A friend, yesterday, asked if I heard that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was, “punked.” What she meant was that a liberal blogger got on the phone with him, pretending to be a conservative fundraiser, recorded the conversation, and then posted it on YouTube. By now you might have done what I did—listened to the recording, after reading about it on a newspaper’s blog, or the Huffington Post. prank call
My initial reaction to hearing the conversation is that the Governor didn’t repeat the fiery, rhetoric of the man he was conversing with. The man who pretended to be the conservative used words like “bastards,” and loudly guffawed about the pro-union protesters and union organizers. The Governor watched his words and demeanor. He gets points for that. So, what was the big deal? The Governor was “guilty” of allegedly saying that his supporters thought about getting “impostors” or “ringers” to mix with the crowds that have relentlessly staged their sit-ins in Madison. Thinking about that strategy is one thing. Deciding it wouldn’t work and not doing it, is another. Another possible news nugget is that the impostor offered the governor a trip and hospitality. What person wouldn’t want to accept the generosity of a supporter, as the Governor allegedly did? After all, the offer was made in a private conversation. Details could be worked out later. Right? What made this recording all that news worthy?
Hours later I was reminded that everything you just read is besides the point.
I read on Facebook the postings of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was reminded that posing as someone you’re not, and recording, without the other party’s knowledge, your conversation, isn’t ethical, let alone legal in some jurisdictions. Now, you may ask, if the Governor and his cronies were thinking about crossing the line of ethics, by bringing “ringers” into the crowd, to show that the crowds weren’t necessarily united in their cause, why are you writing about the ethics of a blogger, crossing the line of propriety? Well, I’ve been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists for over 25 years. I might have crossed over to the “dark-side” in the eyes of some journalists by earning a living by pitching the news to reporters, producers and editors, but I still have to keep in mind what is ethical and legal.
It’s not that I’m so righteous. Amongst my friends and close associates I joke around and I use “saucy” language with the best of them. I can be blunt and, perhaps, too quick to call somebody a name that resembles a body part. But, when pitching news, I watch myself. If I mislead or burn a reporter my career as a publicist, and a trusted source of news, is kaput.
In this age of “citizen journalism,” it’s so nice that SPJ, an organization that I’ve paid dues to, and whose events I’ve attended, is there to remind us that ethics still matter, no matter how entertaining it is to “punk” someone. Bloggers are increasingly becoming trusted sources of news. Will somebody tell them that their reputation is kaput should they cross ethical lines?
I think the Society of Professional Journalists just fired a warning shot.