BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week it was British star Hugh Grant testifying about having his phone hacked by the British tabloid News of the World. Journalists make a big mistake when they hack phones, not just because it's unethical, but because it can undercut the very best reporting. Consider the Cincinnati Enquirer, which 13 years ago conducted a massive probe into the practices of the Cincinnati-based global corporation Chiquita Brands International.
After investing a lot of time and money in the project, the Enquirer published a scathing expose of Chiquita’s malpractices, including lawbreaking in four countries, bribery, endangering workers and bulldozing villages. But then it became known that Enquirer reporter Mike Gallagher had broken into Chiquita’s voicemail system. The Enquirer fired Gallagher, relocated its editor, agreed to pay Chiquita millions of dollars, apologized repeatedly and recanted the stories.
As the British phone hacking scandal drags on, it's worth recalling that in 1998 the Chiquita case was fast, some might say, furiously, settled. As for the reaction to Chiquita’s wide-ranging illegalities and corruption? Mostly there wasn't any.
Ethicist Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute has used the Cincinnati Enquirer saga in classes as an object lesson.
KELLY McBRIDE: The lesson is when your methods for gathering information are dishonest, the information you gather is suspect. And that case is the perfect lesson in that. No one has challenged the findings of the newspaper. Yet, nobody talks about that as a great investigative piece. They talk about it as an ethical scandal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But isn't that because the Enquirer renounced its year-long [LAUGHS] investigation. Did the Enquirer have to do that?
KELLY McBRIDE: I think they had to do it to avoid further financial damage. They were being sued. We don't know exactly what Chiquita was seeking, but at a certain point the Enquirer had to cut its losses. And, and its losses were in the millions. So that's the point at which great journalism gets lost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it seemed that the Cincinnati Enquirer had a higher obligation to stand by the story that exposed the unsavory business practices of a leading corporate citizen.
KELLY McBRIDE: The problem is, is if someone has a legal knife to your throat, you forgo your paper's ability to ever do that again, if you can't get out from that civil liability. And it's not - I mean, estimates are that they had to pay somewhere between 10 and 50 million dollars to Chiquita. I'm not a lawyer and I'm not defending the retraction, as much as I am-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Condemning the practice of voicemail hacking.
KELLY McBRIDE: Exactly. There are so many times when you're tempted to do something that's slightly illegal. Somebody leaves the office when you’re interviewing them and their computer screen’s open, or somebody gives you a password or tells you how to get to information, and it seems so innocuous when you're gathering thousands and thousands of small pieces of information. But, in fact, it can undermine every ounce of credibility that you have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when you consider the stakes – Chiquita, at the time that this story was being produced, was paying protection money to death squads in Colombia. These death squads were later designated terrorist groups by the U.S. And Chiquita was ultimately forced to pay 25 million in government fines?
Here's what strikes me as really ironic. They had three choices. They could not pay the protection money and see their employees murdered. They could pay the protection money. Or they could pack up and move out of Colombia and lose an incredibly rich market. They chose to pay the protection money.
It strikes me that this is a kind of an analogy for what the Cincinnati Enquirer did. It paid protection [LAUGHS] money to Chiquita so that it could continue to operate in Cincinnati, but at the cost of protecting a corporation that was doing genuine harm and causing lives to be lost abroad.
KELLY McBRIDE: Perhaps. But if you look at all the other reporting that the Enquirer does in Cincinnati, covering the schools, covering government, enabling democracy to happen, one story versus thousands of stories. Because the Cincinnati Enquirer doesn't have the option of leaving Cincinnati.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the option of firing Gallagher, admitting his wrongdoing?
KELLY McBRIDE: Well, I - I think that had they done that before they published, they would have been in – in a fairly solid position with both the public and the courts.
One of the things about journalism is if you explain things ahead of time, you are in so much of a better position with the audience because you don't come off as defensive or guilty, even. They didn't do that before they published.
The Enquirer didn't know that thousands of times, one of their reporters had listened to personal voicemails of an executive and were then up against a wall and didn't have a lot of options.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So maybe there's the object lesson. People will go astray. But if you're transparent at the beginning, with that process, then the reporting will still stand.
KELLY McBRIDE: Sure. The cliché is to ask forgiveness rather than permission. But, in fact, in journalism if you explain ahead of time to your audience what you did to get the information, the audience generally will back you up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kelly, thank you very much.
KELLY McBRIDE: Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Journalism ethicist Kelly McBride works at the Poynter Institute.