Teaching Notes

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

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Wag the Dog

Respond to question #3 on p. 166 of text before class on March 24. Journalism majors and PR majors should respond only to the parts of the question that apply specifically to them.

21 comments:

Jennifer said...

In chapter three of Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies titled Political Manipulation of the Media by Berrin A. Beasley, the discussion of the film Wag the Dog reveals weaknesses of journalism that can be prevented with the unwavering practice of good ethics. As Beasley argues, the journalist's job is to act in the "public's best interest" (35) and in this film, the journalists were clearly acting in their own best interest to be the first to release the sensational story of the fictional war in Albania. The journalists in the film were more concerned with publishing stories to prevail within the competitive field rather than looking for facts to support the claims of war. By avoiding this essential step, the journalists were abandoning their responsibilities to "seek truth and report it," "test the accuracy of information from all sources" and "identify sources whenever feasible," as stated in the Journalist's Code of Ethics.

Even if the story of the war came out during their investigation of the "Firefly" girl, journalists should have waited to publish news of the war until they found solid sources and facts to back up the claim. Until they found that, they should have continued with the story of the girl who claimed to be molested because if this was true, it was their duty to make this information known to the public. They never had reason to believe that this wasn't true, they just chose to ignore the issue when a seemingly more relevant and exciting story was available.

In regards to the "Firefly" girl case, reporters should have interviewed the girl making the claims, sought out witnesses and looked for cameras in the building that may have caught it on tape and could act as proof of the offensive act. There were certainly ways to investigate the veracity of the "Firefly" girl incident that should not have been dropped and there were also ways to go about investigating the war in Albania that would have proved it was not credible enough to distribute as truth to the unknowing, susceptible, and dependent public.

Deidre Drewes said...

I may not be cut out for the corporate PR industry, or maybe handling political crisis management, however the truth surrounding the firefly girl incident would indeed have great importance to my decision. As a PR professional, I would seek the truth and, pending on what the truth of the situation was, my reaction would be different.

If the allegations of the President in Wag the Dog were false, I would fight to find valid information that would defend the innocence of my client. That would include detailed interviews with all involved in the situations, such as the President, "victim", and the people responsible for supervising the firefly girls. I would check surveillance cameras throughout the White House, because the place is obviously hard-wired for the highest level of security. If I would be able to work the media correctly, it would be effective crisis management and the whole incident would be a wash.

If, on the other hand, accusations were indeed true, I would have to question just how much I like my job and how hard it is to find employment nowadays. It's one thing when the President cheats on his wife, it is another thing when the President is sexually assaulting an underage girl. Speaking on a personal not, members of my family have been victims of sexual assault and I in no way would condone or defend such behavior. I would have to ask for a reassignment, take a sabbatical, or begin cruising the pages of monster.com for a new career.

As far as ethics go, its all situational.

Howie Good said...

Ethics as most often practiced today may be situational, but that doesn't mean that it's arbitrary or unstructured. From the beginning of the course, I have emphasized the need to make well-reasoned choices based on recognized ethical principles.

Marcy said...

Chapter threes discussion of the film Wag the Dog involves reporters being fed spin and how reporting techniques effect some stories. I don’t believe the story of the “Firefly Girl” would ever have been driven out of the media, no matter how much spin reporters were being fed. Accusation of the president molesting a young girl is pretty imperative, even if there is the threat of war.

A reporter’s job is to “seek truth and report it”. The reporting must also be as balanced and fair as possible. This being said, this is a story that takes time to report to do it ethically and get all the facts. However, the president and his staff obviously had forewarning to make a statement immediately. It seems suspicious that the administration ignored the accusation completely.

The young girl and her family must be questioned, including witnesses that saw her in the White House and people that were with her on the trip. It would be easy to find documentation to confirm the date the girl was there. The problem would be confirming exactly where the president was at the time the girl says she was molested, if his administration is keeping quiet. Hopefully, someone would come forward. There also must be video confirmation, but getting a hold of the tape could be an issue. It’s good practice to use as little anonymous sources as possible. If the journalists in the film had been acting ethically, they would have realized they were being fed lies about the B-3 bomber and concentrated on the accusations against the president. They should have continued researching the accusation of the girl, while appropriately investigating war claims also.

Bridget said...

Being a public relations practitioner does not necessarily mean that a person has to lack ethics as Conrad Brean does in Wag the Dog. If I were Ames or another member of the President's press staff I would have been upset and offended by Brean's off-handed remark of "What difference does it make...?"

