We start our video features today with one from the vaults. It takes a great deal of
courage stupidity to put this video up today, and I do so with a long list of apologies up front: There are some bobbles in the playback that seem to be an importing/encoding problem, but that’s the least of it. The camera work is atrocious, the sound is bad, the music is laughable, and if I stabbed myself in the leg every time I see footage of someone’s back when I should be seeing their front, I’d have the limb amputated in six minutes. I’m sorry for all that. My only excuse is, I was just fooling around, and the resulting video was never meant to be seen by anyone but a few friends.
“What I Saw at the Execution” is a video notebook I shot when Ron French, my former Fort Wayne colleague now working for the Detroit News, suggested I come along to the lethal injection of Tim McVeigh in Terre Haute, Ind., in June 2001. I was credentialed, and I was there with an assignment from my own employer in Fort Wayne, but it was Ron’s idea; he was going, and he thought it would be fun to have someone he knew there, so what the hell, it was national news and it was happening in Indiana. I asked my editor and she said yes, with the usual instruction: Spend as little money as possible.
That was Ron’s mission, too. The Detroit connection to the Oklahoma City bombing was a bit distant, but solid: Terry Nichols had lived in the Thumb, had kin there, and McVeigh had spent time at his old Army buddy’s Michigan spread. So off we both went to Terre Haute. The federal penitentiary was in the middle of nowhere, with a vast field of many acres alongside. That’s where the media village was.
I spent my newspaper career in places where big national news rarely happens. I’ve never covered a national political convention. Never done a big natural disaster, or a huge celebrity show trial. But presidents travel and campaign, and occasionally even a backwater like northeast Indiana would be struck a glancing blow by the spotlight — August 19, 1988 comes to mind — and I thought I knew what a media clusterfuck looked like. I didn’t.
It’s sometimes hard to remember, today, what the first eight months and 10 days of 2001 were like, and when I look at this video, a little comes back. This execution, an event that only a tiny handful could witness, scripted down to its last nanosecond, required the attendance of all the national networks, broadcast and cable news, teams from most nearby cities, the national newspapers, the ones that aspired to be, and oddballs like me. There were something like 1,600 credential holders. The media village sprang up seemingly overnight, a Brigadoon of yuppie type As, with its own roads, power supply, restaurants, transportation and, of course, class system. Fox had a huge presence. CNN had a private bus running continually between the hotels and the prison. And the print media had Tent A. Or Tent B.
Even with lithium-ion batteries and cellular modems, most people needed a better place to work on-site than their cars. So the Bureau of Prisons set up Tent A, with electricity, lighting, phone lines, tables, bottled water, snacks, assistants, security and other amenities. It was white, like the tents where wedding receptions are held, with walls and isinglass curtains you could roll right down, in case there’s a change in the weather. A space in Tent A cost $1,200.
Tent B was army-green, had no walls, no tables and no electricity. But it was free. Ron consulted with his editors and decided Tent B would do, as long as he could get a table. He rented one with two chairs for less than $10. It was waiting for us when we arrived, a raw wooden-topped table with a sign on it reading DETROIT NEWS. It was the only table; we were the only people in Tent B. We laughed about this until we peed our pants, then went over to Tent A, where each table had a clean white cover, and a flower arrangement. I got but one fleeting shot before a security guard kicked us out.
Anyway, the weekend went on. More people arrived hourly. The news from the prison consisted of occasional briefings saying, “Mr. McVeigh is resting comfortably. That is all.” It was generally agreed that the big news would be the huge demonstrations that would occur. So we went looking for the throngs. An anti-death penalty demonstration had about 40 marchers and giant puppets, which meant they were outnumbered by journalists approximately three-to-one. The pro-death penalty folks were even fewer, and more than once I witnessed reporters standing politely in lines, waiting to interview the talkative ones. Basically, if you showed up with a sign and could give a decent quote or two, you could get on TV. Ron went off to do some interviews and I rambled through town, navigating by the satellite antennas raised on the dozens of trucks on the street — if you saw two or more in one place, there you would find “news.” (Sort of like the traffic jams at Yellowstone, which is how you find animal photo ops.) It’s how I found the Catholic church glimpsed briefly in the video.
On Sunday, a meeting was called in a hotel parking lot to decide who was going to get the scarce witness seats in the death chamber. The Bureau of Prisons had already divvied it up into categories — Terre Haute media, Oklahoma City media, wire service, broadcast, etc., with all the remaining newspaper people competing for two seats, which were up to us to assign. We met to discuss how we might do this, and the first suggestion was the most obvious and fair — throw business cards into a hat and choose two. Most people nodded and said, yeah, that was probably the way to go. And then it started: Wahllll, an Alabama drawl rose over the other voices. We might want to think about this a little.
It was Rick Bragg, a New York Times bigfoot, who wasn’t about to give up without a fight. He gave a little speech about how much respect he had for all of us, y’all wouldn’t be here if your editors didn’t think you could handle it. But. Being the pool reporter for the whole print-media section of the village would be a big job. One would have to have superior observational skills. One would have to be able to see the ah-rony. Needless to say, Bragg, with his Pulitzer Prize and best-seller, was up to the task. I’m standing behind him thinking, hey, I know ah-rony when I see it too, Mr. Pulitzer-pants. Then I said so, in somewhat more polite language.
Fortunately, a lot of people were thinking the same thing. Special irony-detection skills were deemed unnecessary. As it turned out, the lucky business cards belonged to a guy from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and (I think) USA Today.
So anyway, Tim got his hot shot. His final statement was the text of “Invictus.” The hearse carried him away. And Brigadoon started to disassemble itself. I filed my story, set out for home and stopped for pancakes in Anderson. While I mainlined coffee, I reflected on how much money had been spent (but not by me! Or Ron!) covering this event, which could have been capably handled by a trio of old wire-service hands and one photographer. And, in a few more months, we’d learn another lesson about terrorism, and McVeigh would be all but forgotten.
Well, that’s all you need to know. Enjoy, or don’t:
One last note: Anything new I post won’t have the 21st Century Nance open; it’s too long for web video, and is, ultimately, an inside joke that should stay inside. But it was already on the completed project, and so it goes.