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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Governor Walker and the Beast: Do ends justify the means?

The storm of controversy that swirls around the prank call to Gov. Scott Walker raises the oldest question in ethics: If you achieve results, who cares about the means?

Of course, we are taught to be wary of “the end justifies the means” reasoning, but is this always the case in journalism?

By existing journalism standards, the prank call was unethical practice. But explaining how such standards apply in a world of new media and new practices is complicated .

photo of "this phone is tapped"

Photo by Mike Benedetti/Creative Commons

The central fact is that Ian Murphy, editor of the Buffalo Beast blog tricked Walker into thinking he was talking to billionaire businessman and conservative activist David Koch.

Deception usually strikes us as dubious, unfair, unethical. But not always. Investigative journalists use deceptive methods to obtain important information.

So what might be said in defence of tricking and goading an interviewee with leading questions? In this case, not much.

One reply is: “Don’t be sanctimonious, listen to the Walker call. It shows what he is really like; it shows his real motivations and connections. Too bad about the methods, but the results speak for themselves.”

Whether you agree with this reply probably depends on your position on Walker’s budget repair bill, but let’s set politics aside for a minute.

In general, what does journalism ethics say about reporters using deceptive methods, such as lying to people about who you are, or using hidden cameras? It says that these actions can only be justified in exceptional cases, and must satisfy these conditions:

  • A serious matter in the public interest must be involved, for example, to prevent or stop serious wrongdoing. One does a lesser wrong to stop a much greater wrong, e.g. lying to gain access to a nursing home where staff is abusing elderly patients.
  • There must be sufficient evidence that such harm or wrong is actually occurring. No fishing expeditions, please.
  • It must be impossible to obtain crucial information in any other way.
  • Journalists must seek to minimize harm: They consult with editors and lawyers to make sure innocent third parties are not put in jeopardy. Legal risks are taken into account.
  • Journalists must be accountable, ready to explain and justify their editorial decisions to the public.

In other words, deception is only justified when carried out by thoughtful, responsible journalists after much consideration of possible methods and their consequences.

This description of responsible deception does not easily fit the 20-minute prank call.

First,  while is titillating to hear the governor talk frankly with someone he thinks is Koch, the methods used, e.g. the leading questions, and the vagueness of some of the discussion, leave room for varying interpretations. Defenders of Walker can say he was simply trying to placate a political supporter rather than stoutly telling Koch the idea of planting troublemakers was stupid. When Walker agrees to visit Koch after the protests are over, does this entail that he agrees with the previous comment about “crushing” the protesting “bastards”? No. There is too much wiggle room here.

The dubious methods used undermine their purpose – which evidently was to show clearly and unambiguously that Gov. Walker is an evil man or guilty of serious wrongdoing. No matter what one thinks of Walker, the tape does not achieve its results. Maybe it only shows that Walker is too willing to schmooze with heavy-hitting supporters and their dubious ideas.

What the tape does show, in my view, is that Walker sees this time as his “moment” to push through his political agenda and long-held right-wing ideology. It indicates that hard  political ideology is as strong a motivating factor in the budget reduction exercise as is Walker’s claim that he is only seeking a fair response to the state’s budget woes.

But this is hardly news to anyone who knows Gov. Walker and who has watched the budget repair bill fiasco. This is the main result of the call? Did anyone not know that Koch and Walker have political connections?

If you really want to prove, substantially, that Walker has made illegal or illegitimate promises to Koch and his company, or that he is willing to “crush the bastards” in any way, the best method is to use legitimate, skillful journalistic methods: obtain tape of a real conversation or email exchange between Walker and Koch. Go out and find a paper trail and sources who can establish, firmly, some interesting hypothesis about Walker or prove substantial wrongdoing.

In other words, go out and do some real hard-slogging investigative journalism.

Otherwise, prank calls remain in the realm of politics – tools to be used by political groups for political ends.

What standards?

Therefore, I agree with a recent statement from the Society of Professional Journalists:“This tactic and the deception used to gain this information violate the highest levels of journalism ethics,” said SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Z. Smith. “To lie to a source about your identity and then to bait that source into making comments that are inflammatory is inexcusable and has no place in journalism.”

Once the tape is in the public domain, news outlets can do a story on it. But I also agree with the SPJ that any new media using this material “to carefully explain how this information was obtained and take measures not to engage in similar unethical practices.”

However, the Walker prank call does raise one other tough question: How useful is it to appeal to the standards of professional journalism today? Do the standards of professional journalism apply to blogs and other online journalists? What if bloggers or online writers reject these standards and dismiss talk of responsible journalism and proper method?

If one is an online activist journalist, aren’t results the main or only concern?

Doesn’t the WikiLeaks saga place the question of means and ends in a new and difficult light? If one can obtain and publish secrets for the public, why is talk of methods relevant?

The Walker call is part of a much larger trend in journalism. The trend ensures that the problem of means and ends won’t go away any time soon, and it will morph into new forms.

The best that citizens can hope for, in this chaotic media landscape, is that professional newsrooms will continue to adhere to these standards while treating with caution the “results” of questionable practice elsewhere.

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