The Billboard Bandit

Did the newspaper get graffiti on its reputation?

The newspaper was invited to witness a crime. It was a good opportunity with the makings for a good story. But was the paper being exploited?

By Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre is a staff writer for The San Diego Union.

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

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 6 (June 1991), p. 3.

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.


Somebody with a can of spray paint was fuming mad at the tobacco industry. “Smoking Kills,” read the graffiti on numerous cigarette billboards around San Diego. “Cancer Ain’t Suave,” read others.

I had been searching for the perpetrator for weeks, but no one knew who was behind the vandalism with a message. Not the police, not the billboard companies, not even the anti-smoking groups. Finally, The San Diego Union got a phone call from a man who identified himself to me as the Billboard Bandit.

I arranged to meet him at a fast food restaurant. He was a businessman in his forties, a husband and father who claimed to have never broken the law in his life. He was doing so now, he said, to urge Congress to ban billboard advertising of tobacco products.

He drove me around town, pointing out the cigarette billboards he had defaced. There were 25 of them. I asked him if a photographer and I could be present when he hit his 26th. He agreed, with one condition: I could not reveal his identity.

What I wanted to observe is a crime in California. If ever caught and convicted, the Bandit would face up to one year in prison and up to a $50,000 fine per count. I had no qualms about doing a ride-along with the Bandit. My editor did. He consulted the paper’s attorney.

“I thought we were treading on shaky legal ground witnessing a crime,” said Features Editor Peter Rowe. “I wanted to do the story and I wanted to have that scene because it would be critical to the piece. But I didn’t want to do it at the expense of landing a reporter in jail or dragging the newspaper into court.”

Our newspaper’s attorney set the following conditions:

1It had to be clear that neither the paper nor I participated in a crime. I could not coach the Bandit as to the time or place of the billboard defacement. I was to go along only at his invitation.

2The photographer and I could not drive with the Bandit. We were to arrive at the billboard site in our own car.

3We could in no way assist the Bandit. We could only observe. Even if the man were in danger of falling, we could not hold his ladder.

4If the police showed up, we were not to run. We were to behave as journalists and continue covering the story, taking notes and pictures for later use.

The ground rules seemed reasonable, with one exception. If the Bandit slipped and was hanging from the billboard, it’s hard to imagine not trying to help the guy. Fortunately, it never came to that.

The assignment went smoothly. The photographer and I arrived at the designated billboard around midnight. Moments later, the Bandit emerged from the shadows, hefting a 24-foot extension ladder. He flipped a switch in the fuse box and the massive Marlboro Lights cigarette billboard went dark.

The sign was adjacent to a freeway, but nobody saw the Bandit working in the shadows. He sprayed his message clear across the Marlboro Man.

“SMOKING KILLS,” the billboard read 10 minutes later. “LET’S STOP THESE ADS.”

Later, the story prompted more calls from readers than any other I have written. Almost all of the callers applauded the Bandit’s graffiti campaign.

One reader offered to hold his ladder. Another to supply him with free spray paint.

There were also a few negative calls. Some readers were outraged that I would witness a crime and not report it to the police. (The police have not asked me the Bandit’s identity. If they do, I will honor my agreement with him and not reveal his name.) One anonymous caller threatened to track the Billboard Bandit down and break his arms.

The story also prompted dozens of letters to the editor. Almost all were critical of the Bandit, the paper and me. One letter read in part: “The Union should be ashamed to have reporters aiding and abetting criminals. Maybe next time a rapist or murderer will invite McIntyre and the photographer on a ride-along.” Another read: “To sensationalize someone whom you know the identity of and not expose him marks your paper as guilty as his crime.”

The newspaper’s ombudsman, William G. Stothers, blasted the article. “I am troubled by the thought that The Union made a bad bargain, jumping at the chance for a better story in exchange for being badly used,” Stothers wrote in his weekly op-ed column. “The Bandit got publicity. The newspaper got its story, and graffiti on its reputation.”

Was the paper used? Sure it was. But newspapers are used all the time. The more important issue is whether the Bandit’s story is newsworthy. I think it is.

Experts say graffiti is part of a new trend among anti-tobacco forces, both legal and illegal, to more aggressively fight for a smoke-free society.

Further, the Bandit is the first person in San Diego to wage a vandalism campaign against the tobacco industry. That’s news.

As for my witnessing a crime, it’s something journalists do routinely. When a reporter watches a computer hacker at work, he’s witnessing a crime.

When a reporter watches an unlicensed radio station broadcast out of a garage, he’s witnessing a crime.

I did not watch the Billboard Bandit shoot a tobacco industry executive. I merely watched him spray some paint on a sign. Some readers may cry murder, but it clearly wasn’t.