The end of privacy as we have known it

August 09, 1999|By Jim Wright

WHATEVER happened to personal privacy, the elemental presumption that everyone is entitled, as a matter of basic human dignity, to certain areas of life that belong to him or her alone?

This simple assumption once applied, so I was taught, to every citizen -- big or small, rich or poor. What went on in the sanctity of one's own home or the private quarters of one's own mind was none of my business, or yours -- or the public's.

There were decent boundaries that common courtesy respected and, where necessary, courts of law protected. Shall these no longer apply? Are people condemned to shed all remnants of personal modesty and live at the intrusive mercy of ever-more-sophisticated electronic eavesdropping gadgetry?

The Democratic Party and Public Broadcasting Service stations, we learn, have been trading donor lists for years. I've regularly contributed to both, but I never knowingly ceded to either the right to sell my name.

It isn't just Democrats -- Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign shared lists with New Hampshire Public Television, we discover. Nor is it any more offensive for a political party to benefit from someone else's contributor list than for various charities to swap among themselves names and addresses of generous prospective donors.

The practice is widespread -- else how did I end up on so many different fund-raising lists with the same identical mistake in my address? There's nothing illegal or even faintly sinful about it, I guess, except that it sort of makes me feel like a sucker.

Then there are the hearty telephone solicitations. "Hello, James! Is this James? How're ya feelin' today, James?" Each time a cheerful voice greets me in such familiar terms, I know I'm about to get an opportunity to give somebody some money. Nobody calls me "James" except intimate strangers. Some of these eager solicitors represent worthwhile causes, and I shouldn't mind being importuned at my residence, I suppose. But the average fellow's home is about the only sanctuary he has. Maybe it'd be nicer to write and give folks a chance to think about our proposition at their convenience, not ours. In our busy, clamorous world, everybody should be entitled to certain minimal areas of privacy.

Tabloid-type ambush

The walls of courtesy that sheltered these areas began to fall a few years back. I don't know exactly when. But it seems to me that it was sometime in the 1970s, when newspapers across the country one day featured a revealing photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis trustingly sun bathing in a bikini on a private beach.

She wasn't posing for a photograph or even remotely conscious that one was being taken by telephoto lens from a ship far enough out to sea that she rightly enough felt invulnerable to prying eyes.

I was angry. Angry for her, whose right to privacy had been so crudely trampled. Angry at the peeping-Tom photographer. Angry at the presumably respectable wire service that distributed the photograph. Angry at the family newspapers all over the country that, driven to craven sensationalism by competition, opted to print it.

I wondered if anyone else were angry.

That incident may have marked a watershed of sorts. Respectable publications, driven by competition, began increasingly succumbing to tactics of the tabloids.

It's easy to blame newspapers, and television, and movies. Everyone has a favorite scapegoat for societal decadence and the decline in manners and morals. But I'm not even sure that's exactly what I'm talking about.

What concerns me here is the growing assumption that nobody has any rights to privacy, any personal space, that I may not breach if I choose. Now comes yet another independent counsel, one David Barrett, still hounding former San Antonio, Texas, mayor and former federal Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, three years after he left office, about a widely advertised extramarital dalliance that ended almost a decade ago.

I'm not claiming sainthood on Mr. Cisnero's part. He knows it was wrong and has said so publicly. He has gone to great lengths to make things right with his wife, and he has given up a brilliant public career to protect her and their children from unnecessary embarrassment.

Payments to a paramour

He seems to have acted in a thoroughly gentlemanly way toward the former paramour, Linda Medlar Jones. Not really a wealthy man, he gave her thousands of dollars to facilitate her move to Lubbock, Texas, where she chose to re-establish herself.

Now Mr. Barrett wants to prosecute Mr. Cisneros for underestimating to the FBI the total amount he'd given Ms. Medlar Jones. The legality of the payments has never been questioned -- just the amount.

A judge has given Mr. Barrett permission to use edited recordings with many admitted deletions that the woman secretly made of telephone conversations with Mr. Cisneros.

Apparently, recordings of private conversations, made without advising the other party, are all right now if they wind up helping to get the other party in trouble with the law.

Misrepresenting anything to the FBI is, admittedly, serious business. But even the best of men will lie to protect their families. And in such a wholly private misadventure, personally affecting only two families, what business is it, really, of the FBI's?

Is anything private any more?

Jim Wright, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His e-mail address: j.wright@tcu.edu.

Pub Date: 8/09/99

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