Journalism fails its sobriety test

The release of Diana Ross' drunk-driving videotape, soon to be shown on TV, represents another lurching step in the fourth estate's race to kiss the gutter.

Published January 16, 2003 8:05PM (EST)

It makes you proud to be a journalist. Thanks to the First Amendment and the fourth estate -- with "Inside Edition," that distinguished purveyor of fine reporting, in the vanguard -- we will soon have the opportunity to see Diana Ross stumbling around in the middle of the night, trying to pass a sobriety test.

Arrested in Tucson, Ariz., at 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 30 for "extreme DUI" -- allegedly driving with a blood alcohol level over .15 -- the pop diva requested, and was granted, a temporary restraining order blocking release of a police videotape of the test.

Now a Tucson judge has dropped the restraining order and is authorizing release of the tape, albeit with the sound removed. It's hard to know what his reasoning might be -- the public has a right to see what happened that night in front of a local video store, but not to hear? It used to be that having your name in the paper or seeing your picture flashed on the TV news was punishment enough for being a VIP in trouble with the law. Now we have journalism as extreme humiliation. If you are famous and make a fool of yourself in public and someone -- even if they happen to be a police officer -- catches it on tape, the courts will support the public's right to quench its apparently insatiable thirst for lurid images of the people it otherwise professes to admire.

It's no secret that the word "alleged" -- journalism's nod to the idea enshrined in our Constitution that being arrested is not the same thing as being guilty -- is the fig leaf that allows us to pass on accusations of wrongdoing as if they were fact. Still, to print a person's name in the paper linked with a crime they're only suspected of committing is one thing. Airing police videos of sobriety tests takes preemptive punishment to another level. How many of us would continue to support routine sobriety tests if we thought they might be taped and released to the media? Will we next be treated to pretrial tapes of criminal confessions?

But the real question is why we need to see this woman, who last May reportedly checked into a drug-and-alcohol rehab center and who is only of public interest because of her artistic gifts, go through a very common, very private hell.

Maybe reporters should have followed George McGovern's daughter around, chronicling her alcoholic decline, the loss of her children, her endless desperate attempts to quit drinking, until she finally passed out in a Minnesota snowbank and died. And, oh, don't you wish you'd had a chance to see for yourself Chuck Berry dragged away from his home in leg irons when he was arrested for tax evasion?

Of course most newspaper editors today will tell you, Get that story, right or wrong. Because if we won't do it, our competitors will. And it's tough to march to the beat of your own conscience when your ultimate boss is the CEO of one of the very few conglomerates that now own just about every news outlet in the country. How many of us, for instance, charted an independent course covering one of the greatest news stories of our time -- the Monica Lewinsky scandal? How many went beyond reporting salacious details of the president's sex life and investigated the motivations of the partisans feeding us those stories?

As a young reporter in San Francisco I once had an editor who insisted I find some city official whose department was out of compliance with the earthquake codes. He virtually rubbed his hands in glee contemplating a Page 1 story embarrassing that hypothetical city official because, as he pointed out, the law was so complicated and impossible to understand that somebody had to be breaking it. It would have been one thing if his motive had been to cast light on the impossibility of the code itself, but alas, that was not the objective. The complicated code was instead an opportunity -- a quick and easy way to come up with a Page 1 allegation of political malfeasance. I weaseled my way out of the assignment -- the editor had no sympathy with my squeamishness so I just kept smiling and saying I was working on it and meanwhile worked on other things. But the moral, I suppose, was that embarrassing public officials is our job. It's a good, quick way to get a big headline. It's a good way to seem productive and please your editors.

Remember Watergate? Remember a generation of young people inspired to become journalists -- low pay, lousy hours -- because they wanted to uncover corruption, to give voice to the voiceless? Imagine how they would feel (our feckless young selves) if they could only see us now.

By Joan Smith

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