Ya think? The stunt pulled by a US Postal Service worker yesterday could have gotten him killed, and also might have given more malicious actors a few ideas on how to breach security. Both potential outcomes might have been prevented had those who known about it called the Secret Service or Capitol Police before Doug Hughes took off in his gyrocopter. The Tampa Bay Times had plenty of warning about it, having interviewed him about his plans in the summer of 2014, and knew enough about the timing to send a reporter and a photographer to Washington on Monday, although rainy weather delayed Hughes until yesterday. The Times had its staffers in perfect position to report on the landing as Hughes took off.
It was only then that they called the Secret Service:
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.
That’s not exactly a warning. It’s more an example of gotcha journalism, catching law enforcement with its pants down. The fact that Hughes could have provoked a violent reaction — after all, who knew what Hughes intended at that point? — either didn’t occur to the Times, or didn’t matter as much as getting first crack at a weird story.
Media ethicists contacted by Paul Farhi called shenanigans on the Times, especially since their silence seems to have been a de facto conspiracy to boost their own profile:
“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.
The Daily Beast’s Jackie Kucinich summed it up last night:
— Jackie Kucinich (@JFKucinich) April 16, 2015
Some things are more important than the scoop. Especially when the news is only the event itself. Next time the Tampa Bay Times wants to raise its profile, it should hire a PR firm. They may have greater need for one now, especially among their peers.
Original front page image from AddFunny.com.