High court ruling is harsh reality

TV: Producer of Fox's `COPS' says he's unconcerned, but edict that police can be sued for letting media tag along chills, baffles the industry.

May 25, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Television news executives and producers of crime-based "reality" programs reacted with some concern and much confusion yesterday to the Supreme Court ruling that police can be sued for letting TV camera crews and other journalists accompany them into people's homes to observe arrests or searches.

The producer of the network television series that might seem to be most affected by the ruling, "COPS," a staple of the Saturday night lineup on Fox, said the ruling would have no affect at all on his show.

But some executives of local news, whose operations rely heavily on police and crime reporting, worried that the ruling could severely restrict access of all journalists to crime scenes depending on how it is interpreted by various law enforcement agencies.

"The Supreme Court ruling regarding media ride-alongs is very specific in addressing Fourth Amendment issues of rights to privacy in relation to the execution of search warrants," John Langley, the executive producer of "COPS," said in a statement issued by Fox.

"While we do not necessarily agree with that decision, we are obligated to point out that, as a so-called `ride-along' show, we are unaffected by the decision because we obtain releases from everyone involved in our program. Moreover, we do not, under any circumstances, violate rights of privacy whether in this context or any other context," Langley said.

But Langley's response is based on the best-case interpretation of the ruling from the media's point of view, which would restrict the limitations only to members of the media entering a home with police executing a search warrant.

It is based on Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist writing that, "It is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into a home during the execution of a warrant when the presence of the third parties in the home was not in the aid of the execution of the warrant."

Wanda Queen Draper, director of public affairs at WBAL (Channel 11), said that under the best-case interpretation, "This ruling will not impact our local news, because, for the last five years, we have made it our policy not to enter anyone's home without the homeowner's permission."

But she also acknowledged uncertainty and concern about how the ruling will be applied.

"It's murky right now, and we'll just have to wait to see if it is applied in a broader way," she said.

The murkiness and potential for broader application at the grassroots level worry Joe DeFeo, news director at WBFF (Channel 45) and WNUV (Channel 54). "It's getting increasingly hard to get information out of police, and my fear is that this is another chance for them to keep us out," DeFeo said.

As he sees it, the implications could be wide-ranging for local TV news not just in terms of ride-along situations, but also in the bread-and-butter issues of where police lines are established, how close news cameras are allowed to crime scenes and whether suspects and persons taken into custody can be photographed.

How is "ride-along" interpeted, for example? Does it mean only when reporters are literally riding along with police in their car? What about if they follow in a news station car? What if police simply tell them where a raid is about to take place?

The fear of broad application and restricted media access are in part what led 24 news organizations to side with law enforcement officers in the Maryland and Montana cases that led to yesterday's Supreme Court ruling. What it comes down to is the media's First Amendment rights vs. the individual's Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

Yesterday's decision comes at a time when some police departments are restricting media access during raids. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, instituted a policy in March of not letting reporters accompany them into homes on raids and searches without homeowner permission.

If interpreted narrowly, there probably won't be a major affect on local TV news or even "reality" shows like "COPS." Obtaining permission and releases before entering a home and identifying anyone filmed during a raid or search has become more or less standard industry practice since the late 1980s, when there were some egregious examples, such as a Geraldo Rivera "raid" on national TV of a drug dealer's home in Channelview, Texas.

Rivera identified a man found inside the house as a major drug dealer, only to have to admit the next day that the man was a house painter, hired to paint while the dealer was out of the country.

But the ruling also could give police departments latitude in deciding how it should be applied, since they are the ones facing liability, DeFeo said.

"And I just fear this could be another step leading to some of them -- based on what jurisdiction you are dealing with -- closing the door altogether on public information," said DeFeo.

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