I may not want to know if the allegations were true, but as a PR practitioner I would feel it is my job to know. If it were true I wouldn't feel comfortable covering such a huge ethical mistake up for the president. Molesting a young girl is never a matter that should be over looked, especially by the leader of the county. If it was not true then I would still want to know. Knowing the details of the situation and the President's innocence would allow me to deal with the press without misleading them the way Brean did. Brean's serious lack of ethical concern for his decisions is unnerving and scary, as is the press' complacency in the story.

Matthew Conti said...

If I was asked the question of, “What difference does it make if it’s true?” I would be disgusted. Of course it makes a difference to know the truth because destroying a person’s reputation just because you don’t care enough to get the facts correct is straight unethical. Before dealing with the press I would have to know the truth about the allegations because I couldn’t be able to face them and tell them something about a person that might cause harm if I am not sure if it’s true. Regardless if I wanted to know the truth or not, it is my obligation to know before I deal with the press. If I knew the truth and the allegations were false then I would do what I could to set people straight and prove to them the allegations were false. If the allegations were true I would have to think of a different way to deal with the situation. I would make sure the truth was put out there, but I would do it in a way to make the president apologetic. He would still get heat, but he might get off lighter. Either way the truth would be put out there. If I was the reporter I would have to talk to the “Firefly girl” and talk to people involved with her. I would have to interview the girl herself, her family, and the people that were at the Whitehouse at the time. If any video documentation that could be found of the girl being at the Whitehouse or the oval office, then that would be a great step forward to finding the truth.

lisa said...

Although this may sound unethical, if I were a PR practitioner or a member of the president's staff, I would answer Brean's question of what difference the truth of the Firefly girl's claims make by saying that it only matters if it will help manipulate my case and give the president good publicity. Defending the president in this particular instance with regards to sexual misconduct on his part, the truth would probably be the last thing I would seek; as I assume it would not be in his favor. Being on the president's press staff means you have to help the president maintain a positive image, especially near the national election.

In any event the truth of the situation makes little difference to the overall outcome of the situation. As explained in chapter 3, "seeing is believing". So if public is fed with images that are either distorted or distracting from the main story, the ability to manipulate the public is much better. It's all about the plans of the publicists and the resources available to them.

I would prefer not to practice PR for a possible criminal. I know it is almost impossible to escape such scenarios in the world of PR, but it is more rewarding to work to expand a good cause. I know it is a journalist's job to "test the accuracy of information", but feeding them distorted facts (especially ones that involve possible misconduct towards a young girl)feels very wrong.

lisa said...

Although this may sound unethical, if I were a PR practitioner or a member of the president's staff, I would answer Brean's question of what difference the truth of the Firefly girl's claims make by saying that it only matters if it will help manipulate my case and give the president good publicity. Defending the president in this particular instance with regards to sexual misconduct on his part, the truth would probably be the last thing I would seek; as I assume it would not be in his favor. Being on the president's press staff means you have to help the president maintain a positive image, especially near the national election.

In any event the truth of the situation makes little difference to the overall outcome of the situation. As explained in chapter 3, "seeing is believing". So if public is fed with images that are either distorted or distracting from the main story, the ability to manipulate the public is much better. It's all about the plans of the publicists and the resources available to them.

I would prefer not to practice PR for a possible criminal. I know it is almost impossible to escape such scenarios in the world of PR, but it is more rewarding to work to expand a good cause. I know it is a journalist's job to "test the accuracy of information", but feeding them distorted facts (especially ones that involve possible misconduct towards a young girl)feels very wrong.

lisa said...

Although this may sound unethical, if I were a PR practitioner or a member of the president's staff, I would answer Brean's question of what difference the truth of the Firefly girl's claims make by saying that it only matters if it will help manipulate my case and give the president good publicity. Defending the president in this particular instance with regards to sexual misconduct on his part, the truth would probably be the last thing I would seek; as I assume it would not be in his favor. Being on the president's press staff means you have to help the president maintain a positive image, especially near the national election.

In any event the truth of the situation makes little difference to the overall outcome of the situation. As explained in chapter 3, "seeing is believing". So if public is fed with images that are either distorted or distracting from the main story, the ability to manipulate the public is much better. It's all about the plans of the publicists and the resources available to them.

I would prefer not to practice PR for a possible criminal. I know it is almost impossible to escape such scenarios in the world of PR, but it is more rewarding to work to expand a good cause. I know it is a journalist's job to "test the accuracy of information", but feeding them distorted facts (especially ones that involve possible misconduct towards a young girl)feels very wrong.

