Murderer Goes Out in a Blaze of Coverage : Television: Serial strangler David Edwin Mason was given the red-carpet treatment on the way to the death chamber, while his victims got barely a mention.


How do newscasts get their jollies?

They sing and dance San Quentin Follies.

On Monday, the evening of serial strangler David Edwin Mason’s execution at San Quentin Prison, Los Angeles television stations gave him the works. It recalled the big-production send-off given the dying heart attack victim in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.”


They gave him star treatment. They gave him the big show. They gave him the big graphics. They profiled him. They humanized him. They sanitized him. They cellophaned him in a package with a big bow. They rolled out the red carpet for him all the way to the gas chamber. But most of all, they gave him. . . .


Some of them, led by KNBC-TV Channel 4, managed to sustain this rising drum roll even while applying team coverage to fast-breaking wild rumors and speculation over the Los Angeles Police Department’s acknowledged criminal probe concerning Michael Jackson. The pop megastar was in Thailand for the start of his “Dangerous” world tour. So naturally KCAL-TV Channel 9 shrewdly had a reporter soar above Jackson’s Santa Barbara County ranch in “Sky 9”--to show viewers where Michael wasn’t. There were many other places where Michael wasn’t, but stations only had so many reporters.

Back on the ground, meanwhile, team coverage was breaking out like the measles.

For example, Jess Marlow and Rick Chambers were at San Quentin for Channel 4, the latter doing double duty as one of the media members selected at random to witness the execution. And the station’s Dr. Bruce Hensel was revving up in Burbank, preparing to escort viewers “INSIDE CALIFORNIA’S GAS CHAMBER. A CHILLING LOOK.” KABC-TV Channel 7’s San Quentin teammates were “the news van,” Joe McMahan and Mark Coogan, who was also a designated witness. Harvey Levin and Marianne Kushi were determinedly in place for KCBS-TV Channel 2 because we were “just hours away from only the second execution in California in 25 years.”

While Channel 7 detoured for ABC’s “Monday Night Football” exhibition between the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints, Channel 2 was announcing in a bold graphic that Mason had a “DATE WITH DEATH.”

So Levin ticked off “THE FINAL HOURS,” interviewing Mason’s attorney, who reported among other items that “I see him still trying to get his mother’s love.”

Then came “THE WAIT,” featuring Kushi’s lengthy “exclusive” interview with Mason’s soon-to-be widow, who fought back tears.


On Channel 4, Mason also had a “DATE WITH DEATH,” the difference being that his “DEATH” here was set off in red caps from the rest of the graphic. That “DATE” included “WAITING ON DEATH ROW,” replete with a close-up look at the gas chamber and death watch areas.

Back at San Quentin, Marlow reviewed “THE CRIMES” and related data, including Mason saying in 1980, “I don’t think I really did anything wrong.”

Then Channel 4 coverage began leading into commercial breaks with the question, “When the steel door is slammed shut, what really happens inside the California gas chamber?”

A half dozen promos later, Hensel was on the screen with the answer. There he was, presumably at Channel 4’s studios, walking through a door with a window (“The execution is usually witnessed through a window and a door such as this”), and mentioning alternative means of execution.

Meanwhile, Channel 2 resumed counting down the “FINAL HOURS.” Levin: “Convicted killer David Mason has exactly six hours to live.”

Which was why Channel 4’s Marlow was now “inside the gates of San Quentin” where “the witnesses to the execution are now beginning to gather, and among them is Rick Chambers.” Chambers: “At about 10:45, those of us about to witness this execution will be led down the road here. . . .”


What would the witnesses see: Channel 4 showed an artist’s rendering of witnesses looking through windows at a silhouetted Mason, followed by another drawing of Mason in the execution chamber being examined by a doctor.

Soon, Channel 9 would be on the air with “AN EXECUTION IN CALIFORNIA,” reporting “THE LATEST” about Mason, counting “THE FINAL HOURS” at San Quentin with David Jackson and Frank Buckley. Jackson: “He is two hours into his final six.” Or, as anchor Jerry Dunphy began: “Less than four hours from now. . . . “

Two hours later, while KTLA-TV Channel 5 anchor Hal Fishman was announcing, “Time is running out. . . ,” that other matter was again interceding and KCOP-TV Channel 13 reporter Wendy Walsh was outside Parker Center mentioning “possible child abuse charges” concerning Michael Jackson, and Channel 9 was already reviewing other Jackson-family “scandals.”

Leading the pack, however, Channel 4 announced at 11 p.m. that it had assigned “triple team coverage” to the fact-scarce Jackson story, while Channel 7, having recovered from its football fever, announced that “David Mason is scheduled to die . . . in less than hour.”

Channels 7 and 9 returned about midnight to chronicle the final minutes leading to Mason’s execution, and Channel 2 popped in for the announcement that he had died at 12:23 a.m.

Then, in groups of six, the media witnesses were paraded in front of the cameras to describe in detail for other members of the press Mason’s death and their own reactions to it: “About 12:09, his jaw twitched . . . at some point, he starts drooling.”


What a curious phenomenon, what a distasteful irony.

David Edwin Mason, convicted murderer of Joan Pickard, 71; Arthur Jennings, 83; Antoinette Brown, 74; Dorothy Lang, 72, and Wayne Johnson, 24, travels to his death on a crescendo of loud, ceremonious trumpets, full-blown biographies of his life and times and meticulous accounts of his final seconds. Yet his victims--except for Pickard, whose daughter spoke to several stations (including Channel 9 at length)--get barely a mention.

Their murderer gets the cameras, headlines and team coverage, they get the fine print.