Letters to the Editor

Amitai Etzioni defends privacy book; Bradley hasn't got a chance.

Published April 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Privacy pleas



Mike Godwin's extensive review of my new book, "The Limits of Privacy,"
raises numerous good issues which deserve detailed discussion. Today, I
want to make just one point. Godwin keeps stressing that the right to
privacy is meant to protect us from the government, like other rights.
Hence, concern for the common good, my idea of balancing individual rights
with social concerns, is off on the face of it.

Behind this point lies the idea, which many privacy advocates hold, that
100 percent of the public policy turf belongs to the right, and that the burden
of proof for any concessions to pubic health and safety should be on those
who seek them. Moreover, they ought to be subject to what lawyers
call "strict scrutiny" -- i.e., the advocates of public interest should have to jump
through several hoops.

All this disregards two major considerations pivotal to my book. The
first is that the right to privacy is based in part of the Fourth
Amendment (and I show in detail why it should be even more so rooted) and
the Fourth Amendment explicitly declares there shall be no unreasonable
search, thus recognizing there are reasonable
searches -- those in the public interest. It does not read, like the First
Amendment, "Congress shall make no law allowing searches." The
notion of balance is built right into the right to privacy.

More generally, while it is true that the amendments to the Constitution
strongly protect us against the government, one should take to
heart the whole important document. It opens with the statement "We the
people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union" -- that is, with concern for the common good.

Two more quibbles: No, I do not think lawyers are irrational. I just agree with
some of them and not others. And no, I did not cherry-pick the cases;
otherwise I would not have touched encryption and national ID cards,
knowing far too well that these are sacred cows for many; and I certainly
would not have explored medical privacy, in which I found profit makers
grossly undermining our privacy without any redeeming contribution to the
common good.

-- Amitai Etzioni


How to gore Al?

Thanks to Jake Tapper for his thoughtful look at the long odds of Bill Bradley securing the Democratic nomination for president in 2000. I harbor a great deal of respect for Bradley -- a conscientious man who, like President Clinton and Vice President Gore, has the sort of broad intelligence and compassionate heart that we need in the people we send to the White House.

However, I don't believe that Bradley possesses the tough campaigning skills necessary to keep the Oval Office in Democratic hands -- where it belongs. His slow-burning, ruminative run for the presidency thus far suggests his belief that the next election can be fought solely on the basis of "the right ideas for the right time." Well, that's simply not the case in our rancorous era, when there's more gray than black and white in politics. As Clinton has proved, winning the highest office in our land requires not only a depth of knowledge about current issues, but also a willingness to fight long and hard, and a savvy about when to borrow from your opponent's playbook.

Clinton has done a fine job as president, despite the hateful, partisan attacks against him by Republicans. He has restored my faith that presidents can work hard on behalf of all Americans, not just the wealthy minority kowtowed to by Reagan and Bush. And I have faith that Al Gore, whose commitment to his causes seems even stronger than Clinton's, will make a superb 43rd president. I'd hate to see a derisive campaign against Bradley harm Gore's chances to win the Oval Office in 2000, and thereby allow a Republican president to turn back the clock on the economic, social, and environmental progress we've made.

-- J. Kingston Pierce


Out of focus

I am disgusted that Salon.com would even think of including an article by Ruth Shalit. There are no second chances in journalism. Shalit has a history of plagiarizing and was even fired from a prominent magazine because of her unscrupulous behavior. I understand that Salon likes including articles that have been written by prominent people. But you must toe the line with Shalit. She is not a journalist nor essayist; she should be confined to penning fiction.

-- Soozan Baxter
New York

In Shalit's article, I was quoted accurately, but my strong disagreement with the two central points did not make the final cut.

First, I do not believe focus groups are suspect or past their prime because they are filled with jaded respondents spouting suspiciously sophisticated marketing jargon.

It is very true that focus group respondents often use terms like "target group" and "positioning." But why should anyone be in the least surprised or alarmed? Almost everyone in America who watches television is familiar with such terms. They are not "sophisticated" or "buzz" words. They have entered the language. Does this mean that marketing is doomed because the consumer has appropriated its secrets? Not a bit of it. It does perhaps mean that marketing has to be more intelligent and straightforward, but we all knew that.

It is possible to locate respondents who have never heard about branding or product positioning. I would argue, however, that in many product and service categories they might be atypical, out of touch, and not worth talking to. What if television audience research reported the viewing habits only of people who did not know the term "programming" and had never heard of "ratings" or "audience share?" Maybe they would form a good focus group for Cartoon Channel or Nickelodeon, but I'm not even sure about that.

Second, the problem of repeater and cheater respondents is neither an emergency nor out of control. Improperly recruited or poseur-polluted focus groups are of course undesirable. They are not, however, anything like a pervasive plague on the houses of marketing and advertising. Such groups are a rare exception when the process is managed by a competent professional.

The admittedly nasty experience Shalit and her clients went through in San Francisco is an excellent example of something that can go wrong with focus groups. In reality, however, it could easily be avoided with what I regard as a standard operating procedure. During the respondent recruiting process we always require frequent reports. We receive a daily rundown of all relevant information, which always includes occupation and employer. The occupations Shalit mentions would have been flagged immediately. That group should never have taken place.

-- Bill Weylock
Weylock Associates Inc.
New York

I worked at a market research company and participated in assembling focus groups of dubious value. What Shalit doesn't mention is that the research companies themselves know the people they're signing up don't meet the selection criteria. They just don't care.

The more time the research company takes to conduct the research, the smaller the profits become. And the poor shlubs like me working the phones are pressured to sign up as many people as we can in as short a time as possible. Telemarketers who don't meet production quotas suffer the consequences. The companies will argue that they monitor the "grunts" who work the phones, to keep them honest. And this is true, up to a point. But where I worked it was easy to outsmart the monitors by sitting near the monitoring station. A quick glance would reveal whether I was being monitored or not. If nobody was paying attention, it was easy to be a little more "creative" in my interpretation of the questions. Does this make me immoral? A liar? A cheat? A bad employee? Hell, yes. But this is easy to justify when you are working part time in a low-pay, zero-benefits, electronic sweat-shop. When the bosses don't show any concern for their employees, why would the employees care about upholding the veracity of the research methods? Research is only as strong as the weakest link in the process. With so many people with so many reasons to fudge the truth, it is surprising any valuable information comes out of this kind of research.

-- Vincent Pearase
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Taco dog goes to court

Although I think Tom Petty was way out of line in suggesting that "[women] don't write as well as men do about women," I do believe that men write about women better than women write about men. From Flaubert and Thomas Hardy to Theodore Dreiser and Reynolds Price, men have created complex, three-dimensional female characters and made them the protagonists of some of their greatest works. Women have generally been unable to develop similarly sophisticated and nuanced male characters. Price himself once asked his professor at Oxford why this was the case. The answer was brief, but insightful: "Because women are raised by women, and so are men."

-- Mark Boone

Foreigner in a familiar land

I guess having grown up in South Carolina, I never felt the need to "walk with my head down," "eyes adverted," etc. Maybe Southerners are more friendly (or used to be). I still often smile at strangers, make small talk in the grocery line and greet neighbors I don't know. I lived outside of Philadelphia for a few years and found that people there were at first startled by such friendliness, but usually responded in kind.

If you want to teach your daughter to be friendly, or to teach her friendly habits, move to a friendlier part of the country. Don't blame your standoffishness on American culture. Blame the culture of your particular area. And try a friendly nod to strangers, and greet your neighbors for a change. It's just good manners where I come from.

-- Pati Smith

By Letters to the Editor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------