Truth & Consequences

The public’s right to know . . . at what cost?

The Charlotte Observer’s dilemma: Does a newspaper’s obligation to inform voters about a candidate’s character include publishing information that could put his life in danger?

By Mark F. Ethridge, III; Former Managing Editor The Charlotte Observer

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. 2.

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.

 

A week before the general election of November 1986, editors at The Charlotte Observer faced an ethical dilemma with the ultimate potential consequence of a wrong decision – death.

Even now, it is possible to write safely about the case only by avoiding the use of some names and specifics.

Three candidates were running for two positions on a minor, non-partisan board in one of the dozens of North and South Carolina counties covered by the Observer. During a routine check of clip files, a reporter discovered that one of the candidates had the same name as someone who’d been a leader in North Carolina’s Ku Klux Klan decades before. The Klan leader had pleaded guilty to several misdemeanor crimes, one of them in connection with a Klan shootout.

The reporter called the candidate.

“Must be someone else,” said the candidate, a businessman. “I’ve never had anything to do with the Klan.”

The reporter hung up, dissatisfied. She recalled reading a yellow clipping about the Klan leader which mentioned his small hometown in another state and which named some relatives. It was the same hometown listed in the candidate’s biography.

The reporter called the hometown and sought out the relatives. Whatever happened to their family member who’d come up to North Carolina and been active in the Klan years before? Where was he now?

“Funny you should ask,” one of them told her. “He’s gone straight for years and now he’s running for political office.”

The reporter knew she had a story. Not a big story – the political office involved wasn’t a particularly important one, the Klan activities had taken place more than a decade ago. But it was a story nonetheless.

If former Kluxers and admitted criminals were going to run for office, they had the right. But it was the newspaper’s right – indeed, obligation – to make sure readers and voters knew about their character and background.

When the reporter called the candidate, he confessed. And he pleaded that she not run the story. It was something long ago in his past, he said.

That kind of activity was behind him. He’d made a new life, he said. Even his family didn’t know.

The reporter and I had just started to discuss the implications of the story when my phone rang. It was a local official of B’nai B’rith. He had just gotten a call from the candidate, whom he described as an ” old friend,” and needed to talk. He arrived at my office breathless.

“If you print the story about (the candidate) and the Klan,” he said, “you’ll be making a terrible mistake. Everything in the clips about the Klan and the crimes is true.”

“But there’s one other thing. He was in the Klan as a plant. An informer. For the FBI. Working with them and with us, he prevented more Klan violence than you’ll ever know. He wasn’t a devil in the civil rights struggle. He was an angel.”

I thought that made it an even better story.

“But, you don’t understand,” the man from B’nai B’rith protested.” He sent people to jail. No one knows to this day he was an informer. If you print this information, he’ll end up at the bottom of the Catawba River.”

He mentioned the name of former Observer staffer who had covered the Klan in the 1960s and 1970s. “Ask him,” the man from B’nai B’rith said. “He knows the whole story.” I called the former staffer, now a senior Knight-Ridder executive. He was stunned.

“Everything the B’nai B’rith guy tells you is true,” the executive said.” To write this story could mean death (for the candidate). It’s so dangerous, I’m surprised (the man from B’nai B’rith) told you. It might have been better just to let you go ahead with the original Klan rather than reveal the secret.”

The reporter, her editor and I met to consider our options.

One of them was going ahead with the original story. It would, after all, deal with what was on the record. But even though the story would be factual, it wouldn’t serve the truth.

Printing the true story would certainly serve the public in the fairest way possible, leaving it to individual voters to decide what they thought of the facts. But that could put the candidate in physical danger.

Doing nothing was an option that left us all unsatisfied. If the candidate were elected, the original story about the Klan involvement would surface somehow. The newspaper could be accused of knowing relevant facts about a candidate and keeping them secret. And there would be no way to explain why we had done what we did.

With no clear idea of which way to go, we called the candidate. It was his life, after all, and we wanted his thinking on what we should do. We realized we were taking a rare and, for some, uncomfortable step: consulting with the subject of a story about how it should be written and whether it should be written at all.

As the reporter and the candidate talked, the candidate came to a decision. That afternoon, he dropped out of the race, citing “personal reasons.”

The Observer played the story in a few paragraphs below the fold on the front of the local section. The story contained none of the behind-the-scenes information.

I suppose we can be accused of withholding the truth, even manipulating the political process. Instead, I see it as a case of simply acknowledging that we must hold ourselves responsible for the consequences of what we report, not just the truth of what we report.

 

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