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Fred's Views

The Need to Know

It is entrenched in the U.S. constitution: the freedom of the press and the public's right to know. But to know what? When? Do I need to know if a celebrity stubbed his toe? Do I want to know?

It's often said that there are no more heroes. That's not exactly true. It is truer to say that we destroy our heroes. We build them up until they have achieved a certain level of "greatness", and then we permit the press to destroy them. Yes, "permit". If we would stop supporting the so-called "tabloids", the press might get the message that we don't need to have our heroes treated thusly. Maybe.

How many times have you seen the victim of some tragedy asked the inane question "How do you feel?" This is usually followed by other equally inane and callous questions. Why do reporters invade these people's privacy at such a time? Why do we encourage, if not demand, them to do so? Why are so-called reality shows still popular?

I have no answer to these questions, but it bothers me that the press has no sensitivity. It bothers me that they go about their disservice to humanity in the name of "the people's right to know".

Not quite so bad is the opposite scenario when the press interviews the victor or benefactor of some good fortune. In this case, the interviewee may be happy to grant an interview. However, it usually isn't very illuminating or even very good TV. These interviews are almost always more predictable than an Emmy thank you speech. Obviously, someone must celebrate vicariously by watching the victory shenanigans in the dressing room. I know my wife usually keeps watching the after-game show, but I usually leave the room. I'm not proposing that the press be barred from the dressing room of the victors, but I see absolutely no good reason for the press to interview the losers. Occasionally, a losing player will be magnanimous and congratulate the winners, but often the interview starts out bad and goes down hill fast.

I really don't want to know how a person who has just suffered a tragedy is feeling. I know I wouldn't want to have a microphone thrust into my face at such a time. I would prefer that others be given the same courtesy. Has anyone, ever, answered these inane questions with some illuminating thought that made the whole effort even slightly worthwhile? Not to my knowledge. But this doesn't stop these reporters from seeking their "sound bite" that might give them a boost in the ratings. Deplorable.

Do I really need to know who has been arrested for a crime? Remember, this person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Do I really need to see the prosecution dodge questions that might jeopardize his/her case if answered? Do I need to see the defense trying to use the press to win some advantage for his client? Of course not. It is enough to know that someone has been arrested. Then, when someone has been convicted of the crime, it would be good for the public to know some of the details, not necessarily all. I don't need to know who the victim was or any of the unfortunate details concerning the victim. What I really NEED to know is that justice was served. Which is not to suggest that the press should be barred from trials - only that they should have the good sense not to publish anything until the trial is concluded.

The same is true in times of national crisis. I usually admire Charlie Gibson, one of the hosts of Good Morning America on ABC. But I have recently seen him pushing his interviewees repeatedly for details that the interviewee, probably for very good reason, did not wish to divulge. Of course the information should come out eventually, but it does not need to come out while the crisis is still on-going. Our need to know may be really fundamental to our freedoms, but not our need to know AT THIS VERY MOMENT.

Copyright © 2001 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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