On January 22, 1987, R. “Budd” Dwyer, who was the Treasurer of Pennsylvania, committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a revolver during a televised press conference at his office in Harrisburg. At the time, my office was one floor above the newsroom of Fox-29 in Philadelphia; I was a close friend of the assignment editor of the station. So the next day I asked her about the process she and her colleagues at 29 (and every other news organization in the nation) went through when deciding what — and what not — to air.
The entire suicide was captured on tape and any news organization could have shown it in all of its horror. Only one station in Philadelphia showed it, exactly once. It stopped doing so after a flood of outraged phone calls demanded it. Thankfully, virtually every news organization in the nation decided that the visual was entirely too graphic a depiction of one man’s anguish to be shown publicly.
I mourn for the days when professional journalists made thoughtful choices like that one. Yes, we do live in an age when anyone with enough hatred to spew can start viral trouble with a Facebook posting, a Tweet, a cell phone photo or an upload to YouTube. But major news media still must conspire for such a virus to spread. And, too infrequently, they act as disease carriers.
Pastor Terry Jones, the pistol-packing fan of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, who sent his 10 and 15 year-old children to school wearing “Islam is of the Devil” T-shirts, drew the attention of the White, House, The Pentagon, The Vatican and practically every other news organization and blogger in the world with his threat to make good on “International Burn a Koran Day.” He started with a Facebook posting. Nancy Gibbs, a TIME columnist wrote that it quickly became “a media circus, but it was the kind in which the clowns attacked the children and everyone walking the tightrope looked down and couldn’t see any net.”
Fred Phelps, the loony hatemonger and disbarred attorney, whose family/congregation pickets military funerals at which his grandchildren wield “God Hates Fags” signs, has achieved an all-too large bully pulpit. Phelps said that fellow-pastor Jones had caved under pressure from “sissy brats” and complained that nobody paid attention to him when he actually burned a Koran two years ago.
Sarah Palin (I’ll reserve my adjectives) hijacked the healthcare reform debate with a single Facebook posting about “death panels.” This patently false sound-bite was echoed by “conservative media” (isn’t that an oxymoron?) until it had to be dignified with a response.
There’s an ongoing debate in public relations circles about licensing public relations. Doing so, proponents say, would weed out the embarrassing charlatans, publicists and party planners who so frequently embarrass our profession. But there’s that pesky little issue called the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits any law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. Free speech, it seems, cannot be licensed exclusively to the competent or the good. Nor can the press be muzzled; to paraphrase a Supreme Court ruling, “we have opted for a free press rather than a fair debate.” Fair enough.
But a free press is allowed to muzzle itself while serving its constitutionally protected role, without doing damage to a full and free public debate or its own practical need to sell content. Twenty-four years ago, the community of journalists came to the conclusion that pictures of a brain-splattered wall would not illuminate the story of Budd Dwyer’s life and death. I wish that choices like that were made much more frequently in newsrooms. The rebuttal that media have an obligation to cover controversial stories, as Gibbs wrote, “… can become a lazy defense to avoid exercising judgment. The right to speak does not include a right to be heard … saying that a single provocateur will set back world peace accords him way too much power, like indulging a toddler who’s playing with matches.” It’s time for news media to stop shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.