Media Arms Control: A Way to Regain Respect?

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, to survey damage that the episode has done to the press. The tendency in the media was first to establish distance from the paparazzi, as though the persistent photographers were like some plague of locusts not connected with respectable journalism. And then the huge sigh of relief when it appeared that the driver of the Mercedes was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and the hope this would let the press off the hook.

But it didn't. Opinion polls continue to report deep resentment directed at the Fourth Estate. And any journalist can provide anecdotal evidence of it. What becomes clear was that the violation of Diana's privacy was not the beginning of an anti-press trend, but only the climax of a trend long developing.

It displayed itself when a North Carolina jury levied a penalty of $5 million against ABC for using secret cameras in an investigative report in a Food Lion supermarket. It displayed itself when NBC rigged the fiery crash of a General Motors truck. And when security guard Richard Jewell was wrongly singled out as a suspect in the Atlanta bombing.

People sense that the media - being progressively merged into bigger media - consider them a market more than an audience, and use sensationalism to enlarge that market. Even while spellbound by coverage of O.J. Simpson, Ennis Cosby, Tonya Harding, and JonBenet Ramsey, they know they're being manipulated by an increasingly tabloid media.

On Feb. 23, 1973, President Nixon told John Dean, his words recorded on tape, "Well, one hell of a lot of people don't give one damn about the issue of the suppression of the press, et cetera."

A quarter of a century later, his words are coming true. In a Roper-Freedom Forum poll, 65 percent of respondents said there are times when publication or broadcasts should be prevented. Rep. Sonny Bono (R) of California talks of restrictions on photographers. For those who have fought prior restraint up to the Supreme Court, that is enough to make one shudder.

Journalists are beginning to talk about preventive policing of their own ranks to avert pressure for restrictions. A Committee of Concerned Journalists is being formed with self-examination as one of its aims. That reminds me of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, which campaigned for nuclear disarmament. Maybe the time has come for media arms control.

Lots of luck!

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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