A Newspaper Plays With Fire
Did a reporter go too far in pursuit of a hot story?

The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Last month, reporter James Hibberd got a big scoop--an exclusive interview with an unidentified man claiming to be the leader of an Arizona arson ring that has torched nearly a dozen unoccupied houses. Now Mr. Hibberd and his paper, the weekly Phoenix New Times, stand accused, even by some fellow journalists, of being accessories to the arsonists' crimes.

Two weeks before the interview appeared, Mr. Hibberd had published an article called "Burn, Baby, Burn," in which he quoted environmentalists who had kind words for whoever was burning down houses under construction near Phoenix-area mountain preserves. The purported arsonist contacted Mr. Hibberd and offered an interview, provided the reporter agree to his conditions: that the two men would meet alone, in a public park; that Mr. Hibberd would bring no camera or tape recorder; and that he would guarantee the interviewee's anonymity.

Mr. Hibberd portrayed the arsonist, who said that he has three partners in crime, as a militant mountain biker angry about homes springing up and blocking the view from trails where he rides. Most chilling, the man told Mr. Hibberd that his group had burned a house the night before the interview. "The timing was not coincidental," he said. "We discussed the meeting with you today and thought it would be a good-faith effort to establish our credibility."

Outrage ensued. Columnists at the daily Arizona Republic denounced the New Times for publishing the interview rather than turning the miscreant in. "You have arrived at your 15 minutes of fame," a fireman wrote to the New Times. "I hope you can sleep at night knowing that another home was destroyed as a means of convincing you that these extremists are who they claim to be." A local prosecutor slapped Mr. Hibberd with a subpoena, though Arizona has a strong shield law protecting journalists who rely on confidential sources.

All this prompted editor Jeremy Voas to write an angry column defending his paper. He was particularly vehement about its journalistic critics. "People who hold these views have no business in journalism. . . . How could these people report credibly on police matters after working in concert with them?"

He cited one Republic columnist, E.J. Montoni, who "postulated that our arrangement with the arsonist made us accessories to crimes, that conversing with such reprobates is beneath him. Such see-no-evil logic would have precluded the Washington Post and the New York Times from printing the Unabomber's manifesto, an act that led directly to his capture."

In truth, the notion that responsible journalists never work "in concert" with police is nonsense, and the Unabomber manifesto illustrates the point. When the Post and the Times collaborated in its publication in September 1995, they did so not because of the document's news value--both papers had already printed lengthy excerpts--but because the FBI had requested it, and, after much agonizing, the publishers of the papers concluded it was the right thing to do. Perhaps even the New Times would cooperate with the authorities if the criminal offering an interview were a serial killer instead of a mere destroyer of property.

Mr. Voas is right that journalists aren't cops, and Mr. Hibberd's article arguably served the public interest by revealing previously unknown facts about the culprit. Yet Messrs. Voas and Hibberd can hardly claim to have been acting out of a selfless concern with the public's right to know. They were doubtless delighted to have a big story, one the New Times splashed across its cover accompanied by a sensational picture of a hand holding a huge, lit match.

There's nothing wrong with professional ambition or with trying to sell papers, and the arsonist story was an important and compelling one. Conducting and publishing the interview was a journalistically defensible decision, but one the New Times should have made and explained with less self-righteousness and more circumspection.

Alas, such a lack of discretion isn't that unusual. Last week a Web site called The Smoking Gun posted a dozen "Dear Unabomber" letters written by journalists seeking a jailhouse interview with Ted Kaczynski. It's both hilarious and horrifying to see members of the Fourth Estate trying to curry favor with a triple murderer.

CNN's Greta Van Susteren tries flattery: "No one can dispute that you are an extremely smart man." Bryan Denson of the Oregonian, who covered Kaczynski's arraignment in Helena, Mont., pens what reads like a mash note: "I've had a longing to talk to you since I sat behind you in Helena." Larry Ish, a producer for "The Roseanne Show," writes: "If you know anything about Roseanne, you must know that she is a non-conformist. . . . I expect that you and her would definitely 'hit it off' and the conversation would definitely be interesting and fulfilling for both of you."

Of course, Roseanne isn't really looking for fulfillment, nor Greta for intellectual stimulation or Bryan for love. All are trying to land the big interview. But why? In 1999, Kaczynski granted his only postconviction interview to Stephen Dubner, which was published in Time. Mr. Dubner's article, though an engaging enough read, broke no news; Kaczynski surprised no one by declaring that he hates his brother, who turned him in.

Kaczynski now rots in prison, and one hopes he will for the rest of his days. Unlike the Phoenix arsonist, he's no longer a newsmaker, but because of the notoriety of his crimes, he is a sick sort of celebrity. Ms. Van Susteren, Mr. Denson, Mr. Ish and their colleagues treat him as if he were a movie star.

The practice of journalism can be morally fraught. After all, some of the best stories involve crime, disaster, disease, scandal or war--which means a reporter's career often thrives on the misfortunes of others. That's the nature of the occupation, not something to apologize for. But journalists who disregard normal moral sense in pursuit of a story give our profession a bad name.

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