Harassment by the press

A. M. Rosenthal

October 16, 1991|By A. M. Rosenthal

EVERY DAY in the newspapers and every hour on the hour on TV, the American press tells the country that not only the judge and his accuser are on trial in the harassment hearings but also the Senate, the nomination process, all men and the character of American society.

True enough, but missing from the list of defendants on the harassment charge is the institution that is shaking its finger at the nation. The American press itself belongs on that list.

So often and so casually that it hardly even notices anymore, the press now practices a wide variety of harassments -- based on sex, politics, occupation, prominence, vendetta or even personal tragedy.

I am not dealing with the coverage of the story. It was the hearings, specifically the bravery of witnesses on both sides in risking attack, even their jobs, by speaking their minds and hearts, that made this column pop out of my own mind and heart.

For years I have thought of speaking plain about harassment by the press. I did not because of reluctance to seem self-serving since the New York Times is not often an offender, and because of fear -- of again making my family the victim of harassment based on blood or marriage.

But now, liberated by and grateful for the courage of the witnesses in the hearings -- to it.

It is sexual harassment to pursue a woman's every step, leeching and leering about her, her clothes, her children, her friends and her personal relations with a husband dead almost 30 years. The press has turned Jacqueline Onassis into a harassed, everlasting profit center for factoficto TV and for newspapers, magazines and book publishers. Three decades now we pursue her because she is the widow of a murdered American -- in other words, because she is a woman.

It is sexual harassment to send helicopters snooping above Elizabeth Taylor's wedding. It is sexual harassment to send reporters peering into windows of a woman charging rape, or the windows of a presidential candidate -- or to print whether a person is gay to make an "activist" point.

It is sexual harassment for the slavering "reporters" of those prime-time "expose" shows to invade schools, trying to "interview" teachers about the sex lives of other teachers. I wonder how much they have to pay a reporter to do that; maybe not much at all, maybe they just like that line of work.

I say it is loathsome political and personal harassment for detachments of reporters and camera people to camp outside the house of Judge Clarence Thomas, or anybody else trapped in the news, preventing him, his wife and children from coming and going in the peace that every non-criminal is supposed to enjoy in the name of civic decency.

Is it not loathsome harassment to stick a camera and a mike into a mother's face and ask her how she really feels about the shooting of her child, still lying in a drawer in some hospital morgue?

The harassing garbage pail journalism that once existed on the disreputable fringes, in journalism's red light districts, is now a treasured feature of many papers -- the daily "dirt pages" of rumor and scandal.

A slick, respected national monthly -- no names because so many publications are harassers -- quotes an anonymous source as saying that a New Yorker of achievement comes from the "gutter." That is harassment with a mugger's mask, more degrading to magazine than victim.

The garbage pail publications still exist, of interest only to their victims and their publishers, who use them for social entree and profit. Some owners have become hostages of fear to their own staffs.

But what does count is that so many "mainstream" editors and publishers publicize and glamorize the garbage-sprayers. They give them unearned power by running titteringly admiring stories about them, hiring them as "contributing editors," taking them into their clubs and inviting them to parties. The Mugger Who Came to Dinner.

That sends a clear message to their own staffs -- dirt and harassment are where power, money and glamour can be found, so dig.

Spare me the First Amendment lecture. I know harassment by press is within the law. I agree the Constitution is worth the price.

So we have freedom of press. Now all that journalists need is freedom of conscience.

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