Here's a question with regard to the O.J. Simpson case: What did the news media gain by arresting Simpson a week before the police did?
The fundamental balancing act of a free press is to weigh the public's right to know against the individual's right to privacy. In the case of rumors of criminality, we once assumed the scales should weigh heavily in the individual's favor, figuring there was much to be lost, and little to be gained, by rushing to judgment before the justice system could catch up.Such assumptions were the product of a slower age, a time before our taste for scandal matched our ability to spread gossip instantly. Now, a public that wants to hear the worst is served by a medium that wants to deliver it - and the sooner the better.
Despite the pretense of assumed innocence, television has always treated arrest as the functional equivalent of guilt. Now, apparently, suspicion alone is enough to justify treating a yet-to-be-accused citizen as a convict. While the real blame (and the punishment) should go to the unnamed police sources who leaked confidential information, that doesn't excuse the media for repeating what it was told (or, in the case of TV, what the Los Angeles Times was told).
The balance might be different in the case of a serial murderer, where the public would have a justified interest in keeping track of suspects. But why did the public need to know who would be arrested in this case before it happened, and how could any such need justify turning Simpson's neighborhood into a satellite truck campground?
Simpson is not only famous; he is, to many, a role model. Attacking him allows the media to hook into the myth of the fallen hero, a convenient rubric that can substitute for thought.
As is so often the case in crime stories, care was not always taken. A bloody glove had or had not been found; the spots in the driveway were or were not blood. A plea of no contest was often condensed to a guilty plea, and a switch in attorneys was treated as yet another sign of guilt.
Worse than any words, however, were the images - particularly the image of an out-of-control press carnival. The subliminal message sent by such behavior is one of guilt: Simpson must have done something, or we wouldn't be there.
By turning this story into yet another media circus, we tear once again at an already frayed social fabric. We reinforce the idea that the legal system is an archaic interference - delaying justice at best, defeating it at worst - while lessening what little faith people have left in the media.
The final act of the media farce was played out in front of a national audience Friday, as Simpson managed to escape his house undetected despite the front-yard presence of every TV camera on the West Coast. Here we thought they were staking out Simpson, and they were actually just watching his house.
The live coverage of the freeway chase that followed took on an eerie similarity to the media behavior in the hit movie "Speed." In this case, the police say the cameras actually helped them, but it's easy to see how they could have caused damage - if, say, Simpson had been monitoring the newscasts and become perturbed by all the speculation on his sanity.
We talk about the public's right to know, but to know what? Whatever right exists has been extended past facts to every rumor and accusation, no matter how likely or probable, with the media acting as a willing, unedited conduit.
Some day, what we don't know - but think we do - is going to hurt us.