Chet Huntley, Marya Mannes, Gilbert Seldes

Privacy, Controversy, and TV

VTR Date: September 15, 1957


Sunday, September 15, 1957
NBC Television

MODERATOR: Richard D. Heffner

GUESTS: Marya Mannes, Gilbert Seldes, Chet Huntley

Announcer: THE OPEN MIND, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, Privacy, Controversy, and Television. Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, author and historian.

Mr. Heffner: It seems to me that a very great deal has been said in recent weeks and recent months about the role of privacy and the role of controversy on television. Certainly I note that when we do hear on The Open Mind a program that is particularly heated and controversial we get a very important press, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at least we get a press. Possibly it is the press and possibly it is the critics who are responsible for the presence at times of a kind of controversy that is at times deplored, I do not know. Let’s examine this question today.Let’s talk now about Privacy, Controversy, and Television. My three guests are selected in terms of their interest in this question. First two critics, Miss Marya Mannes, who is a staff writer for the Reporter Magazine, television critic. Secondly, Mr. Gilbert Seldes, author of one of the most important books on the public arts in America, “The Seven Lively Arts.” Television critic for the Saturday Review. And last, Mr. Chet Huntley, the NBC News commentator. Suppose we go right to this question and suppose I start off with you, Miss Mannes, and I say that again you critics have been harsh or kind to people who have been invading privacy or stimulating controversy variously, as you see fit. And let me ask you what you think about this whole business of privacy and television. You have written recently about the invasion of privacy in one particular area, and what generally are your thoughts on the matter?

Miss Mannes: Well, I may be reversing myself but I believe that anyone who goes voluntarily to a television studio to be interviewed abandons some of his privacy right there. I do think that certain questions are designed to invade privacy, but they need not be answered. All you need say is I think this is an invasion of privacy, which most people don’t do, which brings me to my third belief, and that is that we don’t really as Americans want to be private. There is a terrific compulsion to tell all, and that is why I think that so much is told. I do not think we want to be private.

Mr. Heffner: Do you think then that if there is frequently a premium placed upon the invasion of privacy on the air this is just a reflection of American attitudes?

Miss Mannes: I think it is the reflection of us as Americans, probably unique. I do not think other countries are like that, are they, Mr. Seldes?

Mr. Seldes: I wouldn’t know.

Mr. Heffner: Mr. Seldes, do you think there is an inordinate invasion of privacy on the air?

Mr. Seldes: No, I don’t. No, I don’t because you can only invade the privacy, in practice you do only invade the privacy of someone who has done something important or has had something important happen and you are not going to invade the privacy of Mr. X who has done nothing at all because it is not going to be worth your while. Therefore, the X’s are out. But Mr. A, Mr. B or Mr. C, notable either for a crime or for wealth or for social position or something, they are the people whose privacy as a matter of form becomes public. I do not think you can talk about invasion of privacy.
If I can take an imaginary case which I have carefully worked out, giving you all the benefit of the doubt, a person is involved in a crime. A distant cousin of his in a distant city with a totally different name gets mentioned in the papers. As a result this young person, who is a young woman, has her engagement broken to the son of a very prim but very notable and very rich family. Now I will defend the right of the newspaper or of the television studio to bring this girl’s name and face before the public.

Mr. Heffner: In other words, on a news-gathering basis you say anything that is news television can do. Mr. Huntley, do you go along with that?

Mr. Huntley: Well, I would say that there is an invasion of privacy but I think it is by invitation, and I do not think the initial blame rests with us who are in search of information. If you don’t want your privacy invaded you always have the right to say this is none of your business, or this area is closed.

Mr. Seldes: How about my own girl who has done nothing? Would you say that is an invasion of her privacy to print her name because a distant cousin of hers was involved in a crime?

Mr. Huntley: I should think it might be an invasion of privacy if she said “now just a minute, this is none of your business please go away.” And then we would have worked around somehow and cheated.

Mr. Seldes: Well, I would justify you in cheating because she was engaged to the son of a very notable family. They have already abdicated all rights to privacy by being notable.

Mr. Heffner: Well, that is a fine commentary. Mr. Huntley, do you accept that?

Mr. Huntley: No, I can’t agree entirely that just being notable serves as an invitation for the invasion of your privacy; I do not care how notable you are. The President of the United States, for example, should reserve some areas of his life and some areas of his daily routine fur strictly his own business, and I do not think it is the business of the American people to know everything there is to know about the President of the United States, for example.

