Thomas Jefferson often complained about the press, especially when he was its target. But in 1823, three years before his death, he wrote that the press, "this formidable censor of public functionaries by arraigning them at the tribune of public opinion produces reform peaceably, which must otherwise be done by revolution."
In television journalism, by far the most consistent proof of Jefferson's definition is CBS-TV's "60 Minutes." Every week at least one of its stories shines a hard, clear light on an abuse of official power.
On October 3, for instance, it focused on "The Blue Wall of Silence" the code of dishonor by which many police officers refuse to "rat" on other cops who break the law.
One of those interviewed on the program was Joseph McNamara, who was a patrol officer in the New York Police Department and later became chief of police in Kansas City and San Jose, Calif. Now writing a book about the blue wall, he has documented thousands of cases of lawless cops who are protected by their comrades.
"Everything," says McNamara, "from cops committing armed robberies, on duty, to even kidnapping people, on duty, to stealing drugs, selling drugs." And, of course, using what is euphemistically called "excessive force" on civilians.
"It's a national disgrace," says McNamara.
On that program, "60 Minutes" told the story of a former New York City police officer, Daisy Boria, who had been on the force for 16 years.
One night, she was on the scene when another officer, Francis Livoti, became furious at a young man named Anthony Baez, who had accidentally hit Livoti's police car with a football. Livoti grabbed him in a choke hold, and killed him.
At Livoti's trial, all the other cops who had been there except Boria absolved Livoti of any unlawful conduct. But Boria testified about what had actually happened.
The presiding judge, Gerald Sheindlin, after hearing the other officers, said in open court that there was "a nest of perjury" in that room. But he did nothing about it, and acquitted Livoti, who was later convicted in federal court. He is now in prison.
After Daisy Boria broke the wall of silence, she received death threats and was no longer backed up on jobs by her partners thereby putting her life in further danger.
From then on, she wore a bulletproof vest, except at home. Her superiors knew what was going on and had her locker checked for bombs. But the terrorism went on. It was not stopped by the police brass at her precinct or at headquarters.
The threats could have been stopped by the department's Internal Affairs division. Their job is to police the police.
After watching that "60 Minutes" program, I found out that after a long battle Daisy Boria left the force with a disability pension for depression. She now lives in another state, but still gets phone calls. There is no voice on the other end of the phone, just the sound of a telephone hanging up.
As Joseph McNamara says, in police departments throughout the country "your career gets advanced by making arrests, not by uncovering a scandal in the police department."
When Abner Louima was tortured by a cop, Justin Volpe, at a New York police station, it became a national story, all the more so when other cops, under intense pressure from the mayor and the police commissioner, finally testified against Volpe.
Daisy Boria wrote a letter to The New York Times about this alleged breaking of the blue wall. It was not published. In it, she wrote "In the case I was involved in, no such pressure was put upon me to testify truthfully. I was not treated as a hero. I was labeled a rat, ostracized by my peers."
She had to retire from the force, she added, "leaving unfulfilled my dreams of serving the community on a police force whose integrity and fairness are valued and respected."
In New York, as in the rest of the country, the blue wall of silence remains unbroken unless a man is so tortured that the whole city cries out in anger. Since the trial of Justin Volpe, no "rats" have come forward. (Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn.)