In the aftermath of the untimely death of Princess Diana a timeworn issue re-plays itself like a tired re-run of “The Honeymooners.” Does the media go too far? Maybe. But like any other commodity, supply and demand go hand and glove. Whether a high profile celebrity or an every-day Joe, we sit glued to our chairs as the nightly news somberly announces society’s latest barbarity. We eagerly snatch up the tabloids as these mudslingers breathlessly divulge their version of the most recent Hollywood gossip. The fact is that America has become obsessed with the goings on in other people’s lives. Greedy consumers of the First Amendment, we march defiantly under the banner of our “right to know”, but do we have just cause?
Differences and difficulties in interpretation have characterized much of the later history of the First Amendment and historians continue to debate what the nation’s founders meant to include when they wrote that there shall be “no law” abridging the freedom of speech or press. Today the U. S. Supreme Court blindly inches its way across the tightrope of censorship. Laws prohibiting obscenity and indecency have been successfully incorporated and public sentiment has historically served to curtail the over-zealous journalist. However the moral fiber of society has degenerated from its once prim and proper past, and the press now vulgarly oversteps the boundaries of decency with little retribution. In the words of Chief Justice Warren Burger, “The First Amendment should not be interpreted to include the protection of frivolous gossip that “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (Grolier Encyclopedia 1996, Miller v. California).
The People’s “right to know” does not justify the growing abuse of our right to Freedom of the Press. The negative effect upon today’s society is only beginning. Tabloids not only thrive on; they encourage the invasion of privacy. In an era defined by celebrity worship, Americans have become increasingly tolerant of what is acceptable concerning media coverage of celebrities’ private lives. It is unfortunate that Princess Diana died for a blurry picture, a pointless snap from a speeding motorcycle. Dodging tabloid photographers she was simply trying to preserve some privacy by holding back the media intrusion. In the sixteen years since her marriage, she became not only the most famous woman in the world, but the only personality who consistently sold big in the global marketplace (Alter, Dying 39).
Instead of three or four photographers trailing a celebrity, it could, in her case, be thirty each hoping for that six -figure shot. In recent years, with global news proliferating, photographers have gone from being a minor annoyance that came with the territory of fame to being a major source of anxiety for public figures. The distinction between tabloids and so-called respectable news organizations will be difficult to uphold in the recriminations that lie ahead. With no global wars or cataclysm, no Hitlers or Churchills to dominate the public realm, we have turned our attention to diversions of gossip and fantasy. No wars? No news? No problem. We still have invasions today of media hordes tracking Tiger Woods endorsements.
We still have a military. Its primary purpose in the 1990s seems to be to serve as a theater of war between the sexes. Strategy is what gets executed in court and on TV. Espionage is the Globe supermarket tabloid setting up Frank Gifford at a New York Hotel. The front is a Mary Albert press conference (Alter, In the Time 32). Are we all entertaining ourselves into a stupor? The gulf between what intrigues us and what directly affects us is widening. When news oozes twenty-four hours a day it’s not really news anymore. The TV becomes ambient noise. The newspaper becomes wallpaper. Finding the patterns of importance becomes hard and it’s easier and more profitable just to make the consumer gape.
Talk shows revel in the public airing of dirty laundry that is either real or fictional. The “Oprah Winfrey Show” beat all competitors with a Nielsen rating of 8.3, each point representing 954,000 households (Jet 22). The closest competitor has been “Ricki Lake,” with a rating of 5.2. Oprah also beat all talk shows during the sweeps month of May 1995 (Jet 22). However, “The Jenny Jones Show” threw in a ratings-grabbing twist. When Jonathan Schmitz was ambushed on the show with the embarrassing revelation that his secret admirer was another man, he was pushed to the edge. Public humiliation instigated violent retaliation and in the end the show’s pursuit of ratings and total insensitivity to what could occur left one person dead and Schmitz facing life in prison.
People are being exploited for the sake of ratings,” says Ricardo Amor, a lawyer who won an undisclosed settlement last year from “The Montel Williams Show” for a woman who said she was invited on a show about “old boyfriends” only to find her sister revealing that she had slept with the woman’s current boyfriend of fourteen years (Peyser 30). These types of set-ups lead to heated confrontations and unrestrained violence on the air as was evidenced in the “Geraldo” broken-nose episode of 1988. Will the talk shows finally reform themselves? The prospect seems unlikely.
Thanks to Freedom of the Press every American with a TV or a radio can participate in a trial by jury. This is not what was intended by a “jury of one’s peers” and only succeeds in fostering resentment of the Judicial System. This overly tainted coverage of trials has hindered justice. It interferes with a fair and equitable trial and destroys any hope of a calm life thereafter for the parties directly involved. But does the public have the right to know? The O.J. Simpson
murder case has become the center of one of the most thorough media hypes in history. The story is a compelling one, but it has no real meaning for anyone other than those directly involved.
