Interview transcript with Buffalo Beast’s Ian Murphy
The following is a transcript of an e-mail interview with Ian Murphy, the Buffalo Beast editor who attracted media attention this week when he impersonated billionaire David Koch in a prank phone call with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Murphy declined several requests to talk to me over the telephone. I e-mailed my questions to him on the morning of Feb. 26 after we exchanged several e-mails over a two-day period. Murphy responded to my questions in the afternoon of the same day.
Question: Whose idea was it for you to impersonate David Koch? In other words, was this your idea exclusively, or was this something developed by you and others at the Buffalo Beast?
Question: I’d like to have some insight into what the conversation was like at the Buffalo Beast when you decided to go forward with the phone call to Gov. Walker. In other words, did you discuss at all whether deception was unethical? Where there any concerns about this tactic? What were they? Or was it just a go?
Murphy: No others were consulted, and it was just a go.
Question: Why do you believe, as your e-mails suggest, that there are no ethical implications to how you got this story?
Murphy: As my e-mails suggested, John, everything we do has ethical implications. If you are trying to say that I acted unethically, you should say that, for clarity sake. A followup would work here because an argument could be made that the ethical implications are nothing but good. Please, clarify your language.
Question: What was the goal of this project? From a journalistic perspective, what were you hoping to learn by calling the governor that you did not already know?
Murphy: See the article.
Question: Along those same lines, what valuable new information did the public learn about Gov. Walker and the situation in Wisconsin that it would not have learned had it not been for your reporting? (Editor’s Note: The purpose of this question was to determine whether deception was warranted in this case given that its common knowledge that major campaign contributors have more access to public officials than regular voters.)
Murphy: That a) At the same time Walker refused to speak to Senate Dems, it was easy as pie for a rightwing billionaire to get him on the phone; b) he was planning to trick the Dems back to Madison under the impression he wanted to talk, and if they came back he’d just ram the bill through; c) that he considered inserting agents provocateur into the protests; and d) that he illegally discussed political deception, and agreed to accept illegal largess, with a political contributor. Have you not listened to the tapes?
Question: You said in your first e-mail to me that you thought the SPJ ethical standards were “full of shit.” Why is the SPJ standard that journalists should not deceive “full of shit”?
Murphy: SPJ’s ethical guidelines: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information EXCEPT when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.” Whether or not Walker is a Koch Whore, and would take a call from him and
discuss a wide range of unethical and illegal behavior, could not have been done without deception–unless Koch called himself.
Question: Why should the public trust information that a journalist receives through deception?
Murphy: Because people are smart enough, sometimes, to see that your question conflates two separate issues. 1) there’s the veracity of the information; and 2) there’s the “ethical implications” of how the information was obtained.
Question: The SPJ standards urge reporters to refrain from using deception unless they first exhaust all other reporting methods to obtain the information. What other journalistic methods did you use before deciding that impersonating David Koch was the only way to get the information you received from Gov. Walker?
Murphy: Well, I guess you got me there. I tried fuck all. But if you think a blogger from Buffalo gets on the phone with Gov. Walker, you’re fucking retarded.
Question: Bob Steele, who is a nationally known ethics expert, provides six reasons for when it “might be appropriate” to use deception in reporting a story. You can see them here: http://legacy2.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=866.
• Without getting into all of them, he says 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.”
• How did the circumstances of this case reach this threshold?
Murphy: I don’t know Bob Steele, and I think the title “ethics expert” is ridiculous. At any rate, that threshold was met in this case. (See answer
Question: I spoke with Bob Steele yesterday about this case and he basically called your phone call a “hoax” or a stunt, rather than an act of professional journalism. How do you respond to that?
Murphy: I’d say that Bob Steele is dumbtarded.
Question: I would be interested in your definition of journalism vs. a stunt. Explain why what you did was an act of journalism as opposed to a stunt to get publicity.
Murphy: Stunts are all about publicity. But in the case of journalism the thing being publicized is information which is critical to the public well-being.
Question: Public perception about journalists ebbs and flows, but surveys over the years have shown that the public often does not trust journalists. The public often believes that reporters lie, are unethical etc… What do you say to critics who contend that what you did – using deception – hurts journalism in general in the public eye?
Murphy: I would ask them if all undercover reporting hurts journalism. If they said no, I would explain that that’s what I did. If they said yes, I would dismiss them as fools. Then I would ask you, John, to remember that people who report lies erodes the public’s trust in journalists, not when lies are used to reveal critically important and factual information.
Question: There is an entry about you on Wikipedia, which I’m guessing you wrote (correct me if I’m wrong). What do you mean when you call yourself a “gonzo journalists”? (I’m familiar with the reference and Hunter S. Thompson. What I’m getting at is, how do you define that term and why do you refer to yourself as a gonzo journalist?)
Murphy: I did write some of that (ethical implications?). Gonzo journalism is just like regular journalism, except more fun. And if you’ll remember SPJ’s guidelines re:
“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information EXCEPT when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.” It’s pretty clear that Gonzo is sometimes necessary to do a story right.
Question: How long have you been a journalist?
Murphy: I guess about 3 or 4 minutes now. Or like 5 years.