Virginia state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican from Fairfax County, is one of the press corps’ favorite lawmakers in Richmond. He’s no great statesman, but he’s got a penchant for taking the outrages of daily life and concocting some way to write new laws about them.
Lately, Cuccinelli is bothered by “scuzzball reporters out there who don’t have a shred of human decency to give a flying rat’s tail about the condition or feelings or circumstances of families” who’ve suffered some tragedy. Cuccinelli is offended by the sight of press hacks descending on citizens who’ve lost a loved one in some crime, fire or accident, so he’s decided it should be illegal for reporters–or anyone else, for that matter– to visit such families.
His Senate Bill 1120 would deem criminal anyone who enters onto someone’s private property within a week after the owner’s family “suffered a substantial personal, physical, mental, or emotional loss, injury, or trauma.”
I did this kind of coverage. I hated it, every time. I’d rather stick my hand in the fire than do things like this, but there’s a reason you do them, and it’s that people deserve the chance to speak on their own behalf in stories about them.
Nothing in the extensive pantheon of TV-and-movie-glamorous-reporter clichés annoys me more than the sight of a person picking up a newspaper or turning on the TV to find a story that’s — gasp! — all about them. This almost never happens, not if the reporter’s any good. The subject of a story will always know that a story is forthcoming and will always be given the opportunity to speak.
Nine times out of ten, you knock on someone’s door after a shooting or a fire, and they’ll tell you to fuck off. And you do so. There’s assholes and insects who don’t, and they’re deserving of contempt. They’re also deserving of arrest for trespassing, and presumably Virginia already has laws which deal with this offense. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get called a vulture and told to go to hell, and you take it because you’re not the one who just lost her kid to a drunk driver or her brother to a drive-by, and you leave. But the tenth time?
I knocked. The reality was vastly worse than my expectation, because it turned out I was the first human being the new widow saw after getting the call about her husband’s death. To my amazement, she did not turn me away, but asked me to come in.
She wanted to tell me everything about her husband. She wanted to talk. She wanted the world to know what a wonderful man he’d been, what had driven him to become an FBI agent, what he intended for himself and for her.
I thought I might get a few telling details, borrow a family photo and get out of there in 10 minutes.
I stayed three hours.
We can debate all day long about whether tragedy stories are exploitative or emotional pornography, whether there’s any merit to the argument that such stories enrich our understanding of the world around us and the human experience and whatever stupid coffeehouse arguments we want to have. But in the end going over to somebody’s house after their spouse has been killed isn’t about that. It’s about giving people the chance to talk about things that concern them. I’m sorry Sen. Cuccinelli doesn’t understand that.
However, I would humbly submit that if the Senator is concerned about people who are getting screwed hard by life, he should attempt to make laws that will make it harder for life to screw them, and then use his considerable power to make sure those laws are enforced and enforced fairly and strenuously. That would go a lot farther in protecting the victims of tragedy than keeping a reporter off their lawn.
Schmuck via Romenesko.