The bombing on the Pan Am jumbo jet with its loss of 270 lives touched off a new wave of concern about airport safety, as air disasters always do. It virtually invited the press to probe airport defenses against terrorists and crazies.
In two cases reporters used deception rather than conventional techniques like interviewing, observation and digging into records to try to dramatize the problem. The results were mixed.- A reporter for one of the raffish London tabloids, the Daily Express, falsified his application for a job with a cleaning company at Heathrow Airport. After he was hired he joined a cleaning crew and got aboard at least a dozen airliners without any security checks. He even smuggled a camera in. After the Express spread his pictures and story over the paper, the caper led to the government's cancelling of all the cleaning company's security passes.
- Two journalists for TFL, the premier French television company, had less success and wound up more than just embarrassed. They were arrested and charged with trying to ship fake bombs to Paris from Kennedy International Airport on TWA, Air France and, grotesquely, Pan Am, as an "experiment" to test the security system there. The "bombs" were made of modeling clay, wires and alarm clocks.
- UNDERCOVER REPORTING, including concealment of identity and even the use of fake identities, goes back to the late 19th century and has been used off and on since. Never has it been so modish as in recent television history, largely because of the example of CBS' phenomenally successful "60 Minutes."
The people at "60 Minutes" have argued that deception can be legitimate and effective, though, possibly in response to much criticism, they do it a lot less now than five or six years ago. The aim is to show, not merely describe. Channel 5's Probe 5 team similarly has argued that a more vivid and believable point is made when reporters go undercover. Two of KSL's best-remembered undercover stories showed conditions in nursing homes and food stamp fraud.
- MOST EDITORS frown on active deception. One of the most outspoken is Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, who has argued that "in a day when we are spending thousands of man hours uncovering deception (in government) we cannot deceive."
But even the Post and most other papers sometimes accept and even encourage passive deception when they feel it is the best or only way to get the truth and needed changes. If a reporter puts on grubbies to pass as a street person for a story on the plight of the homeless the deception is mild and passive, though it is still deception.
In both the airport cases, the reporters used active deception. Were they justified in doing so or were they just pulling off stunts?
The Kennedy incident strikes me as a deplorable stunt that most newspeople would reject. Readers and viewers often have a low tolerance for undercover work simply because most have a strong sense of fair play, but in this case also a distaste for people who play with airport defense systems.
The caper was poorly conceived. We have no indication that the reporters felt that the only way to get needed information on cargo security was to break the law. There's no indication that the threat to public safety at Kennedy was so great that exposure became a higher value than honesty. In fact, the reporters' obvious supposition, that the "bombs" would not be detected, proved faulty. Finally, the reporters may have been aware of the risks, but it's not clear that they were aware that breaking the Air Safety Act could result in some nasty repercussions to themselves.
I feel somewhat better about the Heathrow undercover reporting. The reporter was impolitic enough afterward to crow about his work as a "joke," and that doesn't sit well. But impersonation was less offensive here than shipping fake bombs. Furthermore, we have to suppose that the reporter had a tip or good reason to believe the security involving airport workers was weak. His suspicions proved out and his stories led to some needed reforms.
****** - FOOTNOTES: Followup stories never catch up with the original charge, but giving them prominent, ungrudging play certainly helps. Having decided reluctantly but correctly (Media Monitor, Jan. 7) to name the man charged with the "Top Gun" robbery, the Deseret News told how the man was absolved and then used a long piece on his tribulations. The first appeared on the local page, the second as the lead item on page 1, although the earlier stories about the charges appeared only on inside pages. The Tribune did much the same a couple of years ago in a story about a Salt Lake restaurateur cleared after a year under a morals charge. Another story in the past week has helped in another healing, a Deseret News piece on the overturning of the guilty charge against former county investigator Don Harman.
- THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE for Jan. 15 has a long study of the televising of the sensational Joel Steinberg case. Steinberg is the man accused of beating to death his adopted daughter while his submissive, battered wife stood by (Media Monitor, Dec. 26). New York, like Utah, is permitting an experiment in allowing TV cameras in the courtroom. The Steinberg trial may ultimately set back the case for cameras, as the circus the cameras made of the Lindbergh trial did half a century ago. According to the Times, three "trialcasters," including a doctor and a lawyer, comment, predict, diagnose and interpret. "An inhuman scenario is reduced to the `Monday Night Football' format."