No public right to know 

Last month, the Society of Professional Journalists helped show why much of the thinking public has come to hold the news media in considerable contempt.

SPJ, a group to which I’ve belonged since 1978, sent its members an alert that yet another court decision had put what it called “the public’s right to know” in danger.

No, they weren’t talking about political censorship, or the Michigan prison system’s outrageous decision to deny Jack Kevorkian access to the broadcast media. They had rushed to the barricades, upset that a Florida judge wouldn’t give a student newspaper and a guy who runs access to NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy photos.

Not only that — SPJ was miffed that Volusia County Circuit Judge Joseph Will refused to rule unconstitutional a new law that says such photos can only be seen by family members or law enforcement officials, unless a judge grants access for a good cause.

Well, I say ... good for the judge!

What? I can clearly hear the cries of “traitor” from my fellow journalists. How can I possibly defend censorship, not to mention a Florida judge? Doesn’t this mean an Alabama judge could have censored Viola Liuzzo’s autopsy photos and pronounced her death the “worst case of suicide he evah saw”? Isn’t this a victory for fascism against freedom of the press?

Aw, bullshit.

Dale Earnhardt’s death during an auto race earlier this year did not involve a grassy knoll or any secret gunman. Instead, it again illustrated the already fairly well-understood scientific principle that when the human head is slammed into a concrete wall at high speeds, bad things result.

Now there may be some kind of complex medical/legal court case about helmet safety lurking, and if so, it may make sense for experts to study the damage to Earnhardt’s battered cranium. But that’s not what these media requests are about. Everyone knows that it would be only a matter of time before gory pictures of Earnhardt’s head graced the Internet, a few tabloids perhaps, and bad-dude junior-high lockers everywhere.

Public right to know, sheesh.

Incidentally, those great freedom-of-the-press heroes who were indignant ol’ Judge Will didn’t rule the privacy law (the Earnhardt Family Protection Act) unconstitutional apparently don’t read the Constitution very often.

Every time I note that the famous Second Amendment has nothing to do with gun control, the gun addicts ask why nobody ever questions the sacred First Amendment. And they have a point.

What the First Amendment says is that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.” That doesn’t say anything about state courts making it illegal to look into folks’ bathroom windows. Or at their autopsy photos.

Which brings us to the question — just what do the media see as “news”? Last week, Congress effectively killed campaign finance reform (the issue that made John McCain famous) meaning the rich and corrupt will continue to basically own the best officeholders money can buy.

This story did get some mention the day after it happened, though it was partly drowned out (in the broadcast media especially) by the only story that seems to have really excited the press this summer: The April 30 disappearance of Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old intern for a previously obscure California Democratic congressman named Gary Condit.

Apparently, according to some news sources, Condit, 53, belatedly admitted he had some sort of romantic relationship with her.

Indeed, there is some minor one-day titillation value, plus the irony that Condit beat up heavily on Bill Clinton for Monica, etc. But the police have steadfastly maintained that Condit’s not a suspect, and in any event, Gary and Chandra are far away and unlikely to impact our lives much.

Except courtesy of the media. Now, as I write this, our government is blowing $100 million testing a missile interceptor over the Pacific Ocean.

George Bush wants to spend at least $1 trillion on a system designed to shoot down an accidentally fired missile, and make his defense contractor pals even richer at taxpayer expense, not necessarily in that order.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who still has 10,000 or so nuclear weapons built to be aimed at us, promises a new arms race and dangerous instability if Washington goes ahead with a Star Wars defense system — which most experts think is highly unlikely to work anyway. What’s going on here is a lot more interesting and vastly more significant than Gary Condit’s short-range pink missile, but you’d never get a hint of that from the nightly news. By the way, have you heard a thing about the two little girls, ages 10 and 3, missing for more than a week in Chicago? No? Far as I know, they didn’t know any congressmen.

By the way, if SPJ wants a real free speech issue, here’s one: Ohioan Brian Dalton has been sentenced to 10 years for child pornography. But not for selling the stuff or even having dirty pictures. He wrote his own fantasies in a private journal, which he didn’t show to anybody. Logically, that means if I write a short story about overthrowing the government I could be executed for treason. Dalton is by all accounts disgusting, but this is a case about which everyone who cares about free speech ought to be screaming.

Star Wars bulletin: Every year since 1985, Peace Action and a loose coalition of groups have put on an event to mark the atomic bombing of Japan. This year’s event will be Aug. 9 in Grand Circus Park, or Swords into Plowshares gallery if it rains, and will take a serious look at Bush’s National Missile Defense System. Mark your calendars; details to come.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail

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