NPR's Diane Rehm enters right-to-die debate, with 'Kellerism' assist from Washington Post

Any list of National Public Radio superstars would have to include Dianne Rehm, who is, of course, a commentator and, thus, someone who is perfectly free to speak her mind. Her decision to use her clout on behalf of the "death with dignity" cause -- that's physician-assisted suicide, for those on the other side -- is a newsworthy development in this national life-issues debate.

So let's be clear that this post is not about Rehm and her right to speak out on this subject. It's about a Washington Post feature story -- yet another example of "Kellerism" evangelism -- about Rehm's highly-personal and passionate campaign on this hot-button issue. For a quick refresher on that "Kellerism" term, click here and especially here.

The key to the story is the pact that the 78-year-old Rehm had with her late husband, John, to help him die. She was not legally able to do that, as he neared the end of his fight with Parkinson's Disease. The Post report notes:

The doctor said no, that assisting suicide is illegal in Maryland. Diane remembers him specifically warning her, because she is so well known as an NPR talk show host, not to help. No medication. No pillow over his head. John had only one option, the doctor said: Stop eating, stop drinking.
So that’s what he did. Ten days later, he died.

The religion theme? That centers on Rehm's strong and very public ties to the Episcopal Church.

... At his memorial service, some 400 people packed St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church — journalists, academics, policy makers and religious figures, including Marianne Budde, bishop of the Washington Episcopal Diocese.

The "Kellerism" theme? As in the case of the late Brittany Maynard, the issue is whether the team covering the story will make any attempt to let opponents of physician-assisted suicide make any kind of case -- speaking for themselves -- for their validity of their cause.

Of course, there is also the issue of the power of the Rehm story itself. The only true way to balance a story with this kind of power is to to allow someone on the other side of the issue to tell an equally powerful story, such as that of Kara Tippetts.

But savvy readers can tell, in the following paragraph, that "Kellerism" principles will be at work in this report. There is no need for editors to offer a balanced approach on this topic:

More than 20 years after Jack Kevorkian jolted America with his assisted-suicide machine, Rehm is becoming one of the country’s most prominent figures in the right-to-die debate. And she’s doing so just as proponents are trying to position the issue as the country’s next big social fight, comparing it to abortion and gay marriage. The move puts Rehm in an ethically tricky but influential spot with her 2.6 million devoted and politically active listeners.
Now 78 and pondering how to manage her own death, Rehm is working with Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life organization run by Barbara Coombs Lee, a key figure in Oregon’s passage of an assisted-suicide law and a previous guest on the show. Rehm will appear on the cover of the group’s magazine this month, and she is telling John’s story at a series of small fundraising dinners with wealthy donors financing the right-to-die campaign.

Would it help to know that Compassion & Choices evolved out of the older Hemlock Society? Maybe. But, never mind. Moving on.

There is no question that religious faith plays a major role in this Post report. This is a story that gets the religion that it wants to get. Faith is one of the most powerful themes here, especially in this moving passage:

Diane stayed by his bedside. A couple days later, he went to sleep, aided by medication to alleviate pain. She read to him, held his hand, and she prayed.
“I prayed and prayed and prayed to God, asking that John not be suffering in any way as his life was ebbing,” she said.
Like his wife, John was Episcopalian, a church that has passed a resolution against assisted suicide and active euthanasia. She didn’t think God minded very much.
“I believe,” she said, “there is total acceptance in heaven for John’s decision to leave behind this earthly life.”
As John edged closer to death and the end of their 54-year marriage, a priest friend came to visit. Diane got a glass of red wine for a service of Holy Communion next to her husband’s bed. She put a drop of red wine on his lips. The priest performed last rites.

So how does the Post team handle the opposition? This is a classic example of the new normal on moral and cultural issues. One side gets to tell its story in human terms, face-to-face with the reader, telling a story that connects at an emotional level, as well as in the logic of argument.

The other side in the religion side of this debate? It gets to speak -- usually in one dry paragraph -- from a printed document. The essence of "Kellerism" is that there is no need to bother talking with people who are in error, no need to let them make a case for their beliefs.

The bottom line: Human beings vs. dry ink on paper. It's not a fair fight, but then again, under the journalistic doctrines of "Kellerism" there is no need to listen to qualified, articulate, human voices on both sides of this kind of issue. Thus, this is what readers get:

In Massachusetts and other states where legislation has failed, proponents faced well organized public campaigns from the Catholic church, whose American bishops call suicide a “grave offense against love of self, one that also breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with family, friends, and God.”
Pushback from the American Medical Association has been equally fierce, with the organization saying that “physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”

And that is that. No need for an articulate Pope Francis quote, in this case.

Again let me stress that Rehm's story is a powerful one and it is very beautifully told in this Post piece. This is a valid hook for a news feature. I would even say that it is a very effective sermon, an evangelistic one, even. That appears to have been the goal.

Please respect our Commenting Policy