Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wag the Dog

Respond to question #3 on p. 166 of text before class on Monday, Nov. 3. Journalism majors and PR majors should respond only to the parts of the question that apply specifically to them.

22 comments:

Joseph said...

After reading the question I am very one sided about this issue. I am neither a PR or Journalism major however, I do consider myself a very honest person. Not saying that PR and journalism majors are not honest, I am just saying they have a different code of ethics than the average person. I know that a PR major is just doing their job by concealing or changing the point of view so that their employer does not show any wrong doing. So at some level the PR person is doing great job. Honestly, I just don’t think I could put myself in that position. To actively lie just so someone can hide what they did, especially a political figure is wrong to me. If I were asked, if I wanted to know if the allegations were true about my employer, I obviously would say I don’t want to know. So at some level I can feel I was doing the right thing however, deep down inside I would always second guess myself. Having that feeling inside of me would really confuse my ethics and morals to a point where I did not like myself or my job. What would really bother me is if this was a normal occurrence of my profession. For example companies like Exxon Mobil who destroy land, cover up incidents and turn the blame around on others as scape goats for personal gain. I would rather be poor than help people like that win. That might sound like I think I am better than those people, im not saying that. I just know what is right and wrong and if my job was to blur the lines I would be terrible at it.

Nicole said...

I’m answering the PR questions pertaining to Wag the Dog. When asked the question of whether or not the alleged behavior is true, I would answer by stating that no matter what the truth is, people believe what they want and somebody out there is going to make up their own information and spread it around. I don’t think I’d need to know if they were true or not, only because I’m being told to lead the public one way, and if I have two sides in my mind, it will make it confusing and not allow me to focus on the one point. However, if I did find out that the allegations were true, I would probably be curious as to why the President did it and what his motives are. If he honestly wanted to keep it from the public, I would do as he said, but tell him that sooner or later, the truth does come out and it’s better to let them hear it from you then someone else down the road. Although people feel like they can hide from their mistakes and trick the public, it does come out, and we’ve seen way too many times that reputations have been destroyed because of this.

Jess said...

Although I'm studying Public Relations, it is sometimes hard to agree with the majority of the industry which either stretches the truth or just tells you what they want you to hear.
In the case of Wag the Dog, it would make a huge difference if the allegations were true or not. A PR representative who needs to do “damage control,” needs to know the true story in order to access what is the best stance to take in the situation and how they should act.
If these allegations were true, there is absolutely no way that they should be hidden or skewed. Scandals and lies always tend to get out to the public, especially now in the age of technology, and will come back to haunt people. I am a firm believer in consequences for your actions.
I personally would not and do not want my name or reputation involved in “fixing” people’s problems by not knowing what is true and what isn’t. It would be like someone walking around with blinders on.
If I did take the job, I would definitely need to know the full answer to the question, “do you want to know if it’s true?” I think that any ethical person would have a red flag go up if there representative did not care to know. The first thing I would do would be to find out all possible information about the Fire Fly girl; who she is, who she associates with, and most importantly if she has any prior instances of similar allegations. Once you find out that information, then a proper PR plan can be in place.

Zuri said...

Answering the questions from a public relations perspective, it would make a difference to me whether or not the allegations are true. Yes, people who are in PR have a reputation of being ruthless and not caring about the truth and being all about the spin and projecting ideas, images and brands onto people and into society. For me, knowing whether or not the allegations were true before dealing with the press would make a difference. For one, if the allegations were true I wouldn’t want to take the case if I was asked to lead the public to believe that it wasn’t true. I would need to know and want to know the truth. I would want to know for two reasons; one is that I wouldn’t want to work for someone who goes around sexually molesting females. And secondly, I would not want to lead the public to believe that their President is something that he is not, especially in that scenario.
However, if I was asked to “fix” the situation the only route I would be willing to take is if he wanted to make a public apology and try to save his reputation after he told the public the truth. It could probably be handled in a similar fashion to that of the Elliot Spitzer scandal. As far as, lying to the public and or hiding the truth, assuming he did do it, I would not want to be a part of that. As a PR practitioner I do not want to associate myself or my name with lying to the public or helping people to lie and withhold the right or true information from the public.

Julie said...

