During the question-and-denunciation period of a talk I was giving on the First Amendment at a library in the Bronx, an elderly woman rose and said, "What does your freedom of the press have to do with me? I read something, I see something that is so false I need to say something about it. So what can I do? Write a letter that they'll throw away?"
It may be that the primary reason much of the citizenry snaps at the press is its frustration at not being able to get back at it. The First Amendment prohibits any court or legislature from ordering the print press to run rebuttals. Broadcasters should be similarly protected, but still have to cope with such anachronistic regulations as the Fairness Doctrine. In any case, the elderly woman in the Bronx is not likely to press a complaint under the Fairness Doctrine. She will simmer instead.
It ought not to be surprising, therefore, that in spite of the First Amendment many readers and listeners would like government to move in and insist on lots of equal time for rebuttal. As some newspapers and broadcast stations voluntarily become more generous with reply time, this resentment may diminish: but then a stunningly distorted piece of journalism will come into view, and anger at the unfairness of the system will infect more people.
Consider "South Africa," reported, in a manner of speaking, by Morley Safer, produced by John Tiffin, and aired on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" on Dec. 16. According to Philip Scheffler, second-in-command at "60 Minutes" and director of day-to-day operations, the aim of the program was, "for the first time on television," to show the South African side of the story because "what they say is hardly ever heard." The unfairly treated "they," of course, is the minority white government ruling over 22 million blacks.
Presenting the perspective of the rulers can be useful journalism. But when the entire segment is devoted to that perspective as largely approved of and affirmed by "60 Minutes" itself, the imprimatur of CBS News has been placed on the moral legitimacy of the government headed by Pieter Willem Botha. The prime minister, it is quite relevant to note, was interviewed by Safer with the utmost delicacy.
When I told Philip Scheffler of "60 Minutes" that the program had struck me as more of a travelogue than the kind of probing journalism CBS's A-team professes to specialize in, he answered that the viewer was able to judge for himself whether it was a fair piece of reporting. (I suppose the same might have been said of a 1930s American news team getting Der Fuehrer's side of current events, without seeing any need to try to drop in at a concentration camp while they were there.)
The thesis of the CBS program was Botha's thesis: things are getting better all the time. See, there's integration in the theater, in restaurants, in parks. And look there, blacks are shopping alongside whites. Oh, the blacks are missing a few things, like political rights, but "there are new possibilities for them."
Nowhere in Morley Safer's serene journey was it mentioned that in the four months before air time, at least 160 blacks had been killed in resistance. And some not in resistance. Bishop Desmond Tutu tells of meeting, in a black township, a woman whose 6-year-old grandson had been shot by the police. Shot in the back and killed.
Nor is there anything so rude as a reference to a report by the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference on certain events not long before the Safer show went on the air. (The report was not broadcast on state-controlled South African television.) It tells, among other things, of two black girls, 15 and 16, who were raped repeatedly in an armored police van by two white officers. "A kind of state of war is developing between the police and the people," says Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban.
And nowhere in this suspension of journalistic intelligence by "60 Minutes" is there the sense, as a New Yorker writer put it recently, that "the miracle of South Africa is that a nonviolent movement still exists." Or, as Dr. Allan Boesak, senior vice president of the South African Council of Churches, puts it, "I don't think it's possible to speak of a peaceful transition anymore."
Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, has asked CBS for reply time. A CBS News vice president has assured me he will be refused. It's against policy.