Teaching Notes

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Undercover at Big Nell's

Read the handout "Undercover at Big Nell's." Now, with the Potter Box in mind, consider which values are in conflict in the case (in the context of the Potter Box, values are those things we care about or cherish and are willing to sacrifice other things to achieve or maintain; for example, we sacrifice a news-maker's privacy because we value it less than the public's right to know). Also cite a recognized ethical principle -- Aristotle's Golden Mean, the Principle of Utility, the Categorical Imperative, etc. -- that to your mind either justifies or condemns the paper's actions in this case. Explain why.

Please respond by Sunday, Feb. 22, 3 p.m.

26 comments:

Kim Dubin said...

Values are in conflict within this case, because their doing investigative Journalism which involves ethical aspects. When it is stated that one went up with a girl and is married is a huge ethical problem. Although he is undercover he was never forced to go up with the girl and full on act as a client. How far is too far to investigate, and which values are people willing to give up to find the truth? They were given no specific orders, so did they do it for the wrong reason? A quote that relates to this is By Immanuel Kant, “A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to any other purpose.” I feel as if what the undercover cop did was necessary to get the information they needed loyal to his company but questions loyalty to his wife as well. Identity is a key factor for confidentiality in this case, which is considered a principal of loyalty. This case was controversial in its issues but overall I think the one stated earlier was the most ethical problem form what i saw.

Chelsea LaDue said...

Clearly values are in conflict with this case. All of the reporters were married men and they had to sacrifice their monogamy to get the story about Big Nell's. I personally don't think it's worth it to sacrifice your marriage for a story. A. N. Romm said the only thing he regretted was not fighting the subpoena. Clearly there is some kind of ethical problem with this man. In my opinion, there are times when going under cover is ok when the person isn't doing anything illegal; Romm obviously disagrees. I think Kant's Categorical Imperative relates to this story the most, which condemns the papers actions. Kant says an action is morally justified if it was performed from duty. The men lied and broke promises to get the information, which Kant says is a negative. Clearly the reporters intended to get the information to help the greater good, but they went about it in an unethical way.

Meg said...

I agree with Kim in that there was more than one ethical problem in this case. As soon as I read that one of the men went up with a girl and that he was married, that threw up a red flag right there for me and I knew this person wasn't ethical. People have to choose how far they are willing to go just to get a story. Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative can be defined as "the standard of rationality from which all moral requirements derive". I'm not sure if I understand it correctly, but my interpretation of it is that there is a rational standard in which all moral responsibility comes from. However I'd also like to add to it though, that I think we ourselves determine our own standards. I don't think this "standard" is the same for everybody because obviously people do some things that others would deem as unethical. The other married man chose not to follow through with the women even if that meant losing out on the story because he saw it as being unethical towards his wife. Even the author of the article stated he did not directly ordered the reporter to solicit a prostitutes services. Even if the reporter would have been protected under law and was able to remain anonymous, to say that he was just doing his job and was covering a story I think is crap because he was not ordered to solicit a prostitute. The reporter crossed a line that could've been avoided had he thought about what he was doing and how far he was going. Yes I guess he got the story and perhaps helped shut down what was an unethical practice in itself (Big Nell's) but at what price and was it really worth it for him?

MBachmann said...

Within the Potter Box there are four subjects; facts, loyalties, values, and principles. In the handout I feel that all of these values are in conflict with this case. It conflicts facts because the reporters disguise themselves and lie to get information. The one man breaks his loyalty to his wife by "fully playing out his role as the client". And it breaks the values and principles of their marriage and the values of being an ethical reporter. Since they went under false pretenses I feel that they should have been forced to testify in court. If they felt the need to go to such great extremes to "get the real story" they should have no problem testifying if they felt what they did was right. One theory of Kant's is "to act morally is to perform one’s duty, and one’s duty is to obey the innate moral laws." It is morally right to try and seek the truthful information for their job since it is their duty, but by preforming their duty it must also be morally right. And in this case, they were not.

Lindsey said...

The definition of ethics is the principle of what’s right or wrong. Within the potter box the word value comes to my mind throughout this article. “Values are those things we care about or cherish and are willing to sacrifice other things to achieve and maintain”, which makes me think of the married men. Is it really worth it for there men to risk their marriages just for a story? They could have got other people to have done this act or even done it another way, this one was completely unethical. Even though what they did was for the greater good, as Chelsea said, they did it in an unethical way. It’s not right to push these men into risking their relationships. As Monica stated about Kant’s quote “to act morally is to perform ones duty, and one’s duty is to obey the innate moral laws”, shows that in this case they should have come up with a way to handle the situation (getting the information) in a way that was moral.

