Focus on Chapter V
(Editorial in The Nation, 12 October 1964, pages 205–206)
Of several major issues raised by the Warren Commission (the report will
evaluated by Herbert Packer of the Stanford Law School in a later issue of The
Nation) those relating to the role of the police and the media—Chapter
V—should command top priority. Everyone knows what happened because nearly
everyone saw it happen. A herd of reporters, of all media, succeeded in creating
a tumultuous and chaotic atmosphere in the police headquarters. “You had to
fight your way in,” said one police officer. The near-blinding floodlights,
the noise and confusion, all this and more, in the words of the report, created
a “bedlam of confusion.” One FBI agent, quoted in the report, said that
conditions at the police station were “not too much unlike Grand Central
Station at rush hour, maybe like the Yankee Stadium during the World Series.”
In the midst of this pandemonium, the chief of police and the district attorney disseminated to a world audience, along with a few solid facts, many erroneous disclosures and a great deal of other misinformation. These became the bases for the myths and rumors that confused the nation and the world. In the process, Oswald’s guilt was prejudged to a degree that would have made a fair trial in Dallas virtually impossible. The chief of police was so busy conducting ambulatory press conferences and appearing on radio and television—twelve appearances in the period November 22–24—that he could not sit in on the interrogations of Oswald.
What the commission has to say on this score is painstaking, fair and devastating. One cannot quarrel with its major conclusion that “primary responsibility” for those incredible scenes must rest with the police. Granted that the public’s interest—of fantastic volume and intensity—was perfectly legitimate, still the police could have maintained order in their own headquarters if nowhere else; indeed, if they had done so, the public would have been much better informed. The fact is, as the report makes clear, that the police, by electing “to go along with” the press, created the confusion it later deplored.
Nor can one quarrel with the commission’s conclusion that the media must also be charged with a measure of responsibility for what happened. It is true that the mass coverage of major trials—aggravated by the advent of the electronic media—threatens to subvert the concept of a public trial by substituting for it a trial by the public. It is also true that the media should work out some ground rules (traffic regulations would perhaps be a more appropriate term) for the coverage of major criminal proceedings and should show generally a far higher degree of self-restraint than was exhibited at Dallas. But the commission’s suggestion that the media meet their responsibilities by adopting a code of professional ethics is not convincing.
It is not merely the right but the duty of the media, in covering a major event of this sort, to press hard to uncover every item of interest and relevance. On occasion, the press has prevented or corrected gross miscarriages of justice through its persistence, often in the face of active opposition from police and prosecution. It has also helped to convict guilty defendants despite the active opposition of defense counsel. But in Dallas the press was not assisting in the administration of justice but rather interfering with it. True, the police encouraged them to move in and take over. But more significant was the action of the district attorney which the Warren Commission tends to minimize. He too elected “to go along with the press.” In a major criminal case the district attorney, who is responsible for the prosecution, must direct the investigation. He can control and direct the police or, if necessary, he can appeal to those who can. In Dallas, both the police and the district attorney, by catering to the press, succeeded in diverting it from its main role and function. Instead of congregating in the corridors of the police station, waiting for a chance to badger the police and shout questions at Oswald, the press should have been conducting its own investigation of what happened.
The fact is that the press has become far too dependent on what police, prosecution and defense counsel—and on occasion even judges—feed them in the way of information or misinformation. And whenever the press operates as a herd, it usually acts like a herd—that is, stupidly. The press did a bad job in Dallas, not because it pressed too hard for information or because it had too many reporters on the scene, but because it did not dig hard enough for the facts. If the press had done its job thoroughly, many of the myths and rumors would never have been set in motion, or would have been promptly corrected. A code of professional ethics by which the press would agree to restrict coverage of major trials would not remedy this fault; on the contrary it might aggravate it. Nor would a code of ethics by which the media agree to “pool” information get at the root of the real problem. “Pooling” is an old media dodge. In any major city today a pool of reporters, four or five in number, will be found playing poker in the pressroom of the courthouse, waiting for someone to drop by and tell them that something of public interest is happening somewhere in the building.
More pertinent than criticism of the police and press—although such criticism is deserved—would be criticism of bench and bar. A judge can control proceedings in his courtroom; the Ruby trial is a distasteful example of what happens when a judge decides to do what Chief Curry and District Attorney Wade did, namely, “to go along with the press.” Lawyers, as officers of the court, can be held accountable for their actions. Much of the distorted, inaccurate or misleading information about trials that appears in the press is not turned up by reporters digging for facts but is passed along to them by lawyers—defense and prosecution—who seek to use the press to help them acquit or convict. The problem is one of roles and missions. It is not the role of the police to disseminate misinformation or undigested tidbits likely to create an unfavorable (or favorable) climate of opinion when a trial is in process or an investigation under way; much less is it the role of the press to help them play this game. The press is more than a conveyor of information or misinformation; it has its own function to perform. Press and police, bench and bar, each has its role to play in the administration of justice; the trouble arises when they forget what it is that each is supposed to do. It would be a mistake, therefore, if in response to the commission’s suggestion the press were to adopt a code of ethics, one effect of which might well be to make it even more dependent than it is today on what police and law-enforcement officials—and defense counsel—have to say about pending criminal cases.
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