TV ETHICS STAGGERED AS HANK GATHERS DIED

He began to die in a grotesque fashion, dropping to the floor, convulsing in spasms, his arms and legs twitching as teammates stared in horror.

Like many people, I cannot get that image of Hank Gathers out of my head. The question is: Should it be there in the first place?

Let’s be honest. TV has become part of this story. Oh, sure, it made big headlines in print. College star cut down in his prime. But Gathers, a powerful center for Loyola Marymount, was not the first athlete to die of heart trouble after physical exertion. Why, two years ago, Pete Maravich, a name more famous than Gathers’, expired in a similar fashion.

But America did not buzz about Maravich the way it does this week. The reason: some 30 or 40 seconds of footage that aired on TV news across the country Sunday night, showing Gathers collapsing in a heap, his mother running from the stands, shrieking, weeping. The look on his face. The violent jerking of his body.

That footage did not belong on TV. Not in my opinion. No way. The story could have been told without it. Hank Gathers was not a president. His death did not bring down a political regime. It was a tragic slice of the real world that might have happened a few hours later in the privacy of his home. And yet few TV stations chose not to run it.

“It’s a news story,” I was told when I called local channels. One weekend anchor said, “If we didn’t air it, our viewers would have been cheated.”

Cheated? Of what? Voyeurism?

I don’t buy it. A journalist should have lines that will not be crossed. Where are those lines when it comes to a young man’s life, his dignity, the grief that a broadcast might cause his family or friends? There are only so many subjects you can hide behind the curtain of “I’m only doing my job.”

Does death now fall into the category?

We warned you to watch

“I think there have been more gruesome things on the air,” said John Walsh, managing editor for ESPN, which brought the story nationwide Sunday night. “Our policy is to warn people beforehand if something might be offensive. And we did that.”

Yes. This is a tidy tradition. We warned you. But in truth, such warnings more often serve to whet the appetite, to make you curious. You end up watching anyhow. Meanwhile, ESPN also had one of its cameras Sunday, 3,000 miles away, zoom in on Lionel Simmons, a La Salle player and close friend of Gathers, when he was told of the death of his buddy. Simmons wept. The camera whirred. News? At least that’s what they call it.

Now, please. I am not placing print on some holy perch above TV. Many newspapers, including the two Detroit dailies, ran still photos of a dying Gathers on their front pages. I don’t like that, either.

But in this case, the footage was incomparably more disturbing. The problem is, this is not the first time. And so TV execs point to previous examples and say, “Well, it’s not as bad as that.”

That is not an answer. Ethics are not on a sliding scale. Some TV execs point to the recent execution of Romanian president Nicolae Ceaucescu: “That was truly bloody, and we showed that.”

Yes. But the execution of Ceaucescu, graphic as it was, was the end of a political era. His death had ramifications for the entire nation. His corpse became a national symbol.

Hank Gathers was not a symbol. What happened to him was tragic, medical and personal. No worlds were changed, no politics crumbled. Sure, he was a great player and a good pro prospect. But to equate his fall, news-wise, with that of a Romanian dictator, is to balloon the importance of the NBA draft shamefully out of proportion.

Anything to beat the competition

Now, I understand TV is a visual medium — at its best, a great one. But sometimes pictures do more than tell the story. They intrude. They violate. They can rape a moment, you never get it back. And yet the weighty decisions whether to air footage are often made — as they were Sunday night — by harried young news producers who have little time to catch a breath, let alone debate an ethical issue.

And then there is the question of competition. Few stations want to be caught with their footage down. Said a candid Eli Zaret of Channel 2: “You get too esoteric in this business, you’ll hurt yourself. . . . Everybody this morning is talking about ‘Did you see what happened?’ What if the person said,

‘No. I watched Channel 2 and they didn’t show it’? Then you’d have made a horrible decision.”

I credit Eli with honesty. But a horrible decision? I don’t think so. What’s so bad about esoteric? Throughout these dilemmas, you must ask yourself one question you learned in kindergarten: Is it the right thing to do? Somewhere inside, there should be a flame of conscience that separates what you accept for personal and professional gain, and what you know one man should not do to another.

That Gathers footage — which some stations, unbelievably, are still showing — did little more than shock people and haunt his family. Sure, it brought home the tragedy of playing athletics with a heart condition. But did you really have to watch a man die to learn that? Have we grown that thick?

Or have we just grown that insensitive? There is a late- blooming TV conscience over Gathers, a lot of “Maybe we shouldn’t have shown it.” But the fact is, at the moment of truth, everybody did.

In the end, that tells you all you need to know.

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