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Winter-Spring 2001
Vol. 63, No. 2-3

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To Pry or Not to Pry

 

Jack Valenti (on screen) responds to a provocative question from moderator Arthur Miller '56 (foreground).

Suppose you are a reporter at a major national television news magazine and you get a titillating e-mail.

Banker Roderick Disney, an influential financier who was an advisor to presidents 20 years ago, is really-the message reads- a Mafia-friendly gambler who has dabbled in drugs, drinks too much, and spends an awful lot of time visiting prostitutes. And he may have spent some time in a mental institution.

He's been out of the public eye for many years, but the message indicates some of this happened while he was at the White House.

What do you do?

Such were the scenarios spun by Arthur Miller '56, the Bruce Bromley Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and legal editor for ABC's Good Morning, America, as he led a panel of noted journalists and privacy experts through a roundtable discussion of "Privacy and the Media."

The freewheeling format, familiar from Miller's PBS shows, The Constitution: That Delicate Balance and Managing Our Miracles: Health Care in America, offered a quick-and-dirty-and quick- witted-glimpse into the editorial process of major national news media.

About equally divided between practicing reporters and writers and legal experts who specialize in privacy matters, the members of the panel agreed that issues of privacy for public and private figures have become prickly in American culture.

Some were pessimists. Said Jack Valenti, president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America and a former special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson:

"If you're thinking about going into public life, you must enter into your calculus that if there is anything in your background, no matter how meager, it is going to come out."

But some sounded optimistic notes.

One of them was Marc Rosenwasser '74, a senior broadcast producer at Dateline NBC (who, incidentally, said he got his start as an investigative reporter by working on the Campus Times). Rosenwasser pointed out that early in the 2000 presidential election campaign, GOP candidate George W. Bush told reporters that they had the right to ask him about allegations of illegal drug use in his past. But Bush also told them that he had the right to refuse to answer the question. And the issue quickly faded.

"I think we saw a reassertion of privacy in the political campaign," Rosenwasser said.

The unscripted exchanges highlighted the many shades of gray that characterize much public policy.

Richard Davis '66, a lawyer whose expertise has been brought to bear on both of the presidential impeachment inquiries of the past three decades, argued that the media often fuel their own stories just by asking questions.

Robert Sack '60, a federal judge on the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, pointed out that journalistic principles often clash with legal principles.

If the charges against the banker are true, for example, Sack noted that the scenario's protagonist has little recourse. Libel and slander cover only false statements, he said.

"The law kind of limps along with how to deal with false statements through libel and slander, but we protect, through the Constitution and other means, true statements."

But he said, "basically here's a guy-a big shot-and it turns out he's a bum. If I don't read about that on the front page of the Daily News, what am I going to read in the morning?"

 

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