The news that's not fit to print
WHEN Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, a reporter collected the garbage Mr. Kissinger had left outside his house for collection. The reporter sifted meticulously through it, looking for clues about Kissinger's habits and way of life. Was this journalistic enterprise, or tastelessly intrusive? During the hearings on Judge Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, a reporter for a weekly newspaper came up with a new journalistic gimmick. As he explained in an account of the adventure in Sunday's Washington Post, he decided to find out Judge Bork's taste in video rentals.
He visited the video rental club of which Bork was a member and says he told the clerk: ``Hey, I wanna write an article about Judge Bork's taste in movies. Okay if I have a look at his records?'' The reporter says that the clerk, apparently in violation of company rules, agreed and made the records available.
The reporter wrote a story about the judge's rentals. It revealed that the judge liked Alfred Hitchcock, James Bond, and watched a lot of Alec Guinness. He had also rented a comedy about a conservative Supreme Court nominee, and a thriller featuring vigilante judges. Hardly anything with much bearing on his qualifications to be a Supreme Court judge.
United Press International picked the story up and sent it out over its wires, ensuring publication in hundreds of newspapers. The ethics, or lack of them, on the part of the reporter caused quite a storm. Bork and his family were understandably miffed. So were a number of legislators, who have introduced bills to protect the privacy of video rental records in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, as well as at the national level by legislation in the United States House of Representatives.
The resulting legislation may not, of course, prevent some reporters from trying to circumvent it.
All this raises once again the question of the rights of a public figure to privacy versus the rights of the press to investigate his or her background. If the judge had rented so-called adult movies, that might have had a bearing on his qualifications for high office. But his penchant for James Bond and Alec Guinness seems hardly an essential piece of information to be weighed in the public scales.
So where should newspapers draw the line? Gary Hart challenged reporters to investigate his marital fidelity. In my view, although the investigation was unprofessionally handled, it was in order for it to take place. Mr. Hart's case was unusual for a number of reasons. Does that mean that any such rumor floated about any candidate should be publicized? Investigated? Editors and reporters are divided on this.
Editors make qualitative judgments every day about what they can get into their newspapers. Most make quantitative judgments too, about taste and privacy. If a Senator is an alcoholic or a shop-lifter, that clearly reflects on his ability to serve his constituents, and is legitimate news. What if his wife, his son, his sister, is so afflicted? That might, or might not, have a bearing on his public usefulness. Editors have to decide whether to publicize such information.
Occasionally, editors must make judgments relating to national security. A source walks into a newspaper office and drops a list of Central Intelligence Agency station chiefs on the editor's desk. Does the newspaper publish it, or not?
Some of these issues are covered by legislation and are put to test in the courts. Most of the time, the judgment to publish or not to publish is in the hands of the editors.
If the public feels that sifting through someone's video rental records is going too far, the danger the press faces is that the weight of government will be injected into the process of making decisions about what to publish.