In the name of an “exclusive” with the man charged with kidnapping a Missouri boy and suspected of kidnapping another and holding him hostage for more than four years, the New York Post has brought journalists, and questionable ethics, into the limelight.
Apparently identifying herself as a friend of the kidnapping suspect to get into the prison, Post correspondent Susannah Cahalan then told the suspect, Michael Devlin, she was a college student writing for a university publication, securing herself not one, but two 15-minute interviews, according to Michael Kielty, Devlin’s lawyer.
Devlin knew better than to discuss anything that might endanger his case, so instead of a story that shed light on the mysteries that remain in the perplexing drama, Cahalan wrote a 1,256 word story filled with mundane details like Devlin’s favorite video game (“Final Fantasy”) and his favorite family vacation (Yellowstone National Park). And the Post, forgoing any effort of neutrality, used one of its favorite adjectives, calling Devlin “Kidnap Creep” in the story’s headline.
Authorities in Franklin County, Missouri, where Devlin is being held in solitary confinement, plan to investigate how the breach happened, according to a CBS News story. “But Sheriff Gary Toelke released a statement late Sunday saying security at the jail was not breached. He said an inmate can accept or decline media requests, and in this case, Devlin accepted.”
But whether or not security was breached does not mitigate the serious questions raised by such reporting. Lew Schucart, a blogger for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote, “Most journalists would agree that any news organization should never use deceit to gain access to information. Doing so harms the reputation not just of that particular reporter or outlet, but all journalists and media.”
Readers of Schucart’s blog had some harsh words for the Post and all journalists. “Ethics in journalism is like ethics in politics, rare,” said Dilligaf. Another respondent identified only as B, voiced a common thought, “I’d say most journalists are crying foul because they didn’t think of it first.” But others fault Devlin. “Devlin was a party to this interview - he could have rejected the visitor. Even if he initially didn’t know her and what she was about, he certainly did at the second interview he granted with her,” said respondent Mary.
But besides the Post’s questionable ethics, the newspaper’s hypocrisy when it comes to journalistic limits are even worse. On Friday, Post columnist Linda Stasi blasted the parents of one of the kidnapping victims, along with Oprah Winfrey, for allowing the boy to be interviewed on national television.
“Yes, Pam and Craig Akers, Shawn’s parents, who say they have not (yes, that’s ‘not’) asked him about his ordeal because it would be too painful right now, nonetheless had no problem dragging their traumatized child out before God and everyone to answer questions on national TV,” Stasi wrote. She ended the piece, “Shame on the Akers. Shame on Oprah.”
Stasi neglected to place any blame on her own newspaper, which has published more than a dozen stories on the case, each with more lurid details than the next. Stories detail neighbors’ accounts of screams coming from Devlin’s apartment, describe the pornography authorities found there and chronicle the discovery that one of the kidnapped boys had a girlfriend. Each article broadcasts the victims’ names over and over again, without apparent concern for the boys’ privacy.
But the Post isn’t the only media outlet playing this case for all (and much, much more) than it’s worth. The Associated Press, USA Today and FOX News have all published play-by-play accounts of the Post’s “exclusive” with Devlin. Dozens of news outlets retold the story quote by quote, including a description of Devlin as “red-faced and bleary-eyed.”