Nevertheless, the media continues in full pursuit of a story that will sell. The Simpson story is gruesome and gripping, but it is essentially empty of meaning for all but the poor souls involved. Of course the hype artists insist that the “silver lining” of the cheap melodrama is the attention it focuses on spousal abuse. But that’s like saying the meaning of the Kennedy assassination was in the issue of presidential security (The Nation 111). Simpson was a third-string celebrity whose great fall (if it comes to that) affects no one but his alleged victims.
The newspapers and the broadcast networks are primarily marketing vehicles, and it’s up to editors and programmers to divine and manipulate the fantasies and fetishes of the market in order to sell the media product. The financial stakes are too high to permit the media managers to make news decisions on any other basis but sales. The line between news and entertainment was erased long ago. The line is now between what will sell and what will sell a lot (The Nation 111). Even mainstream media does not escape the demands of the market. The month of January revealed why increasing numbers of Americans find themselves disgusted and repelled by the offerings of the mainstream news media (Douglas 19).
This was the month that the Advisory Council on Social Security issued its report recommending that some of the fund be invested in the stock market. Here’s a proposed change that affects every American, yet during the short time it showed up in news reports, Newsweek gave us Paula Jones on the cover and then, in an even more puerile gesture, a head shot of the recently murdered JonBenet Ramsay, her make-up, hairdo, and smile suggestive of any Playmate-of-the-Month. Mainstream media are good at taking threatening, economic class issues such as Social Security and covering them as bogus intra-class “inter-generational warfare” problems (Douglas 19). Similarly, supposed investigative TV shows like ABC’s “20-20” are clogged with celebrity puff interviews. The true chilling effects on investigative reporting come from the networks’ own insistence that the news divisions meet the same bottom-line, profit-driven requirements as the entertainment units. For every episode of dangerous business practices in the TV news-magazines, there are five “soft” features on celebrity lifestyles, health and beauty, and Dennis Rodman’s newest outfit (Douglas 19).
Is this “Freedom of the Press?” Do the people have a “right to know?” Those against restricting journalists say that freedom of the press is crucial to the freedom of our country. They say that restricting the press is unconstitutional because it limits citizens’ First Amendment rights to free speech (Current Events 3). But free speech should express ideas and promote exchange. It should not be used as a vehicle to promote the promulgation of vicious gossip and hearsay. These advocates also argue that celebrities have no right to complain about the press. They give interviews to the press to promote their movies, books, and other projects. Why then, ask critics, should celebrities complain about the press (Current Events 3)? But the welcome interviews do not constitute blanket authorization for any future time.
They say that the press has an obligation to seek out the truth — to investigate and to find the real story. But the word “story” implies entertainment value, and one person’s private business should not be put on display for public entertainment without explicit consent. Does Freedom of the Press mean that the press should be allowed to cover whatever it wants to cover? In his book Privacy and Freedom (1967), the political scientist Alan Westin suggested that privacy be defined as the right of persons to control the distribution of information about themselves. Using this definition, invasion of privacy becomes the attempt to gather information about a person (and sometimes making that information public) that the person expects to be disclosed, if at all, only as he or she wishes (Grolier Encyclopedia 1996, privacy, invasion of).
Freedom of the Press has put the dollar ahead of any sense of ethics. In the backlash of the media scrutiny that will follow the death of the Princess the pressure will mount to tighten privacy laws. There’s a chance that the fallout will be a series of press restrictions never seen before in the Western democracies. Voluntary codes of press behavior have failed miserably. Expect to see legislative efforts to make it easier to sue for invasion of privacy and perhaps some proposals for outright bans on pictures of minors without their consent (Alter 39). Ultimately, nothing much can change because media coverage is the oxygen of modern public life. Vicious gossip and trivial hearsay that was once only worthy of back fence chatter is now available for a nominal fee. And if you’re not a celebrity? Take heart, the man who rescued that baby from the well in Texas, one of the biggest news stories of the 1980s, later committed suicide (Alter 32). Proving that anyone can obtain celebrity status albeit posthumously.
Alter, Jonathan. “In the time of the tabs.” Newsweek Jun. 1997: 32.
Alter, Jonathan. “Dying for the age of Diana.” Newsweek Sep. 1997: 39.
“Do we need to know?” Editorial. Current Events Sep. 1997: 3.
Douglas, Susan. “Masks and ratings.” The Progressive Mar. 1997: 19.
“Juicing the news.” Editorial. The Nation Jul. 1994: 111.
“Miller v. California.” Grolier Encyclopedia. 1996
“Oprah continues to reign as no. 1 talk show host.” Editorial. Jet Jul. 1995: 22.
Peyser, Marc. “Making a killing on talk TV.” Newsweek Mar. 1995: 30.
“Privacy, invasion of.” Grolier Encyclopedia. 1996.