Knowing when to say “when!”

Drawing the line at cooperating with authorities

By Richard Halicks, Executive Editor Messenger-Inquirer

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1(April 1989), p. 4.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

When George Bush came to Owensboro, Ky., in late September 1988, thousands of people turned out to see him. One of them was carrying a gun.

Two days after Bush left, someone mailed a letter from Owensboro to the White House. The writer warned: “Either Bush drops out of the presidential race or I will kill him.”

Three photographs from the Bush rally accompanied the letter. The writer made a chilling point: “At the time I was taking these pictures, I had a .45 pistol concealed in my belt. I could have easily pulled the pistol out and killed him where he was.”

About a week after President Reagan received the letter, Daviess County Sheriff John Bouvier came to our offices and met with City/Sports Editor Gene Abell.

The conversation went something like this:

Bouvier: I need your help on something, and you can’t print anything about it.

Abell: If I can’t print it, don’t tell me about it.

Bouvier: You have to help me on this, and you just can’t print it.

Abell: Look, it’s our policy not to go off the record with anyone. Can you at least give me some IDEA of what this is about?

With that, Bouvier simply handed Abell the letter. That was that; the letter WAS the story and so much for our policy. We were privy to the story without really wanting to be.

Now that we were “in on it,” Bouvier told Abell that the Secret Service wanted our help. Using the three snapshots that had accompanied the letter, federal agents thought they had figured out precisely where the suspect was standing. All they needed was a photo of the crowd to see whether they could isolate their suspect.

Now what? Do we show them our film? Do we insist on a subpoena?

Abell tracked me down at an editors’ conference in Lexington, Ky. We talked, we worried, we rationalized. We told each other and ourselves that this was a matter of national security, a matter of life and death for the vice president. Abell also reported the developments to John Hager, the Messenger-Inquirer’s editor and co-publisher.

That day, we decided to allow the Secret Service to review our slides, in the presence of David Cooper, the paper’s director of photography. We also decided that we would not write a story. We reasoned that we wouldn’t have known about the letter if the sheriff hadn’t dropped it into our laps.

For the next seven days, our newspaper – and other newspapers and television stations – cooperated in the Secret Service investigation of the death threat.

As each day passed, however, we became more and more uneasy as we asked ourselves some basic questions: Is this news? If it is, why aren’t we treating it that way? If we do, can we answer some sticky ethical questions? Such as:

  • Was this truly a story? Death threats against the president rarely get much attention. Some papers, I’ve heard, refuse to print such stories, for a variety of good reasons.
  • Even if it was a story, we wouldn’t have known about it if the authorities hadn’t told us about it. Did that matter?
  • Both the sheriff and the federal agents insisted that publication would hamper and perhaps wreck their investigation.
  • The Secret Service told us, most passionately, that publication of this story could bring about Bush’s assassination by somehow goading an obviously unbalanced suspect into action.
  • The authorities argued, too, that they had solicited similar cooperation from newspapers and television stations throughout the area. Everyone else was cooperating fully, they said, why won’t you?

Such compelling arguments left me bewildered.

John Hager and I both called friends and associates in the business. We got some conflicting ideas, but the best advice I received came from a journalism professor and from the managing editor of a southern newspaper. Their message was: Our job is to write and print stories in timely and responsible fashion, not to assist in criminal investigations, nor to anticipate the actions of madmen. If publication hampered the investigation, that wasn’t really the newspaper’s problem, they said.

We decided to prepare a story, although we hadn’t decided to print it. By then, the paper had developed its own sources. We learned, for example,that federal agents had interviewed local photo finishers to find out who had printed the suspect’s pictures. Officers also had interviewed a variety of private citizens who had taken pictures at the Bush rally, including high school yearbook photographers.

Reporter Dan Heckel asked various authorities for comment.

Sheriff Bouvier was vehement. David Ray, Secret Service special agent in charge of Kentucky, was angry. “I just hope it doesn’t cost anyone their life,” he said.

We waited. Sitting on the story became a game of sorts. Ray claimed the Secret Service was close to isolating a suspect and needed our cooperation for just one more day. We waited. The next day, they needed just one MORE day. And so on.

Five days after the sheriff had come to see Abell, I was tired of waiting. I had convinced myself that continuing to suppress the information served no real purpose.

The Messenger-Inquirer printed the story Oct. 14. Under Heckel’s byline, it played on top of page one as a sidebar to a Bush campaign story. From a source, we had obtained a copy of the threatening letter, and we printed a reproduction of it with the story. Heckel’s report included quotes from me that explained our actions to readers. 

On the night of Oct. 17, a 21-year-old Owensboro man was arrested at home and charged with threatening to kill George Bush.

Did our story hinder the investigation? Did it compel a sick man to harm someone else? Did it have any of the consequences the police had predicted?

None of the above.

According to testimony, the suspect was turned in by someone who read about the case in the newspaper.

 

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