Several times over the past few weeks, Katie Couric has used her Today show to push the idea that the United States is now a country that abuses human rights. But this morning’s Today saw a dead human corpse, stripped of his skin and with his skull removed, located just a few feet from where Katie was sitting next to co-host Matt Lauer on the couch.
The corpse was from a traveling exhibit on human bodies, where the preserved remains are dissected to show different aspects of human anatomy. But according to Friday’s New York Times, human rights groups are extremely concerned that the bodies on this exhibit — presumably including the one that showed up on Today’s set — could be dissidents executed by China’s communist regime:
Harry Wu, the executive director of the LaoGai Research Foundation, an organization that documents abuses in China's penal system, said officials from Dalian University had been previously implicated in the use of executed prisoners for commercial purposes, having supplied bodies to Gunter von Hagens, the German entrepreneur who started the first traveling show of the dead, "World of Bodies." Dr. Sui Hongjin, who was previously Mr. Von Hagen's Chinese partner until a falling out three years ago, is now working with Premier Exhibitions, which has its headquarters in Atlanta.
"Considering that China executes between 2,000 and 3,000 prisoners a year and their long history of freely using death row prisoners for medical purposes, you have to wonder," Mr. Wu said, adding that he would pursue legal steps in this country to ensure that the show was not using illegally obtained bodies. "In China, a piece of paper means nothing."
This morning, such concerns were put on the back burner as Couric whimsically introduced her report, which aired at 7:20am EST: “Cole Porter may have written ‘I’ve got you under my skin,’ but have you ever really thought about what’s underneath yours? Well, a controversial exhibit now here in New York City can help answer that and other questions about the human body in a very unique way. It’s putting dead bodies on display. We should warn you, some of the images in this story may be a bit disturbing.”
Today then switched to her taped report: “It’s an anatomy text book come alive, so to speak. Twenty-two human bodies, along with 260 organs and other preserved body parts making up a new educational experience called, what else, but ‘Bodies.’”
Throughout the story, Today showed the headline: “Cadaver Controversy: Should Dead Bodies Be On Display?”, although NBC was basically answering that question in the affirmative, as they showed video of the museum’s exhibits, including the blackened lungs of a smoker and a skinned man “holding hands with his own removed skeleton.”
Couric eventually got around to the question of where the corpses came from, and whether it’s right to make a profit from the dead: “Critics question the ethics of displaying the dead for profit. Human rights groups are concerned that the bodies, all on loan from a university in China, may have been illegally obtained, but organizers say their goal is to educate, not simply make money, and insist the bodies come from legitimate sources.”
They then showed an official with the exhibit, although they didn’t show his name. “I’m very comfortable with the way they were obtained, and quite frankly we wouldn’t be involved if they weren’t obtained in a legal manner.”
[UPDATE: MSNBC's Scarborough Country just now (4:20pm EST) showed a version of the same story, this time identifying the exhibit official. He's Arnie Geller, President of Premier Exhibitions.]
That was it — someone with the corpse exhibit insisted that they are good people who don’t do anything wrong, and Couric moved right on to the fascinating educational aspects of desecrating the dead.
After her taped piece ended, viewers got to see a male cadaver posed as Rodin’s “The Thinker” sitting just a few feet from Couric and co-host Matt Lauer. Neither host looked especially comfortable, and Lauer did have a somewhat pained expression on his face at one point.
Couric admitted to misgivings: “I have mixed feelings about it, but I took the girls to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and I think they — it was pretty fascinating. I just wonder about the people. Do they realize when they donate their bodies, or where they get these cadavers, that they’re actually going to be on display? Because there was, like, a mother and a father and a small child where they were showing the nerve endings. It just, I don’t know, it made me wonder how they would feel.”
Lauer replied: “You’re right, you have to worry about, wonder about the human stories behind the bodies but this is, it’s an amazing technique when it comes right down to it. They use liquid silicone.”
Couric then pointed to the nearby corpse, which the camera had been focusing on since the end of her taped piece: “Yeah, there's ‘The Thinker’ over there. And the black lung corpses are really interesting, too, and a good warning for people about smoking.”
Lauer sighed, “I don’t know. On a weekend — maybe Six Flags for me,” a remark that drew loud laughter from Couric.
Of course, the publicity of having a dead body on the Today set could only increase traffic to the exhibit. Adults are charged $24.50, but children 12 and under can get in for just $18.50.