When, in journalism, does the end justify the means? The end is a "good story" -- one that may sell newspapers, boost a reporter's or editor's ego, possibly even right a wrong.
The means? Well, if you look at the fast-moving British newspaper scandal involving Rupert Murdoch's empire, the means may include illegally hacking into thousands of peoples' personal phone messages and paying off the police.
Few cases are so dramatic or so clear-cut. There are gray areas in journalism, but staying within the law should never be one of them.
Still, most journalists run up against some version of the end/means problem eventually.
Consider the Chiquita controversy at the Cincinnati Enquirer in the the late 1990s. After a massive investigation into Chiquita's practices in Latin and South America, the paper published an 18-page section, alleging the bribing of public officials, the use of illegal pesticides, and human rights abuses among the company's employees.
It was a stunning piece of work, clearly something the Enquirer saw as a contender for a Pulitzer Prize.
But eight weeks later, the tables had turned drastically. The paper retracted the story, published a front-page apology to Cincinnati-based Chiquita, and ended up paying the company millions. The lead reporter, Mike Gallagher, was fired; his boss, editor Lawrence Beaupre, left the paper, though he has stayed in journalism.
Chief among the reasons was one that resonates today: Gallagher got some of his information by hacking into thousands of voice mail messages of Chiquita executives, apparently telling his editors that he'd gained the information through legitimate methods.
The information he had gathered made for a huge and potentially important story, but in the end it was all for naught.
I understand a reporter's passion for the big story, and his or her desire to nail it down by any means available. Sometimes, under the heading of "cooler heads prevailed," editors insist on throttling back.
Last week, in the midst of the Murdoch madness, The News' outside counsel on First Amendment issues, Joseph Finnerty, and I recalled a local case: About two years ago, a Buffalo News reporter, working on a big story, was offered rare access by a key source who provided his corporate user name and password, allowing him to read internal memos.
Was that an acceptable way to get information? How was it any different from the time-honored "leaked memo" handed to a reporter in an envelope? What if we were challenged in court; was the newsgathering defensible?
Although we had reason to believe the information would be helpful, we decided against it.
The means -- possibly illegal but certainly involving misrepresentation -- was dicey, no matter the end. As it turned out, our reporter still wrote a great story.
What about the WikiLeaks controversy? How were those diplomatic e-mails (obtained by accessing government computer records) different from personal or corporate phone messages? How does individual privacy enter into the discussion?
What about a reporter going undercover to report a story -- as, for example, an employee of a nuclear power plant or a food-processing plant?
Where do you draw the line?
Murdoch's News of the World journalists, including its editor, seemed to have no interest in examining those difficult questions. When ethical or legal accusations arose, Murdoch's people threw money at them -- in the form of legal settlements or payoffs. Nor were they interested in preserving the necessary separation (sometimes adversarial) between the press, law enforcement and government; everybody was in bed together.
As the sordid spectacle continues to unfold, it's important to remember that most journalists are committed to practicing their craft honestly and morally.
We know that the bond of trust with readers has to be guarded at all costs. All we really have to offer readers is our credibility -- the coin of the realm.
Without it, journalists are, in the most important sense, bankrupt.