Howie Good said...

everything is picking on marital infidelity as the crucial ethical lapse. it's certainly a lapse. but there is a good deal more going on in this actual case. did the ends -- exposing big nell's -- justify the means? the means involved a lot more than a married man sleeping with a prostitute.

eden rose said...
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eden rose said...

Personally I think this is one of the most interesting cases we’ve read so far not because it involves the taboo topic of sex but because there is so much going on. This case started out being one thing and turned into a completely different issue. I agree with prof good the act of cheating is besides the point in this situation, yes the reporter might not have been loyal to his wife and may have warped values but I think the real ethical dilemma is the fact that these two reporters went in for one reason and because of that they were pulled into a separate trial. This is a tough situation because I feel that news publications are supposed to be used to relay information to the public, they are not there to rat people out but on the other hand undercover journalist are doing just that exposing controversial issues. I feel that the journalist shouldn’t have been brought to the trail because weather they were at Big Nell’s as actual customers or reporters that is their own personal business. Yes these journalists were unethical going undercover but they were initially just going there for the sole purpose of finding out information that was beneficial for them and their story. The police obviously couldn’t find out the information they needed on their own and I think it’s unfair to the reporters to be put on the spot. The cops can go in there themselves if they want answers it’s not the responsibility of the journalist to now not only be a journalist but a cop as well. Journalists are people too and whatever their personal choices are should be aloud to remain personal. An ethical principle that I feel ties into this in favor of the journalist not going through with the trail would be John Rawis’ veil of ignorance the journalist may not have been on Big Nell’s “side” but if I were them I would realize that those women chose to live their life that way and its not there place to blow up there spot. The journalist weren’t going in there to cause havoc even thought it seems that’s the end result of a lot of these undercover cases. The cops also should have put them selves in the reporter shoes and realized that it’s unfair to put these two journalists on the spot. Overall this case is very interesting because although I just ranted how I think they shouldn’t have been involved in this I could also defend the cops perspective and acknowledge and understand why they were put on the stand and would want to do the same thing and get out the information that the cop knew that the journalist knew about Big Nell’s and get them to tell the truth.

Maxim Alter said...
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Maxim Alter said...

Obviously, like what everyone else is saying so far, A. N. Romm and the other two reporters in this case have a serious lack of moral integrity. I mean seriously, come on. One cheated on his wife and had sex with a prostitute, just to get a story! I don't care how much good they think breaking this story will do for the public, the sanctity of this man's marriage should be more important. There had to be some other way to go about their "undercover" work. Like MBachmann previously stated, this whole operation went against all four subjects of the potter box. They lied, they betrayed, and they forgot what were the most important values in their lives and professional careers. Although these men chose to do something immoral in order to benefit the greater good (utilitarianism), they went about it all wrong. I think the idea of disguising yourself to help others and benefit the general population makes sense for certain situations, as long as what you are doing isn't seriously deteriorating the promises and loyalties that you made to others. I mean, seriously, was this man's marriage worth a measly story in the Times Herald-Record. No. The paper's actions were not thoroughly thought out and the fact that Mr. Romm only regrets not fighting the subpoena harder, just proves how unprofessional and unethical these men are.

Other than the serious lack of ethics it took to cheat on his wife, I think it is quite obvious that I do not believe the ends justified the means in this story. I believe they could have obtained the same ends through different means. Just because they needed to get the story right away and save the tax-paying community from a brothel, it doesn't mean they can just completely disregard the value and integrity of their own morals.

JustinMcCarthy said...

I find myself somewhat conflicted after reading “Undercover at Big Nell’s.”
Part of me wants to condemn the reporters’ actions based on the Categorical Imperative. I think an undercover reporter having sex with a prostitute is going too far—especially for married reporters.
But on the other hand, their venture into Big Nell’s did result in saving taxpayer money from being spent on renovating a harem. So, I could say what they did was justified under the Utility Principle.
However, I still feel that what they did was wrong. I’m glad the taxpayers didn’t have to fund the renovation of a harem, but I don’t think the Record reporters’ actions were justified.
I wonder how the argument that they were acting for the public good went over with the wives of the reporters. Were they supposed to be proud of their husbands for protecting taxpayer money from being spent in a bad way? I doubt they were proud.
Although there are situations where I would say that the overall outcome outweighs an individual’s actions, this is not one of them. I’m sure there were better ways of finding out that Big Nell’s was still in operation. And even if there weren’t better ways, I still don’t feel that this kind of behavior would be justified.

