Virginia Vs. "Scuzzball Reporters" (That's Me!)
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."
The senator says this is necessary to stop scuzzball reporters from "bugging people" for a "juicy quote."
I'm one of those scuzzball reporters.
The first time an editor sent me out to knock on the door of a woman whose husband, an FBI agent, had just been murdered by a drug thug, I could barely bring myself to do the job. I agreed with Cuccinelli wholeheartedly: How, I wondered, could anyone countenance the intrusion of a stranger at that time? How could I impose my business on someone in such a vulnerable position?
But I was 22 and the boss sent me out and I couldn't think of a good reason to refuse the job. I accepted my editor's assurance that this was an important and good thing to do, that the benefit of telling the agent's story far outweighed any emotional trauma that might result from my visit.
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. Sure, I had an ulterior motive, a business purpose. But I also served the function of listener, fellow human being, witness. Several times, I offered to leave. Each time, the woman begged me to stay.
The story I wrote surely did not do sufficient justice to the man who was killed in the line of duty. But the widow called me repeatedly over the following year to thank me for having listened to her and for spreading the word about who her husband was.
I tell this story not because it is an anomaly, but because it is the unexpected and counterintuitive truth of most of the close encounters that reporters have with people in grief. Sure, there are jerks and abusers who take advantage of families in such situations; no one should have to deal with pompous TV reporters barging into their houses, lights shining and hairspray hanging in the air. But most reporters get to be pretty good at finding a balance between families' needs for privacy and our professional quest for the story that will communicate to a broader audience the wrongs that have been committed.
Cuccinelli is wildly wrong on this one.
An editorial in yesterday's Staunton News Leader declares Cuccinelli's measure to be the Stupidest Bill of the Session:
Just imagine the ramifications of this proposed law: You're a church pastor and one of your flock has just lost a family member. You stop by to offer your condolences and offer some prayers. Even if you're invited inside for a cup of coffee, once you hit the threshold, bang! You're a criminal!
Or say you're a neighbor of someone who's been hurt in an automobile accident. Being a good neighbor, you stop by with a casserole so your injured friend won't have to negotiate cooking. After trading pleasantries and get-well wishes at the front door, your neighbor accepts the proffered food and shuts the door. Bang! You're a criminal!
What Cuccinelli is trying to legislate is something that should be left right where it rests at present: On private individuals' doorsteps. If someone wishes to admit a visitor - no matter who, no matter what circumstances - that is a personal choice. If a person feels harassed, that is a personal choice, too, and there are legal ways to deal with that situation.
Save us from idiotic legislation. Stay out of our bedrooms, our churches and off our front porches.
Like most reporters, I've been told often enough to get the heck off the property of people in pain, and that's the absolute right of those folks, without Cuccinelli's highhanded attempt to change the law.
What the senator seems not to understand is that if you have to resort to writing a law in an effort to command human decency, you've already lost the battle.
The Virginia Senate's Courts of Justice committee has killed Cuccinell's bill. The senator was unable to get even one member of the committee to go along with his proposal, which was denounced by Sen. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond) as a "gratuitous, wholesale attack on the press."
The committee's counsel declared the bill "unconstitutional," the AP's Larry O'Dell reported. When Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) asked whether the proposal would allow trespassing charges to be filed against a florist delivering flowers to a bereaved family, Cuccinelli said: "They would need to call ahead, that's all."
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