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.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

What's 'newsworthy'?

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."

Parker says blaming the paparazzi for Diana's death is easy and predictable. So is blaming the public's desire for celebrity tidbits. The media could produce a more serious and helpful critique, he believes, if they looked at their own eroding standards.

"The message of restraint lies with the editors and the publishers," Parker says. "They need to send the signal to reporters that more maturity is warranted."

Others agree that self-restraint is the best way to fend off calls for privacy laws and to improve the press's waning credibility with the public. More than 80 percent of people surveyed in December 1996 said the press was too intrusive and invasive, according to a poll by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"Journalism and self-restraint rarely go together," says Bob Lichter, president of the center, a media think tank in Washington.

Mr. Lichter says if the paparrazi are the lowest of the low in the media hierarchy, the press of record is quickly descending to its level, rung by rung.

In 1991, a New York Times reporter got key information about the alleged victim in the William Kennedy Smith rape trial by peeking in her window.

But Lichter also insists that the press needs to ask difficult questions of public figures. If reporters don't, they may fail to provide crucial information to the public. For instance, rumors of President Kennedy's infidelity were not followed up during his lifetime. He reportedly had a relationship with the former girlfriend of a Mafioso.

"You need to ask whether the president of the United States is having an affair with a gang moll," says Lichter. "But you don't need to stake out public figures to see if you can catch them in a sexual peccadillo."

Most media experts agree it's better to err in the direction of visibility and exposure rather than secrecy.

"Otherwise, just as they've done throughout history, the people who are powerful will attempt to hide their agenda from the people to whom they're accountable," says James Lull, a professor of communications at San Jose State University in California.

But most also agree that more self-restraint on the part of the press is warranted.

Veteran newsman Walter Cronkite said the "obnoxious" behavior of the paparazzi "has to be stopped by these tabloid editors getting a sense of their public responsibility." If the tabloid press is censored, "you can then limit the photographers from The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times and so forth," he said, speaking on "Dateline NBC" Tuesday night.

Or else ...

If reporters, photographers, and editors aren't willing to exercise self-restraint, some experts say they'd be willing to consider a law that would create a physical zone of privacy around celebrities- make it illegal for the press to come within 7 or 10 feet of a person without permission.

The zone of privacy could be similar to the one upheld by the Supreme Court outside of abortion clinics. It gives protesters their right to have their say, but at the same time it protects the clients who use the service from a certain amount of harassment.

"That's another case where conflicting rights clash," says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It provides a very interesting analogy for the press to consider."

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