Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do

PART II: WHY LAWS AGAINST CONSENSUAL ACTIVITIES ARE NOT A GOOD IDEA

CONSENSUAL CRIMES CORRUPT THE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS


A free press
is not a privilege
but an organic necessity
in a great society.
WALTER LIPPMANN

A FREE PRESS, WHICH leads to an informed populace, is essential to liberty. As Thomas Jefferson put it,

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.

"The press" is an extremely broad term and includes all systems that make information available to people: newspapers, television, radio, books, lectures, movies, art, dance, telephone, cassettes, CDs, video discs, magazines, electronic bulletin boards, computer networks, billboards, video tapes, you name it. It's generally known as "the press" in our country because, when the founding fathers wrote freedom of the press into the Bill of Rights, the printing press was the most popular form of mass communication. Today we call it "the media."

All of the world's major religions, philosophies, schools of political thought, and systems of government were spread through writing. In fact, the spread of civilization, religion, and the written word occurred simultaneously, each dependent on the other. The written word inspired, and the inspiration was passed on to others through the written word. All of the great religions were based on a "book"—a collection of writings—even before there were books. The Egyptians had the Book of the Dead; the Hindus had the Upanishads; the Jews had the Torah; Homer's Iliad and Odyssey told of the Greek gods; and the writings of Zoro-aster, Lao-tzu, Confucius, Buddha, the Jewish prophets, and the Greek poets made the sixth century B.C. a remarkable century indeed. Without writing and the ability to circulate this writing (a "free press"), these traditions would have influenced very few and would probably be entirely forgotten today.


A man has only to murder
a series of wives in a new way
to become known
to millions of people
who have never heard of Homer.
ROBERT LYND

Christianity first spread due to the freedom-of-speech tradition of the Jewish synagogues: any adult Jewish male was free to have his say. Jesus (and, later, his disciples) used this freedom to spread his teachings. Although Jesus never published a word,variation of "Ain't nobody's business if she do."> selections of what he said were written down and circulated on scrolls. These "sayings" scrolls were very popular and, considering that each had to be copied by hand, they were what we would now call bestsellers—sort of a Lord's Little Instruction Book.


The literature of a people
must so ring from the sense
of its nationality;
and nationality is impossible
without self-respect,
and self-respect is impossible
without liberty.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
After the death of Jesus, the "quote books" continued to be popular and the letters (epistles) from various church fathers were copied, widely circulated, and studied. The surviving letters of Paul make up the majority of the New Testament. Thirty years or so after the death of Jesus, the sayings books were expanded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, later, John into the story of Jesus that we now know as the first four books of the New Testament. Four hundred years after the time of Christ, the Bible as we know it was compiled.
The Bible was to become the most banned book of all time. For centuries, reading the Bible was forbidden—it was said that the ordinary person could not handle the power conveyed by direct contact with God's holy word. In fact, banning the book allowed religious and political leaders to manipulate the populace into submission, threatening eternal damnation for disobedience.
Gutenberg's decision to use the Bible in 1455 as the first book printed on his new press is portrayed by many as an act of great faith—he was so much a man of God that he chose to print a holy book instead of a romance novel. It was, in fact, an act of rebellion—a major statement for freedom of the press.
Prior to Gutenberg, all Bibles were copied by hand by monks in monasteries. The Catholic church had a monopoly on the production and distribution of Bibles. Not only were they very expensive, but their distribution was carefully regulated. Buying a Bible was part of a package deal: you usually had to build a chapel to house it and hire a priest (one who could read and write) to interpret it. Like buying a computer in the 1950s, it was a major commitment only a handful could afford.
Gutenberg changed that. His Bible was relatively cheap (by Bible standards of the day), and available to anyone who could pay the price. For the first time, the word of God could be read and studied without the permission or interpretation of the holy mother church. Some say that this one act of freedom of the press was the greatest single factor behind the Reformation. The Bible, religion, Christianity, and the world would never be the same.

The ink of a scholar
is more sacred
than the blood
of the martyr.
MOHAMMED

In our own country one book, more than any other single cause, was responsible for the revolutionary war: Common Sense by Tom Paine. This book (more a pamphlet, actually) was published in January 1776. The mood at that time in the British colonies was to continue negotiations with the mother country. A war against king and crown—the direct representatives of God on earth—was still, for many, unthinkable. Common Sense changed that. It sold more than 500,000 copies within a few months—that's one copy for every eight people living in the colonies. Certainly everyone who could read back then read it. It changed people's attitudes from placation to rebellion almost overnight.

