Federal agents in a TV newsroom
Federal authorities confiscate your photographer’s videotape at a drug bust. The tape will be returned in time for the next newscast if agents can review the editing. No harm done, right . . . or wrong?
By Doug Stone
Doug Stone is assistant news director at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, MN.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 2(May 1989), p. 4.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
Police and FBI agents, some with guns drawn, scurried around the parking lot of a Minneapolis convenience store late one afternoon just before Christmas 1986. They were in the midst of a drug bust following a lengthy undercover investigation.
Dispatchers at WCCO-TV and the Star Tribune heard the police radio traffic and sent crews to the scene. To WCCO photographer Gary Feblowitz and Star Tribune photographer Tom Sweeney, it was the stuff of spot news: a routine event worth twenty seconds on the evening news or a picture inside the morning newspaper.
“Give up your camera or you’re going to jail,” an agent told Feblowitz at the scene. He had little choice but to comply. The FBI also took Sweeney’s camera and film.
The routine story suddenly turned into a major constitutional confrontation between the media and federal law enforcement.
I was assignment editor the night the cameras were taken. The first I heard of the story was a report that Feblowitz was being “hassled” by police at the scene. Moments later, he radioed that the FBI had taken his camera, an unprecedented action in the Twin Cities.
For years we had operated under a “gentlemen’s agreement” to avoid identifying undercover agents whenever such identification would threaten the life of the agent. That night, we later learned, the suspects in the drug bust had allegedly put out a murder contract on one of the agents. Had the FBI tried to make an agreement about masking the agents’ identities, we would have cooperated.
The twenty-second story on a routine drug bust was now part of a two-minute piece on how the FBI had trampled on our First Amendment rights.
And in our haste to get the story on the air, we may have bargained away some of our journalistic prerogatives and violated our most cherished standards.
My main objective was to get our tape back for the 10 p.m. news, now less than four hours away. We called the Minneapolis police, the FBI, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the U. S. Attorney’s Office.
Less than an hour and a half to air time, an assistant U. S. attorney returned our calls with an offer. With our lawyer on one extension and me on the other, we negotiated for the release of our tape. The prosecutor said he would give it back if we allowed federal agents to watch us edit the story to ensure that we did not show the pictures of any undercover agents. He also wanted us to return the tape to him so that we didn’t inadvertently use their pictures later.
We said “yes” to the agents coming over and “no” to giving back the tape. We had a deal, an uncomfortable one at best. We now faced an ethical dilemma. We’d never let agents into the editing room before, but we reasoned that we wouldn’t show undercover agents’ pictures anyway so there was no harm. We may have been wrong.
Twenty minutes later, and one hour to air time, three law enforcement agents a DEA agent, a county sheriff’s deputy and an assistant U. S. attorney walked into the newsroom carrying our camera and tape. A very unlikely mini-cam crew.
The atmosphere in the editing room was tense. There were several arguments. The agents contended that virtually any officer not in uniform was undercover.
At three minutes before the 10 p.m. news, our editor completed the piece, electronically masking any undercover agents. (A similar scenario took place at the Star Tribune where federal agents examined negatives. Editors decided, however, that no picture was worth running).
Looking back, I’m not at all sure that the compromise we made with the federal authorities was worth it. We had little choice if we wanted to get our tape back, but we may have set a bad precedent of allowing government influence in the editing process. Early in the negotiations, the idea of agents in the newsroom seemed far less onerous than it turned out to be. By the time they arrived, the agents acted as though they were in charge of the story.
Immediately after the incident we tried unsuccessfully to get the U. S. attorney’s office and the FBI to say they wouldn’t take our cameras again. We were concerned that local police agencies would follow the lead of their federal brethren and try to prevent us from covering news events in public places. Although the FBI argued that the 1986 confiscation was a one-time incident unlikely to be repeated, we did, in fact, have problems with several local police agencies in the following months.
Ultimately, we filed suit in federal court to get a definitive ruling on our rights at news scenes. So far U. S. District Judge Donald Alsop has sided with us and the Justice Department has not appealed.
Our court fight, despite the length and cost, has been worth it. But a better solution, obviously, would be media and law enforcement cooperation during tense, fast-breaking news events. The time to make agreements is before or during the event, not afterward in the editing room.
I’d suggest that other stations and newspapers take a hard look at their own policies and what they’d do to avoid federal intrusion in their newsroom.
And I’d suggest that journalists consider whether there are some cases in which the principle is more important than airing or publishing the story.
I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach the night federal agents were in our editing room. I don’t want to feel that way again.