NBC News producer talks to Discovery Channel gunman during crisis; Did he cross an ethical line?
As the hostage drama was unfolding at Discovery Communications Wednesday, one NBC News producer landed the scoop of a lifetime, when the hostage-taker answered the company's main line as the journalist called to verify an emergency at the site.
Producer Rob Rivas told his story on the today show this morning, saying that gunman James Lee picked up the telephone at Discovery Channel's headquarters when Rivas called to see what anyone there knew about the emergency. When Lee picked up the phone, Rivas engaged him in conversation and asked several questions before the gunman hung up.
NBC didn't air the conversation until after Lee was killed by police. But the situation brings to mind a local incident in 1998 when gunman Hank Earl Carr was contacted by reporters from WFLA-AM radio and the St. Petersburg Times while holding people hostage after killing three police officers. Back then, journalism experts criticized media for tying up the phone lines and inserting themselves into a volatile situation.
So, was an ethical line crossed here?
To my mind, the fact that contact with Lee was accidental is key. Producers weren't necessarily trying to reach him when they called Discovery Channel, and getting him on the phone proved to be an awful, yet fruitful opportunity. Engaging him in conversation to find out his demands and assess the situation may have been risky, but also provided a window into the mind of a man who was later killed while engaging in an awful act of terrorism. And holding back on airing the interview allowed time to confirm the call was real and kept it from possibly inflaming the situation.
What do you think? Below, are the Today show and NBC Nightly News stories on the incident.