Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jun 2005
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Asheville Citizen-Times
Author: Robert C. Gabordi
Note: Robert C. Gabordi is executive editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


An editor got a tip the other day that we might want to look into such
and such a case in federal court, that it involved questionable
behavior in the gathering of news at WLOS television.

A couple of telephone calls later, we found out the case involved an
allegation that a TV reporter prodded or suggested to a source that he
smoke marijuana - an illegal drug - on camera.

The reporter was putting together a local angle on the U.S. Supreme
Court's ruling on medical use of marijuana.

To state the obvious, WLOS, as the major television outlet in the
region, and the Asheville Citizen-Times, as the major newspaper, are
competitors. We compete for advertising dollars and news stories. Both
are successful businesses and both news staffs are committed to their
communities and professional in their standards and reporting.

At times, we have put aside the business and journalistic competition
to collaborate on issues we feel are in the best interests of the
community. Most recently, we have filed suit together against the city
of Asheville and Buncombe County over what we both believe are illegal
meetings regarding the soon-to-be expired water agreement. We have
also worked side by side to help promote important community causes.

Reporters for our organizations often sit next to each other covering
events. They see each other at the scene of news stories. Sometimes,
they are the only reporters there. Most at least know each other.

So now we were faced with an unusual story involving our biggest
competitor as well as professional colleagues. No matter what we did
with it, there were sure to be critics. What we did, of course, was to
publish a story yesterday across the top of the front page.

OK, so what would you do?

On the one hand, some might question why this story was a big deal.
All that happened was a reporter asked an admitted consumer of
marijuana if he would smoke a little pot for the camera. The guy took
two hits - and claimed to not inhale, by the way - of what he later
said might not have been pot at all.

Those thinking this way would focus on the competitive aspect: This
was a chance for the Citizen-Times to embarrass its major TV
competitor in the market. We could have ignored it, or if we felt we
had to write something, play it on an inside page.

A poster on our forum pages put it this way:

"If WLOS were to get a picture of all the men that smoke pot in WNC,
they'd have to wait years for the camera industry to developed a wide
angle lens big enough to get the shot. Then, if you add the women to
the picture, you might as well take that from a satellite. Now that's
a fact, Jack. What's the big deal?"

On the other hand, downplaying the story would bring out the critics
who would focus on our collaboration, the people who believe such as
things as the "Mainstream Media" exists as a single entity and that we
all think and behave alike. How would we have played this story, they
might ask, if a member of the City Council were accused of enticing a
citizen to use drugs? Or better, how would we play it if it were a
major conservative talk-show celebrity?

Furthermore, there is the issue of how we hold ourselves accountable
to the public, with "we," in this case, being the media in general.
Are we, because we carry a camera or a notepad and pencil, above being
held accountable for our actions?

Of course we are not. Many news organizations are very careful to
train their employees that they must not violate laws in the course of
doing their jobs. The courts have been clear on this, although rulings
usually have involved trespassing or similar cases. Reporters doing
research on the Internet have sometimes run afoul of the law, too.
Asking someone to smoke pot for the purpose of shooting a picture is a
new one for me.

It is another example of how the legal system has become more
interested in how we gather news than what we say or write, moving
well beyond concerns over libel or slander.

The First Amendment is not - and should not be - a shield for illegal
or unethical behavior.

WLOS will have to decide for itself whether it believes it behaved
ethically. Most organizations believe journalists must not alter
reality but observe it and report it. If in a very rare case anything
is "staged" for the purpose of illustration, it must be carefully
explained to viewers/readers. The man on camera seen smoking pot also
claims to have been promised confidentiality, and that did not happen.

Whether the law was broken is a different question and one now before
Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore. The U.S. attorney's
office has referred the case back to him. He must also decide the "big
deal" factor: Even if he believes the reporter broke a law, is it so
clear-cut and worth the time and money for the state to prosecute when
questions of First Amendment rights are sure to be raised? If there
was an offense, is it worth all that?

Editor's note: You can decide for yourself whether what the television
reporter did was a big deal. A transcript of the court hearing is
available at B05007624.PDF.

Robert C. Gabordi is executive editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin