Time was when one of the safest complaints anybody could make was that the press paid insufficient attention to itself. A better case could be made now that perhaps the attention paid has gotten wildly excessive. Maybe journalists should go back to chasing ambulances and stop chasing their own tails.
Tonight's CBS News special, "Eye on the Media: Private Lives, Public Press," at 10 on Channel 9, constitutes another straw for an already overburdened camel's back and prompts thoughts of proposing a moratorium on think-tanky gab sessions where mediavites sit around and scratch their heads with worry while law professors pelt them with rhetorical confetti. That is what happens on this pointless program, so useless a convocation that it makes the horrid PBS "Inside Story," soon returning for another season of j'accuses and mea culpas, look good.
The group brought together for the CBS session, taped last November, does not lack for luster. It includes Charles Kuralt, Barbara Walters, Morley Safer, William F. Buckley Jr., Bob Schieffer, Sally Quinn, CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter, Chicago Sun-Times publisher James Hoge and, for some inscrutable reason, actress Lauren Bacall. The problem, as so often happens, is lawyers--in this case, a glorified lawyer, Harvard law professor Arthur R. Miller, who is nearly as distractingly prancey and precious as was Harvard law professor Charles R. Nesson, ringmaster of the last of the seminars to be seen on CBS.
CBS does not appear to have its heart in these broadcasts. The previous one aired Christmas Day. Tonight's was plopped into the no-man's-land opposite the Oscars. Better perhaps to forgo these things altogether, for though they may have value to the participants, the radically edited discussion to be shown tonight holds out little of interest or merit to outsiders tuning in.
Professor Miller is so busy being cute with his hypothetical questions and game-playing that hardly anyone gets to make a point that sticks or that matters. The professor invents four fictitious cases involving the press and the right of privacy--a congressman caught using cocaine, a movie star with secrets in her past, a businessman who was once a Nazi, and an anti-abortionist who has had an abortion. He calls the congressman "Carl E. Charisma," the movie star "Lola Lapont," the ex-Nazi "Werner Schnitzel," the Right-to-Lifer "Felicia Forthright" and a fictitious anchorman he calls "Wally Chronicle." One begins to wonder if "Peter Rabbit" is on the required reading list at Harvard Law. One also begins to think it would be better when in a dark alley to run into anything but a Harvard law professor.
Once or twice on the broadcast there is a flash of heat that borders on light. Buckley and Schieffer get into a testy spat about how much the public has a right to know. But primarily, the hour dizzily waltzes around the topic in the title.
Bad press behavior is like pornography; you know it when you see it. Here is a case neither cute nor hypothetical: On a recent Cable News Network broadcast, CNN's low-minded Hollywood correspondent, Sandy Kenyon, asked Erin Fleming, former companion to Groucho Marx, at the conclusion of the trial over Marx's estate, "Are you going to try to take your life?" and "Would you take too many pills?"
Nobody needs a Harvard professor to recognize this as sensationalistic and unforgivable bad taste, even cruelty, and to deplore it.
The media's tireless examination of the media goes on. As a trend, it is beginning to seem less like self-scrutiny and more like an exercise in self-importance. ABC News has made a solid contribution with its occasional "Viewpoint" broadcasts, in which real human beings put tough questions to newsmakers and reporters, and the less truncated "Media and Society Seminars" seen earlier this year on PBS under the umbrella title "The Constitution: That Delicate Balance" offered gourmet food for thought.
But tonight's runaround on CBS amounts to little more than a self-inflicted shiner.