When the Supreme Court threw a monkey wrench into the popular practice of reporters riding along with police, it was just the latest judicial slap at the media-infotainment complex.
The press has been on the short end of three recent court battles that speak volumes about the kind of journalistic behavior many people can't stand. In each case, major media companies doggedly defended the controversial conduct.
Talk about a losing streak.
On May 7, a Michigan jury awarded $25 million to the family of a gay man murdered by another guest on "The Jenny Jones Show." Whether the Time Warner program should have been held liable for violence by the embarrassed guest, Jonathan Schmitz, is certainly debatable, but it's hard to defend the deceptive practice of luring Schmitz onto a "secret admirer" show and bringing out a man who spoke of using "whipped cream and champagne" on him.
On May 17, the Supreme Court upheld a $1 million libel judgment against the Globe tabloid for repeating an author's claim that a California photographer killed Robert Kennedy. The Globe made no effort to contact the falsely accused man, Khalid Khawar, and the publisher quickly withdrew the book.
In legal briefs, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC and ABC argued that the tabloid was merely engaged in "neutral reporting" of a public controversy. Of course, accusing a man of a major assassination without proof also happens to be wildly irresponsible.
Last week, in cases involving CNN and The Washington Post, the Supreme Court unanimously held that police can be sued for allowing journalists to tag along during a raid on someone's house. The major networks, New York Times, The Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Gannett and Dow Jones argued that such a prohibition "will unnecessarily deprive the public of valuable information about the functioning of its government."
Or does it merely deprive the media of dramatic footage of cops busting suspects? The details of such raids can always be obtained afterward, but not the eye-catching pictures gleaned from a cozy alliance with law enforcement.
"The thing people object to more than anything else is the notion that the press intrudes on people's lives to get a story," says media analyst Robert Lichter.
Media executives are understandably concerned about rulings that could lead to serious restrictions on news gathering. But in the process they're defending talk shows that ambush guests, tabloids that casually accuse people of murder and journalists who burst into people's homes on raids. Legally kosher or not, these practices help give the media a collective black eye.
The New York Times has had a heck of a time reviewing a new book by its Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, Natalie Angier.
First the daily paper assigned Stanford University scholar Marilyn Yalom to assess Angier's "Woman: An Intimate Geography." In her piece last month, Yalom called it "a dazzling new book . . . supported by rigorous scientific underpinnings."
The problem: In 1997, Angier wrote the Times' review of Yalom's book, "A History of the Breast," calling it "a fascinating cultural, political and artistic history of our most symbolically freighted body part." The Times ran a correction on Yalom's review 10 days ago, saying the paper "does not knowingly assign a book review to a writer whose own work has been reviewed by the author."
"There's a little catechism we go through," says Book Review Editor Chip McGrath, who does not oversee the daily reviews. " 'Do you know this person? Is there a reason why you couldn't write an objective review?' You'd think you could take that for granted, but you can't."
Yalom stands behind her review: "When I saw the book, I just fell in love with it. The fact that she had reviewed my book, did it enter into my thinking? That's a hard one. Probably not."
Next came what McGrath calls the "double whammy": He killed a negative review of Angier's book assigned for the Sunday book section. That review, by British author Helena Cronin, harshly criticized Angier's scientific reasoning. Cronin told the Boston Globe, which first noted the flap, that she found the book "totally idiotic."
McGrath says he spiked the piece "not because I disagreed with the verdict, but because there was a tonal problem, a snarky tone that is par for the course in English reviews." He also says Cronin "only dealt with the 10 to 15 percent of the book which really upset her," and even in a rewritten version failed to address most of the book.
The episode is "unfortunate and doesn't make us look good," McGrath concedes. But he says there was no special sensitivity because a staffer's book was involved: "We run unfavorable reviews of Times people all the time. It's always painful, but you do it."
Angier says her "apocalyptic fantasy" was that Cronin would be assigned the review because the book criticizes Cronin's field; she also cringed at the choice of Yalom because of Angier's previous review. "It's kind of unfair for me because it looks like the Times is protecting me," she says. "I'm sorry it turned out this way."
Sleuth with a Mission
Fans and rivals alike have wondered for years how Bill Gertz, the national security reporter for the Washington Times, gets his hands on so many classified documents.
Now we have a clue: Gertz says his sources in the government are "unsung heroes," "both dissidents and patriots," who "have jeopardized their careers to expose wrongdoing." They apparently agree with Gertz's assessment of President Clinton and his "repeated misuse of the armed forces," "his wrongheaded policies affecting our nation's security" and "his cavalier coverup of this misconduct."
The description comes from Gertz's new book, "Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security." Asked if he is ideologically in tune with the people who give him classified data, he says: "I don't really care why people leak. I care whether the information is accurate. . . . It's not my problem, it's the government's problem." Gertz says he doesn't want to reveal information "that will help anyone conduct witch hunts."
"Betrayal" includes 59 pages of secret documents--including data on Chinese missile technology--and the publisher, Regnery, used six blank pages to note that it withheld documents at the National Security Agency's request.
Gertz has sparked several Justice Department investigations. One such probe began in 1996 when Gertz published a classified State Department memo recounting talks between Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Former State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns once blamed "gutless wonders" for such leaks to Gertz.
Says Gertz: "We try to present both sides of the story. This is a heavily spin-oriented administration."
"Ohio Court Upholds Constitutionality of School Voucher Program"--Friday's Washington Post.
"Ohio Vouchers Defeated on Technicality"--Friday's USA Today.