NEW YORK — A Florida newspaper that knew ahead of time that a man planned to fly a gyrocopter into restricted airspace at the U.S. Capitol faced questions Thursday about whether its editors should have used this knowledge to try and stop the risky stunt.
The Tampa Bay Times, which posted reporter Ben Montgomery in Washington on Wednesday to document postal worker Doug Hughes’ self-styled protest flight that landed on the Capitol grounds, said that its responsibility was to cover, not change, the story. Hughes is charged with operating an unregistered aircraft and violating national airspace.
The debate is an old one in journalism: should reporters strictly observe society or be part of it? The Times’ role began last summer, when Hughes contacted Montgomery about his plan to fly the tiny aircraft in Washington. He wanted to do something splashy to draw attention to campaign finance reform by personally airmailing letters to members of Congress. The Times interviewed Hughes in advance, and took photos and videos of his gyrocopter, but Brown said the reporter made no commitment to do a story and made clear the newspaper was not his partner.
“Our job is to be observers,” said Neil Brown, editor and vice president of the Times. “We are not arms of the government. That said, that position was clearly strengthened by the fact that the authorities were already in the know about Doug Hughes.”
In its reporting, the newspaper confirmed with Hughes and a co-worker that they had been interviewed by the Secret Service, and Washington lawmakers said Thursday the troubled agency had interviewed Hughes two years ago.
The agency has been on the defensive over the last several months amid a series of security breaches. In September a man armed with a knife was able to scale a White House fence and run deep into the executive mansion before being apprehended. Earlier that month, the Secret Service was unaware that President Barack Obama rode an elevator with an armed contractor until after the incident. In January, a small quadcopter drone landed on the White House lawn in the middle of the night, raising new questions about security at the mansion.
As soon as Hughes took off Wednesday, the Times posted a story that Montgomery had written in advance and touted it on social media accounts. The newspaper called the Capitol Police and Secret Service to ask if they were aware that a man was flying toward the Capitol in a gyrocopter and to seek comment, Brown said.
Brian Leary of the Secret Service said Thursday that his agency received a call to ask if the agency was aware of a permit obtained by a protester to fly and land on the U.S. Capitol grounds via a gyrocopter. The caller was referred to the Capitol Police, he said.
At no time was the Secret Service alerted to the fact that the protester was actually in the air, O’Leary said. Brown said that was not true.
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics at the University of Minnesota, said she’s usually loathe to suggest journalists become government informants, but was troubled that the Times — which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank — had kept this knowledge to themselves for so long. They worked so closely in concert with Hughes that it seemed like they were contributing to the creation of the news story, she said.
“It’s very hard to get away from the idea they were doing this for competitive news purposes,” she said. “There’s nothing dishonest about that … but it does suggest that it clouded their thinking on this.”
Poynter Institute Vice President Roy Peter Clark also condemned the newspaper’s failure to alert authorities.
“There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line. That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s. In short, when the baby is thrown out the window of a burning building, the photographer drops the camera and runs to catch it,” Clark wrote on the Poynter Institute website Thursday.
David Rubin, a journalism professor and former dean at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said Hughes put himself at risk of being shot down and perhaps put bystanders at risk in harm’s way by doing something admittedly against the law. He said it appeared the Times itself made a judgment call that there was little danger involved.
“How did they know he didn’t actually have a bomb in there?” he asked. “They don’t know.”
If the newspaper had written a story about Hughes’ plans in advance, it would have fulfilled its journalistic responsibility and alerted authorities in the process, Rubin said.
Brown said all those issues were considered. Journalists constantly have to weigh the newsworthiness of people promoting pet issues and be mindful of giving undue attention, he said. For instance, do you write a story about someone threatening a lawsuit or when it is actually filed?
“What if he takes off and gets 100 yards? Is that a story?” Brown asked. “I don’t know. We ended up with a lot of game-time decisions that we sort of planned for.”
The newspaper’s best judgment was that Hughes was slightly naive but did not intend to put himself or others in danger, he said.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.
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