Last week, the independently owned Buffalo Beast, a small, progressive magazine, vaulted into the national conversation by getting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to open up about his union-busting efforts. The past week has been a victory lap for publication, garnering more attention than ever before from mainstream news sources like the Huffington Post, Fox News, and even the nightly news. In fact, their website crashed due to the influx of visitors—an independent newspaper’s dream.
There’s only one problem: none of the Beast’s reporting was ethical.
The Beast got through to Walker by allowing one of its editors, Ian Murphy, to call the governor’s office as David Koch, a billionaire donor to the GOP. Incredibly, none of Walker’s aides vetted Murphy well enough to realize that the real Koch wasn’t on the other end of the line, allowing Murphy to have a lengthy, revealing conversation with the governor. During their chat, Walker confided to “Koch” that he considered planting “trouble-makers” among the protesters and bragged that he had a baseball bat ready in his office for implied union-bashing. Here’s the conversation:
As salacious as it sounds, none of Walker’s words should have seen the light of day (and wouldn’t have if the Beast had used even a modicum of editorial discretion). As the Society of Professional Journalists points out, Murphy’s report was “underhanded and unethical.” Poynter’s Jim Romenesko agrees, writing:
Though the Buffalo Beast purports to be an alternative news site with heavily slanted views that are neither fair nor objective, the fact remains that this interview was underhanded and unethical. 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.
While Romenesko is too harsh on the Beast’s liberal viewpoint—he scoffs at it as “unfair”—he has this issue absolutely right. No publication, no matter the medium, can willfully deceive its sources, then turn around and print what they hear.
Murphy would likely argue that exposing Walker’s angry, anti-union rhetoric and ties to corporate power justifies any ethical lines he crossed in getting the story. There’s some merit to that. But by running with an ethically questionable story, Murphy jeopardized not only the Beast’s reputation, but that of independent outlets nationwide—you know, the ones doing actual, substantial reporting.
Like it or not, most Americans can’t tell Talking Points Memo and the Buffalo Beast apart. All they know is that they’re both “alternative” sources online—blogs, basically. People who hear about Murphy’s dishonest interview—and don’t check the sites providing hard-hitting coverage—could think that all bloggers behave so unethically. In that way, the story did more harm than good. (Meanwhile, skewed corporate media with an ax to grind against unions goes unquestioned.)
When independent sites neglect proper journalistic standards, it just feeds the bad rap against alternative media and makes it easier for people to lump all alternative sites as “blogs” and ignore them.
Independent reporting can effect real change, but bloggers—including us here at the GMP—need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than Murphy did.