In July of 1776, the moment the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, it was "off to the press." Copies were printed and reprinted throughout the colonies. A good number of the colonists had read and studied it by the time the official signing took place in early August. The document was translated and widely circulated throughout Europe, where the mere possession of it in some countries was punishable by death. The Declaration fulfilled its intended purpose, and a nation prepared for war.


Whenever people are
well-informed
they can be trusted
with their own government.
THOMAS JEFFERSON
After United States Constitution was written in 1787, it had to be "sold" to the electorate. This was done through a series of eighty-five articles—written primarily by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—printed in newspapers throughout the country. The articles are now collectively known as The Federalist or The Federalist Papers. Without these, it is doubtful that the radical experiment known as the United States ever would have happened. Clearly seeing the power of the press, the founding fathers guaranteed its complete freedom in the very first amendment they added to that Constitution.
Probably the most influential book of the entire 1800s was a novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. (The alternate title was Life Among the Lowly.) Published in 1852, it portrayed slaves not as chattel or animals, but as human beings, and (gasp!) portrayed their white owner, Simon Legree, as the villain. Talk about your book burnings in the South! Of the 300,000 copies sold during the first year, who knows how many were purchased in the South specifically for burning. The book and its 1853 follow-up collection of factual documents, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, swayed popular opinion in the North toward the abolition of slavery. Without these books, anti-slavery might never have been a major theme of the Civil War.
In 1906, a book by Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, took a hard look at the meat-packing industry in the United States. A novel filled with many frightening and disturbing facts, The Jungle changed the way all food products were processed and packaged in the United States, and made major strides toward the enactment of worker protection and child-labor laws.
Radio found its stride in the 1930s. Some say Franklin Delano Roosevelt literally talked the nation out of its depression. By the late 1930s, while storm clouds gathered over Europe (as the more dramatic histories of the day like to put it), the mood of the American people was fiercely isolationist. "No more European wars!" was the battle cry. And yet, Americans were gently prodded into taking sides by what they heard on the radio. The major protagonists in the "European War" were England and Germany. What we heard from Germany were the unintelligible sounds of a ranting lunatic followed by the lock-stepping masses shouting, "Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!" England, on the other hand, had the warm, gentle, sometimes roaring, sometimes humorous voice of Winston Churchill. Surely it would be okay to lend this nice man a few boats and lease him a few airplanes. And so, lend-lease was born, and the United States was no longer neutral.

I am entirely persuaded
that the American public
is more reasonable,
restrained and mature
than most of the broadcast
industry's planners believe.
Their fear of controversy
is not warranted by the evidence.
EDWARD R. MURROW

On CBS Radio, Edward R. Murrow reported firsthand the devastation of German bombings on London during the blitz. This further tilted American sympathies toward the underdog, England. His voice did more to fight Hitler than probably any other. In 1954, he was to use television to take on yet another monster, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt. "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," said Murrow on that historic telecast. "We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were, for the moment, unpopular." In both instances, he risked his life; in both instances, he won. (He lost the battle with cigarettes, however, dying of lung cancer in 1965.)

In our own time (well, I suppose that depends on when you were born, doesn't it?—in my own time, at any rate), we saw a president toppled by a couple of reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, who inspired thousands of young people to take up investigative journalism. Then, after Woodward and Bernstein were portrayed in the movies by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, tens of thousands applied to journalism schools.


The media I've had a lot to do with
is lazy.
We fed them
and they ate it every day.

MICHAEL DEAVER
Former top aide to President Reagan

Through the media we learn about our world, our life, medical breakthroughs, scientific advances, toppling regimes, the truth about history, useful news, trivial news, useful trivial news, good news, bad news—news.

We rely on it, depend on its accuracy, and, if it turns out to be inaccurate, we expect another news organization to expose the expos. Freedom of the press is a fundamental right, up there with freedom of speech and freedom of and from religion. A free press is not a luxury; it's a necessity.

How do consensual crimes corrupt our free press? Several ways.

First, since committing a consensual crime is breaking the law and since breaking the law is news, reporters are often sent out looking for video on drug busts, hookers, or stories on who is sleeping with whom and whether they're married to someone else. In the end, none of this has much to do with our lives (certainly not in the way that murderers, rapists, robbers, polluters, price-fixers, and bribe-takers do). So—like the police, courts, and prisons—the reporters' time and the media's space are overburdened with fluff. And not very interesting fluff at that. (You've seen one drug bust on TV, you've seen 'em all.)"you'd think America was populated solely by naked women and cinema stars."> There's plenty of international tension, domestic strife, real crime, corruption, and consumer activism to keep every reporter and his or her place of reporting busy, productive, highly rated, and of service to the community. There might even be a little time to dig up some good news.


