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Carlson: You have the right

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Most folks are familiar with the phrase: “You have the right to remain silent.” It is the beginning of the Miranda Warning, and is derived from a person a Federal judge ordered released because the arresting police did not inform him of his right.

He walked because he talked, incriminating himself, so his conviction was overturned. In the process this criminal became almost immortal.

Another figure of speech is “public figure.” How this is defined and who determines who is one has become a vexing issue especially in terms of the relationship between media and the public.

Do we really have a right to remain silent? In the legal sense one does appear to have a right to protection from self-incriminating statements. However, in a p.r./press sense it appears NOT to be the reality.

Think about the few professional athletes who have tried to protect privacy in their lives. To a person, they are crucified by a media which deems them public figures because of their exploits on a court, or a football field or a baseball diamond. Woe to the athlete who naively thinks what he does on the field speaks for itself. It makes no difference if he or she is shy and modest or hasn’t ever spoken to the media.

Somehow, if they don’t respond to some insensitive reporter’s inane questions they instantly become arrogant, aloof jerks who don’t understand the media has a job to do and the star has an obligation to satisfy the insatiable urge of fans to know everything about them, from the color of their underwear to what they eat for breakfast. They are, after all, public figures. But are they? Just what does it take to be deemed a public figure?

It used to be if one was an elected public servant or ran for public office or made their living in part by selling services that large numbers of people paid to watch, such a person was deemed a public person and ipso facto, no longer in possession of any right to privacy. So the list broadened from elected officials and candidates to movie stars, sports stars, business moguls, super-lawyers, super-doctors, etc.

Somewhere along the way a sense of anyone having a right to privacy, of possessing an ability to decline to comment on any question asked by the media without having the non-response portrayed as an implied admission of guilt or of hiding something became totally lost.

Somewhere along the way the media appropriated to itself the right to deem anyone a public figure for any reason. Editors became judges and juries, and regardless of how arbitrary, capricious and downright irresponsible they wanted to be, they could hide behind their First Amendment right to say just about anything about anybody with nary a fear of legal or public retribution.

Our system of carefully crafted checks and balances got tossed on the trash heap of history with most not having a clue as to how, where and when it was lost. Without checks, abuses of course can and do occur.

I have a good friend who runs a business in the inland northwest. His step-son in a mid-western city lied to him (and the mother), borrowed a large sum which he promptly put into a ponzi scheme to defraud others. Like all such schemes, it finally collapsed.

The step-son was indicted and the step-father called to appear before a Grand Jury. The FBI assured him he had done nothing wrong, that he was a victim like many others. The completely innocent businessman awoke one morning to see his personal financial challenges, which had not impacted his business in anyway, nonetheless splashed across the front page of his hometown business paper thousands of miles from where the fraud occurred. An editor decided he was a public figure and the public had a right to know about this intensely personal situation. Really?

There was zero news value to this man’s personal financial challenges. Nonetheless he was held up to public scrutiny and deeply embarrassed for no reason whatsoever. Why, he kept asking, and no one could answer the question.

He had of course “remained silent,” declining to answer any questions when called by a reporter, indeed challenging the reporter to explain why he was even being called and this was deemed “news worthy” and he a “public figure.” His silence was used against him, and the story, which had no redeeming value whatsoever, ran in other media for several days as well.

So think again the next time you hear the claim of a non-existent right to remain silent and that you are also a private person with a right to a zone of privacy. If some media editor somewhere thinks otherwise, you’re screwed.

CHRIS CARLSON is a former journalist who served as press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andurs. He lives at Medimont.

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