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The ethical implications of a prank phone call

February 26, 2011

Self-described “gonzo journalist” Ian Murphy made a name for himself this week when he impersonated billionaire oil tycoon David Koch and fooled Gov. Scott Walker into revealing part of his union-busting strategy in Wisconsin. (See story here.)

From The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell to the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos, Murphy’s prank phone call to the governor has received praise from left-wing pundits and others in the media for illustrating the large role that corporations and big money play in the American political process.

What has received less attention, however, is whether Murphy violated journalism ethical standards by using deception to gather news.

The Society of Professional Journalists certainly thinks so.

In a scathing report posted on its website on Wednesday, the SPJ’s Ethics Committee said it “strongly condemns the actions of an alternative online outlet” because its editor “lied and posed as a financial backer in a recorded phone call with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.”

The SPJ report said that Murphy’s phone call was “underhanded” and “unethical,” adding that “credible news organizations should be cautious about how they report this already widely reported story, and must realize that the information was obtained in a grossly inappropriate manner according to longstanding tenets of journalism.”

“This tactic and the deception used to gain this information violate the highest levels of journalism ethics,” the report quoted SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Z. Smith as saying. “To lie to a source about your identity and then to bait that source into making comments that are inflammatory is inexcusable and has no place in journalism.”

Murphy, the editor of the Buffalo Beast website, called Walker last week under the guise that he was Koch, a financial contributor to the Wisconsin governor and a supporter of conservative policies in general.

Acting as Koch, Murphy can be heard on the tape telling Walker that he supports the governor’s attempt to end collective bargaining rights for unionized state employees, a proposal that has sparked widespread protests in Madison and forced Wisconsin Democratic senators into hiding in Illinois to prevent the GOP-controlled chamber from gaining the quorum it needs to vote on the measure.

During the taped phone conversation, Walker makes several embarrassing revelations:

  • He considered planting “troublemakers” in the crowd of protesters gathered at the Capitol to disrupt the demonstrations, but he said he refrained from doing so because any violence might reflect poorly on the governor and force him to reach a premature agreement with the union that retains collective bargaining rights.
  • He joked about hitting Wisconsin Democrats with a baseball bat.
  • He said he was planning to trick Democratic senators back to Madison on the false pretense that he would bargain with them in good faith — only to force a vote on his controversial measure once the Senate could legally reconvene with a quorum.
  • He indicated that he would be willing to join Koch on a junket to California after the fight with the union was successfully completed.

The information gleaned from the prank call is revealing because it gives an inside view on how politicians and corporate executives operate behind closed doors.

It also shows — as Murphy intended — how easy it is for a billionaire political contributor to gain access to the governor, even when Democratic senators in Wisconsin complained that Walker never returned their phone calls.

Murphy said in an e-mail interview that his tactics were justified because there was no other way to capture Walker’s true intentions during the showdown in Madison without fooling the governor into complacency. (See full interview transcript here.)

Murphy, who appeared somewhat defensive and belligerent in the interview, said the idea for the prank call was his alone and that he did not consult anyone or consider the ethical questions that might get raised by his actions.

In response to one question, Murphy said: “If you think a blogger from Buffalo gets on the phone with Gov. Walker [without deception], you’re fucking
retarded.” He said the title “ethics expert” is ridiculous, and he called one journalism ethics scholar who questioned his tactics “dumbtarded.”

But using deception to get this information runs counter to the code of ethics developed by the SPJ, according to  two scholars who have studied journalism ethics.

Among other things, the SPJ Code of Ethics states that reporters should “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

“I can’t think of a good reason to actively deceive a source in pursuit of a story,” said Kelly McBride, the head of the ethics program at the Poytner Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Telling a lie in pursuit of the truth taints the truth you’re trying to get at. I think you have to ask, are there alternative ways to get at this information without deception.”

Dr. Robert M. Steele, the director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Indiana, agrees.

“In rare cases,” Steele said in an interview, “a journalist might use deception to get to the truth, but the threshold is very high. You can’t just start with deception.”

