Some arguments, like inferior wines, do not improve with age. One is the argument that in crisis times the press should -- supposing it knew how -- serve the declared interests and wishes of the government. Like Pravda or Izvestia.
The hijacking of Flight 847, followed by a variety of provocative and exploitative television scenes, stirred the argument again. Not that it ever needs much stirring.
For instance, my colleague Joseph Kraft writes that "Much is lost when journalists deal with terrorists as if they were doing business as usual." Kraft argues that since publicity is the "oxygen" of terrorism (which is true) there is "an overwhelming case for . . . journalistic self-discipline." But a term like self-discipline, applied to visual media, is evasive.
How far should this "elf-discipline" go? Should the press play censor at the source, and if so, when? Should television blot out Nabih Berri's news conferences, or conceal the anguish of the hostage families?
The same argument, more or less, arose a decade and a half ago when America's inner cities exploded during the two or three "long hot summers" of the '60s. One element common to those riots was the TV camera panning a sea of contorted faces -- a heady mix of vandalism, street theater, rage and lark, with media and message hopelessly entangled. Without the shamelessly promiscuous eye of television, it was then charged, these rampages would be less contagious and might not even occur.
Was this so? Television responded with an institutional ad posing the key question: "Cover it? Or cover it up?" There was in the message some of the First Amendment baloney that the press is quick to dole out at the first chirp of criticism. But the question is the right one to ask in any society built on the giddy belief that peopl can govern themselves.
A papa-knows-best attitude toward government, if ever held by press or people, was discredited, perhaps forever, by the gross lies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Certainly Vietnam and Watergate discredited assumption that government knows what it's doing and would do it well if only the press kept its big nose out of it.
Unquestionably, television with its peculiarly pictorial style of reporting is a mixed blessing -- or, more accurately, a mixed curse. TV changes the terms of political action and discussion. It has helped arm puny mini-states and terrorist rings with the capacity to disrupt the composure and injure the pride of great economic-military powers. But this nuisance capacity can be turned into a fundamental threat only by inflated talk, panic and overreaction.
Both "the media" and their critics make the same error when they argue over television's costs and benefits, responsibilities and rights, in terms appropriate to print. Television is about as capable of self-discipline in its chase after good footage as a dog is in chasing a rabbit.
Ithiel de Sola Pool, a professor at MIT, has observed that every new communications technology (perhaps beginning with the war drum) has aroused the censorial instinct, and television is no exception. And indeed history's would-be censors sometimes have good arguments, at least from their own perspective. The Renaissance church, in the fullness of its authority, had an excellent argument against the printing press and the vernacular Bible.
But deference to the censors' fears over an open society's hopes is not the governing philosophy of the First Amendment.
The Reagan administration, which promoted a good deal of grumbling over TV coverage of the hostage crisis, usually is found extolling unfettered competi- tion in the "free market." Certainly the Reagan FCC has fostered a competitive climate for television in which "irresponsibility" and "bad taste" are certain to prevail.
Moreover, an administration with so much faith in going, via television, over the heads of government and media middlemen to "the people" can hardly complain when the monster it usually strokes develops a bite.