BILL OF RIGHTS: IMBEDDED, INDEBTED, REGRETTED?
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Boca Raton, Fla.
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Critics of radio trash mouth Howard Stern might want to put a cork in it for a few minutes - and the champagne, too.
Before self-appointed guardians of morality cheer recent Federal Communications Commission fines against alleged obscenity on the air, we should all step back and reflect on a strange image: an intertwined First Amendment theme, and twisted logic, which keeps images of David Bloom, Monica Lewinsky, and Howard Stern spinning in my brain. Civil libertarians and advocates of "press access" might be as much to blame for what has evolved in American media, as Bible thumpers who think your right or responsibility to switch stations is not enough protection for your little kids' sensitive ears.
Personally, I let the captivating images and sounds of "imbedded" reporters such as the late David Bloom of NBC (who I knew and respected personally and professionally) submerge my larger questions of precedent and press freedom. Disclosure: My journalistic days included five years as a full-time newsman for United Press International. As the poor stepchild of the media, we always had to do more with less. Less pay, less staff, less overtime, less public recognition than the larger and "imbedded" Associated Press. (The AP had first crack at news stories from its members' reporters, and often had staff inside the newsroom).
Many UPI newsmen and women had to devise innovative and cost-effective ways of scooping the opposition.
In my own experience, if given carte blanche to cover a story, I would try to never (as in never, ever) stay in a hotel which had been designated the "press center," or "headquarters hotel," for a meeting, conference, riot, or war. The "press" hotel was usually more expensive, and not only induced excessive booze and food, but reportorial laziness. When I heard during Gulf War I that CBS-TV correspondent Bob Simon and his crew had been captured, wandering off in the desert on their own, for their own, unfiltered look at things, I immediately knew he was my kind of guy.
Bloom and his colleagues were given briefings and a 24/7 view of combat. Yet, there was the danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. Some of the best "think pieces" I viewed and heard (mostly on foreign or short-wave stations), or read, came from Amman, southern Turkey, or even Iran. These reporters for budgetary or logistical reasons were removed from the bullets, but close enough to give regional views. In many cases they had been inside Iraq, and moved in and out of the country to file stories.
Sometimes there is no choice. You are "imbedded" or you don't get into the theater of action. Again, the reporter has lots of choices and lots of ways of maintaining independence for the news consumer back home.
I found myself in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but with a Pentagon "baby sitter" for myself (doing radio reports), and two U.S. television crews. We moved around the country, but Humvees or choppers were always scheduled by the U.S. Army.
One morning when there was a shortage of junior officers, the baby sitters were forced to let a senior noncommissioned Officer from Fort Polk, La., lead one platoon on patrol. I jumped into his Humvee, while the baby-sitters and the television crews went with another.
Not only did Sgt. X have a healthy disrespect for authority, but he eagerly agreed to take me to an old warehouse in Brcko which was off-limits, but which had been confirmed as a death house for ethnic cleansing. When I showed an interest in totally breaking the rules and crossing over to Croatia, there was no problem. The platoon had illegally crossed the bridge to Croatia many times, exchanging pleasantries, cigarettes, soft drinks, and soldier talk with Croatian guards on the other side of the border.
Another story which comes to mind is my former UPI colleague Martin McReynolds, dispatched in the middle of the night to cover the massive earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua in 1974. Other reporters were captive to the disorganized instructions of Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza, or the transport, tents, and public relations "flaCks" of relief agencies. McReynolds, schooled as UPI reporter, photographer, editor, and executive, found a remote satellite uplink station with an emergency generator, and used the facility to scoop the opposition for several days. Some of the reporters in the few remaining hotel rooms often couldn't even file a story.
I'll let the Columbia University or University of Missouri schools of journalism quantify and analyze this issue, but anecdotally, I think imbedded is too often equated with "indebted" and has clouded freedom of reporting and freedom of speech.
Now to Monica Lewinsky, and the Bill Clinton sex, or non-sex, scandal. I think this could be a case study for why a conservative Republican activist should be protecting Howard Stern, instead of attacking him.
As a South Florida radio talk host for three hours each weekday evening (yes Virginia, the station was owned by Clear Channel), I had a producer whose day job was teaching at a private high school. He thought it would be a good idea to bring the civics class discussions of Clinton and Monica into the studio. I agreed and told him to set up the show.
Two female students, both seniors, agreed to be interviewed and take calls live on the air - with a seven-second delay. I never thought to ask if the girls were 18 or under age 18.
