“If a reporter and his newspaper know in advance — months in advance, as it turns out — that a man intended to undertake a stunt that could sow panic in the nation’s capital, are they obligated to alert law-enforcement authorities? And should they be faulted for not doing so until the last minute?,” Paul Farhi asks at the Washington Post regarding the Tampa Bay Times and proverbial “Florida Man” Doug Hughes.
Farhi writes that the Tampa Bay paper interviewed the professional mailman/amateur pilot last summer, who told them “he planned to breach restricted airspace and fly a small craft called a gyrocopter onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to call attention to the need for campaign finance reform.” Since that’s long been a lefty talking point, Hughes’ stunt is being treated as a happy funtime lightweight joke by the Post, the Tampa Bay Times, and other newspapers. Of course, if someone on the right had tried a similar reckless flight, the MSM’s outrage meters would universally be red-lined to Defcon One, and we’d be reminded of the potential for post-9/11 DC to go into lockdown mode and/or the risk of Hughes being shot out of the sky and/or killing someone if he crashed.
The Post’s Farhi writes:
Given the potential for chaos, however, the question is whether the paper should have done more, such as calling the Secret Service days in advance to alert officials that Hughes planned to enter restricted airspace with his one-man flying machine.
“We spent hours and hours talking about the ethics of this,” said Montgomery, who first encountered Hughes when the postal worker called him at work and told him his plans. “Ultimately, we felt comfortable that he was on the authorities’ radar and that he was not homicidal or suicidal. He had his plan down to a T. Is it our job to call attention to it?”
Actually, yes, say media ethicists.
“A news organization should be extremely knowledgeable of the potential harm” a stunt like this could cause, said Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “I really question their judgment. There is no end of the ways this could have gone wrong.”
* * * * * * *
Nevertheless, the Times made the wrong decision, said Fred Brown, a former longtime chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. “I think the newspaper had a responsibility to alert authorities” well in advance of Hughes’s takeoff. “There are too many things [the paper] didn’t know. Was he carrying an incendiary device or a weapon? There are many ways to weaponize [the aircraft] or create a danger.”
Wasserman points out that the Times, a recipient of 10 Pulitzer Prizes over the years, benefited from its own inaction: It released its story just as Hughes was making news, ensuring that readers would flock to its Web site to learn more about him. “As a news organization, you can’t be complicit in this,” he said.
C’mon, the Tampa Bay Times was just following the advice of the Old Gods of their profession, such as Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace, who like to think that when it comes to alerting authorities in the effort to potentially save lives, “No, you don’t have higher duty — you’re a reporter:”
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Oh, and as for campaign finance reform — you go first, Hillary.