College students examine the question—Does the media go too far?

Tuesday, February 24, 1998

College students in middle Tennessee have mixed feelings about the public’s right to know, the media’s right to report and the privacy rights of private persons and public officials.

Fourteen students participated in Nashville’s University Forum, the first in a series of discussions concerning issues of the day, held Monday at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt campus.

The FAC and News Channel 5 Plus, a CBS-affiliate owned by local TV station WTVF, co-sponsored the forum “Public Figures, Private Lives—Does the Media Go Too Far?” Station anchor Chris Clark and Ken Paulson, FAC’s executive director, moderated the discussion. FAC founder John Seigenthaler introduced and closed the session.

The roundtable began with remarks on media responsibility and the current controversy involving President Clinton and a White House intern.

“The difference that we see between the Kennedy administration, which was also clearly promiscuous, and the Clinton administration today is the fact that the media was silent during the Kennedy administration about this as compared with today’s media which has been very open about it and delivered [to] the public exactly what they wanted to hear,” said David Koellein of David Lipscomb University.

“The difference is that had the media been more vocal during the Kennedy administration we would have seen public outcry,” Koellein said. “Today we see from the public—and I think it relates to the falling apart of the moral fabric of America—forgiveness for the president.”

Since mid-January, sexual allegations surrounding the president have dominated the front pages and the airwaves perhaps, one student suggested, because of public demand.

If one magazine, for example, “is selling you welfare and another the sex scandal [involving] Clinton, I guarantee to you that probably 90 percent of the people are going to go with this magazine because it’s more interesting than welfare,” said Gloria Soria of Middle Tennessee State University. “It’s human nature.”

Several participants acknowledged the economic factors involved in such coverage, but Cedric Garner of Vanderbilt University said that journalists’ own agendas can also affect reporting.

The media want “to bring down the president,” Garner said. “The press wants to be the superstar. If you look at the amount of respect we’ve lost for the presidency or the more aggressive investigative journalism, that’s where it began. That was the change in the mindset. A lot of reporters want that moment to define their career.”

Students seemed to disagree on how much information the public needs before news coverage becomes tabloid journalism. They recalled reports of sports personality Frank Gifford’s alleged infidelity and the alleged misuse of church funds by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons of St. Petersburg, Fla., president of the National Baptist Convention.

“I’m hearing: ‘Yes, we ought to talk about the legal [issues involving these scandals],’” Clark said. “And I’m hearing: ‘Yes, let’s talk about the morality of it, too.’ So, the press should be guardians of our moral standards as well as our legal?”

“We would be hard-pressed to rely on the media to define the morality of our nation,” said Jeff Sykes of Trevecca Nazarene University.

Paulson asked the group, which also included students representing Belmont and Fisk universities, for thoughts on the recently proposed Personal Privacy Protection Act. Sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the legislation is aimed at aggressive photographers who relentlessly pursue celebrities and sometimes jeopardize their safety in the process.

“I’m concerned about the media overdoing it,” said Tennessee State University’s Marlin D. Jones. “But I’m also concerned that if we start drawing lines, we’re not going to get the coverage we need to get and the information we expect them to provide.”

Later Jones added: “The press should impose their own standards. I’d hate for the government to do that because once we slide down that slippery slope, who’s going to decide what’s newsworthy and what’s not?”

Providing that coverage to the public “is a privilege and with privileges comes responsibility,” said MTSU’s Ryan Durham. “I very much believe in ethics and internal restrictions, but I keep going back to what the First Amendment says: ‘Congress shall make no law…’.”

“It seems to me that all of us in this society like the First Amendment and enjoy the rights it gave you today and the rights it gives the press,” Seigenthaler said in closing remarks. “It’s important to think about it, to analyze it, and when you see something you don’t like, to criticize it and, most of all, to carry on this dialogue wherever you are.”