Chicago Tribune and WLS-TV revel in humiliation

Posted: Jun 29, 2004 12:00 AM

In general, lawyers are the professional group held most in contempt by the American people. This assessment is a bit unfair, since it is trial lawyers and judges acting as legislators who give the legal profession the awful name it has earned.

But there is a professional group that merits decent people's contempt more than lawyers -- the news media.

The news media have awesome power, yet there are virtually no checks on that power.
There are far more checks on the power of every elected official, for example, than on any news organization. Politicians are beholden to courts and to the electorate; they are constantly monitored by the press; and they often must retire due to term limits.

But aside from talk radio, there is virtually no public criticism of any newspaper, TV news program or news magazine; and they never have to run for re-election. They also have little competition. In Los Angeles, as in almost all cities in America, there is essentially one newspaper. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, how shall we describe the news media, which are more powerful than anyone but the president of the United States and have no checks on their power?

One description that comes to mind is unparalleled hubris. There is no other rational explanation for the contempt the news media have for individual lives.

Remember Richard Jewell, the guard at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics who discovered a pipe bomb minutes before it exploded? Though one person was killed, Jewell saved many lives. Yet, he went from hero to villain three days later when the news media announced he was an FBI suspect and then camped across from his apartment day and night, pointing their high-powered cameras at his door. His life was dissected in the media, where he was regularly humiliated for living with his mother and other implied failures. Eighty-eight days later, he was cleared of any suspicion.

Remember Marv Albert, the national sportscaster? I will never forget, when I broadcast on the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles, hearing as the lead item -- the lead item  -- on the ABC Radio news broadcast a detailed description of Albert's most private sexual behavior. Only people with a self-image as demi-gods could broadcast such humiliating information that was of no importance whatsoever to the public.

You can now add former Illinois Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan to the list of those gratuitously humiliated by the news media. For no good reason, the Chicago Tribune and WLS-TV petitioned to have the divorce proceedings of Jack and Jeri Ryan released and published. In it we learned that Jeri had accused her ex-husband of wanting to take her to sex clubs on three occasions to have sex in front of other people.

I happen to oppose having sexual intercourse in front of others. But I don't want to know what Jack Ryan sought to do with his wife. It is none of my business, oh gods of media, and none of yours. And I especially don't want his 9-year-old son to know.

But for the Tribune and WLS-TV, it was too good a story. They hid behind the excuse that it is the "public's right to know." But this is self-serving and hypocritical nonsense.

If the public needs to know about the sexual desires (desires, not even practices) of a senatorial candidate, it also needs to know the sexual desires of the men and women who run the Chicago Tribune and WLS-TV. But we know nothing about these people. Not one in a thousand Illinois residents knows the names of any editor at the Chicago Tribune or of any manager of WLS-TV. But why should we know one whit less about these people's sexual lives or divorce settlements than we know about a senatorial candidate's? They hold positions no less significant than a U.S. senator.

Let us imagine that the president and general manager of WLS-TV, Emily L. Barr, is divorced. If this were so, by her own logic, the public needs to see her divorce settlement. At the very least, we need to see her tax returns, and those of Chicago the Tribune editor and managing editor, and whatever else these media people think the public must know about politicians.

This is not a liberal-conservative issue. The news media are virtually all liberal, but their love of power and willingness to humiliate people have little to do with their liberalism. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that the public needs to know a political candidate's sexual desires and history. So, we have liberal-conservative collusion in the belief that it is important to expose public figures' most private actions and even desires to ridicule.

But all I could think of was the Ryans' 9-year-old son, who wants to think of his dad as a hero, and had every reason to do so before the Chicago Tribune and WLS-TV pointlessly robbed him of that right.

The news media are now clamoring for Sen. John Kerry's divorce records. The Chicago Tribune, WLS-TV and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert A. Schnider have brought us to a new low.