Julia said...

One ethical problem presented in the case is centered around the sanctity of marriage. While undercover, one of the married reporters actually slept with one of the girls at the brothel. While going undercover is a risky business, it does not mean no longer holding oneself to ethical standards as a journalist and as a person. There is a line which one of the reporters didnt feel necessary to cross while the other did cross it. That journalist sacrificed fidelity to his wife. Some may say that the end's justidy the means in this case, but the wife who was cheated on probably doesn't see it that way. I would have to say that a golden rule applying to this case would be the confidentiality . The paper even stated their "only regret" was not fighting the subpeonas of the reporters.

Kim Dubin said...

Their decision to go undercover met the undercover reporting requirement guidelines in my opinion. It says that undercover reporting provides a public service by exposing corruption and dishonesty. In this case there is corruption within the area and they are trying to find out what’s really going on. The action from the reporters was unethical yes, but the fact is that they were undercover and couldn’t ruin the chance of being found out. They committed their time and work for disclosing information. So I agree with Eden Rose it's not their responsibility to be the journalists and the cop as well. The reporters being brought to trial for doing there job might not be ethical true, but how far did they go in their job that would make the public question it should be looked at as well. Based on the Potter Box, these reporters were loyal to their job to get the facts, but I think their values were at risk by doing so.

KHutchinson said...

I'm sure going into this the two reporters had the best intentions; revealing the truth about this prostitution ring, but in the end they broke every rule in the book, and what seems to me put loyalty, principles, and values aside for getting "facts" so that they could break this case. By the end of the story it really jut seemed like they wanted to be credited for breaking a story, rather than worry about reporting the truth.
I think that overall what the two men did may have been alright, but the fact that one followed through with "his role as a client" is unforgivable.
The fact that they were both married created one of the biggest problems for me; especially because of the loyalty in Potter's box. Above all, I believe that taking a vow of committance to someone leaves no room for, "Oh, but if I need to have sex with a hooker to break a case then that's alright." The one man may have violated a bit of trust going in to the house in the first place, but when the time came to make a decision on where his loyalties lay, he stuck to his...what? Principles! I mean that in the way that when you make a promise, you don't break it. It's the principle of the matter. Like you said in class, you don't make a promise to begin with if you don't think you'll keep it.
Now, I guess one could argue that when it comes to journalism, there is a loyalty to your promise to report the truth. In this case you could say the two were going for something of a Utilitarian basis, the greatest good. Put a whore-house out of business and it helps many people, many families. Only, I think things got a bit twisted for these two reporters. One one hand, yes, you have a duty to not only report the truth but SEEK it as well. On the other hand, journalists are NOT the police. There is a line, and these men not only toed it, they crossed it.
I honestly think that their loyalties and commitments to their ENTIRE lives outweigh the loyalties and commitments just in their job. Their family, friends, and the people around them should not be caused suffering because they made choices that were wrong for the sake of a job. It's the Golden Rule.
You could then argue that as journalists personal lives should come second in the search for truth, and that people get hurt along the way, but I just think that the principles and values of a married man should never let him go into a whore house and go through with having sex with another woman for the sake of a story.
Going into the scenario, I think they had the good intentions, they were trying to find out facts so they could report on an unfortunate property situation (the church begin torn down and the house perhaps getting funding? I'm assuming for the historical age of the house itself? In this case I don't know if anyone knew what went on inside the house...for sure.)
And I don't think it was the duty of these two men to bring down the walls around this case. There is a reason we have police. They had already tried to bust this ring once, and failed, this is true. But I honestly don't think it would have been their only attempt to stop this. They would have gone in again at some point, or sent in one of their own under cover agents, who would then NOT go through with actually engaging in sexual relations in the course of the investigations. That's for sure.

KHutchinson said...

I'd also like to tie in the Pluralistic Theory of Value, because in this case there were dual ethical values running along side each other, but to me the life of a married man just flat out outweighs that of a journalist.

Sarah Boalt said...
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Victoria said...

