Plea for privacy

THE memorial services for the astronauts who flew on the space shuttle Challenger have all taken place, and the families have been learning how to handle their grief. Now, with the discovery of remains of the astronauts, we will be confronted by a new wave of personal and national mourning during funeral ceremonies.

The families of the astronauts may wish to handle this in different ways. Those who wish privacy ought to have those wishes respected. They ought to be protected from ghoulish public curiosity and the pressures of media competitiveness.

These thoughts are triggered by a thoughtful article in ``Presstime,'' the journal of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. It is written by Mike Pride, the editor of the Concord Monitor, the newspaper in the New Hampshire hometown of Christa McAuliffe. Mr. Pride tells of the invasion of his town, after the Challenger explosion, by a small army of reporters and camera crews.

Some of the journalists were ``polite and respectful . . . sympathetic.''

Not all came up to those standards.

When Mrs. McAuliffe's church held a memorial service the night of the explosion, reporters and camera people commandeered the first 10 pews. ``They shot back at the . . . mourners. TV cameras moved down the aisles filming weeping people. A reporter tried to question a praying mourner.''

One of the reporters there called the scene ``the greatest possible abuse of private grief by the national media I've ever seen. They just took over the church and trashed it in a way you'd expect to find at a boxing match.''

Mike Pride, the local editor, went to a memorial mass at his own church the following night. There were 50 cameras in the church. Camera crews clomped up and down the stairs. Someone dropped a piece of equipment and uttered an expletive at one critical moment. During the benediction a radio person lost control of his tape recorder, and it blurted out a high-pitched garble.

There were other embarrassments. An intruding photographer had to be physically removed from a car carrying third-grade classmates of Scott McAuliffe back from Cape Canaveral. A supermarket tabloid offered big money for Steve McAuliffe's remembrance of his wife, read at a private memorial service off-limits to the press. And so on.

All this raises questions of taste, and conscience, and journalistic professionalism.

The prodding and pushing of NASA by dozens of investigative reporters since the accident has shed welcome light on its possible causes and may help prevent accidents in future. That is all to the good.

Is the intrusion by reporters into the grief of family and friends also to the good? And is there a way to diminish tastelessness, on the one hand, without curbing appropriate journalistic energy, on the other?

The openness of our society, and the right of the press to operate freely, without restraint, is one of the most precious characteristics of American life.

Yet when does that freedom merge with a kind of news-junkie voyeurism? While we are at dinner, the television brings us the most graphic depiction of the President's internal organs. A reporter thrusts a microphone into the face of a teen-age AIDS victim and asks him: ``How does it feel to know you're going to die?''

Cameras focus on the tear-stained grief of flood victims who have just lost their homes. We share the anguish of a Lebanese mother whose dead child is cradled in her arms. We are there live, by satellite, through the tension, the fears, and perhaps ultimately the joy, of wives whose husbands are held hostage.

There are no easy answers to all this. But one step in the right direction might be for the press to exercise self-restraint in the case of those who seek privacy for the final chapter in commemorating Challenger's astronauts.

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