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The People’s ‘Right’ to a Show

Wall Street Journal; New York; Dec 2, 1991; Chapman, Bruce;
Edition: Eastern edition
Start Page: PAGE A12
ISSN: 00999660
Subject Terms: Public figures

Personal Names: Smith, William Kennedy

Bruce Chapman discusses the vaguaries of the “right to privacy” as it applies to people caught in the news. He offers the example of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, which he says is another example of “the people’s right to a show.”

Full Text:
Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Dec 2, 1991

It’s time to sit back, put our feet up and watch the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith. Thanks to television we now can observe real crimes covered on videotape, real arrests in progress, and real trials, live.

The formats also can be combined, as when the Los Angeles Police Department was caught on amateur videotape clubbing a motorist over and over again. This scene was then broadcast over and over again. Now it is Exhibit A in the forthcoming, eagerly awaited LAPD trial, which is likely to begin in time for this season’s February Sweeps.

“The people’s right to a show” has joined “the people’s right to know.” The politico-media culture that finds a “right to privacy” in the “penumbras” of the Constitution, when the subject suits it, does not discern a privacy right in televised trials, where even — as in the Smith case — casual speculation, hearsay and innuendos of a necessarily messy jury selection are presented, without interpretation, to a national audience.

Media also are now fatally attracted to coverage of politicians’ off-hand, private comments, which are regarded as more authentic than their considered public views, so tapes are irresistible. But in the joint venturing of amateur and professional videography, some of the stingers eventually may get stung. A few years ago that kind of justice actually visited Mike Wallace, who plays the Grand Inquisitor on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

An interviewee had insisted on having a TV camera and crew of his own at the program taping session as insurance against creative editing later. And CBS met that demand in order to get the targeted individual to appear. At a break in his taping, Mr. Wallace failed to notice that the interviewee’s own camera was still running, and, thinking himself safe, he told a little joke. A little off-color racial joke.

When things like that happen to cabinet secretaries, they are forced to resign. Mr. Wallace was spared dismissal, but perhaps he now realizes that the right-to-know is an omnivore.

I think of Mr. Wallace when I see announcements on certain TV channels asking folks at home with newsy items on their videocameras to send them in to the station. It will be wonderful when someone with a zoom lens and a shotgun mike catches a congressman saying something politically indiscreet to his wife, or whomever, at a sidewalk cafe. But will it seem so wonderful when the newsworthy personal item is gleaned long distance from the lips of a famous TV anchorperson?

It all started, they say, with Watergate. Doing research for a book, I was told by Elliott Richardson, who served in several posts under President Richard M. Nixon, that in 1969, Pat Moynihan — now the senator, then a presidential aide — introduced Nixon to the excellent biography of Benjamin Disraeli by Robert Blake.

Mr. Nixon worked through the Disraeli book and later praised it to Mr. Richardson: so brilliant, so thorough. Yes, indeed, Mr. Richardson replied, but there was something one missed even in the best of such histories: It was the immediacy that the real words of an eminent man’s discussions could provide.

At that point, says Mr. Richardson, Mr. Nixon became very pensive.

Mr. Richardson, who years later quit as Mr. Nixon’s attorney general because he would not fire the Watergate prosecutor, wonders if he may have given Nixon the idea of the tapes.

But he probably didn’t. It turns out that there’s been a whole lot of taping going on in the White House. Just when the 50th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration got underway in 1983, somebody nearly spoiled it by releasing the true story that FDR had installed tapes in the Oval Office. The tapes revealed a conversation of the president in 1940 planning certain dirty tricks against his Republican campaign opponent, Wendell Willkie.

Later it was disclosed that President John Kennedy, among other things, was also a secret taper. Yes, and Ike did it, too. Some people think Herbert Hoover did it, but they aren’t sure, probably because nobody can be found with a high enough boredom threshold to listen to the Hoover tapes.

Now, in addition to sound and videotapes, there are also treasure troves of news being found in computer files. As the folks in the Iran-Contra caper discovered, these files are much harder to erase than you might think.

The many forms of taping definitely compose a democratic opportunity, allowing anyone to collect and, eventually, to deliver the news. So let’s all tape. If you said something interesting over the barbecue about your taxes, well, inquiring minds want to know.

Once we spend all our leisure hours, and much of our working ones (if the Thomas hearings were an indication) perusing the ambiguous intimacies of other people’s lives, we can stop worrying so much about our own. At least until these, also, appear on TV.

Mr. Chapman, president of Discovery Institute in Seattle, is writing a book on politicians.


Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.