Mr. Heffner: Well, going back to the expression of news-gathering on your own news program, do you feel that you have asked each person who appears, like it or not, whether news about his life should be made public?

Mr. Huntley: No, I do not think we always ask every question that might be asked. I think some of us have a little better manners than that, but nevertheless I do think there is an open season, and I do not believe we could be condemned too greatly if we should ask those impolite questions. It is up to the interviewee to finally draw the line and say look, this is none of your business.

Mr. Heffner: No, just a second. I think now we are talking about the interviewer and the interviewee. Let’s limit ourselves for a moment to news reporting and news gathering on television.

Mr. Huntley: All right.

Mr. Heffner: Now you can gather a story and report it without the consent of the person whose life you are unfolding.

Mr. Huntley: Oh, indeed.

Mr. Heffner: Is this acceptable?

Mr. Huntley: Oh, certainly. There you are bound by the rules, the laws of libel and slander.

Mr. Seldes: Yes, but you brought up good manners too, and I think that a newspaper reporter has no right to good manners. He has got a job to report.

Mr. Heffner: Well, I have a suspicion, Mr. Huntley said bound by the laws of libel, et cetera. I had a feeling Miss Mannes was going to bring up the question of good manners and morality.

Miss Mannes: Yes. There is an area where they coincide, but I was thinking then of let’s say a television exploration, a documentary of a Negro family down South to point out certain aspects of segregation. Certainly it happened in a national magazine that after this was done the life of these people became quite unbearable. They were so exposed and so public that they could go nowhere without notice, and very often antagonism, so that they were ultimately forced to move. Now I think this can happen; I think this is very near the invasion of privacy because these people have not asked for it. They have been used as subjects of news documentary. What do you think of that, Mr. Huntley?

Mr. Huntley: Oh, I think unfortunate things are always going to happen. You might take another case of a man unjustly accused of something and brought into a courtroom. He is innocent and finally is proved to be innocent, but nevertheless he has certainly lost a great deal of his privacy in the process of the trial; the members of his family become well­ known, his children become well-known in the neighborhood. All the time he has been completely innocent. That is one of the unfortunate things that does happen in our system of jurisprudence in our society, but I do not see how we can resolve it and set up very definite rules of behavior, and certainly you can’t legislate it.

Mr. Seldes: You do in England, to a certain extent. Nothing is published about an accused man until the trial begins, but then every word of the trial is publishable.

Mr. Heffner: Well, I note now that the argument runs — as a matter of fact, I think there has been talk about the papers and publications rather than television, and the argument up to this point in terms of news gathering runs just as our discussion of privacy in the press did some weeks ago. But suppose we leave the area of news gathering and go to the question of the interview which has become such a prominent part of American television. What about the invasion, voluntary or otherwise, of our privacy here? Miss Mannes, how do you feel about this?

Miss Mannes: Well, it must always be voluntary. As I said before any man or woman who goes to a television studio and sits there to be interviewed must know that questions will be asked him or her. Now some of these questions may be in very poor taste, and very often they are. They need not be answered, and I am always amazed when somebody who is on the hot seat or is asked something which I consider an invasion, instead of saying politely “This is none of your business, and it is an area which I don’t wish to talk about,” they tell; this is to me quite amazing.

Mr. Seldes: Well, haven’t they committed themselves to telling by going on the program?

Miss Mannes: Not telling all, no. They certainly must hold in reserve some portions of their life, or at least they should.

Mr. Heffner: There are certain things that I wouldn’t expect you to tell, Mr. Seldes, on this program, just because you are a guest. Although maybe you accept this as a different kind of program from the interview program.
Mr. Seldes: It is. The thing for your man or woman who doesn’t want his privacy invaded is to choose the program to which he goes. There are certain programs that make a point of embarrassing questions. I think they are legitimate because the person has allowed this thing to happen and I think that anything that adds a little rasp and sharpness to television is all to the good, even at the cause of embarrassing an individual.

Mr. Heffner: You say that adds something, a little excitement, to television, this is good.

Mr. Seldes: Not excitement in the superficial sense but in the first place an interview brings out the reality say a strip teaser, or something. This is done not to stir controversy, not to stir excitement, but to appeal to the Peeping Tom instinct in human beings, and that I think is an exploitation.

Mr. Heffner: Well why do you say not to stir excitement? That is why I picked up what Mr. Seldes said because I had the feeling that it was the excitement and that kind of roughage that appeals.

