Apparently Roger Ebert Thinks Docudramas are Factual – A Response to “Now I lay me down to sleep”

After having pissed off just about every active alcoholic – and people who love them – Roger Ebert came out today with a blog essay that I’m sure he thought would be a crowd pleaser.

Today’s blog essay is titled “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

The short version goes like this – Robert Ebert saw the HBO docudrama about Jack Kevorkian, and – forgetting how much license with the facts docudramas take – figures he really knows Jack Kevorkian now and also knows all that is important about assisted suicide as public policy. As for his own feelings on the subject — he claims the only real objections are religious ones, he’s not religious and he’s fine with it, as long as it’s for terminally ill people who are in pain. He doesn’t seem to realize that’s a narrower set of criteria than the state of Oregon allows.  Critical analysis is in short supply in this essay.

Ebert throws around misstatements of fact with abandon, as he does here:

After Paul Schrader assured me Al Pacino’s performance in the film was the best of the year, I rented it from Netflix, and after watching it I realized I didn’t know Jack. He is depicted as tactless, cantankerous, argumentative, and brave. He was not a palatable poster child for assisted suicide, but perhaps it required a man with his single-minded zeal to bring the subject into discussion. He said he helped 130 patients kill themselves. Every time he was brought to trial in one of those cases of assistance, the jury acquitted him. He had kept video records of his interviews with the patients and the actual moments of their death, and jurors apparently agreed that he was providing medical help requested by a terminally ill person. (Emphasis added.)

That’s just plain false.  For example, one of the trials in which he was acquitted involved his roles in the deaths of Sherry Miller, who had multiple sclerosis (she’d also been abandoned by her husband and lost custody of her children) and Marjorie Wantz, a woman who experienced pelvic pain.  Neither was terminal.  Miller, with a condition prone to depression, was also hard hit by her family losses.  None of that mattered to the jury – Fieger played up how awful it was to live in a wheelchair and how no one would want to live like that.  The jury agreed.


In trying that last case, a prosecutor made a tactical call: He decided to drop charges of assisted suicide, in order to prevent any videos of the patient being seen by a jury. He chose to prosecute only on the narrow charge of murder in the second degree, for which Kevorkian himself had provided the documentary evidence. The doctor was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison, served eight and a half years, was paroled in 2007, and died on June 3, 2011.

Again, this is just wrong, no matter how confidently Ebert states this.  The reason the assisted suicide charges were dropped had nothing to do with video tapes – in fact, the prosecutor used one of Kevorkian’s tapes very effectively in his closing arguments. The tactic was used because it meant testimony from Thomas Youk’s brother and wife wouldn’t be allowed.  They weren’t present for the killing and could only testify about “state of mind” – irrelevant when it comes to a murder charge.  And as to Kevorkian’s release – it was allegedly for health reasons, after Kevorkian’s attorney filed his fourth yearly brief claiming Kevorkian had less than a year to live.

To be fair, I’ll give Ebert credit for checking Wikipedia for info on Kevorkian and accurately relaying the findings of the Detroit Free Press findings in their series “The Suicide Machine.”  But then Ebert goes off and shares crap like this:

Polls showed that the majority of citizens in his state of Michigan supported him, and a poll taken after his death showed that 75% of Canadians approved of assisted suicide for terminal patients in pain.

I’m not sure what poll is being referred to, but the most important poll – I think it was conveniently never mentioned in the docudrama – was a 1998 ballot initiative to legalize assisted suicide.  The result?  Here’s what a recent article in the Detroit Free Press had to say:

Michiganders, by a more than 2-1 margin, voted down a proposal to legalize assisted suicide in 1998.

I worked with Michigan disability activists who helped to fight against that ballot initiative.  I recall that post-election day analysis gave Kevorkian a lot of the blame and/or credit for the defeat of the initiative.

The principal argument against it is religious: God gives life to men, who do not have the right to end it without his will. In a nation which separates church and state, this should not be a valid position. Why should it apply to someone who does not agree with it? If I am in agony, what difference do your beliefs about God make to me? What if I don’t believe in God? What if I believe in a more merciful God, who gave me intelligence, free will and responsibility for my life? Why must I suffer because of your more narrow theology?

Stunningly, Ebert blithely claims that all those people getting in the way of the obviously sensible legalization of assisted suicide are people with a “narrow” theology and perspective.

What a shithead.  Ebert recently was honored by Access Living, a prominent Center for Independent Living that serves the disabled people in the City of Chicago.  I fear that when they called him a “national leader” it might have gone to his head.  As a relative newcomer to the world of disability, he’s done very well, but he really hasn’t got a handle on the rest of the community’s values, perspectives or priorities.