If a nation expects
to be ignorant and free . . .
it expects
what never was
and never will be.
THOMAS JEFFERSON
1816

Second, since consensual crimes are not based on hurting others but on religious interpretations by a handful of moralists, some journalists have been turned (some willingly, some not) into professional gossips and busybodies. Gossip is fine, gossip is entertaining, but it belongs on Entertainment Tonight and best-seller lists, not the network evening newscasts. "The things most people want to know about," wrote George Bernard Shaw, "are usually none of their business." Did Gary Hart really deserve to lose all of his political credibility because he took a boat ride with a young beauty? Mr. Hart's wife did not object; his ocean-going companion did not object; one must assume Mr. Hart himself did not object. To quote a television commercial of roughly that same time frame: "Where's the beef?"think that commercial happened at about the same time as Gary Hart's aborted presidential campaign. I cannot be sure. History for me is broken into four phases: (1) before I was born, (2) from the time of my birth until now, (3) now, and (4) has it happened yet? I do know that both Gary Hart's being caught in adultery—not quite in the act, but at least in the yacht—and that dear lady asking "Where's the beef?" happened some time during Phase 2.> Was this one seagoing sexual misadventure really sufficient grounds to completely ignore everything political about him, everything this man stood for, spent a lifetime building, and was doing a fairly good job bringing to the arena of public discussion? Gary Hart was sacrificed to a group of yapping moralists who claim that "an adulterer" is not fit to run for president. The yapping was served up by a "free" press bound by the chains of delivering late-breaking scandals with photos, video, and sound bites if at all possible. And what did the American people get in exchange? A truly dull campaign: Dukakis versus Reagan. Yawn. As Jay Leno observed, "Dukakis is Greek for Mondale."


The media.
It sounds like
a convention
of spiritualists.
TOM STOPPARD

Third, just as when cops need some easy collars and round up some consensual criminals, so too, reporters—when there's dead air to fill or an article to embellish—go out and round up some consensual crime stories. Need some quick video? Take a female reporter, put her in some fishnet stockings and a dress cut low enough to reveal her journalistic integrity, have her meander the sidewalk with the streetwalkers, and follow her with a hidden camera. (The camera can be hidden in a van marked ACTION NEWS with a little satellite dish on top and you'll still get good video—men are terribly unobservant of all but one thing when their testosterone is raging.) If you really want ratings, put a male reporter in the same costume and situation.

Finally, as with police, journalists should regain the respect they are entitled to. Reporting a lot of "trash for cash" has tarnished the good name of reportage. Remember when Walter Cronkite, as the anchor of an evening newscast, was considered "the most trusted man in America"? Why not return to those thrilling days of yesteryear? It wasn't just Walter Cronkite; Huntley and Brinkley were well respected. Brinkley's still at it, saying wonderfully honest things, such as "The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were." There are, of course, other contemporary examples: Hugh Downs, Larry King, John Chancellor, and Bill Moyers.

The press not only cheapens itself by playing tattletale and reporting the consensual exploits of others; it also "eats its young" by reporting on the consensual activities of its own. An absurd example of the latter involves an attractive female "reporter" who invited Larry King up to her hotel room, which just happened to have more hidden cameras than Allen Funt's bathroom. Well, the tape went on and on and on, and Mr. King made nary an improper move. But, dull as it was, they showed the tape anyway. After all, Larry King is a star; there's air time to fill; and, even if he didn't do anything, it will make a great teaser: "Larry King follows our reporter up to her hotel room! What happens then? Tune in tonight and find out!" (Although I don't remember the name of the show, why do I have the sneaking suspicion it was on Fox? "All the networks are struggling now with their desire to put on live executions, if they could, to get the ratings," said Gary David Goldberg; "I think the difference is that Fox would put on naked live executions.")


Newspapers have degenerated.
They may now be
absolutely relied upon.
OSCAR WILDE

We're entitled to a free press, and the press is entitled to be free from rumor-mongering and reporting on the latest scandal from Gossip Central.

Later, in the chapter, "Pornography, Obscenity, Etc.," we'll explore how censorship even more directly corrupts the freedom of the press.

NEXT BACK" TOP CONTENTS

Peter Mcwilliams Home Page

Order the Book

Copyright 1996 Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press

Site Credits