Clare Boothe Luce and the Press
Clare Boothe Luce was ahead of her time in many things. In the 1930s and 1940s, she edited major magazines, gained fame for her play writing and journalism, and served as a Republican congresswoman. She later represented the United States as the ambassador to Italy. In a speech to the Women’s National Press Club on April 21, 1960, Luce asked “What’s Wrong with the American Press?” Even as she hailed the American press as the “best press in the world,” she chastised it for debasing popular taste. She argued that “A large, unmeasurable percentage of the total editorial space in American newspapers is concerned not with public affairs or matters of stately importance. It is devoted instead to entertainment, titilation, amusement, voyeurism, and tripe.” She continued: “One could note that nowadays the banner of press freedom is more often raised in matters of printing crime, sex, and scandal stories than it is in matters of printing the truth about great national figures, policies, and issues.” Luce lamented that members of the working press often sacrificed candor to curry favor with the White House, political parties, corporations, or trade unions. The press had lost its public mission in favor of personal interest.
Luce’s speech updated the kind of deep dissatisfaction that Warren and Brandeis articulated in their seminal article The Right to Privacy. They wrote in 1890, when the penny press eschewed the serious for the sensational and the frivolous, publishing pictures of society members and writing about their parties. Interestingly, Luce’s speech came just in the midst of the civil rights movement, when the press fought hard and with much at stake for their right to expose Southern racism in New York Times v. Sullivan and the like. Her dissatisfaction with the press seems out of place given the larger struggles that the media had in ensuring, as Meiklejohn noted, that “everything worth saying shall be said.”
In this sense, Luce was ahead of her time (as she was in other parts of her life). The press of which she speaks sounds closer to today’s National Inquirer, Star, and TMZ. It recalls sites like The Dirty, which publishes embarrassing pictures of bed-hopping and drug-taking women and botox-using, club-going, and skanky-dressing men.
This trend — which would surely garner Luce’s disapproval — has given new life to the public disclosure of private facts tort. As Amy Gajda explores in her superb article “Judging Journalism: The Turn Toward Privacy and Judicial Regulation of the Press,” courts in the early twentieth century responded to the sensational press by recognizing public disclosure of private facts actions. In the New York Times v. Sullivan era, the pendulum swung back in favor of the press with courts embracing a robust view of the newsworthiness element of the tort to prevent the chilling of the media struggling to write about issues of public concern. As Gajda explains, the public disclosure tort, however, of late has made a comeback with courts second-guessing the media on the newsworthiness of its stories, using (or more accurately, misusing) journalist ethical guides in upholding public disclosure claims.
Luce argued that the sensational press would be its own undoing. In her speech, she argued that newspapers engaging in mindless sensationalism get “caught upon in the headlong momentum it creates in its readers’ appetites,” a voraciousness that it cannot continue to satisfy. In her view, such journalism would “burn brightly with success” but would “burn briefly.” To that end, Luce urged the press to reverse the trend before it burned itself out. It remains to be seen whether this century’s courts will play a role to that end.