VITAL SIGNSrnJOURNALISMrnThe People’s RightrnNot to Knowrnby Edward E. Ericson, Jr.rnWhen Aleksandr Solzhenitsynrnspoke at Harvard University tworndecades ago, one of the most unfathomablernlines in his widely panned commencementrnaddress was his lamentrnabout “the forfeited right of people not tornknow.” This line was buried within hisrnsection charging the press with hasHnessrnand superficiality—and the reporters inrnattendance rushed out to prove him rightrnabout that. With so manv misimpressionsrnby the inflammatory foreigner torncorrect, commentators could hardly bernexpected to use up precious space to contradictrnsuch an obvious instance of tonedeafnessrnto our blessed Bill of Rightsrnfrom someone manifestly conditionedrnby totalitarianism. Even those Americansrnwho appreciated Solzhenitsyn’s callrnfor spiritual renewal as an antidote tornWestern hedonism considered this linein-rnpassing an embarrassing piece of hyperbole.rn”The people’s right to know” is virtuallyrnsacrosanct today. Our Sam Donaldsonsrnrepeat the mantra routinely as arnsure-fire argument-stopper. Citizensrnwho flinch with discomfort when thesernwords are spoken by media millionairesrnwith vested self-interests are nonethelessrndisinclined to challenge the line itselfrnWhen CNN’s Peter Arnett reports informationrnfrom Baghdad that might imperilrnthe military mission against SaddamrnHussein, even patriots fall silent beforernthe principle of the “people’s right tornknow,” which trumps any hint of treason.rnSolzhenitsyn did amplify his counterprinciplerna bit. Borrowing our familiarrnlanguage of rights, he spoke of the people’srnright “not to have their divine soulsrnstuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk,”rnadding, “A person who works and leads arnmeaningful life has no need for this excessivernand burdening flow of information.”rnMention of “divine souls” goesrnright past our chattering classes as sornmuch archaic clatter. Religious people,rnon the other hand, take nohce of suchrnrhetoric. If human beings really havernsouls—and the majorify- of Americans reportedlyrnthink they do—we can hardlyrnignore the effect on souls of today’s socalledrninformation explosion, especiallyrnas it is carried into our homes by mediarnelites who generally think we are soulless.rnBefore the house right now—and apparentlyrnfor quite a while —is a classicrncase study of the ])eople’s right to know:rnPresident Clinton’s alleged sexual adventures.rnPolls show that most Americansrnwould rather not know about them.rnSuch data confound conservative moralists.rnMainstream pundits, in contrast, sayrnAmericans are becoming mature and sophisticatedrn(like the French) about whatrnthey are sure is a constitutional right tornprivacy. As we have learned by now fromrnBill Maher and other Deep Thinkers,rnwhat happens between two consentingrnadults is no one else’s business, as long asrnno one is hurt. Besides, guilt-free adulteryrnis a social adance over grandma’srnpuritanical judgmentalism. Americansrnare approaching the nirvana of total tolerance.rnThat’s progress.rnCommentators can rise above thisrnlowest-common-denominator tolerancernand still not get the stor’ right. CharlesrnLane, in a column in the New Republicrn(May 25) on Clinton’s “Bimbroglio,”rncontrasts “professional journalism’s ingrainedrnabsolutism about the truth” andrnthe view of “non-journalists” (i.e., thernpeople), for whom “truth is a relative value.”rnEven if one can’t sHfle a snicker atrnhis depichon of our agenda-driven pressrnas engaged in a “relentiess search for therntruth,” the point to glean from his commentsrnis that for the public “other ‘aluesrncan take precedence: social stabilit), say,rnor national security.” In other words,rnLane implicifly acknowledges that preferringrnnot to know (he calls it “disclosurernfafigue”) is a defensible position.rnI doubt our pundits’ complacent explanationrnof Clinton’s poll numbers, becausernI think that the media elites misconstiuernhimian nature and are disconnectedrnfrom the majorit)”s moral standards.rnBut I also doubt that our conservativernmoralists—who, goodness knows,rnhave plent’ of reason to worry about licentiousnessrnas a growth industr)’—havernevaded the trap of undue alarmism. Irnprefer to think—and, I admit, I hope —rnthat man}’, maybe most, people who sayrnthey would rather not know about thernPresident’s alleged misbehavior say sornnot because they are tolerant tov ard it orrnfatigued by it but because they are offendedrnand embarrassed by it. Therngraphic details of kneepads and oral sexrnin the Oval Office make them queasy.rnParents of voung children, for example,rnfind themselves in a particularly awkwardrnsituation as “presidential” news filtersrninto their homes and kids ask questions,rnas kids will. Public ignorance isrnnot bliss, but it is perhaps the last bulwarkrnof the largely eclipsed concept ofrncommon decency, which includes thernnotion of the President as moral model.rnEven our talking heads—with old Samrnleading the way—first reacted to Monicagaternwith shock before turning blase,rnas if their hearts were not as fully liberatedrnfrom old moral strictures as theirrnheads are. Ironically, polls show the citizensrnto be more upset with the newsbearersrnthan with the newsmaker. Wliy,rnif not that they are inchoately revealingrntheir wish not to know?rnI think the people are validating a legitimaternprinciple but —in this c a s e -rnare wrongly applying it. Closing an eyernto the current tawdriness is not the bestrnstrateg}’ for keeping alive the old vision ofrnthe President as moral exemplar. Whenrnthe Head Resident of the White Housernhimself hawks the view that the votersrnsimply “hired” him to do a CEO’s job,rnthe public is encouraged to downgradernits sense of the office —and with it a piecernof national grandeur. In this situation, Irnthink averting our gaze is too passive a response.rnBut no matter. The main thing is thernprinciple at stake. There are some thingsrnit is bad for us to know. Stuffing ourrnbrains with gossip is bad for our souls. Sornis watching a man blow his brains out onrna Los Angeles freeway. Relieving ourrnboredom or satiating our sleaze quotientrn42/CHRONICLESrnrnrn