I remember watching the movie "Wag the Dog" in my Intro to Public Relations course last year. It definitely left a lasting impression because it made me question what kind of future I had ahead of me if I went into the Public Relations field. It made this line of work seem like just one big scam. Having said that, I would answer brean's question to Ame's by saying that it does make a huge difference whether or not the president molested a little girl. This man is supposed to be the President of the United States, and although that label has lost it's value and meaning over the past decade(possibly longer) it still is an extremely important role to have and requires a higher ethical understanding than any other job in the U.S.
For me personally as a PR major, it would definitely make a difference if the allegations were true before I had to deal with the press. I would never work in politics because of situations like this. Political figures have too much power and they often abuse it. If I was ever in a predicament like this one I would have to know whether it was true or not because I want to have faith and believe in the person or company I would be representing. Finding out if it was true would without a doubt effect my decision on whether or not to take the job. Although I'm sure there would be a lot of money involved if I did take the job, I know I just wouldn't feel right doing it. It would definitely stress me out and give me anxiety knowing that I was working for someone and helping to cover for an extremely immoral and disgusting act.

Alyssa D'Angelo said...

One of the job descriptions of a PR rep is to do damage control. While lying, or not reporting the whole truth may divert the press, this can only be temporary. It is more important to find out if the allegations are true, than to just go out and tell the press that its slander and your client would never do such a thing. When Breans asks "what difference does it make if its true?" it is rather disturbing to know that the president's PR rep is willing to basically half ass his job as long as there are no further questions and everything appears good and dandy. Brean's job is not to save face for the president but to speak on his behalf, about the truth. Even if the incident with the firefly girl is true, he should figure out a way to solve the current issue after he knows the fact, not just decide that the allegations sound terrible so he should tell the public they're untrue. Any PR rep can deny something that sounds bad, but a good PR rep will find out the real truth and present it to the public with a solution or an apology in order to start fixing the mishap from the beginning. For example, when Kobe Bryant was accused of having relations with a minor, that very night he appeared at a press conference with his wife and PR rep in order to set the record straight and apologize for what had happened. He was doing damage control, not just sending someone to speak on his behalf and say that the allegations are untrue. If I was to speak on the presidents behalf I would absolutely need to know if the allegations were true. It wouldn't be possible to do my job, ethically, if I did not know what really went on. Granted I would have the option, just as Conrad Brean did, to address the public based on what should have happened, i.e. the incident with the firefly girl is untrue, however I think that is taking the easy way out. If you know the whole truth, you will probably have to work a little harder to not completely destroy your clients name and reputation, but it is the ethically responsible thing to do. I would take the job of fixing the situation for him either way, its like asking a criminal lawyer if they would defend someone who they thought might be guilty. It comes with the territory of being a PR representative that you will have to fix a sticky situation, but knowing the whole truth can only better help you do that.

Howie Good said...

Hey, Everyone! I recommend you guys read that handout "Ethical Decision Making in Public Relations." It is highly germane to the question being asked here.

Jovan said...

At one point in my college career I strongly wanted to work in the Public Relation Field. Music and entertainment was what I mainly wanted to work under, and as someone stated before damage control comes with the territory. When your representing someone, as their PR rep. your mistakenly taught that your job is to make sure they are right when they are right and they are right when they are wrong. Because of this, is why I decided to change my major last minute to Journalism. I mention this because as a human being with feelings and emotions, I could not and would not want to work with nor represent anyone when I knew or had a feeling they would do something as inhumane as molestation, like in the instance of "Wag the Dog." To think of my self in a situation where I had to even think about helping that persons I'm working for image stay or come clean is just absolutely ridiculous. Just basically knowing right from wrong I would automatically want to know if the accusation was true or not, and in if it turned out to be true, I would probably rat them out to the police my damn self!

That's what I love about Journalism, in situations like this your not helping to cover the ass of someone, but your "seeking the truth and reporting it" as it is. Me as a reporter, I would look in to the presidents life style and character, I say this because chances are this is NOT the first time something like this happened. People with those type of tendencies tend to do what they know. I would also try and use the girl as a source with the confidentiality of not only her but her family. I would not use her name for fear of damaging her reputation, but her age would definitely be revealed. I would also question those close to the girl and those who work closely with the president. Also I would make notice in my story how the president is "suddenly in China dealing with the B-3bomber crisis and the war in Albania, though these things are news and natural occurrences, any real Journalist should have been able to see this was just a diversion to get away from the real story. I mean all these major things happening at the same time as the president is allegedly accused of molestation! Let be real.