Before Ebert writes on this topic again, I’d suggest he read the Assisted Suicide Position Paper published by the National Council on Disability in 1997 with Marca Bristo serving as Chairperson.  Marca Bristo is also the CEO of Access Living.

Ebert continues…

Several times a year we read of someone who assists a spouse, parent, child or partner to die. Sometimes this results in jail sentences. Much more often, I suspect, it happens silently.

Ebert needs to read the news more carefully.  There are out-and-out murders getting written off as murders simply because the victim is old, ill or disabled.  Some of this has gone on right in his back yard.

See, for example, “No Mercy” by Mike Miner of the Chicago Reader on some of the biased coverage of murders of an elderly woman and two disabled men.  There’s also this detailed analysis of Chicago media coverage of the 2002 murder of Shirley Harrison.
And here is a brief statement about the “blame the victim” coverage of 4-year-old Katie McCarron’s murder in Pekin, IL and its consequences; Katie was autistic.

I don’t expect to get any acknowledgment from Ebert that he got anything wrong.  Previous experience during the “Million Dollar Baby” controversy makes it clear that he doesn’t get what the objections are from disability rights activists in this area and why they’re important.  More, he’s perfectly willing to pretend that that those objections don’t exist at all.

That’s all for now.  By Monday, I’ll be critiquing a review of an Oregon documentary sitting in my DVR.  Ebert brought it up and I guess I have to quit putting off watching it.  –Stephen Drake

14 thoughts on “Apparently Roger Ebert Thinks Docudramas are Factual – A Response to “Now I lay me down to sleep”

  1. As a relative newcomer to the world of disability, he’s done very well, but he really hasn’t got a handle on the rest of the community’s values, perspectives or priorities.
    You call him a shithead for that? Seems a little much.
    You also make it sound as if the disability community is monolithic. What is official word on said community’s Values, Perspectives and Priorities?

  2. Your radical stance against right-to-die supporters is coloring your humanity in a dreadful way. I won’t bother addressing all you write because there is clearly no middle ground with you, but I will say this… M.S. isn’t terminal?? Technically, maybe not. It’s just so excruciating it makes you want to be dead. We put down dogs for living in this much pain not because we’re sick or we’re prone to just take the life of someone that’s physically challenged. We adore our pets like they’re babies, and we feel that a million fold for the people we love, and THAT is why I would absolutely put a relative out of their misery – YES, MISERY that will never improve – if that’s what they wish. That’s what situations like M.S. are. And what is between me and my family is none of your god damned business. I see your view as absolute evil. Cruel. Inhumane. And just like homophobia, the root of this evil is absolutely religion, no doubt about it. Whether you, yourself, are a churchgoer or not, I promise you, whoever has convinced you along the way that human beings shouldn’t have the legal right to choose when they check out of this life has certainly been affected by the word of God. If that isn’t true for you, then you are being USED. I understand the position of some of the disabled who would oppose this, but the pain of thousands, maybe millions, must not be ignored because of the fears of a few. Dying is a choice. And it should be legal. Period.

  3. I get that you have a personal connection to all this and seem pretty charged. However, bludgeoning me with “Ebert throws around misstatements of fact with abandon…” is an overstated and reckless.

    You summarily discredit (with emphasis) Ebert’s claims about Kevorkian’s record keeping habits and then follow that up with a pretty weak example to support your case. I didn’t read anything in Ebert’s statement that suggested he had every video from every assist, nor do you provide any proof or citation to your claims — a pretty hypocritical indictment of your rebuttal.

    Further, and not so much an indictment of you rather the Detroit Free Press, we can’t possibly know the mindset of Michiganders in 1998 when the vote took place,given the likelihood of most legislation to carry heavy pork that might have made the legislation unfavorable to Michiganders 12 years ago — minds change over time. It should be a time-relevant quote.

    You go on “Stunningly, Ebert blithely claims … are people with a ‘narrow’ theology and perspective. ” I would remind you that Ebert is a film critic and is paid for his opinion. You are a blogger, you write yours. You shouldn’t be ‘stunned’ when someone publishes an opinion that doesn’t align with yours. Mr. Ebert, in no way, represented that statement as fact.

    Finally, to say that Ebert “doesn’t get what the objections are from disability rights activists in this area and why they’re important.” seems a unfair. He’s a conscious enough journalist to tweet your blog demonstrating opposing views (we’ll see if this comment sees the light of day).

    What’s the story with calling him a shithead? Ever considered *you* might be the reason no one is paying attention to your cause. You shouldn’t feel the need to blow out others’ candles so yours can shine brighter. It’s a movie review, grow up.

