That is my reluctant conclusion after reading the story “Ruskin flier eludes Capitol air security.” The story, well known by now, concerns Doug Hughes, an eccentric postal worker who committed an act of civil disobedience by flying a “gyrocopter” onto the West Lawn of the nation’s Capitol.
As I studied the coverage last night and today, I imagined a different headline: “Times coverage shows unsteady man committing dangerous act.”
Ben Montgomery, a reporter I admire, wrote the story. I saw him on the Today Show arguing in a brief sound bite that it was not his job to blow the whistle on a stunt like this one, in which Hughes planned to deliver letters to each member of Congress complaining about the evil influence of money on American politics.
But that standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute. There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line. That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s.
In short, when the baby is thrown out the window of a burning building, the photographer drops the camera and runs to catch it.
That tipping point from professional standards to broader citizen standards is not always easy to locate. Reporters are embedded with the military or fly into disaster zones where there are untold opportunities to act to prevent danger or relieve human suffering. But the essential democratic role of the reporter is to chronicle those events. The idea is that stories and photographs and reports will call attention to a problem – shine a light on it – so that citizens can see and act.
Let me pose a question? What would you do if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire? I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others. I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action. I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation.
But what if I were a photojournalist covering the war in Vietnam on a day when Buddhist monks decided to set themselves on fire on the streets of Saigon? What is my responsibility then? Is it to try to save the lives of the monks? Or is it to capture the most powerful images I can so that the whole world can see?
At a conference on journalism and hostage taking at Poynter years ago, one of the toughest editors in America, Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times, was asked the question: “Is a story ever worth a life?” The context was the coverage of plane hijackings, where the actions of a reporter might inadvertently motivate someone to violence. I’ve always remembered Rosenthal’s response: “No story is worth the loss of a little finger.”
Ben Montgomery has written powerful and inspiring stories, like his exposes of violence and corruption at a state run reform school in north Florida. But his story on Doug Hughes is not one of them. In the best light, it could have been a feature on a quirky postal worker who wants to deliver a message to Congress. If Hughes had decided that he would do that by carrying a mail sack filled with protest letters from, say, the Lincoln Memorial to the steps of the Capitol, with an entourage of supporters and reporters and photographers behind him, that is one thing.
But when Hughes decides that his means of delivery will not be his legs or the Pony Express but a contraption that looks like a flying bicycle, a line has been crossed.
Thankfully, no one was physically hurt. But everyone is wondering what might have happened. Maybe he would have crashed to the ground, or into the Washington Monument, or into a crowd of tourists or schoolchildren? Imagine the conversation we would be having now about the judgment of the Times if something terrible had happened, if an over-reaction from the government resulted in trying to shoot the copter from the sky.
In a conversation with Ben Montgomery, he expressed a confidence he had gained from his contact with Hughes over time, that however eccentric, he was not a danger to himself and others. It seems clear that the reporter’s judgment – along with that of government officials who had interviewed Hughes earlier – proved persuasive to editors. They would observe and report on the postal worker’s actions and its consequences, rather than act upon them in a way that might prevent them in the name of public safety.
If that is the case, I would offer a counter-argument, using the evidence that appears deep in their own story.
“His idea began to blossom 2 ½ years ago, after his son, John Joseph Hughes, 24, committed suicide by driving his car head-on into another man, killing them both. ‘Police: Suicidal driver caused deadly crash,’ read the headline in the Leesburg Daily Commercial. He was crushed by grief, and disappointed that his son had killed himself – and someone else – to make a stupid, worthless point.”
A stupid, worthless point.
Were the sins of the son, in their own way, repeated by the father? And would you trust a man’s judgment who says he is acting from grief over his suicidal son and then wants to fly a gyrocopter into the nation’s most sacred and protected airspace? Or would you call it what it is: crazy.
Here is more from the Times story about Hughes’s actions and their own:
“In the end, his flight occurred without incident or escorts. The Times published a story about Hughes’ plans on its website, tampabay.com, shortly after noon when it was clear he had actually taken off and was attempting his flight. His livestream cut in and out but showed his progress. A Times reporter called the Secret Service in Washington, D.C. shortly before 1 p.m. to see if officials were aware of a man in a gyrocopeter flying toward the capital. Public information officers there who did not give their names said they had not heard of the protest. They referred a reporter to Capitol Police. A public information officer did not immediately answer.”
So if it is not a reporter’s job to intervene in such cases, why call the Secret Service at all? This was not a story focused on the performance and safeguards of Homeland Security. And if you were going to call, why wait until after liftoff. Cynics will wonder if the Times was now so invested in the Flight of the Gyrocopter that they did not take action that would ruin what could be the dramatic conclusion to a story. I don’t believe that.
I wish I could consult the late Abe Rosenthal to see how he would have handled it. My guess is that he would have argued that this particular event was not the Pentagon Papers, that a newspaper should not indirectly encourage the actions of a man of questionable judgment who plans to commit a crime, and that the story’s pursuit was not worth even a remote danger to public safety and the reputation of a great news organization.