The executioner's song

autographThis week the New York Times ran a fascinating profile of a Texas Associated Press journalist whose beat has led him to witness more executions than anyone else on record. As in, more than 300. I really enjoyed the article although I enjoyed it less after I realized it was a bit of a rewrite of a CNN piece from July. In this case, both articles are good and together provide a compelling portrait of reporter Michael Graczyk. In the Times piece, we learn that inmates about to be killed have greeted the reporter by name, confessed to their crimes for the first time, prayed and even spat out a concealed handcuff key:

No reporter, warden, chaplain or guard has seen nearly as many executions as Mr. Graczyk, 59, Texas prison officials say. In fact, he has probably witnessed more than any other American. It could be emotionally and politically freighted work, but he takes it with a low-key, matter-of-fact lack of sentiment, refusing to hint at his own view of capital punishment.

Given a choice between the death chamber's two viewing rooms, he usually chooses the one for the victim's family rather than the side for the inmate's, partly "because I can get out faster and file the story faster."

"My job is to tell a story and tell what's going on, and if I tell you that I get emotional on one side or another, I open myself to criticism," he said.

This man is the consummate professional. In a world where reporters can't cover sports without sharing their personal political views, he manages to keep his personal views out of one of the more contentious topics. I find the way he approaches his job to be vocationally admirable and I think reporters and editors undervalue this trait at their own peril.

And it says so much about the industry that Graczyk is the only reporter left on this beat. He also writes on a wide range of other topics, and often covers the crimes, trials and appeals of the convicts facing execution. The Times story ends with an amazing kicker, after explaining how the inmate is put to sleep before being put to death:

But before the drugs flow, the inmate is allowed to make a last statement, giving Mr. Graczyk what even he acknowledges are some lasting, eerie memories.

One inmate "sang 'Silent Night,' even though it wasn't anywhere near Christmas," Mr. Graczyk said. "I can't hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me."

I mentioned the CNN article that predated this story. It deals much more with religion and ethics. For instance, when the Silent Night anecdote is told, Graczyk explains that he thinks of the man who sang it "on Christmas or Christmas Eve when I'm in church." The Times piece never discusses his religious views.

CNN also mentions that AP offers counseling and that a writer for the AP who witnessed 189 executions in the 1960s wrote a book about his change of mind on the death penalty issue. One imagines that Graczyk could write a book after he finishes his work on his beat, too. But again it's so admirable that he manages to cover an emotionally fraught issue without thinking his job is to change public opinion by replacing his valuable news service with activism.

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