Drawing a Line on Privacy Vexes Media
Paris tragedy leads 'the hunted' to call for limits on the press and the public's 'right to know.'
Sixteen years ago, the demure, new Princess of Wales felt "totally beleaguered" by the press. Photographers popped out of bushes every time she emerged from her house in Gloucester, England.Skip to next paragraph
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At the queen's urging, her press secretary interceded, and British editors announced they'd reduce their coverage of the royal family's intriguing new addition. It was, in the words of former New York Post editor in chief Jerry Nachman, "a deal." The princess could get some privacy, and the press, when she was ready, a little more access.
"When I was a street reporter, we used to do deals out on the street," says Mr. Nachman. "Someone would say, 'What do you want, fellas?' And we'd say, 'This is what we need.' And the deals were honored; they were impromptu and ad hoc."
As the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for steamy, celebrity details feeds the competitive frenzy in the press, the old idea of the "deal" has broken down. Celebrities and the press have become the hunted and the hunters - and concerns about "privacy" reduced to a quaint notion in the face of the millions of dollars offered for a candid, unflattering photo.
But the deaths of the Princess of Wales, her companion, and their driver as their Mercedes was chased by paparazzi in Paris have fueled calls for new laws protecting public figures' privacy. That, in turn, has reignited the debate about how far the public's right to know extends into the private lives of public figures.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says "serious questions" have been raised about whether "aggressive intrusion" into Diana's privacy contributed to her death. France's cultural minister has called for an international law protecting privacy.
But pundits are quick to note that France has some of the toughest privacy laws in the world, and they didn't prevent Sunday's tragedy.
"I don't think you can base the laws of privacy on the needs of Princess Diana because she is unique, sui generis, or virtually," says Alex Jones, host of National Public Radio's "On the Media." "To pass a law based on her needs would be to skew what the public was entitled to know."
American courts have consistently ruled the public's right to know "newsworthy" information outweighs a public figure's right to privacy. It is a bulwark of the First Amendment and the notion of freedom of the press. What privacy exists is protected by laws against trespass and assault.
But that raises the inevitable question: What is "newsworthy"? That definition, most scholars and pundits agree, has changed the zone of privacy over the years.
In the early 1950s, the press didn't ask whether President Eisenhower had had an affair with his secretary, or whether Mamie Eisenhower had a drinking problem. It wasn't considered relevant. Harvard University's Richard Parker says he still believes that kind of information is not very important for the public to know, but times have changed.
That's "in part because we live in a society in which a kind of sexual explicitness has overtaken us," says Mr. Parker, a senior fellow and lecturer at the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. "Thirty years ago, that was a reaction against a kind of public puritanism and rigidness. In the name of freedom, we've given up a set of public norms against which to react."