Clear74° WeatherClear74° Weather

The Feed

Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Society of Professional Journalists criticizes prank call by editor fooling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

23

February

walker-pranked3.jpgCritics may say a prank call, in which a journalist pretended to be a big donor, revealed that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker really wants to crush public sector unions in his drive to strip them of many collective bargaining abilities.

But the Society of Professional Journalists has nevertheless criticized the action of Ian Murphy, the editor of the Buffalo Beast website in New York, for lying to Walker when he called and claimed to be David Koch, a billionaire businessman and campaign donor. Murphy engaged Walker in an informal conversation in which the governor compared his stand -- which he has said publicly is aimed at balancing the state's budget -- to Ronald Reagan's stand against the federal air traffic controllers' union.

“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.”

Indeed, the tactic hearkens to the actions of conservative activist James O'Keefe, who posed as a pimp to lure workers at offices for the voting rights group ACORN into giving him advice on how to apply for an illegal housing loan. The resulting controversy crippled the group's fundraising and activities, though some officials there said the video clips were taken out of context.

walker-prank.jpgIn Murphy's call to Walker, he pushes the governor to make outrageous statements, saying that the Koch brothers have paid people to protest at events. Walker later noted that he once thought about planting troublemakers in the crowds of protesters but feared it would work against him.

Once the prank was revealed, Walker supporters said the governor didn't reveal anything in the phone call which was different from his past statements. Critics said Walker showed his motivations were centered on making a national impact, rather than balancing the state's budget.

The SPJ noted that, regardless of what was learned, the method of obtaining it was unethical and should be condemned.

" Credible news organizations should be cautious about how they report this already widely reported story, and must realize that the information was obtained in a grossly inappropriate manner according to longstanding tenets of journalism," read their statement.

"This may be how Hollywood portrays reporters, but no journalist worth his salt ever would misrepresent his name and affiliation when seeking an interview," said SPJ President Hagit Limor. "Murphy should be ashamed not only of his actions but of besmirching our profession by acting so shamelessly.”

A sample of the conversation is below. Click "read more" to see full SPJ statement:

SPJ: Remember ethics in wake of fake phone call with Wisconsin governor

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists, through its Ethics Committee, strongly condemns the actions of an alternative online outlet this week when an editor lied and posed as a financial backer in a recorded phone call with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Ian Murphy, editor of the Buffalo Beast, represented himself as billionaire businessman and conservative activist David Koch, a financial supporter of Gov. Scott Walker, so that he could gain access to the governor by phone. He spoke with the governor under these false pretenses. Read a full account from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

During the phone call, Murphy, as Koch, baited the governor with questions about liberals in the media and the Democrats who have vacated the statehouse to prevent a vote on a collective bargaining bill. Near the end of the call, Murphy tells the governor that once Walker crushes the unions and their Democratic base, he (as the pretend Koch) will fly Walker to California and “really show you a good time.”

Walker responded: “All right. That would be outstanding.”

“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.”

The Buffalo Beast website was down as of Wednesday afternoon.

Though the Buffalo Beast purports to be an alternative news site with heavily slanted views that are neither fair nor objective, the fact remains that this interview was underhanded and unethical. Credible news organizations should be cautious about how they report this already widely reported story, and must realize that the information was obtained in a grossly inappropriate manner according to longstanding tenets of journalism.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics clearly states that journalists should “be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting news.”

The Code also says to avoid “undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

SPJ President Hagit Limor said what happened represents “a new low” for anyone claiming to be a journalist. “This may be how Hollywood portrays reporters, but no journalist worth his salt ever would misrepresent his name and affiliation when seeking an interview. Murphy should be ashamed not only of his actions but of besmirching our profession by acting so shamelessly.”

Journalists and news organizations should take note to carefully explain how this information was obtained and take measures not to engage in similar unethical practices.

[Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 7:25am]

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...