The Supreme Court has reconfirmed the power of the lesser courts to issue search warrants for the offices of news organizations. The news biz is doing its freedom of the press number as a counterattack, insisting that the First Amendment to the Constitution exempts it from the Fourth, which authorizes search warrants for good and reasonable cause.
As a public-relations gesture the media outcry is imprudent. In a society as egalitarian in values as our the constant reaching out on the media's part for privilege is resented. Whether it be special license plates so that Sam Scoop and Betsy Beat can park illegally or the claim that reporters should have access to jails and other public instituions the public isn't premitted, media people and media orgainzations always seem to be asking for something nobody else is entitled to. That's no way to be loved, and as a group we are not held high in the affections of our fellow countrymen.
At hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee on the Supreme Associated Press complained about a Montana court order to search an AP office for a tape recording of a confession of a man who allegedly shot a cop. If such a tape existed, one wonders why the AP didn't rush it to the district attorney's office instead of throwing impediments in the way of the investigation. As a group, the news business is in enough trouble with the public without making it look like we without evidence that might help convict a cop killer.
A gentler method of securing the tape would have been to subpoena it. In the Montana case an official told the House committee he couldn't get assurances from the AP that the tape wouldn't be destroyed before the subpoena was served. Be that as it may, and without passing judgement on the guilt or innocence of the man accused of the shooting, it is just as well news organizations don't enjoy immunity from search warrants.
Having one's premises searched is an ordeal even when carried out with consideration and politeness. Often, though, the cops act like teen-age vandals. They think a warrant is for search and destroy, not look and and see. If the media is to fulfill the role it never tires of proclaiming for itself, if it is to be the sleepless guardian of everyone's rights, it had best not be isolated against the common threats, dangers and consequences the rest of the population is exposed to. One of which is getting your place searched.
The television anchor person arriving to cover an event in a grand chauffeured limousine isn't how ordinary reporters convey themselves to the site of news, but major media company executives and their upper echelon editors and reporters are already too nicely nestled in life's softly upholstered niches. The one thing they do not need is yet more cotton padding around their important selves.
One of the objections raised by the nooises at the House hearing was that the cops searching for one piece of evidence in a news office would be able to read other, unrelated confidential material in the files. Secret news sources might therefore be revealed. The thought is shocking. Why, said Bill Small of CBS News, his corporation's offices have never been searched, even in the Iron Curtain countries. Bugged, yes, but not searched.
The explanation for that is it's a rare news office that contains any noteworthy secret or confidential information. An operation like CBS News doesn't take chances, doesn't conduct exposes, and never intentionally does anything that would lead the authorities, even in communistic dictatorships, to search its offices. The implication is that numerous secret sources of information would dry up and blow away when in fact years will go by before you'll see an item on a broadcast based on information from that largely imaginary stereotype, the frightened and endangered secret source.
The Supreme Court decision will have to practical effect on the operations of the nation's larger news gathering organizations. In the reaction of the media executives we have a case of empty, symbolic behavior.
This cockadoodledoping about freedom of the press and the public's right to know obscures a more serious political problem for us, although not for the media. After the free press has freely printed its free information and the public's right to know has been upheld, what in Sam Hill is the public to do about it? Tune in again tommorrow? Buy the next day's paper?
Yes. To the degree that politics has become a spectator sport, vacuous controersies such as this serve as the counterfeit of political process. At the same time they reinforce the definition of citizenship as a passive condition in which we watch our media champions represent us.