At the same time, before I would go on a rampage to just hang the president, I would strongly look for sources and find out all I could about the girl, because the president is up for reelection just 14days before the accusation so it is rather odd an elected official would try something like that at such a delicate time. Most candidates during this time are walking on egg shells and watching everything they do and say for fear of not winning the election.All in all, this is a pretty sticky situation, the persons((JRN/PR) handling it should sit back and really do some thinking before acting.

Gina Marinelli said...

As a journalism major, I think the most important question would be whether or not the Firefly girl's claims are true. There is no story or controversey what-so-ever without an answer to this question. The best source for the story would be from the victim herself, but since she may be too young to speak to directly, the next best source would be the girl's parents and whatever adult supervision that was present on the day of the alleged molestation. It would also be important for a journalist to speak to White House staff and search into any public records that are avialable on any past accusations against the president. I don't think this would be a simple case to report on but certainly a great story to cover. By completing thorough research and seeking out all possible sources, a journalist is fullfilling their duty of being a watchdog. The whole concept of the the manipulation of the media by the government seems far fetched in this movie synopsis, but it's scary to think how that very manipulation could be happening in front of our eyes right now, especially in the days leading up the next presidential election.

ChelseaC said...

Wag The Dog makes PR look like a bunch of robotic liars that will say and do whatever to protect their client. Although it is sadly true that there are those types of PR people out there, I would like to believe that they are of a small percentage. When asked Brean's question, I would have said that it makes a world of difference. Knowing whether or not the accusation was true shapes the whole PR strategy. I would definitely need to know if they were true or false because either way, it would help me decide what needs to be done in a PR kind of way. I don't think that knowing the truth would affect whether or not i take the job simply because if he did do it, I would show him in positive family situations and then have him address the allegations head on. If he didn't, well then that would make my job so much easier. So I don't think I would turn the job down, but he probably wouldn't like the way I handled it.

ChrisDT said...

To cover this situation, a reporter (from the paper with the "Firefly" scoop) would instantly be in contact with the family and friends of the Firefly girl, especially if her parents won't consent on an interview. A reporter would also link the alleged events to the timing of the White House tour and when the girl was assaulted. I would also question where the president was earlier in the day and what was he supposed to be doing during the time of the attack.
It would also be important to look up prior information on the president to see if any other similar instances occur. Or interview White House staff to see if they could provide any important information.

A situation like a teenager being sexually assaulted by the President would spread like wildfire in the news and there wouldn't be a chance for a such a huge cover-up. A reporters job is to seek the truth. Just accepting knowledge given doesn't involve too much seeking in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

As a journalist covering this story I would try to verify the Firefly girl’s claims by interviewing several sources. I would first contact her or her parents if she was under age. I would interview relatives, friends, and maybe classmates of the Firefly girl to get a better idea about the family. It would be important to determine whether or not the parents of the girl have a history of fabricating stories. I would interview the person in charge of the White House tours to get a better idea of how feasible it is for someone to be around the president during a tour. I would ask if they have any recollection of this girl and whether they remember anything different occurring on that tour. I would check visitation records (I don’t see why they wouldn’t keep track of who enters the White House) to see if she was actually there around the time she claims the molestation occurred. I would attempt to get information on where the president was during the time to verify whether he was even in the White House on that day. I would see what the president’s staff would have to say about the accusation, more specifically if anyone has heard of any other incident similar to this one. I would also try to get in contact with people who at one point worked or interned at the White House and see what their experiences were. It would be a difficult story to cover and I am sure it would require a lot of double checking with sources and really questioning the validity of their answers and whether they have personal motives to answer a certain way. As Jovan mentioned being that the accusation came up at such a crucial point it is important to question why the girl decided to bring this up now.

Brianna said...