Howie Good said...

The previous comment does sound unethical to me. . . How can a lack of concern with truth be reconciled with media ethics?. . . How can the goal of manipulating the public be reconciled with fundamental ethical principles, such as the Golden Rule or Kant's Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative? If this is how political spokespeople, pr practitioners and other such professionals actually think and operate, then what does their work have to do with ethics? Why even bother to sit in an ethics class? It would seem to me a huge waste of time for all involved.

Meg Zanetich said...

I think the story of Wag the Dog reveals many weaknesses in the media which ineveitably leads to negative affects. The spin of the media made by Brean is typical of those in the PR industry. He spun a story to help win an election and it worked. But for me, it was the irresponsibility of the journalists that made me question their motives. When the incident of the "firefly" girl was exposed, there was no reason for reporters not to be concerned. I do see the point of a nation at war being an important story, but even in that they did no research. The role of the journalist was portrayed in a negative light throughout this film.

If I was the reporter I would question everyone and everything pertaining to the "firefly" girl. In order to verify the claim an investigation would need to take place. An investigation that followed the ethical standard of "seeking truth and reporting it" would lead me to question many people.
First, would be the girl, her parents, people on the trip with her, family and friends to describe her character, tour guides, and maybe even try security (although you would not get far with them) Knowing that these were my sources, identifying them would be extremely important. In a case like this, concealing sources is not really necessary.

Obtaining documents explaining where and when the girl was in the White House would be a main priority. You can't get far without that information. Other documents, such as where the President was at the time, might be harder. But seeking out the truth is an obligation for a reporter, so many hard hitting questions must be asked in a situation such as this.

Arantza said...

I understand that as the President's staff you want to protect him from all things, even if it is his fault. But, no matter what, I don't see how whether if he did it or not, doesn't matter. It boggles my mind that Brean, "Mr. Fix It", could even consider skipping over the small details (I'm being sarcastic) concerning the molestation. If I worked on his staff, I would answer his question by saying that it is WRONG in so many ways to protect one man's image if he has done something wrong, even if he is our president. First of all, we would need to find out the truth about what happened. Then you could resort to crisis management, but doing it the right and ethical way. I understand that the President wants to be re-elected and that you work for him, but at this point, how could you not be disgusted by him and still want to help him get re-elected. Mr. Fix it should've fixed the situation properly and ethically, although he never seems to care about ethics, so I can't see him doing it.
Before dealing with the press, of course you would need to know if the allegations were true. If they turned out to be true then they should have considered other ways, honest and ethical ways (Bok model) to deal with the situation. It is their job to deal with the situation, but never is it mentioned to be dirty about it.
If I were there to "fix" the situation I would need to know the truth. If the allegations were true, then I would try to fix it as much as possible without lying to the public about what THEIR President did. If it wasn't true then so much less effort would have had to been made to "fix" the problem. I don't see why they would've gone through all of that trouble to cover up for the President without knowing if it was even true. So that makes me feel like Brean and Ames had a BIG hunch that the President had molested this girl.

I still want to be a PR practitioner even though many of them use their power unethically. I think that learning crisis management and doing it properly (ethically) would benefit many people.

Christine Picault said...

Before answering any of the questions from question #3, this is exactly why I would never work as a PR professional for a politician. I could not believe how far Brean went, in terms of making the president "look good" to the public eye. Personally if I worked on the president's press staff, I would personally feel offended by someone answering me "What difference does it make..." I understand that when you’re a PR practitioner there is a different level of ethic then there is for a journalist. As a person working for the president’s press staff I would answer Brean’s question by saying that the truth does make a difference because it doesn’t only affect one person, but any rational being that then becomes involved in the situation. I feel that it would totally make a difference to me if the allegations were true before I began dealing with the press, because I would find an alternative route to fulfill my job requirements in protecting the president. Also I feel that in order for me to do my job, it is required that I have knowledge of every detail, which includes the truth. But at the end of the day, I probably wouldn’t need to know if the allegations were true because what is required of me to do is to handle the press and make my client end with a good image. Knowing the truth would affect whether I would take the job of fixing the situation or not because I feel that if I have to completely change it around and then concern the lives of innocent people then I would not want to be involved at all.

Kelsey said...

