SAN DIEGO, December 23, 2011 – A distasteful little sidebar episode in the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State case has resurrected the question about the distance reporters need to maintain from their sources.
NBC News reporter Jay Gray was reportedly arrested for driving under the influence after leaving the home of the attorney representing former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, charged with child sex abuse.
Gray was one of several reporters who were invited over to watch the Giants-Cowboys game on December 11 by attorney Joe Amendola. Gray has been covering the Sandusky story since his arrest on November 5. Amendola’s objective was apparently to “allow” reporters access to lobby him to get an exclusive interview with the alleged child molester.
According to a source quoted by TMZ.com, Gray got “really drunk” and was arrested by Pennsylvania state police at 1:45 a.m.
Never mind Gray’s incredibly bad judgment to drink and drive. NBC can deal with this lapse as a separate issue.
The tawdriness factor is off the charts on this one. It would take a month of hot showers for me to get the stench off after participating in something like this. Has the news business really gotten to the point where a half-dozen reporters were willing to prostitute themselves by partying with Amendola, pretending to be his pals for a chance at the ultimate prize, a Sandusky exclusive?
Certainly reporters and sources socialize. They’re known to toss back a few drinks at events like the White House Correspondents Dinner or the Gridiron Club event. I’ve been to local events in San Diego like this on both sides of the aisle.
The difference: we’re all off duty, and there is no expectation by anyone in the room that one party or another is going to benefit, other than having a good laugh and creating a pleasant working atmosphere that extends to our everyday lives. It’s an even playing field in that anyone who wants to attend can do so.
Amendola was selling access by demanding a false show of friendship by the reporters who came to his house. This is not networking or anything benign. This is pressure packed lobbying by someone in the driver’s seat. Any reporter willing to show up got taken for a ride.
According to the ethics espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), journalists must maintain a healthy distance from the people they cover. SPJ’s code states, “Getting too close to sources sorely compromises a journalist’s ability to act independently… Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” And “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
Sadly, Gray joins a long line of reporters who made extremely bad decisions getting too close to their sources.
In October, TV reporter Chris Welty was discovered to be moonlighting as a campaign worker for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s reelection bid.
Jindal’s campaign finance reports revealed that Welty was paid almost $2,000 from Jindal’s 2011 gubernatorial campaign while working part-time at KATC.
Welty immediately resigned from the campaign.
- Chicago TV reporter Amy Jacobson was videotaped by a competing news organization at the home of Craig Stebic, whose wife Lisa was missing and might have been killed.
The reporter took her children to the Stebic home, the person she was investigating, for a pool party.
When the video was aired, the reporter was fired.
The reporter also revealed that she shared information with police investigators about her discussions with the source. She later sued her employer. Meanwhile her husband filed for divorce.
- In the ultimate example, former Telemundo anchorwoman Mirthala Salinas reported on Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s marital difficulties while she was “dating” (ahem) him. When her station found it, it suspended her, and then reassigned her to the rural Riverside bureau. She failed to show up on her first day and the station announced she had quit.
SPJ’s code is clear. “Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.”
With all the pressure on news media to be first with big stories, it is understandable that Gray made the call that socializing with Amendola, unsavory as it was, might be his ticket to a “big get” and an interview with Jerry Sandusky. But it also shocks the conscience to think about reporters sitting around tossing back drinks with Sandusky’s defense attorney at his house in a party atmosphere. If any situation should be treated soberly, it’s the Penn State sex abuse scandal.
Whether Gray loses his job over the episode is for NBC to decide. Meanwhile, Amendola’s shaky image takes another hit and the perception of Sandusky’s attorney as either incompetent, sleazy, or both in the eyes of the public is growing.
Attending a private party hosted by a lawyer for a defendant is beyond any ethical boundaries. It’s pretty much grounds for firing in my view; having a drink at such a party make it a slam-dunk. This is not the same as the press box at a football or baseball game, even though it could be argued sportswriters should not eat and drink with the coaches in the press box and they aren’t downing beers. Covering a sport and interviewing the lawyer for a criminal defendant are different circumstances.
A journalist cannot alllow him or herself to be in debt to the source in a way that affects the outcome of the reporting. It may well mean getting beat on a story. It might be painful but in the long run if journalists would draw the line, d-bags like Amendola wouldn’t have had any company watching the Giants and the Cowboys that day.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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