During its reporting on the state of Arkansas’ unprecedented plan to execute eight inmates in 11 days, Fox News repeatedly omitted important details about the legal challenges to the plan, downplayed the extent of criticism to the plan, and misled its viewers on the reasons the executions have not yet been carried out.
On the April 18 edition of Fox News’ Happening Now, host Jon Scott opened a panel discussion by asking, “The reasoning for this holdup has nothing to do with the lethal injection drugs that are currently in question, right?” In fact, one of the orders blocking the executions was issued for that exact reason. The Arkansas circuit judge temporarily blocked the state from using one of its drugs, vecuronium bromide, a paralytic used in prisons for lethal injections (and for other purposes elsewhere).This ruling came after McKesson, a distributor of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, filed a complaint alleging that the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) “intentionally sought to circumvent McKesson’s policies by claiming that the drug would only be used for medical reasons in a health facility.” The ADC has to date declined to answer questions about how it obtained the restricted drugs or whether it planned to return them.
An hour before Scott’s show aired, correspondent Casey Stegall noted on Fox’s America’s Newsroom that “states have had a difficult time getting new supplies of this drug [midazolam] because many critics say it should not be used to kill people.” He was referring to another drug that Arkansas has in its possession but which will expire on April 30. Stegall, however, failed to mention that these “critics” include the drug makers themselves. West-Ward Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes midazolam, and Fresenius Kabi USA, manufacturer of potassium chloride, another drug used in executions, have also expressed opposition to the use of their drugs for lethal injection. In an amicus brief they filed with the district court, the companies wrote that using their medicines in executions “runs counter to the manufacturers’ mission to save and enhance patients’ lives.” Spokespersons for Fresenius Kabi and West-Ward told The Washington Post that they had “recently learned” that their medicines “might be used in Arkansas lethal injections.” The reporting on these drugs shows that all three drugs used in Arkansas’ lethal injection cocktail are implicated in legal battles. Thus for Fox to imply that the planned executions are opposed merely by “critics” is a gross understatement of the legal challenges ADC is facing.
During his reporting, Stegall also failed to provide context for the shortage of the drugs in the first place. Since 2011, many European drug companies, in an alignment with the European Union’s objection to death penalty, have decided to cease shipment of their drugs to U.S. prisons that carry out executions via lethal injections. This has created a shortage that has led U.S. prisons to turn to dangerous experimentation, as was in the case in 2014, when Dennis McGuire, an Ohio inmate on death row, was injected with a never-before-used drug cocktail. McGuire’s execution lasted 25 minutes, the longest in Ohio’s history, and witnesses said he “gasped several times throughout” before dying.
After criminal defense attorney Yodit Tewolde explained that “for Arkansas to try to rush executions for the sake of a drug expiring at the end of the month is disrespectful to the intent of justice in this case,” Scott ignored her point and flippantly remarked that it “seems odd” to characterize the response to a crime that happened in 1992 as a “rush to judgment.” His comment and Casey Stegall’s claim that the “expedited timeline” was initiated because “the state is up against this deadline” of expiring drugs ignores the legal implications of their expiration. Arkansas’ “rush” to use drugs before their expiration for purposes which are opposed by the companies that sell them is a potentially illegal contract violation, and given the state’s reported admission that it violated contracts with drug makers in an earlier case, this context is especially important.
Arkansas hasn’t carried out any executions since 2005. The state’s aggressive and potentially unconstitutional plan to execute eight inmates in 11 days is unprecedented, hugely consequential, and has drawn national scrutiny at a time when Americans’ support for the death penalty is on the decline. Leaving out important details when reporting on such a high profile case is an inexcusable journalistic failure, especially given the American public’s lack of knowledge about capital punishment in the nation’s prisons.
Image by Sarah Wasko.