Well, if I were to be working on the President's press staff and Brean asked if it made if it was true, I way say yes it does. After my first election, I was annoyed at first at all the unnecessary stories the media put out on the two candidates. If something like this was discovered about one of them, it would definitely change my vote. So, I would answer Brean telling him that to treat the public as ignorant people, almost similar to puppets, would be ridiculous. If the allegations were true, I don't think it would affect my actions to the press. If I were a "professional" journalist, my first obligation would be to "seek [the] truth and report" as stated in the Journalism Code of Ethics. As a journalist, I would rather know if the allegations were true or not before I wrote about it. I need to know this because it would be my job to notify the people of what a future president had done. It's not fair to them if I withhold information from the man, or woman, who they are going to choose to run the country. If I were working for the president's press staff and knew the truth, I probably would not take the job. If the accusations by the "Firefly Girl" were proved to be false, then I would pursue "fixing" the situation for him. My morals would tell me to not let an innocent man be tainted by a rumor, ruining his chances at a presidency. First off, if I would directly interview the "Firefly Girl" and then the presidential candidate to get both sides of the story. I would need as many witnesses to the account as possible in order to put the pieces of the story together. I could use security cameras to see if the girl had been around the day of the alleged assault as the documents against the "Firefly Girl."

Ryan Smith said...

If I was on the president’s staff I would need to know the truth about the firefly girl. I think any ethical person would. I could never work for a man who sexually molested a young girl and more importantly I wouldn’t want him as my president. The practice of PR is to influence public opinion not lie and manipulate. There is no salary that could persuade me to cover up for a criminal. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. If the accusations weren’t true then I would advise my client to be honest and upfront about the situation. Not all PR practitioners are like Brean and it is stories like this that give PR a bad reputation. I have to question the loyalties of Brean and people like him. Is staying loyal to a criminal more important then being honest and loyal to the public? Are staff members only staying loyal because this man is the president? I think that many employees would rather keep their jobs and continue making money than actually do the right thing.

Tyler said...

Call me selfish, call me cynical, call me whatever, but as a journalist, I think the Firefly girl's case would be a much more rewarding case to pursue than the alleged war in Albania. Of course, in that situation, I don't doubt that my editor would drag me off of the Firefly girl and onto the war for the same reason stated in the "Wag the Dog" chapter: stories that affect the greatest amount of people get the most coverage.

However, because the first responsibility of journalists is to "seek truth and report it," it seems as though some work should have been done on both the Albanian War and the Firefly girl. This doesn't seem such an absurd concept, either, as newspapers such as the Washington Post ALWAYS have more than one story in its pages. The spin doctors were wagging the dog, sure, but the Post should have been sending several dogs out to cover both stories. Rather than relying on sources that chose to remain anonymous, the Post should have extended its coverage and researching of the fictitious Albanian war, first and foremost.

As far as the Firefly girl goes, it likely would have required some detective work from the Post to investigate it, but it seems as though that was needed to seek the truth in a case that was being shrouded by the spin doctors. I agree with Jen that the Firefly girl should have been interviewed, first and foremost. Then, reliable witnesses and videotapes would have to be found in order for the Post to bring the story to print. In a story of this magnitude, even though Conrad Brean noted that it didn't matter if it was true, it is important for the press to address every possible connection to the allegations before bringing them to print.

Scott Broskie said...

After reading this chapter I have seen a different side of public relations. I enjoy PR because I will effectively get paid to talk to people. This chapter shows the dark underbelly of the field that I did not understand or want to believe. Ames handled the question very well from a public relations stand point, I would want to know if it was true or false accusation first though.

If Breans questions were posed to me I would want to know the truth. The truth of the situation would affect the strategy of the staff.

If the accusation is true I would be morally torn. I would want the best for the client but I would not what to tell the client to lie. I would need to know the truth even though I wouldn’t want to know. If the accusation was true or false I would have a crises management plan ready when the story hits the press.

Knowing the truth would affect weather I would take the job or not. If I was in internal PR person I would have no choice but to defend my client or leave my job and I don’t think I would be able to leave my job. I hope the industry will not throw such a curve ball my way that I will be put in such a bad place.

Nicole Moss said...

