An ethical change of heart

I know I should be commenting on the Israeli election or the Bush tax plan. But indulge me while I reflect on something of personal concern - a dilemma of journalistic ethics.

You may recall that the 42-day manhunt for seven escaped prisoners in Texas ended when the last two, holed up in a Holiday Inn in Colorado Springs, agreed to give up if they could get five minutes each to tell their stories on television. Station KKTV news anchor Eric Singer agreed to interview them by telephone on the air.

Patrick Murphy said he had been driven to escape by an oppressive Texas penal system, and he hoped that his escape would "open people's eyes to it." Donald Newbury talked of a defense attorney assigned to him who didn't talk to him for three months. He said he was surrendering to "keep my voice in the media."

This is not the first time the news media have been drawn into a story. Some oldsters may remember 1971, when 42 people were killed in a prison uprising in Attica, N.Y. To help resolve the standoff, prison authorities acceded to the demand of the inmates to allow prison conditions to be viewed by a group including top newspaper people.

More recently, in 1995, The New York Times and The Washington Post responded to a plea by the FBI to publish a long tract written by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, which contained his conditions for halting the sending of murderous letter bombs. Publication, in fact, helped his brother to identify him.

History recounts other episodes of terrorists and criminals negotiating media recognition in return for sparing lives. In 1977, a disturbed man took a hostage in Indianapolis, wired a sawed-off shotgun to the victim's neck, and led him before the cameras, yelling, "Get those cameras on! I'm a ... national hero!" Having achieved his moment of recognition, the hostage-taker released his hostage.

Incidents like these have occasioned soul-searching in the journalistic community about whether it is ethical to submit to this kind of blackmail, which could establish a pattern for future blackmail. I discussed the Texas escapee episode with my friend, Marvin Kalb, founder of the Shorenstein Center on the media and public policy at Harvard University. He takes a straightforward position: It is not ethical for the media to allow themselves to yield to such pressure for attention from terrorists and criminals, even if it is a matter of saving lives.

I used to think that way, but have become less certain. I have come to think that there are few absolutes in life and that values have to be balanced against other values.

Benjamin Bradlee, retired editor of The Washington Post, faced the dilemma in 1976 of a demand by Croatian terrorists who had hijacked an airliner to print their propaganda statement or 62 hostages would be killed. The demand was also addressed to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and International Herald Tribune.

All five papers printed the statement. Mr. Bradlee later said, "The truth is that none of us had any stomach for reading a headline in the next day's paper that went something like this: 'Hijackers Kill 62 Americans after US Editors Refuse to Publish Documents.' "

When it comes to lives weighed against keeping immaculate my journalistic ethics, I guess that is how I feel.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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