Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer No Paparazzi Here!

By Jacqueline Marino

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  don't know for sure if my high-school principal ever solicited a prostitute. But I doubt it. Sister Jane Marie was a matronly disciplinarian type who (my parents felt assured) would always make sure that the hem of my regulation skirt fell demurely below the knees.

It wasn't just what Sister Jane Marie did, but who she was that helped convince my parents to send her school a big, fat tuition check each fall. At the time, I did not think of her as a human being with weaknesses and shortcomings. She was an authoritative administrator who commanded respect. My parents -- like most parents, I would expect -- wanted their children to regard teachers and school administrators as exemplary role models. While going through those impressionable teenage years, young adults should have no reason to question the moral judgment of the people who enforce standards of conduct at their schools.

After Millington Central High School principal Trent McVay was arrested for allegedly patronizing a prostitute two weeks ago, several media prominently featured the story in their news reports. The Commercial Appeal gave him a front-page spread, and WREG-TV Channel 3 and WMC-TV Channel 5 led their newscasts with the story.

The saturation nature of the coverage appalled our John Branston, Contemporary Media's special projects director, who in a Flyer media column last week blasted the news organizations for sensationalism. Branston felt McVay's arrest should have been covered, but not on page one. I disagree. I think it was good, old-fashioned journalistic responsibility, not sensationalism, that prompted the daily newspaper to feature McVay's arrest prominently below the fold.

McVay became a public figure two years ago when he helped stabilize racial tensions at his school. He's also an authority figure for teenagers whose parents trust them to him five days a week. Those parents have a right to know that he has been charged with a criminal act. Sure, it's only prostitution, a Class B misdemeanor and "victimless" crime that typically carries a penalty of $150 plus court costs on a first offense. But McVay, like anyone who works with children, should be held to a higher standard of moral conduct than, say, electricians or construction workers. Not only does the story of his arrest have news value, but it is also a public service to the parents of that school.

To imply that the local media initially handled the story in a cruelly sensational manner is wrong, as is the assertion that this proves media ethics have fallen to an all-time low. Branston says the media were more discerning a few years ago when they resisted publishing a scrapbook of pictures of well-known topless club patrons taken during a police raid.

Although many people in this town refuse to believe patronizing a topless club is any different from patronizing a prostitute, the law makes the distinction quite clear. The run-of-the-mill topless-club patron may be accused of a litany of character flaws, but not of breaking the law (as long as patronizing a topless club remains legal, of course). A person who solicits a prostitute actually commits a crime.

Does a public figure arrested for allegedly patronizing a prostitute deserve to have his name and picture splashed across the front page of the daily newspaper? Not always. If McVay is innocent as he claims, the media attention, in retrospect, will seem cruel. But if he is guilty as charged, the parents of Millington Central students will be glad the media made sure they knew about it.

News organizations take risks all the time when they publish or broadcast stories about such arrests. If they don't report them, they fall short of their duty to inform the public. If they do, they are criticized for being unfair. It will be a sad day when editors and producers curtail coverage of legitimate news stories just to protect reputations. News organizations err everyday. Let's hope they err on the side of the public's right to know.

(Jacqueline Marino is a staff writer for the Flyer.)

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