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DR. DEATH OR DR. CELEBRITY

A couple of years ago, a magazine asked me whether I would live with (and write about) Dr. Jack Kevorkian during one of his euthanasia trials. They offered $50,000. No, I said. Life is too short.

Forgive the double entendre. I happen to believe that Dr. Death is right on the substance of his campaign for the right to die for people whose lives have lost meaning because their health is permanently broken. We all have family stories about that.

Kevorkian, as many of us have said of death itself, is a blessing in disguise. Well-disguised, in his case. Saying "no" was a no-brainer.

I was not greatly disturbed by the "60 Minutes" segment in which Mike Wallace and Kevorkian watched the assisted suicide of a man with Lou Gehrig's disease, a medical confirmation that there are things worse than death. Anyone who thinks that's the worst thing on television these days does not watch much television.

"60 Minutes" may disguise news as entertainment, but it is very high on that slippery slope. The vast wasteland of the 1960s has collapsed into a bleeding, leeching cesspool in the 1990s. Anything goes, most everything stinks, from Jerry Springer to Ally McBeal and back.

What I am disturbed by is this: As a matter of American law, Kevorkian can get away with murder because he is a celebrity. He can, in fact, make killing on camera even more of an entertainment than it is now. The line between news and entertainment, between the real and the mock, is the mucky slope. History or hindsight will judge "60 Minutes" as successful because it made celebrities of its correspondents and sent out producers to find stories to match their celebrated personae.

News, both print and electronic, is not what it used to be. That cliche was documented as recently as last spring when the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Medill News Service issued a report called "Changing Definitions of News: A look at the Mainstream Press Over 20 Years."

The group compared print and broadcast reports, 3,760 in all, for the month of March in 1977, 1987 and 1997. The news operations studied included the front pages of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the three nightly network news programs and the entire content of Time and Newsweek. Among the conclusions were these:

"In 1977, more than half of all stories (52 percent) were basically straight news accounts of what had happened. By 1997, that figure had fallen to less than one in three stories (32 percent).

"The number of stories about government dropped from one in three stories to one in five. . . . The number of stories about foreign affairs dropped from nearly one in four to about one in every six. . . . The number of stories about a celebrity tripled from one in every 50 stories to one out of every 14.

"Time and Newsweek had the same cover as People magazine seven times as often in 1997 as in 1979. . . . In 1977, nearly one in five cover stories concerned policy or ideas. By 1987, that had fallen to just one in 20 covers, where it remains."

It could be said that there is nothing new about all this. After all, Nellie Bly (the pseudonym of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) invented print "60 Minutes," the reporter as star, on the New York World in 1887 by posing as an insane Cuban immigrant to expose conditions in New York City's mental institutions -- and then, in 1890, took off on her celebrated trip around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.

On the specific subject of celebrated murder, just go see "Chicago" on Broadway, which is based on female murders in that city in the 1920s. "They're gonna know my name," sings Roxie in jail, "I'm gonna be a celebrity."

And she became one, getting away with murder and then going into vaudeville. Vaudeville itself is dead, replaced by "60 Minutes," among others. Celebrity is maybe a touch classier now. But whether it is or not, it has become the coin of the realm, a matter of life and death.

Universal Press Syndicate

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