The results of the recent Westmoreland v. CBS libel case constitute an important victory for First Amendment rights but somehow a sad defeat for human dignity. Many televison news viewers, as well as media buffs, have been unnerved by the spate of such recent court cases, in which citizens have claimed that the media have taken unfair advantage of them on a personal level. Isn't it possible, some of us have asked ourselves, to delve into the pros and cons of public issues and still preserve the rights of individuals who have toiled earnestly, however misguidedly, at what they perceived to be the proper handling of their jobs? And is it fair for the media to convert private citizens unwillingly into public figures by turning the spotlight on them?
The seeming dichotomy between legal rights and human rights has triggered disconcerting feelings of ambivalence in many of us. Maybe these feelings are destined to remain unresolved in our democratic society.
But, thank goodness, not undiscussed.
Witness a marvelously on-target made-for-pay-TV film titled Reckless Disregard (SHOWTIME, March 17, 21, 25, and 30, check local listings) .
This pay-cable service with around 4.4 million subscribers on 3,200 systems is presenting on an exclusive basis this original two-hour film which performs a major public service: It dramatizes a First Amendment vs. private rights case so vividly that the dilemma becomes real. It comes alive for viewers who may have had a difficult time sorting out the issues from newspaper accounts of similar trials.
``Reckless Disregard'' is an absorbing, incisive piece of work that informs as it entertains. In following the story of a doctor who is unjustly accused on camera of writing illegal prescriptions, the film manages to combine timeliness with subtlety. It is clearly based in part on the recent Galloway v. CBS case in which Dan Rather was accused of not properly investigating the authenticity of an allegedly forged medical claim form before accusing Dr. Galloway.
Mr. Rather and CBS were found not guilty of ``reckless disregard.''
Directed by Harvey Hart from a script by Charlie Haas, ``Reckless Disregard'' is a co-production of Telecom Entertainment Inc. and Polar films. It stars Tess Harper as a ``shopping-mall lawyer'' and Leslie Nielsen as the Rather-like newsman on a fictitious TV show called ``Hourglass Magazine.'' Tricky issues of class, press freedom, and legal standards on several levels are handled with exquisite skill, although the personal relationship of the lawyer and her law-school professor is, perhaps, too casually accepted.
In his brilliant script, Mr. Haas tries hard not to oversimplify as he manipulates a multiplicity of issues like a master chef skillfully shaping the mille-feuille layers of a Napoleon. Legal and humanistic matters are blended with a unique brand of hard-hitting delicacy which pervades everything -- script, cast, and director. The stigma that Wall Street lawyers attach to storefront practices, the inherent conflict between public-service broadcasting and individual rights-of-privacy, the difficulty of preparing fair video pictures for on-air showing, the collision between legal principles and worldly practicality are all handled sensitively and sensibly.
By the time the court decision is reached, I found myself suffering an agony of realization: The case was inevitably bound to wind up with some inequity -- either on the legal or humanistic level. Viewers may not applaud the jury's verdict and may be upset by the notion that there is no clear-cut right or wrong in such cases. But at least they will grasp the complexity of the legal principles involved and better understand the human issues.
``Reckless Disregard'' deserves a wider distribution than pay-cable can offer at present, even though it is possible for as many as 20 million to see it on SHOWTIME. One of the producers indicated to me that they are already negotiating with several companies for home-video rights. And it is possible that, after the SHOWTIME exclusivity runs out in 18 months, the film may be syndicated to broadcast TV or released to theaters. That's too long for larger audiences to wait for such a timely film.