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Commentary: The people's right to gawk?

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: Increasingly 911 tapes are being played for our entertainment
  • He says calls record people in grief and anguish, at their most vulnerable
  • Greene: They are public property, but discretion should guide their use
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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(CNN) -- There is a sound we have come to take utterly for granted, as instantly recognizable as the reliable resonance of baseball games on the radio, or the timbre of the television weathercaster telling us whether it will rain tomorrow morning.

Bob Greene asks whether it's right to intrude on the anguish of people calling 9-1-1 in an emergency.

Bob Greene asks whether it's right to intrude on the anguish of people calling 9-1-1 in an emergency.

But the other sound that has become a part of our lives is considerably darker than those.

It is the sound of 911 emergency calls -- the desperate voices, the tearful pleading, the agonized cries for help.

It's a sound that is routinely played on television and radio newscasts, local and national, as soon as the 911 tapes are released, as they almost always are.

Listening to those tapes is something we somehow have learned to accept as our right.

And maybe the time has come to ask ourselves: Should we really be doing this?

A person who calls 911 usually does so at the most emotionally naked and raw moment of his or her life. The person may be terrified; the person may be injured. The person may be in the initial throes of the worst kind of grief. A loved one has been shot; a parent is unconscious; home invaders have broken in.

The person has only one place to turn: the 911 operator. When a person makes that call, he is not voluntarily speaking into a live public microphone; when a person makes that call, she is not thinking that her voice will soon enough be played for the amusement (in the worst sense of that word) of strangers. The person on the phone is begging for help. If ever there were a moment that should qualify as private pain, it's that moment.

But soon enough there is nothing private about it. The tapes are released, because they are legally considered public record: The caller has placed a phone call to a government agency (the police, the town emergency center), and so, under most interpretations of the law, the call is public property.

Which means that it won't be long until people at home or on the highway -- casually flipping through channels, having a beer and a sandwich in front of the television set, stuck on the road in rush-hour commuter traffic -- will be presented with the sound of the panicked citizen's voice.

And somewhere out there -- if the caller to 911 has been fortunate enough to live -- he or she may have the bad luck to be watching and listening too. And realizing -- perhaps numbly, perhaps with a sense of shame -- that, without having granted permission, he or she has become part of the community's, or the nation's, entertainment mix.

Talk about being violated -- talk about being victimized twice. You can make all the rationalizations you want about this being a part of the people's right to know. What this really is, in too many cases, is the people's right to gawk. And there is something about it that borders on obscene.

Is there a difference between the dissemination of these tapes and, say, news photographs of crime scenes? Isn't the basic reporting of crimes, and their impact upon the victims, often seen as intrusive and cold? The answer to both questions is yes.

Travel the country, and listen to the 911 calls as they are played on local newscasts, and it's impossible not to feel that an invisible line is being crossed again and again. You hear it in the tone of those voices making the calls for help -- the voices, you sense, have a sound to them that even their owners might not recognize, because never before have the owners of those voices found themselves in such a position. Maybe that is the most powerful argument for restraint here: Those voices, in those terrible moments, are, indeed, owned by the callers who are seeking salvation. And the question becomes: Should we, the curious public, be so quick to usurp that ownership?

It is unrealistic to expect that 911 calls will ever be considered by the courts to be private communication. They are, and should be, available to prosecutors and defense attorneys when criminal cases make it to trial, and when that happens, they are as a matter of course released to the news media, too -- open court is open court. But basic compassion -- basic decency toward victims -- argues that we should show a little discretion about the decision to use them so casually, especially in the days immediately following the crime or accident.

No person in sorrow and torment should have to hesitate for even a second before picking up the phone to call 911 -- no person should have to weigh whether to make the call, knowing what may come later.

What comes later, increasingly, is the airing of the tapes not only on news shows, but as part of the proliferation of true-crime documentaries in prime time. Now those anguished 911 calls are played over and over again, year after year in reruns, in steady rotation on commercial non-newscast television.

What do we owe these people -- what consideration is due to the humans behind the beseeching, agonized voices? Perhaps just the occasional thought that, except for the grace of fate, it could be us making the call -- perhaps just the recognition that not everything need be considered grist to be shared with the world.

There are exceptions to this, and you've probably already thought of some of them: controversial crimes involving public figures, cases in which it turns out that the person making the supposedly terrified call had another agenda entirely, crimes in which the police need the public's help.

The argument here is not that laws about the release of 911 calls should be changed; the information contained in the calls can in some cases help explain the story, even serve a role in righting wrongs. Yet too often the playing of the tapes feels as if it's done only because of the ugly melodramatics inherent -- only because of the voyeuristic titillation. We ought to admit that to ourselves

Most people calling 911 are not auditioning for a reality show; most people calling 911 are not doing it because they have any choice. The least we can do, the next time we find ourselves blithely listening to a tape of one of our fellow citizens in the most awful moments of suffering he or she will ever face, is perhaps to quietly ask ourselves:

Shouldn't we be better than this?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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