I was standing on a street corner the other evening when I chanced to see a media personality, a local TV newsman, drive by in a while Rolls Royce. Most of those who scavenge news to fetch back for viewers and readers alike are much more modestly compensated. Still the sight of this person who is considered to be a reporter, albeit one of gifts modest enough to make him blush, reminded me of the chauffeured limousines I'd recently seen waiting in front of the CBS broadcast facility in New York City. Several of them had special press license plates on them.
The news business, print or broadcast, is one of the nation's most profitable industries so it shouldn't surprise us to see the most successful people in the coal business or the rubber tire business or the banking business. If you've got it, spend it and even give it a little flaunting wiggle.
However, flaunting it may not be such a good idea when the industry is also asking for all sorts of privileges and immunities no other industry or class of workers claims for itself. Under the rubric of freedom of the press, the press, broadly defined to include broadcasting, has been damning the Supreme Court as well as a host of lesser ones while contending that persons in the news business should be immune from libel suits, should be granted special rights of access to government information denied ordinary citizens, should not have to testify in law suits and should have a special exemption prohibiting the issuance of a warrant to search the premises where a news organization is doing business.
Reporters, news executives and top bosses should stop and appreciate how much they've distanced themselves from their fellow citizens and how impatiently thin support for media arrogance is becoming. They might harken to Robert Kaus, writing not for the John Birch Society but the well-thought-of liberal left publication, The Washington Monthly:
". . . I am a bit resentful because, in explaining their role as news-gatherers, these reporters invariably emphasize how different they are from me. It is their constitutional function, I am told, to risk official wrath, snoop out information and disclose it to the public. As a member of that public, all I presumably must do is stay tuned. The legal distinctions the reporters draw seem to grow into a social gulf between them and me. I begin to wonder, why can't I be a glamorous privileged investigator? Who chooses these people? After all, these are constitutional rights they're talking about. Don't I have the same right to be a reporter as they do?"
No, you don't, according to a theory spun by Supreme Court Justice Poter Stewart in a speech a few years ago and endlessly cited by bothe employers and employes in the news industry. "The publishing business," quoted the justice, "is the only organized private business that is given explicit constitutional protection."
As history the idea is a balderdash since the people who wrote the First Amendment never dreamt the presses they declared free would be owned by multi-billion dollar conglomerates. But the misconceptions and delusions of one judge, who incidentally has received little support from his colleagues on his theory, is less to be remarked on than that masses of people in the news business would be so politically foolish to claim privileges which are only going to increase our fellow citizen's animosities toward us.
It's not just the left liberals who're backing away from the media. Conservative middle-of-the-road Democrats of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan stripe are also deserting us. Max Kampelman, a pluperfect, old-line Hubert Humphrey-type of Democratic conservative, has a devastating antimedia article in the current issue of Policy Reviews, the quarterly published by The Heritage Foundation.
Where Kaus, the leftward-leaning thinker, restricts himself to warning and complaint, the middle-of-the-road Kampelman goes further. He calls for antitrust action to break up newspaper chains and media conglomerates which own papers, broadcasting facilities, magazines and publishing houses. He also hints the time may come when, if the media is to have such extraordinary powers, the people who work in it may have to be licensed.
If the silly geese to control so much of the mass media only had the political brains to understand it, they'd know that Spiro Agnew was their best friend. As long as he was doing the attacking, the great American center and left came to our aid, even though many privately agreed with the disgraced vice president. With Agnew gone, left, right and center are looking at us and not liking what they see.