For several days, I wrestled with ideas for a commentary on JFK Jr.'s life and death. I couldn't write a script that wasn't tasteless, inconsiderate, and rude, so I gave up. After witnessing the insatiable gluttony of the major news media for every tidbit of that story, however, I wondered if I was the only person alive who felt that it was bad strategy to exhibit tacky behavior. The agenda soon shifted to the horrific events in Atlanta, instigated by another nut case with guns. And here we were again on the inside of a tragedy, uncomfortable intruders in private moments of grief. Then I recalled an incident 20 years ago so sensational that we couldn't run the news story.
It was a steamy August in the small Tennessee town where we owned a radio station. The teenaged couple, just a week or so away from their senior year in high school, was out on a date. They went "parking" in a secluded spot - a freshly cut corn field that lay in a creek bottom where they could tuck the car between a row of trees and a bridge abutment. The next morning, in a back seat strewn with clothes, Sundrop bottles, condoms, and the various detritus of hot summer passion lay their naked, lifeless bodies.
To avoid the sticky heat and carnivorous insects, they kept the engine running with the windows closed and the air conditioner on. But the corn stubble was just high enough to block the tailpipe, forcing the exhaust back into the car. The combination of carbon monoxide and heavy breathing had been deadly, so the county medical examiner determined.
We took one look at the story and quickly concluded that we couldn't put it on the air. Our decision had nothing to do with the status of the people involved. All of them were pretty typical small town folks. The boy's parents ran a furniture store, and the girl came from a farm family. It was her dad's cornfield; he found the car. Nor did we have a long, soul-searching discussion about community standards, decency, and the role of the news media. We just didn't think it was right to run the story. Instead, we carried the two funeral announcements in our regular obituary segment.
The news business in that small town was quite competitive. There were two radio stations with fulltime news staffs and two weekly newspapers, all winners of regional and statewide awards for news excellence. What was most remarkable about this story was that each of us, acting independently, made exactly the same decision - that it was inappropriate to run it. Rather than suffering an information blackout, most of the public probably knew about this one before the media did. In the days before the World Wide Web telephones and corner cafes provided effective communication networks.
Faced with a similar situation today, I wouldn't hesitate to make the same decision. But I'm almost certain that one or more of my three competitors would cover this story in all its detail, possibly as far as broadcasting the funerals. It might even end up on local cable TV. That's the big difference. Today's news media ethics appear disconnected from what's right or wrong, what's suitable or vulgar, and wired into having the first and fullest coverage, no matter what the consequences to our collective human dignity.