A few years ago, there was a popular black-market video tape called Faces of Death, showing what producers claimed was a series of actual deaths captured on tape. Some were hit by trains, some sank in quicksand, some were eaten alive by crocodiles.

On Sunday, Nov. 22, the “snuff film” genre went mainstream, when 24 million Americans watched a 60 Minutes broadcast of a tape showing suicide champion Jack Kevorkian killing a man suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. The tape, made Sept. 17, showed Kevorkian injecting a lethal combination of barbiturates into 52-year-old Thomas Youk. It also showed Mr. Youk’s death a few moments later.

The prestigious newsmagazine program was criticized for airing the segment on the last day of sweeps week, when ratings are used to calculate advertising rates for TV shows.

Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, said in a letter to the New York Times, “There is absolutely no justification” for criticism of the show’s timing. Hewitt maintains they ran the show “when it was ready to be published – not a minute sooner, not a minute later.”

Many critics, however, object not merely to the timing, but to the content of the broadcast. Criticism has come from all corners: the Washington Post‘s media critic Howie Kurtz, the right-leaning New York Post, the left-leaning New York Times, pro-life groups, advocates for the disabled, even the entire roundtable of CNN’s Saturday night talkshow Capital Gang.

On ABC’s This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, George Will called the tape pornographic, calling it “voyeurism dressed up as the public’s right to know.”

Hewitt defends his show’s decision to run the tape. “We feel strongly that the story … was a fit and proper one for us, or anyone, to tell.” At least six affiliates disagreed, deciding not to run the Kevorkian segment.

Sam Donaldson said that 60 Minutes was right, that all they were doing was reporting the story. In a way, that isn’t true; this wouldn’t be a story if 60 Minutes hadn’t aired the tape.

In fact, 60 Minutes gave Kevorkian a highly visible soapbox to advance his agenda. Kevorkian said, “The issue’s got to be raised to the level where it is finally decided.”

But Kevorkian’s home state, Michigan, decided the issue earlier this year, when Governor John Engler signed into law a bill prohibiting doctor-assisted suicide. On Nov. 3, voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to overturn that law.

But was Kevorkian the only one with an agenda? Mike Wallace, who interviewed Kevorkian during the 20-minute segment, was asked by the New York Times’s Frank Rich whether or not Wallace supports euthanasia. Wallace’s reply: “Absolutely.”

Rich said the segment has forced the issue into the national conversation. But the fact is, 60 Minutesshowed someone killing another person. That is a crime. How would people respond if 60 Minutes showed an adult having sex with a 10 year old? Would the program be praised for starting a national debate on pedophilia?

CBS, the network which airs 60 Minutes, said it “performed a public service” by broadcasting the tape.

As Fr. Robert A. Sirico wrote in the New York Times, “The more one is around death, the more one is inured to it. The sensationalistic path chosen by CBS can only help to slowly desensitize us to killing.”

So we are left wondering: what public service, exactly, did CBS provide?

(This is the first in an occasional series reviewing the media’s handling of right-to-life and family issues.)