The producer, who was one part agent-provacateur and five parts entertainment guru, knew what was coming (so to speak), but I didn't.
The girls not only defended Bill Clinton, but in graphic detail described how girls routinely "pleasured" their dates in high school without really "having sex." They felt the President did what most men would want to do with a young woman, and that Monica, well, provided a welcome relief for the, er, pressures of the White House for the leader of the Free World.
The phone lines lit up. Anti-Clintonites bashed the girls. The program became the ultimate validation for foes of Clinton in South Florida, who pointed to the "decadence" and moral void of these girls as an example of what decades of liberal Democratic thought had wrought.
Okay, let's review: free and wild speech, on the air, without "banned words" but with some graphic descriptions, allowed religious, Bible-thumping, pro-GOP, pro-impeachment, anti-Clinton forces to acquire tons of ammunition. Today, the show would probably yield a gigantic fine to the FCC.
As it turned out, the school principal threatened to sue Clear Channel, claiming that she knew about the planned interview, had no opposition to it, but thought that - since the girls were only 17 - they would be involved in a "decent" and "respectful" program. Management sent a mild letter of apology, and the producer and I received a verbal reprimand and a wink of a managerial eye (sparkling with higher ratings), and the complaint was dropped.
Follow me here: it's not as convoluted as you think. People who champion full and open media access and freedom of the press, too often compromised their principles for an ideal "imbedded" view of a story, with an implied "indebtedness" to the host - which could chill objectivity and openness; people who feel public airwaves should protect (even non-listeners?) from crude, rude, lewd, nude, and off-color images and behavior would sometimes (as in the Clinton example above) destroy some of the best arguments for their own larger cause of morality, decorum, law, and order.
Imbedded, indebted, and now regretted? I never particularly liked Howard Stern, or even thought him talented.
In our language lab at Hunter College in Manhattan, my buddy Irwin and I used to record bizarre and "off color" ersatz radio shows all the time. One of our long-lost classics was a full-length play-by-play parody of an NHL exhibition match from Madison Square Garden of the New York Rangers versus a mythical Israeli All-Star Team. My worst French Canadian accent, and Irwin's Yiddish-English play-by-play narative made it hard to keep from cracking up. Oh, I forgot, the players on the ice, described in all their splendor, were nude.
I became convinced that I could do the potty-mouth routine for big money. In fact, lots of the kids I grew up with in Brooklyn (include a few girls), really and truly could do the Stern schtick every day, particularly with a retinue of "side kicks," producers, bookers, and "regulars." In my case I actually thought ahead a few years and wondered if this was the legacy I really wanted to leave my wife and kids.
But there is another reality about Howard Stren which is not anecdotal.
Turning the dial to his former Miami affiliate one morning while driving my daughter and one of my sons to school, Mr. Stern introduced NBA bad boy Denis Rodman. His first question to Rodman went something like, "Let's get right to the important thing: is it true that a tall black basketball player like you has a gigantic penis which makes all the women happy?"
I was embarrassed for my kids (while chuckling to myself), but quickly was sorry that I had turned on that station. I changed the station and, upon reflection later that day, decided that as a parent I had let the convenience of my own entertainment subject my kids to crude commentary that neither my wife nor I pretend or propend to approve. Sure, we're hypocrites. What else is new? It was my responsibility to monitor the stations I listen to, not Howard Stern's.
In Nashville, Tenn., there is holy ground. It is the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Under the tutelage of veteran reporter, editor, and publisher John Seigenthaler, Sr., students, teachers, and media practitioners are taught that with rare exceptions,freedom of the press is inviolable.
How ironic that Howard Stern's quasi-sarcastic attack on Oprah Winfrey's more sexually explicit broadcasts is the linchpin of his counter-attack. Wasn't it Oprah who had to use some of her own millions to vigorously defend her opinions against red meat in a full-blown trial a few years ago in Amarillo?
See what happens when censorship becomes selective?
The real victim of this evolution towards more embedded coverage (the campaign bus; the war patrol; the puffy White House Christmas tour) and broadcast censorship is the American news consumer.
It makes me wonder if Janet Jackson's boob wasn't the only one involved in media policy formulation.
American Reporter Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum is a political scientist and veteran investment executive. He served three terms on the Executive Board of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts; serves as a twice-daily business commentator for the syndicated Doug Stephan "Good Day" program, and has been nominated for three A.I.R. awards and a Pulitizer Prize in investigative reporting. Contact him at Mbshine@aol.com.