Mr. Seldes: The only reason I backed away is because I mean the excitement and not the excitement of the senses.

Miss Mannes: Yes, intellectual excitement. This is the difference. What I am talking about is, well, it is very hard to say the word on television, but it is an excitement of the senses, and not very good senses.

Mr. Heffner: Uh huh.

Mr. Seldes: I am defending the Peeping Tom instinct in the human frame. I go that far. I think I am defending the satisfaction of sheer curiosity.

Mr. Heffner: In terms of the senses or the intellect?

Mr. Seldes: I think that eventually it will move in to the areas you want it to move in. I think the mind can be excited by getting to the senses first. You satisfy the nasty little curiosity we all have. How does so and so live? Or, what is his secret? What is the skeleton in the cupboard? You satisfy that and then you learn something about the human beings which is valuable and which television does not have enough of.

Mr. Heffner: You mean first you lower your sights so that you can raise them?
Mr. Seldes: All right, yes.

Mr. Heffner: You really mean that?

Mr. Seldes: I am the devil’s advocate. I tell you I will take any position you force me into in order to keep one point going, namely, that we must not become polite and we must keep alive as much of the instinct of curiosity as we possibly can.

Mr. Heffner: What’s the matter with politeness?

Mr. Seldes: It is deadly for a medium. Look, Mr. Huntley, can you be polite in dealing with a controversial subject on the air if you yourself are taking part in the controversy?

Mr. Huntley: I can’t be too polite.

Mr. Seldes: You can’t be too polite.

Mr. Huntley: I have got to be a little bit nasty sometimes, I suppose.

Mr. Seldes: Yes.

Mr. Heffner: You wouldn’t really use that word because I have never really seen you be nasty.

Mr. Huntley: Yes, but you can ask a question which I am sure the interviewee would prefer you did not.

Mr. Seldes: Mr. Huntley is settled when he has to be nasty. I am not opposed to that.

Mr. Heffner: Well look, along these lines, I am very interested to note — I referred at the beginning of the program to the fact that when this program gets heated it gets a press, so when we did a program a few weeks ago on television and children some things were said that were quite controversial and we did get that press. In Variety where they were very very nice to The Open Mind about this same program there was another review in which they said instead of going after the type of question uniquely concerned with the person who is being interviewed, questions Which could be both interesting and embarrassing, the interviewer did something else.
Now there seemed to be a premium here placed upon questions that were, and the two things where, put together, interesting, and embarrassing. Do you feel this way, Mr. Seldes? It seems to me you are expressing this point of view.

Mr. Seldes: Yes, I feel that way. I think that while it is lower instincts to want to embarrass somebody else I think that television is a medium should net go out of its way to avoid embarrassing people who appear before it. It is not television’s business; I said before that the reporter has no room for politeness and good manners. The television camera has no room for that if it has a public duty to perform. When the public duty is of very low order then you can be polite.

Miss Mannes: Well, to use the word embarrassing in the sense as to make uncomfortable, I wish we could make people uncomfortable in more than just an interviewer or a controversy on Sunday, which is apparently the only day when people are permitted to think. I think that there should be uncomfortable and embarrassing plays. I do not mean in bad taste, but plays that handle something, whether it is love, marriage, or death, in a disturbing and unpopular and upsetting way. If we get that adult then I will be very happy, but why should it just be, as I say, confined to Sundays and to talk?

Mr. Heffner: Mr. Huntley, I am sorry.

Mr. Huntley: Do you want me to answer that one?

Mr. Heffner: Yes.

Mr. Seldes: You know the answer’?

Mr. Huntley: No, not entirely. But after all, time is the most precious thing, if you are speaking of television, and I presume you are.

Miss Mannes: I am.

Mr. Huntley: Time is the most precious thing the television networks have, and it is that one block of time, namely from about six to ten-thirty p.m. at night which is the great commodity which they have for sale which sustains its operations. Now then, if Sunday afternoon is set aside for controversy and for the exchange of great ideas and for the broadcasting of shows which you might like, Marya, I think that is not too wrong, because after all it is being made available, and the public if it likes that kind of material, if it likes those broadcasts certainly can make some little effort to get to a television set on Sunday afternoon. Does it have to be placed right in the lap of the audience?

Mr. Seldes: No, but look, Mr. Huntley, if you are going to have six to ten, five or six nights a week deadening the public appetite for anything like these Sunday afternoon programs how do you think they are going to survive?