In this chapter, Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies... I am shocked by just the opening statement said by Conrad Brean in the movie Wag the Dog. "What difference does it make if it's true?" If I had worked on he president's press staff I would have answered him that it matters a whole lot. Yes, being a part of the President's press staff puts one in the position of standing by the President and doing what you can to make sure he is re-elected and positively looked at by the people. But there comes a point when you need to think what is morally right, it doesn't matter if this is the President, it matters if his alleged behavior with the Firefly girl is true. Just because he is the president does not mean he should be able to get away with these kinds of things. I do believe that it would make a difference to me if the allegations were true, I would have a very difficult time being a part of a lie to the people if thats what was going to happen. Lying to the people. While I would be disgusted with the Presidents actions, I would have more respect for him (out of the little respect that was left if the allegations were true) if he told the truth, and would consider being a part of the team to "fix" the situation, only if he were doing what was right and being honest. In order to verify the girl's claims I would have to do interviews from not only the litte girl, but see if we could get our hands on video footage from inside the White House, I would assume there are cameras in the White House. But I would also interview the President and get his side of the story. Obviously this would be a very difficult case to cover, because if there were not any documents with proof it would be a case of "he said, she said". In the long run though, I would never go as far as creating a WAR in another country, and creating a film was absurd to me.

Rachel said...

If I worked on the President’s press staff then I would say, “It makes all the difference.” It would also make a difference if the allegations were true or not, because I would handle the situation differently depending on the facts. First of all, I would need to aquire accounts from all parties involved. That means in depth investigating: getting an account from the president, getting an acount from the girl, getting accounts from people around. I would look at video survelliance tapes. If I needed to go so far, I would have medical tests done on the girl to see if there was any visible or medical harm that could be used as evidence. If I didn’t want to know (which is silly, of course I would want to know if I was directly involved in dealing with the situation), I would still have to know. If it were true, then I would need to know so that I could tell the truth. I guess I would make a bad public relations rep for the president. Even if I was going to lie and “smooth” things over, I would need to know the truth, because you can’t tell a lie without knowing it’s a lie. Does that make sense? The questions are hard for me to answer because personally I feel that the situation, if he did moleste the girl, is wrong, and he should have to pay for his actions.

Arlene said...

It is obvious that some journalists do not fulfill their job as they are suppose to. In “Wag the Dog” Brean went beyond than fulfilling his job as Mr. Fix it. I was surprised at the extent he went to have the public derive their attention from the accusations that the firefly girl made of the molestations from the president. Brean has no ethical morals and cares more about his job than about a serious accusation that may be true. His response of “what difference does it make if its true?” is an insult for me as well because these are serious situations that occur and him ignoring the fact that it may be true offends me as a woman. It definitely makes a difference if the allegations are true because I would not continue to take the role of helping the president no matter how high the position was or how much I was getting paid.

If I were the reporter covering the story I would have definitely had more than one source dealing with the B-3 bomber and the war in Albania. It is shown that the media can be easily misled when it comes to news about politicians that can capture the nation’s attention. It is shown that “the duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking the truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues” (pg.39) is not followed accurately. The reporter did not care much to get multiple sources and identify the one source he was given. He went along and kept the anonymous source.

As far as verifying the firefly girl’s claim I would ask for certain documents that prove that she was in the White House the day she claims she was molested by the president. I would also ask the security from the White House to go over the tapes and cameras that show she was actually there at the White House. Also, I would interview both the president and the firefly girl to get each person’s side of the story.

John Purcell said...

The first two people I would interview would be “Firefly” and the president. I would see how their answers, of course differing, contradicted each other. Then I would try to find aids or personnel that were near the president when the incident happened. I would want to find out if the president was in the room with Firefly when she said she was. Although, I would imagine even if the aids did agree to this claim it would be hard to rely on them for how long Firefly was with the president. Also, it would be important to interview any of Firefly’s friends and family to see if they could agree to the claim. I couldn’t imagine the president being alone with anyone without the secret service or some sort of personnel knowing about it. Those would be the main sources I would try to interview.

I would be interested if there was any sort of video surveillance around the premise. This could at least confirm how long they were together in the room, or not together at all. Still, it doesn’t prove that the president didn’t do anything even if they were in the room for a sort amount of time. At least it would be a start. In a presidential campaign I think previous charges of sexual molestation would surface, but it doesn’t hurt to do a background check to see if the president has been in similar incidents. To look into Firefly’s past would be important too. Has she made similar claims before? Also, does she have something to gain by making these accusations? These two things would help me come to a conclusion.

I would also try to find out if anyone was at all near the room. Did anyone hear anything if they were? Maybe the girl shouted at the president to stop. If some sort of incident occurred and someone was near I am sure they would have heard something. Finding a source outside of the two main people seems to be the key. Still, this story is riddled with motives. Finding out everyone’s motive is essential.

I apologize for posting late.

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.