Steele identified six criteria for when deception may be appropriate. For example, he has written that deception may be used “when the information obtained is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great ‘system failure’ at the top levels, or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.”

The prank call to Walker was more of a “hoax” and does not meet this criteria, Steele said.

Murphy disputed the notion that his behavior was a “hoax” and said his reporting met that threshold.

“Stunts are all about publicity,” Murphy said. “But in the case of journalism the thing being publicized is information which is critical to the public

He characterized the prank call as “undercover” journalism. He said anyone who believes that undercover reporting hurts journalism should be dismissed “as fools.”

He added: “… people who report lies erodes the public’s trust in journalists, not when lies are used to reveal critically important and factual information.”

Updates: From the Buffao Beast: SPJ’s Double Standard.

Update: From the Buffalo Beast: Scott Walker and Rush Limbaugh are lying scumbags

Update: From Free Republic: Fake Phone Call: News or Not?



From → Analysis

  1. Lawrence permalink

    Bloggers aren’t journalists, and the Buffalo Beast is not an exercise in journalism by any stretch of the imagination.

    Scott Walker got exactly what he deserved. More power to the Buffalo Beast! Wish we had 250 outlets like that around America putting the screws to Republicans every day of the year.

  2. Linda Steiner permalink

    John, I agree with you. Bloggers may not be journalists, and comedians aren’t either, including Jon Stewart. Nonetheless, even bloggers and self-styled “gonzo journalists” and editors should be ethical, and Ian Murphy was not. The problem of how any “legitimate” news organization should deal with this story is trickier, but at a minimum, if it’s going to be “covered,” then the tactic should be condemned.

  3. Kimberly Davis permalink

    I wonder if the ethical implications would have been different if say, Howard Stern (known for prank calls) or a “regular” person would have engaged in this “prank.” I’m more disturbed by Murphy’s response to the question of ethics as opposed to the prank, itself. While I have issues with the method, I am more disturbed by Walker’s response. I also believe that the fruit of the forbidden tree, as it were, brings this above the “hoax” level.

  4. Karen D. permalink

    My jaw dropped open when I heard CNN report that the governor was pranked by a “journalist.” Shame on CNN.
    He’s not a journalist. He’s an activist. Why are we legitimizing him by even asking him about it? Asking an activist to defend his ethics is, in fact, ‘dumbtarded.’
    We should be asking CNN and any other media outlet who described him thus to defend that description.

  5. John,
    Fine post. You’ve done good work here. And I’m please that the phrase “dumbtarded” is getting some play — especially in regard to Steele’s profoundly stupid take on this thing as a “hoax.” Bob clearly has no idea what that word means.

  6. D. Armenta permalink

    “Prank” call? Murphy didn’t ask Walker if his refrigerator was running. As far as ethics are concerned, perhaps the committee should review that part about “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information **except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”**

    I’d say the very UNETHICAL political practices of Walker make him or any of the other corporatist elected officials fair game.

    Seriously, can you even bring this stupidity up? Did you actually listen to that transcript? Is there any doubt that what he said about his (lack of) ethics, his contempt for his constituents, and his underhanded ways is something the public should be aware of?


  7. Staci G. permalink

    It is evident that this call was vital to public interest. If Steele can’t see that, he might want to try reading the news, looking at the pretty pictures–and if that still doesn’t work, change his eyeglass prescription.

  8. Jessica permalink

    I don’t think it matters whether he’s a “journalist” (even if we did all agree what that is and who gets to bestow the title) — the question of whether his behavior was ethical is the same regardless of his title. Some stories would not be reported were it not for some deception (the oft-cited example of Nellie Bly’s institutionalization to expose conditions in a mental hospital comes to mind), and we should be asking whether this information would not have come out some other way or whether it was worth the lie. The undermining of our political process through financial influence by a select few seems a big enough story, but it also seems that maybe we already knew that, and so the deception appears unwarranted.

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