After reading "Undercover at Big Nell's" it becomes obvious that the reporters put their pursuit for the facts, and their loyalties to the newspaper ahead of their own values and ethical principles. If a reporter has to sacrifice anything to successfully report a story, it should never be their own ethical values. A ethical principle the reporters should have values is Confucius' Golden Mean which states that you must compromise between two moral extremes to achieve moral virtue. This could have been achieved by the reporters, by either not going undercover and finding their facts from another source, or not having sex with the prostitutes.
I think going undercover, should be considered a last resort. If a reporter makes the decision to go undercover, he or she should decide how far he or she is willing to go for the story, and decide whether that coincides with his or her ethics. I think the reporters in this case did not think of their ethical values at all. Despite the fact that they were both married men, and one of them slept with the prostitute, they should have not ever have gone that far for the facts for a story. The reporting sleeping with her did not help him gain any extra information what-so-ever. I beleive that the paper should be condemned for thinking it would be a good idea to send undercover reporters. That should have been the papers last resort, and if they had to go to such extremes maybe they should have reconsidered running the story at all.

Andrew Limbong said...

I feel that the marriage aspect skewers the viewpoints on this story a bit. If the men weren't married, would an ethical quandary still exist? I think so. Regardless of their marital status, they lied in order to be able to commit a crime, just for the "facts." While there isn't anything inherently wrong with going undercover, I don't think that the men had to go as far as they did, and only did so, because it was a particularly sensational story that would garner attention.

The last line of the handout is especially troubling. When he says that "the watchdog becomes a pussycat" when ethics get in the way reveals the kind of mindset that (I assume) the entire paper is working under. This view on ethics is ridiculous. The paper seems to have no want to abide by any sort of ethical standard. If they don't have anything holding them back from lying to get a story, what's to stop them from lying as a story?

Sarah Boalt said...

It is always a reporter's duty to report the truth. This means that if they are passionate about what they do they will have to do things like go undercover and pose a someone they're not. However, this does not always mean that they have to follow through actions that could conflict with their morals. One of the men who went into the brothel posed as a customer, but didn't follow through with the act. The other reporter did, but was that necessary for the story? Did he really need to cheat on his wife in order to get the story? However, it is still the reporter's business what he does to get the story. I think this case violates confidentiality. The reporters, even though their actions were morally unsound, were still doing their job and got thrown into the line of fire where private lives were brought to the public. This could put their lives at home in jeopardy. While I can see why police would want to subpoena a journalist, I don't think it is necessarily right for a journalist to put their lively hood in jeopardy.

Kim Plummer said...

I really agree with Max, and a lot of what he said summarizes how I feel about this case.

Let’s throw the sanctity of marriage out of the picture; even if these men weren’t married, having sex with a prostitute is still illegal and wasn’t necessary for their story. Do reporters that go undercover to expose drug rings need to do cocaine to fully understand the story? I don’t think so.

I think these reporters went into this situation at Big Nell’s thinking it could be justified by the Principle of Utility. It is in a way, but it leaves sort of a foul aftertaste. Sure, Big Nell’s was ultimately closed and it wasn’t renovated at the expense of taxpayers, but the way they went about doing it wasn’t really thought out. The reporters, and their editors, had this feeling and just went with it, and forgot to judge their values and loyalties and ultimately how this would pan out for the public.

The editor describes the cross examination of the reporters as “withering and embarrassing” in this case. These reporters forgot to judge their gut instincts. It’s hard to rationalize their actions because of how far they went. In big writing, on this photocopy, all caps, it says, “WHAT DID THEY ACTUALLY ACCOMPLISH?” Well, Big Nell’s was exposed, eventually closed, and wasn’t renovated at the expense of the taxpayers. And the Church was saved and became a historical landmark. But, how did they do it? They concealed their identities, one of them solicited the services of a prostitute, may have potentially destroyed their marriages, damaged their integrity as a paper and it was all revealed at a trial where the reporters were forced to testify.

So was it worth it? No, especially not when the story could have been gotten in a more ethical way. It almost seems a little ironic that they saved the church.

DevonP said...

I'll say it again just because I have to, but obviously the reporter sleeping with the prostitute displayed no ethics or morals personally or professionally. With his actions however, he also damged the values and reputation of the Times Herald Record. His actions displayed to readers the idea that reporters can break whatever rules they want to get a good story, while the avergage citizen would be punished for the same action.The Principle of Utility comes to mind for me in this case, which states, "we must seek happyness for the greatest amount of people." By this I mean, this story prevented tax-payers from subsidizing this illegal business. I am not justifying what the reporter did that slept with the reporter by any means. However, if both reporters only went to Big Nell's and didn't partake in any crime, I think their deceptive behavior is overshadowed by the fact that they uncovered a valuable piece of information for the public.

DevonP said...

