The Right To Be Left Alone

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

A congressman accuses a colleague of releasing his illegally taped cell-phone call. A local government buys a camera for catching red-light runners. A Japanese electronics giant investigates the potential of its new camera to provide sneak peaks through the clothing of unknowing passers-by.

Cyber thieves spend more than $1 million of other people’s money with debit-card numbers they stole by computer. An elected official in Maryland publicly discloses that she has Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurological disease that ultimately kills its victims. The families of two girls mistakenly switched at birth try to resolve their ordeal as much as possible out of the public eye.

And, in a confession of infidelity heard around the world, President Clinton vows to “reclaim my family life for my family” and boldly declares that “even presidents have private lives.”

All of these true stories are from the pages of one newspaper, The Washington Post, over the span of several days. And all drive home the same message: In an era blessed (or cursed, perhaps) with an explosion of high-tech gadgets, an abundance of new media outlets, and an insatiable appetite among the masses for information, privacy seems to have become an endangered species.

Privacy in the Information Age
The Center for Public Integrity identifies today’s threats — both commercial and governmental — to privacy in its recently released report “Nothing Sacred: The Politics of Privacy.”

Government access to medical records is of particular concern these days, with news of the Clinton administration’s plan to issue a “health identifier” to every American. “People are right to be concerned,” privacy consultant Robert Gellman argues elsewhere in this issue of IC. “A new federally issued health identifier surely would become a single national identifier used for all governmental and private purposes.”

Government identifiers, in fact, have become a fad of sorts in recent years. In 1996 alone, Congress cleared separate pieces of legislation that called for the health identifier and a National Directory of New Hires that will track every worker in the nation.


Wishing For Watergate?

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

When allegations of campaign-finance abuses in the 1996 elections hit the front pages, political mouths all over Washington began to water. Republicans dreamed of at least crippling and at most impeaching an already lame-duck president. And even though most of the charges — illegal soft-money contributions, questionable coffees with the president and overnight stays in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom — were leveled against Democrats, the minority party in Congress saw an opportunity to make long-desired changes in the campaign-finance system.

Nearly two years later, neither party has capitalized politically on the much-publicized scandals. Both the press and the public seem more infatuated with tales of the president’s sexual indiscretions than his fund-raising transgressions, and the fight for changes in the congressional campaign-finance system in the 105th Congress is all but over.

True, the House last week passed a campaign-finance bill by a vote of 252-179. But similar legislation seems no closer to achieving the 60-vote, filibuster-proof margin in the Senate today than it did when lawmakers all but killed the measure on a 51-48 vote in February.

The moral of this story: It will take nothing short of a scandal as sordid and as undeniable as Watergate to topple a campaign-finance system that itself has existed since the Watergate era. And one need look no further than the House vote of 24 years ago this month that paved the way for those historic changes. Only 48 lawmakers dared to vote against the legislation on the very day that Richard M. Nixon announced his intention to resign the presidency.

The decade of campaign finance
The 1970s may well be remembered as the decade of campaign finance. Until then, Congress had rarely addressed the issue in the nation’s nearly 200 years of existence, reports the “Guide to Congress” book published by Congressional Quarterly Inc. The Tillman Act, the first federal campaign-finance statute, did not become law until 1907, and its narrow focus merely forbade contributions from corporations and national banks to federal candidates.


The New Media Battleground

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

If, as the saying goes, perception is reality, then two realities exist on the media landscape of today.

The first, one of concern to many practitioners within the traditional worlds of print and broadcast, is that of conglomeration. Media critic Ben H. Bagdikian has, on four separate occasions since 1983, documented the consolidation of television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines and book publishers into large companies in his classic book The Media Monopoly. And recent essays on the trend have been compiled into at least three books: “Conglomerates and the Media,” “Media Mergers” and “We the Media: A Citizen’s Guide to Fighting for Media Democracy.”

The second reality, one heralded by Internet junkies, media critics and politicians as noteworthy as Vice President Al Gore, is that of the Information Age. In this reality, idealists see the promise of a greater flow of information via the technology of today and tomorrow. They envision a world where anyone can become a “publisher” with minimal investment.

The problem, of course, is that the two realities clash. “The ideas of conglomeration and diversification don’t tend to be a good fit,” said Thomas Kunkel, editor of the ongoing “State of the American Newspaper” series within American Journalism Review. Confrontation is inevitable.

A case of merger mania
The conglomerates have had the upper hand for decades, according to Bagdikian. The four editions of his book paint a progressively gloomier picture for independent journalistic ventures and a rosy portrait of success for the wealthy media corporations. Upon publication of the book’s first edition in 1983, Bagdikian said 50 corporations controlled the media. The number in 1997 had decreased to about 10.

AJR’s series on American newspapers offers a narrower glimpse. The 17-page article in the June 1998 edition details the decline in the number of independently owned newspapers — from an estimated 1,650 in 1920 to a mere 300 today.