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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

High Court Gives Series a Dose of Reality

May 26, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Always aiming for class, we welcome to this forum a new contributor, that renowned former British statesman William Pitt:

"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter, the rain may enter, but the king of England cannot enter."

Pitt did not mention Fox's "Cops" in his writings, of course. He issued his short speech about freedom from invasiveness a couple of centuries ago, having in mind bully boys sent by British monarchs not police ride-alongs by U.S. news media and "reality" series that have been prominent on TV for a decade, earning huge profits because of their popularity and low overhead in monitoring law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Yet there is nothing at all musty about Pitt's words, which in spirit are as applicable today as ever.

Applicable to media.

The U.S. Supreme Court apparently thinks so, given its welcome unanimous ruling Monday that police, even when executing a search warrant, can be sued for bringing TV cameras and journalists into private homes to witness arrests or official ransackings. Still pending is whether the media can be sued in such cases.

Yet in effect, the ruling bars such ride-alongs--cops surely won't chance being sued--even though they can still occur on the street and in other public places.

What's going on here? Isn't the "people's right to know" fundamental to democracy? Isn't it essential that we have free access to information in order to make decisions that maintain the republic in a fair and equitable manner? Yes. And so essential is it that we correctly bend over backward--enduring all kinds of media malfeasance--to preserve this principle. Far better a messy press that's free than a tidy one that's compliant.

Yet there are few greater conflicts than the need for free-information flow vs. the rights of individuals to personal privacy. And on Monday, the high court ruled in favor of the latter, giving a judicial framework to moral concepts that apparently never invade the noodles of media clodhoppers who callously trample others en route to perceived stories. To them, the camera's red light rules.

Have these people no humanity, no sense of justice, no sense of the good old golden rule about doing to others only what they would want done to themselves?

Nope.

So hooray this time for the Supreme Court. Cases in Montana and Maryland were the catalyst, the justices finding in each that the 4th Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure had been violated.

The former had feds letting an unidentified CNN crew join them on a raid at a ranch in search of illegally poisoned bald eagles, the owner's comments to agents going directly from his lips--can you believe it?--to the news network's audio recorder. CNN later aired a documentary portraying the raid as a huge success, omitting that no poisoned eagles were found on the property. When the case went to trial, the rancher was acquitted of all charges except a minor offense involving pesticides.

"An amazing invasion" is how Justice Sandra Day O'Connor correctly summed up the second case. In that one, a fugitive search, federal marshals and local deputy sheriffs brought a reporter and a photographer from the Washington Post with them on a wee-hours forced entry into a Rockville, Md., home that roused a partially clad elderly couple from bed. The man was photographed in his undershorts with a gun to his head, even though the pictures weren't published. The fugitive being sought was the couple's son, who was not there.

The history of ride-alongs is pot-holed with excesses just as pernicious, two involving the former CBS News program "Street Stories." In one of these, a news crew went with Oakland cops to investigate a wife-beating report, then broadcast nationally the victim's face and name, and that of her young daughter, without the woman's permission. In another, CBS News personnel taped a suspect without identifying themselves while with federal agents and a U.S. prosecutor on a raid to a New York apartment looking for evidence of credit-card fraud.

And in 1997, "LAPD: Life on the Beat," a syndicated police ride-along series that recently ended production, aired without his anguished family's permission gruesome pictures of the body of Michael Marich, a young actor who had died in his Hollywood apartment of an accidental drug overdose.

Brother!

Not that nine judicial black robes were needed to identify police and media as jerks for uniting in such ride-alongs where each acts as an extension of the other. When entering private property with cameras rolling, they have been appallingly indifferent to fundamental privacy rights, while presenting social and moral crises misleadingly without context and in the most narrow, emotional terms possible.

At their best, media ride-alongs and "reality" series convey how diligently these agencies perform most of the time, often at great peril. At their worst they create unholy alliances where cops and cameras join forces as a single snoop, the former getting to choreograph themselves as heroes for the lens, the latter getting access to action footage that inevitably titillates viewers.

"Cops"--the only syndicated ride-along series still in production--says it already asks permission before entering private property. You'd have to bet, though, that other such series are bound to again spring up.

The collusion potential is enormous, with "reality" series airing nothing they believe puts their partner subjects in a bad light. Doing so would cut off access. No access, no show.

Now, thanks to Monday's ruling, much of that access has been withdrawn anyway. And perhaps somewhere, William Pitt is smiling.

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