Big Brother Is Among Us

November 15, 1991

The world is too much with us. Telephone marketing interrupts our dinners. (The hucksters purposely call at mealtime, thinking they are doing us a favor by not interrupting TV prime time.) Waitresses want to give orders, not take them. Ted Turner, the cable news entrepreneur, has figured out how to make money on us while we stand in line. Everyone, it seems, accepts the thesis of Alan Dershowitz' new best-seller, that "Chutzpah" is "the American way."

Some months back, a pregnant woman was refused a strawberry daiquiri because servers thought she might damage her developing baby. Now the notion that servers should monitor their patrons has expanded from health to taste. In Berkeley, Calif., a waitress commanded a customer to put away his Playboy magazine because it offended her. A noisy ruckus quickly erupted between self-appointed champions of women and of free speech (or free reading), culminating in a Playboy "read-in" at the diner where it all started.

Ted Turner's brainchild, coming soon to a grocery store near you, is a sinister cousin of Chris Whittle's Channel One scheme to put educational television into classrooms, together with commercials to pay for it. Mr. Turner wants to take advantage of the captive audiences queued up wherever service is slow. Television receivers placed at these choke points would invade the customers' private reveries with lite news, celebrity gossip and -- naturally -- commercials. At least 40 percent commercials, according to news reports.

Leedmark, the hypermarket in Glen Burnie, already has sold its customers' frustration to Mr. Turner. Supermarkets and airline terminals also are being targeted. Next, why not the driver's-license renewal counter and the hospital waiting room? Why not traffic-light intersections? Why not church services during baptisms and other rites that don't directly concern most communicants? Why not the stalls in public rest rooms?

Why would your friendly store manager install such infernal machines, which will craze checkout clerks, as well as infuriate customers? Money, silly. Mr. Turner will pay stores to emplace the "checkout channel." Tough luck, clerks. Have a nice day, customers.

It's not a new idea. More than 40 years ago, the management of Grand Central Terminal in New York assaulted rail commuters with loudspeaker commercials as they poured through the great central hall. Harold Ross, fabled editor of The New Yorker, sued on the grounds that his privacy had been invaded -- and won!

The right to be let alone, Justice Brandeis said, is "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." We heard a good bit about the "right to privacy" during the Clarence Thomas hearings. He sort-of said he believes in it. Let's hope so.

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