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?
The Tampa Bay Times faced just such an ethical dilemma when it interviewed a Tampa-area resident named Doug Hughes last summer. Hughes certainly made good copy. He told the newspaper that 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.
On Wednesday afternoon, Hughes, 61, did just that, piloting his gyrocopter from Gettysburg, Pa., to a spot on the Capitol grounds, where the appearance of an unidentified aircraft touched off a brief and predictable furor. Hughes was quickly arrested.
Also Wednesday, about an hour before Hughes landed, the Tampa Bay Times posted its story about Hughes, complete with a video of him piloting his contraption in Florida.
The paper was well positioned to cover the unfolding story, with reporter Ben Montgomery live-tweeting the extraordinary sight of Hughes hovering over the Mall.
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.”
The Secret Service was aware of Hughes and had interviewed him twice over the past few months, according to Montgomery. But it is unclear whether it knew when Hughes intended to act.
But Montgomery and the Times had a pretty good idea. On Monday, he and Times photographer James Borchuck traveled to Washington in anticipation of Hughes’s flight. Rain delayed takeoff on Monday and Tuesday, Montgomery said. But around noon Wednesday, Hughes called Montgomery from Gettysburg and told him that he was on the runway, prepared for liftoff.
At that point, the newspaper did two things. It posted Montgomery’s story about Hughes on its Web site while a reporter at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based newspaper phoned the Secret Service. A public information officer told the newspaper that the agency was unaware of Hughes’s flight and referred a reporter to Capitol Police. An unidentified officer told the Times, “He hasn’t notified anybody. We have no information,” the paper reported.
Hughes landed about 20 minutes later.
Times Editor Neil Brown said the newspaper wasn’t alerting officials to a potential threat. Rather, “we called them journalistically — ‘What’s your comment,’ ” he said in an interview. “There’s a guy up there in the air. They go, ‘Are you reporting this to us?’ And we said, ‘We want to know if you’re going to do anything about this?’ ”
Brown said the paper hasn’t received any complaints from authorities, although the Secret Service did call to say that its agents may want to talk to Montgomery.
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.
The timing is a troubling element, agreed Peter Bhatia, a professor of journalism ethics at Arizona State University and former editor of the Portland Oregonian. “At the end of the day, who cares if you have a scoop on this?” he said. “That’s a scoop I could live without.”
But Montgomery said the rationale for the article’s timing on Hughes’s mission was simple: “If he chickens out, we don’t have a story,” he said.
Marc Fisher contributed to this article.