Conrad Brean needed to know every possible detail about the allegations against the president, *especially if the he has immediate access to knowing whether it is true or not. If you were a high-powered lawyer defending a sex pervert or murderer, would you say, “it doesn’t make a difference” in knowing whether your client actually did it or not. Or, more importantly, whether or not you Should take the case? I know the two professions are completely different, but what is not different is, at the core, it asks a similar, and very personal question.
PR people are constantly faced with decisions like this, and the beauty of it is, yes, you do have the option of not taking the case. Which is what I would probably end up doing in the Wag the Dog case. I would have advice for the president, 1) stay out of the spotlight (only let reps handle comments), 2) be seen constantly with wife and family, 3) Public apologies if any appearances, and others. At the same time, I wouldn’t be comfortable being the messenger, or delivering these messages if they were only making a perverted, unrespectable man seem innocent.
PR is an industry that by nature has a bad reputation, ironic, isn’t it. With t000his dedication to reputation protection in mind, why would you want to sacrifice your personal integrity for/ have your name associated with a high level sex scandal? The ‘truth’ in this case is the most important factor in the situation- as far as PR strategy goes. If I am the PR person in charge of the situation, delivering false messages to the press and media would make any and all intentions, good or bad, completely fraud. Once the honesty is compromised, in other words, all actions taken, and the entire practice (or persons involved) become, in one sense or another, deceitful. Anyone whose professional trained in, tactful, experienced, and savvy with PR could do a clean job of “fixing” this Wag the Dog situation, the real question is, how good do you want to feel about your job at the end of the day.
Theoretically—Success in this situation, in terms of PR, is the president coming out as “the good guy” at the end of the day, or at least steering away as much as possible from the allegations. If he is guilty- which anybody in charge of representing him in any way should want to know- would you feel achievement if you were the person in charge of setting his name free? Did you do a good job? The answer is no. The final product, no matter how “successful”, high-paying, or well done for the big boss, is virtually meaningless if you were deceitful in your means of getting there.

Jesse Ordansky said...

If I were a journalist covering the Firefly girl story, my first concern would be to not get caught up in the B-3 story. Journalism is a business and competition is important, but recognizing that every news outlet will be covering the B-3 story and the Firefly story will probably be overlooked in the hysteria is important.

I would probably not do more than make a phone call to the White House, in terms of asking people like the Press Secretary or any of the President's advisors. With both the B-3 story and the executive branch's propensities for deflecting information, talking to people in the cabinet would probably not yield much. I would most likely use this information as a dissenting argument.

The most important people to talk to would be the victim herself, the victim's family and friends, and people who were in the tour group with her. I would also check police records. Her name might not be available, but a report of a molestation in the White House on the same day that the Firefly girl was allegedly molested would be valuable information.

Laurent said...

If I were the reporter covering the story, I would question the “Firefly girl’s” claims. I would want to talk to her parents and have them tell their side of the story. If this was a field trip, I would ask the supervisors on the trip if they witnessed anything or what they were doing at the time of the incident.

Did the girl sneak off and happen to run into the President or was the group together at the time?
I would be definitely curious as to when the incident occurred and why the girl is bringing this up now as well. I agree with Vee, and would want to know if the girl has a history of fabricating stories. Is she trustworthy?

Was the President supposed to be meeting with the group of students, I would want to know. Checking into his background as a former senator, governor, etc. would be crucial to knowing if he has had other charges brought against him prior to being President.

Asking the white house staff if they saw anything would be a good idea. If this was a field trip, I would ask other students if they saw the girl go off with the President. Obtaining a schedule of the President’s agenda for that day would confirm if he had to meet with the students. Any documents from his previous careers would be useful in learning about his character.

I would keep verifying information from many different sources. Two or three sources are not enough, especially if they are all from the White House Staff.

cfinn129 said...

I am going to answer the questions from more of a PR perspective, because that is what my major is closer to. I think that if I was a staffer for the president I would want to know the truth. I believe that the truth is very important if you want the American Public to trust you. I believe that the profession of PR is more of taking a story and spinning it to benefit one individual or organization involved. I mean that is exactly what they do in Wag The Dog. As far as knowing if the allegations are true when dealing with the press, I guess that depends on what stance the president wants to take on the issue. Does he want to deny the allegations, or does he want to tell the truth? For me in particular if I knew the allegations were true and that the president wanted to deny it to the press, it would be very difficult for me to stand in front of the press and lie for the president. The last question touches on things that I have already said. I don't think I would want to know if the allegations were true. It would make it more difficult for me to do my job knowing the allegations are true. When I say my job, I mean my profession as in PR, and making the president look good. To me knowing that the allegations are true and then telling a lie to the presidents public is completely unethical, it would be very difficult for me to "fix" the situation.

