Putting a choke chain on the watchdog

Tuesday, February 17, 1998

The White House scandal story has produced an exhilarating month for the
press. Newspapers have sold thousands of extra copies each day, viewers
have flocked to network and cable news casts, and news web sites have
basked in newfound popularity.


In that sort of news run, the press has not paid as much attention to the
public grumblings about journalistic excesses as it should have. But the
sharp ears of elected officials and policy-makers have homed in on the tiny
sound of an opportunity and are savoring thoughts about new ways to rein in
the public watchdog.


Journalists would do well to pay more heed to those ominous rustlings in
the regulatory bushes before new laws jump out and take a huge hunk out of
their First Amendment franchise.


While people have been taking in the scandal coverage in healthy numbers,
they also have been taking in the glut of rumors and rumors of rumors and
wincing at the sight of media riots swirling around hapless figures caught
up in the story — figures barely visible as hordes of photographers and
reporters wrap them in a suffocating embrace each time they venture out
onto the sidewalk.


As they watch in dismay, these news consumers are
mumbling through clenched teeth the cry of Peter Finch’s mad anchorman in
Network two decades ago: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it
anymore.”


And while journalists may be too busy with the news to pay much attention,
those who would like to leash the watchdog have heard the call for respite
and are responding.


Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., rolled out
her proposal for a new federal law that would redefine news photographers
standing on public property and using a telephoto lens as criminal
trespassers and make them vulnerable to jail for one to 20 years.


Also on Tuesday, Georgia legislators took up a proposal by state Rep. Chuck Sims
that would tax crime stories in newspapers and on radio and television.
The same bill lumps criminals in with journalists, and would tax them, too,
if they made money off crime.


Monday, the Rocky Mountain Media Watch asked the Federal Communications
Commission to hold hostage the licenses of four Denver television stations
unless those stations reduced the amount of violence and “fluff” on their
newscasts.


To get some idea of just how fed up some people are with the press and how
far they’ve strayed from the idea that the government shouldn’t be involved
in telling them what they should or should not see in the news, look more
closely at some of these proposals.


Three noted First Amendment attorneys, usually staunch supporters of press
freedoms, actually helped Sen. Feinstein draft her law to make it secure
from constitutional challenge.


In its petitions to the FCC, the media-watch group asserts that the local
TV stations are “severely unbalanced, with excessive reporting of violent
topics and trivial stories” and, in effect, the group would like the federal agency
to substitute its news judgment for that of the stations’ producers and directors.
It also wants the stations to be required to periodically alert the
audience to the “potentially harmful side-effects” of TV news, to devote
prime time to media-literacy programs for children and adults, to sensitize
TV journalists “regarding media-violence effects” and to develop a plan
for coverage of local elections.


There is a lot of this kind of thinking going on these days. To a certain
extent, it is understandable. But it is neither wise nor prudent.


State and local laws already punish people who engage in real trespass. We
don’t need a federal law for that.


Taxing crime news would be unconstitutional, impractical and would deprive the
public — including past and potential victims — of
critical information.


And no matter how dreadful we think some local television news is, it is
difficult to imagine that unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., could
do a better job of deciding what news is best for us.


None of that would be good for the public.


And if the press knows what’s good for it, it will pause for just a moment
in its pursuit of readers and ratings and, of course, the story, and listen
to those rustlings in the bushes.


Perhaps journalists might even take time to recall the words of Alexander
Hamilton, writing in The Federalist Papers 210 years ago:


“The security of a free press, whatever fine declarations may be inserted
in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public
opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and the government.”