  4. Feel free to post an update giving credit for this post’s increased traffic to Ebert, who tweeted a link to it and was nice enough to call it a “sharp dissent,” rather than what it is, which is a linkfarm loaded with unhelpful potshots and degraded by a lack of one single original thought. Ebert hasn’t, as yet, posted a rebuttal, which indicates he concedes to your argument. In a roundabout way, Ebert responded with civility you must know you don’t deserve. Maybe you’ll return the favor.

  5. You make a lot of excellent points; I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that had not been following the assisted suicide debate closely, so I was not aware of the disabled community’s principled and passionate opposition to Kevorkian and assisted suicide laws.

    To his credit, Ebert did link to you on his twitter feed.

  6. For what it is worth, Stephen, I circulated a bunch of this stuff (Ebert, you, me) via “my” tiny little online network, and one person objected to your “What a shithead” statement.

    I too (as you might expect) think Ebert is not fully informed, is writing from an entertainment story perspective, and is muddying the intellectual argument by blending the two into an unpalatable swill.

    But I tend to think too, as I once read, “mud thrown in ground lost.”

    The intellectuals would say “What a shithead” is an ad hominem argument.

    Me? I’d say you have a far superior argument, and there is no need for “What a shithead” to put off reasonable people who dislike name-calling.

    And that’s said in solidarity.

  7. Wow, Stephen. This is excellent. It’ll take me awhile (due to disability) to follow all the links and reread it. I already didn’t like Ebert’s politics, ….

  8. Stephen — I’m quite surprised that you haven’t watched “How to Die in Oregon” yet (as of July 2) since I brought it up at least five, maybe six weeks ago and sent you a link to my essay. This is an extremely important film for you to see and be aware of, as it directly addresses all the issues you are concerned with, and yet you weren’t aware of it until it was brought to your attention. With all due respect and deferrment to your authority, as an expert on these issues you should have been writing about this film many weeks ago.

  9. Right on, Stephen. While Ebert may be a beloved film critic and may also be on his own jury with the experience of disability, he doesn’t get the issue or the values of disability rights. He has a long record of not getting it.

    And anyone who thinks opposition to assisted suicide has to be on religious grounds needs to understand that for many disabled folks, opposition to assisted suicide is rational self-interest and nothing to do anyone’s gods.

  10. Stephen, I was suprised to read your comment about the USCCB’s film review of Million Dollar Baby which characterized it as “ambivalent on assisted suicide.” I think that you might be reading what is meant for a narrow audience, Catholics, as if it is an all-encompassing treatise on Why Euthanasia is Wrong. Because it is written to the Catholic viewer, it seems to feel it needs only to appeal to religious reasons against assisted suicide and euthanasia and I think that is where you see ambivalence. In reality, I think it is just speaking to its own crowd.

    I think you are correct, though, in noting that when such discourse takes place in a telescoped way there are too many people harmed by the leaving-out-of. For example, while religious folks who oppose euthanasia/a.s. have a religiously-informed reason for it, there are certainly many non-religious ones to do so, also.

    While I think the movie review could have done a lot more to explain the evils of the movie, it wasn’t necessarily expected to by the form of the movie review. However, many Catholic folks like myself, with the support and cooperation of religious leaders, actively discouraged and/or critiqued the movie to others, for reasons that included not only the message that we have no right to take another person’s life, but also taht the message of assisted suicide is ultimately a dangerous one in which prejudice flourishes.

  11. oh, and p.s. you forgot to note another familiar action of some of the commenters who dislikes your message: “Well obviously, this is personal to you so your opinion can’t be reasonable.”

    Ebert, to his credit (I think well of his character for the most part but hideously wrong in this) did not stoop to that version of paternalism; only the commenters here did.

  12. Jeff – With all due respect, you have no clue about the number of priorities of I have to juggle on a daily basis. As it turns out, I did feature someone else’s review of the film – someone who wasn’t quite so enamored of it. (and who believably claims not to have a strong position on assisted suicide)

    Fortunately, as of August 1, I won’t be the sole staff person for NDY. There will be two of us – and the “new” person will be doing the film review.

  13. Hi Kay – good to see you writing, even if it’s a comment on the blog. 🙂

    I miss the Gimp Parade. But as long as you’re still in the fight, s’all good. –Stephen

  14. Corita – The USCCB review was weak, IMO, because it portrayed the case made for Maggie’s euthanasia as a sympathetic one – that nevertheless should be resisted.

    That’s all fine and good, but the reviewer was agreeing with the basic premise on which that sympathy depends – disability as an inevitably horrible fate. If the reviewer had any real experience with disability the manipulation would have been readily apparent.

    And – in fact – there are some great folks in the disability community are also practicing Catholics and managed to make both the religious points – and their experience as PWDs to write stronger critiques.

    I’d suggest that maybe the USCCB consider getting input from the National Catholic Partnership on Disability when considering a reaction to popular media treatments of disability and euthanasia/assisted suicide. –Stephen

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