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Opening Arguments

Ringing the bell

In today's "anything goes" atmosphere, newspapers are suddenly getting fussy about protecting people's privacy?

As the so-called "D.C. Madam" case unfolds in the nation's capital, with alleged prostitution ringleader Jeane Palfrey claiming a list of thousands of prominent clients, Washington-area editors say they are following the story, but remain reluctant to print such a list, were it available, without serious scrutiny.

"You would have to evaluate it to the extent humanly possible and verify it," said Michael Tackett, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. "If one of the names is wrong and you print it, how do you unring that bell for that person?" He said reprinting a list from another news outlet is not an excuse for getting it wrong. "You've got to verify it yourself," he said.

Well, that bell is going to get rung. A handful of editors and TV news execs don't decide what's on the public agenda anymore. If there is a list, copies will get passed around, and somebody will publish it, even if on an Internet site. Then, all those newspapers can still get the names in by using them as part of their deploring the lack of journalistic ethics on the part of whoever did publish them. I mean -- all those great debates about whether NBC should have shown the Virginia Tech killer's rage tape. The tape had to be shown all over again, right, so the debaters could refer to it? Cute game we play these days.