and, say, Mike Wallace, is that everyone knows Tony Snow is a conservative, and he’s never tried to pretend otherwise. Brit Hume’s the same way. When he was covering the White House, he got a lot of flak about the fact that he admitted being a conservative. He believed that announcing his political viewpoint would make his reporting more reliable, not less. I happen to agree with him. We can judge a report’s credibility much more reliably when we know some of the presuppositions behind the reporting.

    Reporting would be far more useful if we would ditch our ideal of “neutrality,” and replace it with an ideal of “disclosure.”

  • Dale

    clearly after hearing it first hand I felt Dr. Kevorkian was misrepresented in Mr. Albom’s column.

    On the contrary, I think Albom’s column is an accurate description of Kevorkian. If anything, he downplayed Kevorkian’s arrogance. Kevorkian treated most of Albom’s questions as if they were stupid, often stating his own position and then saying “you know that!”, as if every rational person came to the same conclusion Kevorkian had drawn.

    His contempt for religious people is crystal clear, along with nearly everybody else in the human race. The context of the radio interview highlights his misanthropy; it doesn’t explain it away.

    He claims to be able to know whether a person is depressed or not by just talking to them, even when he has no formal training as a psychiatrist–and most psychiatrists know better than to be so cavalier and self-confident, especially when someone’s life is at stake.

    Wallace completely failed as a journalist covering this story. Albom faired better in the interview than I could manage. I would have lost my temper at Kevorkian’s condescension much sooner.

  • Kyralessa

    Reading that letter to the editor, I’m reminding of the opening of _How to Win Friends and Influence People_, which pointed out that even notorious criminals thought of themselves as people who performed public service.