The messy news about Natasha Richardson's skiing tragedy has been grotesque and rushed. So is 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 deathwatch by the media exploits and reflects our dark side, our urge to rubberneck at an accident site, to scan 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, or a demise that hasn't yet happened. 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. Because of unfortunate timing my late husband Chaim Stern endured three months of this kind of thing in Miami as he was dying of a brain tumor. In July, 2001 the Miami Herald ran a happy photo essay about his coming to town to become rabbi of a temple there. Chaim was known as the liturgist of the reform movement of Judaism, and his move to Miami was welcomed. Just a month later, when we arrived, the paper's gossip column noted our arrival -- and Chaim's sudden brain surgery. From that point 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 a greater care and responsibility to report people's death with dignity, clarity and fact-checking. They should be given respite, when possible. The ill and their loved ones should not have to read false and exaggerated reports about their demise.
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