Mr. Huntley: Well I assure you that I would love to be on a great program let’s say from ten-thirty to eleven o’clock at night, but nevertheless I am on Sunday afternoon and maybe that’s about as good as we can get right now.

Miss Mannes: Mr. Huntley, what I meant was that you were speaking really only of what I called highbrow or intellectual programs, and that that Sunday is the only time of course available, and therefore — well, my feeling is that it should be administered intravenously. I mean entertainment can be intelligent, entertainment can be exciting and controversial, but I am not saying put on The Open Mind at eight on Thursday night, though I am sure that would be very pleasant. I am saying have a play that has some guts and intelligence to it, that’s all.

Mr. Huntley: I see. You are not arguing so much with the program director as you are with the script writers, or play writers.

Miss Mannes: I am arguing with the people who buy the scripts and determine them and censor them.

Mr. Seldes: But again my feeling is of course I agree with Miss Mannes about this that if you are going to have a series of plays which are superficially exciting, like all the westerns, all the mysteries, et cetera, plus a series of domestic comedies, some of which are extremely entertaining, each one individually, if you have fifty of them then the appetite for a controversial play gets deadened and then you have to make a little Siberia for the intellect, which is Sunday.
Now I am all for integration in these matters.

Mr. Huntley: Well, Mr. Seldes, that’s why I disagreed with you a moment ago when we were discussing the invasion of privacy. In other words, let’s put it this way; he who keeps a diary should take upon himself a responsibility to see that that diary is kept locked and put away where no one is going to see it. There is in all of us a desire to read other people’s diaries, and while it may be unhealthy it still isn’t unnatural.

Mr. Seldes: And you think if I happen on a diary of a person who in some way is in the public mind that I ought to suppress this diary?

Mr. Huntley: No. I think all you might do is ask yourself, well, haven’t I something a little bit more worthwhile to do perhaps, and go and read a good book.

Mr. Seldes: Not as a newspaper reporter.

Mr. Huntley: That’s right. Other than that the prime responsibility rests with him who keeps the diary.

Mr. Heffner: This is to me a very peculiar point of view. I am sorry. It has been taken now by every single guest to whom I put this question. I hoped, Miss Mannes, that you were going to charge off in the other direction.

Mr. Huntley: Well, I was going to say that I place a little bit more responsibility on the reader of the diary than I think Mr. Seldes does. I think the man who stumbles on the diary and opens it might say, now look, what am I going to do with this material? Or isn’t there something better I might do to occupy my time? Or he might say to himself, this places upon me a rather dreadful responsibility, too, perhaps if I read this thing.

Mr. Heffner: I feel that this is important but I think maybe Mr. Seldes has already taken himself off the hook by saying that if you stimulate, shall I use the word baser desires and interests, then you are going to have stimulated higher forms of interest. This seems to me to be more a defense of anything that’s not bland.

Mr. Seldes: Yes. I am pushed to that position. I regret it.

Mr. Heffner: You pushed yourself.

Mr. Seldes: I know. I regret it but I still think that if we have a choice of two evils, a courtesy, thoughtfulness about individuals, a politeness toward them, and on the other side driving in and getting as much of the reality of the existence as we can on the television screen, then I would choose the latter at the cost of the former.

Miss Mannes: Well, I have been burning to tell what I really think is a major invasion of privacy, which is partly voluntary and partly not, and that is people being married on camera in a program on a certain network, which to me is not only the absolute depths of vulgarity but the depths of invasion when you consider that marriage is possibly the most private moment in the lives of two people. I am amazed first of all that any young couple would do it. I know why they do it; they get a free trousseau, et cetera; but that the church and the church does should allow itself to not only condone this but to take part in it, I think this shows just about how far we have fallen in the abdication of privacy.

Mr. Heffner: But suppose someone were to answer that possibly if we were to accept this picture of how far we have fallen this is partially due to the critics who talk very frequently and write very frequently only about those programs which have stimulated some aspect of the picture of privacy, our thoughts about privacy and controversy. You don’t approve of this program; you don’t approve of programs very similar to it, but again taking a page out of Mr. Seldes, not his book but what he said here today, if you approve of anything that isn’t the bland leading the bland don’t you in turn lead to this kind of the worst kind of invasion of privacy?

Mr. Seldes: No, no.

Miss Mannes: No.

Mr. Seldes: Look, Mr. Heffner, we write more about — by we I speak for Miss Mannes and myself, but actually for the critical fraternity of the newspapers, et cetera – we write more about a program of yours which has a fight going on than about a program in which people more or less agree.

