Privacy lost to prurience.
That was the result when Channel 8 last week reported the humiliating exploits of ex-Channel 3 weather prognosticator John Fredericks, who obsessively harassed a woman he met online, via a voice-mail barrage.
(We regret re-invading his privacy, but Channel 8 made it public, therefore necessary for a media column to address.)
Over two nights, George Knapp played a series of unsettling messages left by Fredericks to a woman who contacted media outlets seeking coverage (including the R-J, which passed). After a police report was filed, he was twice warned by cops to desist and eventually did, without arrest.
“The story could have importance if it is put into some context,” says Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast journalism ethics at the respected Poynter Institute. “Does it illustrate a larger problem? Without context, it is more like a celebrity scandal than real news.”
Claiming the story would illustrate the dangers of Internet dating, Knapp barely broached it, focusing instead on the creepy tapes. “That’s true, it was a matter of time,” Knapp says. “There’s no doubt there’s a salacious element to it. Do people want to see it? Yeah. Is it worth doing a story and making him stop? I say yeah.”
Preventative journalism? Try tabloid journalism. “Salacious element” understates it. Salaciousness sold the Fredericks fiasco as lip-smackin’ gossip.
It’s too easy to simply snicker at how Fredericks, an odd duck on-air with a self-impressed style, was exposed and enjoy it as ironic comeuppance. What — and who — deserves public scrutiny is the larger question. Did the so-called “celebrity” of Fredericks — a minor public personality who never affected public welfare, faded from public view nearly a year ago and hasn’t been charged with a crime — justify exposing a private matter for some cautionary tale about an issue that wasn’t even explored?
Absent an arrest, this was a journalistic foul for a station usually above gossipy garbage. You can’t cloak yourself in dignity when you dig into dirt.
Fredericks apparently felt forced to respond with a statement to Channel 8 citing alcohol-related problems, another private detail unnecessarily gone public.
This is no defense of Fredericks’ behavior. His tons of bizarre messages gave this frightened woman real reason to feel threatened and contact police.
Still, reporters aren’t cops, and not every incident rising to the level of police involvement rises to the level of news coverage. Citizens file police reports every day without journalistic fanfare. Substitute your own name under similar circumstances and imagine your voice and image as a 6 p.m. headline.
News judgments are proverbial snowflakes. No two are precisely alike, often falling into gray areas and decided under deadline pressure in a process that’s far from scientific. Here, a quality journalist had a tabloid lapse.
In an everyone’s-watching era, as privacy drowns in a sea of YouTube vids, iPhone apps, ID theft and online spying, journalists should recommit to respecting that endangered concept before fairness and dignity disappear beneath the waves.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.