Doron Tyler Antrim said...

If I were a reporter covering the story I would go about verifying the Firefly girl's claims by interviewing the other people who were on the White House tour. There are certainly records of who was on the tour with the girl. I would ask them whether or not they knew the girl and if she had a history of lying. Could she have made this claim up? Did she disappear for a time during the tour? Could this event have taken place? I would also try to interview the girl in confidence and record her version of events. I would also want to know what the President's schedule was for the day and whether an encounter with the girl was possible. Did she meet the President? These are questions I would need to know the answer to.

Kilani L. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JoshWhite said...

In my first PR class a year ago, my professor stressed the idea that in PR, we should never, under any circumstances, lie. In the history of Public Relations, when a damaging truth becomes public, it is usually less damaging if the company/person admits to the allegations, expresses sympathy, and has a plan to improve. The sooner this confession comes, the better it will be. The public forgives and forgets much sooner that most people realize. Lying to them will only serve to damage any chance of forgiveness.

If I were part of the presidential press staff, I would need to know the truth. I would tell the truth to the people. The truth is never an enemy. Aside from the moral implications, lying hurts the liar because if the truth eventually does come out, the credibility of the liar is lost.

PR practitioners should be able to handle the situation described in Wag the Dog.

If I were a reporter in this situation, I would ask the firefly girl if she has any emails, letters, or any other sort of physical evidence. For example, when the Monica Lewinski scandal broke, eventually, a dress was found that substantiated her claim.

Kilani L. said...

From a PR perspective, PR practitioners are oftentimes believed to be 'spin doctors', essentially liars. However this does not need to be the case for every PR practitioner and every job he/she takes on. In the case of Wag the Dog, i think it would be important to know whether or not the allegations were true in order to take the proper steps so that the situation could be handled. For me if the allegations were true I would have to reconsider taking the job. Many times the role of a PR specialist is to do 'damage control' but if this includes knowingly and blatantly lying to the public then I would not have a good feeling about taking this job at all. I think that the public should have a right to know about a president molesting a young girl because even though this is considered his personal life, obviously he lacks some ethics if he doing something as terrible as molestation. A lack of morals and ethics aren't characteristics that people tend to desire in the person running their country. I would have to know all the details if I was to really consider taking on the job. In this case, i don't know if i would feel comfortable taking the job.

Stephanie said...

As the journalist covering this story, the first person I would think to interview is the Firefly girl herself. I would ask her when did the incident occur? What did the president do to her? Did she file a police report? I would also go to the police and see if I could get any information they may have about the case. I would ask any people who were on the tour with the girl if they saw anything happen. If there were any cameras in the white house those might be a good source of information. I would want to I know the Girls background so I would interview people like her parents, friends, teachers, peers. I would check to see if she had any kind of criminal background or troubled past. If I could get access to interview the president himself I would also do that. I would ask him what was he doing at the time he was accused of assaulting this young girl.

emma said...

Clearly i'm aware this is a late comment, but I would still like to answer it.

I am also neither a PR or Journalism major, but from a PR perspective I can't even imagine taking this job if the allegations against the president were true. I understand the concept of damage control, but blatantly lying about a situation such as this would not be something that I would ever be comfortable with. I would hate to be amongst people who think that this would be acceptable and would be pressuring me to cover something like this up. I wouldn't want to be in a position where I'd have to cover up mistakes and incidents like this.
I don't think there's any way to say that covering up an act like this would be ethical. If someone were to try to cover up what happened, true or false, they are still being unethical. Even if they are not told whether or not the scandal was true, they haven't obtained the necessary information to make an ethical decision.

If a person commits to working for someone who is acting unethically and they try to protect them from scrutiny, I believe that they themselves are acting unethical as well.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.