I'll say it again just because I have to, but obviously the reporter sleeping with the prostitute displayed no ethics or morals personally or professionally. With his actions however, he also damged the values and reputation of the Times Herald Record. His actions displayed to readers the idea that reporters can break whatever rules they want to get a good story, while the avergage citizen would be punished for the same action.The Principle of Utility comes to mind for me in this case, which states, "we must seek happyness for the greatest amount of people." By this I mean, this story prevented tax-payers from subsidizing this illegal business. I am not justifying what the reporter did that slept with the reporter by any means. However, if both reporters only went to Big Nell's and didn't partake in any crime, I think their deceptive behavior is overshadowed by the fact that they uncovered a valuable piece of information for the public.

SSDP said...

GEORGE SELBY SAID:

There were a number of other ways to go about saving the building that Big Nell’s was in. Investigations could have been performed, and somewhat sensational articles could have been written. Public sentiment could have been altered in order to provoke police action. Big Nell’s had a long history of illegitimate business, and was well known as a brothel by both the public and the police. It seems like all the reporters had to do was prove that the brothel was still open for business.
There was no reason for them to go undercover. Others in this blog have noted that going undercover should be a last resort. The reporters and the paper itself did not even try to do anything else! The paper and the reporters have all sacrificed loyalties, value, and principles in order to get some almost obvious facts.
The Kant’s model of moral procedure can help to condemn the action of the paper. The reported and the paper did not act in a way that would be considered “right” by any other ethical reporter in the same circumstance. The ends for the paper were to get a sensational story and get the attention of the public, and they treated all the people that were affected by this story (Big Nell, her employees, the police, the public) as means to this end. If the end has been to save the building, and NOT write a sensational story then the paper wouldn’t have needed to violate journalistic ethics. Finally, the paper does not consider their actions as an appropriate and ethical procedure for dealing with a brothel. This is stated in the last paragraph of the article. Therefore, they failed to act as though they were creating a universal rule, as Kant believes they should have.

Alana Davis said...

After I read the Big Nell's case I found myself sort of scratching my head. I had to re-read it in order to get a good grip on how out of hand the situation had become and exactly why it had become that way. The first thing that popped into my head was, did the reporters even need to go as far as being undercover to see if Big Nell's was indeed out of business? It just seems to me that they jumped to conclusions instead of looking for an easier way to see if the place was in business. And to me, being an undercover reporter does not mean feeling like you have to go all the way with a prostitute in order to get your story. The ethical line of journalism with marriage gets blurred, it's unnecessary too. Then speaking in terms of the Potter Box, when the reporters were asked to testify, the SHIELD law was practically non-existant. But A.N. Romm says that when he was questioned if forcing reporters to go undercover was his practice, he said no, and he did not give them any orders. Red flag, right there. The whole thing seemed spontaneous and I really did not see a point in the case besides saving the church.

pspengeman said...

There are definitely a bunch of moral conflicts exposed in this case, most of which have been discussed. What seems strangest to me is what was the paper's true motive behind going undercover? If it was to save the church, then it does seem a bit ironic that they would danger their marriages to do so. Saving taxpayer money seems more justifiable, but like people have said, the answers they were looking for could've been discovered without the journalists cheating.

One ethical principle, Rawls' Veil of Ignorance, may be the reason for the paper's decision to go drastically undercover. Like Eden said, the journalists here act like cops or heroes instead of journalists, and is it really a paper's job to expose crime or to act as moral judgers? I think the paper felt that they were in the best position to influence people based on their "ethical" decision; in other words, the fact that they COULD expose something they felt the public should know, the did. The paper placed themselves in the position to make a greater decision for the public they thought was right... but there are certainly ways to do that without being sneaky or deceptive. I think there was a way to the truth that wouldn't have involved betraying universal or expected values.

Samantha said...

I agree with what a lot of people have said, that these reporters sacrificed their principles and values in order to get the "facts" and remain loyal to the paper. Despite the fact that their values were skewed because they were married men visiting a brothel, their principles were skewed simply because they decided to go, whether they were married or not. It seems that this information could have been uncovered in another way, I don't think sleeping with the prostitute actually contributed to the research for the story. I think if we look at this story from the utilitarian view then perhaps their actions were justified. The emphasis in the utility principle is the outcome, not the means. If they were able to get Big Nell's shut down and prevent the public from paying for its renovations and keep the church open, then ultimately they got what they wanted. A utilitarian would not care how it was achieved, only that it happened. I can't say that I agree with this because I think that the means should matter not just the outcome. Perhaps if they had at least first tried to get the information honestly instead of jumping right into undercover work they would have found out the information without sacrificing their ethics.

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.