The messy news about Natasha Richardson’s skiing accident has been grotesque and rushed. So was last week’s Enquirer headline, “The End,” featuring a photo of a gaunt, bald Patrick Swayze. Rush Limbaugh recently assured his millions of listeners that Ted Kennedy won’t make it to see health care reform.
The ghoulish, hasty public death watch by the media exploits and reflects our dark side, our urge to rubberneck at an accident site, to read the tabloid headlines and talk about the terminally ill.
A public figure's life may offer privileges, but dying is democratic, arriving eventually for all, often too early. In fact, in many ways celebrities are worse off when dying; they have to endure rumor and innuendo along with their grief, along with photos and video and headlines of their imminent demise. We observed Tony Snow's hair and weight loss at his press briefings for Bush. We read speculation about Elizabeth Edwards' health problems forcing her to stay with her unfaithful husband. We will no doubt be closely following Ruth Bader Ginsberg's chemo schedule and energy level.
A few public figures manage to avoid it. Ed Bradley, the easygoing 60 Minutes journalist with the earring and the big laugh told few about his leukemia, and was spared the death watch. But when it comes to public scrutiny, most celebs are dead -- dying -- ducks.
I'm especially sensitive to this, as my late husband Chaim Stern endured this kind of thing in Miami as he was dying of a brain tumor similar to Kennedy's. In July, 2001 the Miami Herald ran a photo essay about his coming to town to become rabbi of a temple there; because Chaim wrote the prayer books for the reform movement of Judaism, his move to Miami was warmly welcomed. Just a month later, when we arrived, the paper's gossip column noted Chaim's sudden brain surgery, and from that point the local media tracked his health and hinted about his imminent death.
All the while he was still trying to lead a temple, and I was trying to keep his hopes up that he had maybe two more years of life. Hope is a fragile and precious thing. But Chaim read the columns, and he heard the dire comments from those who read the columns. He kept his grace and composure, but the hounding and speculating made things more difficult for both of us. He died on a ventilator three months after the first news.
I once saw vultures waiting for an animal to die. Those wrongly reviled birds clean the environment and subsist on the remains. But media vultures? They mostly just play "gotcha," and get off on bad news and higher ratings.
And I guess the public is interested - it's human nature, after all. But the media should not rush, and should not exploit the dying. There should be greater care and responsibility to report people's death with dignity, clarity and fact-checking. The stricken should be given respite and respect, whenever possible. The ill and their loved ones should not have to read exaggerated and false reports about their demise.