Or things they don’t teach in journalism school
Can breaking the law to break a story ever be justified? What if it’s to demonstrate weaknesses in national security?
By R. Kapler
Robert Kapler is now a copy editor for the Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, PA. He was a reporter for The Guide in Harrisburg, PA, at the time of the incident on which this article is based.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 2 (May 1989), p. 5.
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.
Infiltrate Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, and in the process, expose its security weaknesses. Using an assumed name, I would apply for a job as a plant guard.
The objective seemed a little far-fetched to a rookie reporter for a weekly newspaper. We were sure the bogus information on my employment application would trip all sorts of alarms as soon as it was checked. And there was always my own ineptness to help things along: The first day at the plant, I blew my cover at the front gate.
I forgot to lie.
“Name?” said the guard.
He scanned the stack of names on his clipboard.
“Hmmm. Doesn’t…seem like it’s here. How do you spell it?”
“Beyer? I thought you said, ah…”
“No, Beyer. Robert Beyer.”
Before I knew it, the gate was lifting and I was driving down a winding road past yards of rusting equipment and concrete pipe. At last I rounded a stand of trees and the giant cooling towers came into view.
In three weeks I would be in uniform, clicking a tiny camera inside the control room of the Unit 2 reactor.
The idea to pose as a site protection officer grew out of a meeting with two former guards who had been “railroaded” out of their jobs. They described sexual antics on “patrol”, civilians wandering around the plant grounds late at night, and a metal-detection system so ineffective it couldn’t detect a big cow bell. Gregg Security, which was under contract with TMI owner Metropolitan Edison, never checked out new hires, they said.
The story was good, but Richard Halverson, my editor at The Guide, said it would read like the rantings of two frustrated nobodies with an ax to grind. And how could they be sure no one was checked out? How could they be privy to that information?
“I was thinking,” Halverson said at last, “about you going undercover out there.”
From the start, we had our reservations. Lying about my identity would not only be illegal, it would run contrary to the code of our trade.
Investigative reporters do not break laws, they expose lawbreakers. And using subterfuge to gain access to a government-regulated facility might land me in jail for trespassing or fraud, or even a trumped-up charge of espionage.
Supposing we did pull it off: what would stop Met-Ed from getting the story quashed in court?
The Guide was just an ad rag wrapped in a single page of investigative stories. And though its publisher, Fry Communications, seemed healthy enough, would Henry Fry want to hire legal guns to defend me?
On the other hand, we reasoned, if there were weak links in the plant’s chain of security, a saboteur would do what was necessary to find and break them. Besides, our chance of success was so thin those questions were probably moot.
In the end, the importance of the story outweighed any ethical or legal issues. We decided to give it a try.
And so after blundering into the plant, I spent the next two weeks taking a battery of tests and learning the various security procedures. Before I knew it, I was wearing a badge, helmet, uniform and radiation sensor and monitoring the contract workers coming and going from crippled Unit 2.
When I could, I explored the plant.
Our little experiment continued without a hitch. Then something happened that I hadn’t foreseen. In spite of myself, I began to identify with the other guards.
The double life really bothered me. One moment I was joking, laughing and trading gossip with my co-workers, the next I was scribbling notes in a bathroom stall. I decided a line had to be drawn, and I drew it around Three Mile Island. If a guard asked me to go for a beer after work, I declined. If I was invited to a party, I didn’t show.
My reluctance to become intimate with my fellow workers did not sit well with Halverson. Once we had moled in, he wanted to exploit all possibilities.
More and more, we argued over when to terminate the project, “That’s it!” I finally yelled. “I’m sick of lying to people!” Halverson relented, and a month after I first drove onto the island I went to see Met-Ed’s head of security and told him what we had done.
Nearly a decade has passed. Our little experiment has become but a footnote in history. Sometimes I still wonder:
Was it right?
We had suspended a rule of ethics – a reporter must not misrepresent himself – because we thought the issue of nuclear plant safety was crucial enough to make an exception. We also thought we would fail. We did not.
Was it right?
The answer came the day I drove onto Three Mile Island. Using a simple lie, we had proved nuclear plant security – national security – could easily be breached.
Yes, it was right.