Mr. Heffner: Why?

Mr. Seldes: Because you have stirred us more; because on a program in which everybody agrees we begin to approach that blandness and that conformity which is the bane of all television, so every once in a while you come up with something, a flaringly burning controversial subject, and of course we discuss it.

Mr. Heffner: But now wait a minute. I let you set up a straw man by, you say the fight or nothing whatsoever, and I think that maybe you critics have made us choose between the fight or nothing whatsoever. What about an area of programming where there isn’t a knockdown, drag out fight? Now today we have exchanged views and maybe someone is going to say they were really at each other’s throats. But we have exchanged views. We haven’t fought. This becomes what, a run-of-the-mill program or one of the important ones?
That is for the other critics to judge; we are two critics here. Lock, we have disagreed and I have deliberately taken an extreme position so I could be forced away from it a little bit. But I do disagree with you on each of the two things you talked about. I disagree with you about invasion of privacy to a sufficient degree. I disagree with you I think as to the value of controversy. I think that my disagreement with you is proper for your program. I don’t know what concept you had of your program when you began it but I think that without some controversy in your program you would feel it not worth going on with.

Mr. Heffner: Well, I don’t know; I watch Mr. Huntley’s program and frequently there is an expression there of what controversy there is going on in the country; more frequently there is a very intelligent report possibly of conflicting points of view, but there is it seems to me no premium placed upon this notion of fight itself.

Miss Mannes: I think Mr. Huntley said some very valuable things about that before the program, about the lack of debate.

Mr. Huntley: Yes, in the area of controversy. Now are we slipping over into the business of controversy —

Mr. Heffner: Let’s slip.

Mr. Huntley: –or are we leaving the business of privacy alone? There is not enough controversy on radio and television, in my opinion. Everyone is a little afraid of it. You do get into horrible lawsuits. Somebody is always coming around demanding equal time for something that has been said about him or some group to which he may belong, and that gets to be a nuisance. If something is said the network finds itself unable to cope with it sometimes when fifteen people rush in and say I demand equal time to answer Mr. Jones who said something I didn’t approve of, and I think it seems to me that we have a bad set of ground rules for controversy in this country. There has been developed an idea that you don’t answer your opposition, you don’t refute his points, but rather you set out to destroy him, to wipe him out, to finish him off, polish him off, and where this idea sprung from I do not know, and it may be, one reason may be, that we do not involve ourselves enough in high school and college in that rather old­ fashioned sport of debate.
Now the ground rules for debate are good and they are old.

Mr. Seldes: In the ground rules for debate it has some respect for the other person’s opinion.

Mr. Huntley: That’s right.

Mr. Seldes: And if we are losing that we are in bad shape for a democracy, aren’t we?

Mr. Huntley: Quite so.

Mr. Seldes: Maybe we are.

Mr. Heffner: But I think that what Mr. Huntley is talking about is controversy on a certain level. It is not fight, and what we have seen applauded I think very very much so by you critics is less the controversy that Mr. Huntley talks about and more the fight, the knockdown, drag out fight which then leads to, as you have said, to the invasion of privacy and to bad taste, so I take the easy way out, I put it in your laps.

Mr. Seldes: The knockdown fight is terribly exciting as a prizefight is. It is not the way to engender much light on the subject, I grant you that, but it is a beautiful way to attract people’s attention. I think that if all four of us were to engage in acrobatics for a moment the eye would follow us more, but not necessarily the mind.
Now a certain amount of agility like dancing is involved in the prize fight attack in controversy, and I am for using it up to at least a certain extent. I am backing down slightly now.

Mr. Heffner: I would like to research the question of how many people become involved in, shall we say, higher level programs after watching the boxing on television.

Mr. Seldes: Shadow boxing.

Mr. Heffner: We could try it now. One last point.
Mr. Huntley: It seems to me if you get two articulate people engaged in debate observing all the polite ground rules, that nevertheless you have the makings of a fine, interesting, highly provocative program, and I would point to the great debate between Stassen and Governor Dewey in Portland, Oregon> when was it, in 1948? I should think that had a tremendous audience.

Mr. Heffner: And I am going to have to put an end to this program right now. Thank you so much for joining me today. Next week The Open Mind will appear here again in New York City. We are going to reverse our every other week schedule. We will be on next week on the 22nd, and our program will deal with the question of how adequate are our health insurance programs. See you then.