The Case of Henry's Publick House
Thomas Shanks, S.J.
On Sept. 27, 1990, Mehrdad Dashti, a deranged man carrying three concealed handguns, walked into a popular U.C.-Berkeley hangout. Twenty minutes later, he opened fire, injuring many people and killing one. Ultimately, the incident became an eight-hour siege during which 33 people were held hostage.
Dashti, a diagnosed schizophrenic distraught over denial of a student loan, relayed his demands through hostages who spoke on the phone and shouted out the window. One of his demands was that then San Francisco Police Chief Frank Jordan appear on a local TV show and drop his pants. Dashti also demanded $16 trillion from the federal government and ownership of several states.
After more than seven hours of negotiations, police decided continued attempts were fruitless. Later, the police said, "Dashti kept saying somebody would get executed if Jordan didn't get on television." Police stormed the bar, killing Dashti and freeing the hostages.
During the siege, local TV stations carried the story live. People outside the bar, including one TV reporter in an apartment across the street, could see Dashti watching the coverage. As part of that coverage, reporters told viewers Dashti was possibly drunk and making "irrational and strange" demands; they also broadcast information from police scanners, especially the location of a SWAT team and other police movements.
A few days after the event, the hostages issued a statement criticizing the TV reporters. "Your station put the lives of 33 individuals in serious jeopardy," they wrote in a letter to a local news director. "Fresh threats of violence and death ensued, hardly the comfort, we believe, a responsible station would have at least attempted to produce." They said the escalation was particularly evident when Dashti heard about police movements and "became more eager to demonstrate his seriousness, calling for volunteers to die."
The news director replied, "We didn't know he was watching our station. But we didn't receive any request from police to withhold information, not [to] show something, or to shut down our cameras.... At some point, [we] have to report what is going on. At some point, we have to do our job. It sounds callous, but there are negative effects of many things we report. Not to say what we think he really is makes us look stupid."
A manager from a different station disagreed: "It worries me very much that we might put on anything that would even inadvertently harm anyone. In an effort to be first and be aggressive, you may not even realize what you are showing is doing that. But ultimately, the decision rests with the producer in the booth, and it may be that the best decision sometimes may be to cut away from live coverage."
Two days later, the manager of the first station acknowledged her organization had made "a serious error in judgment" in its coverage. She also admitted police had contacted the station after Dashti's initial demands, but she reiterated, "In subsequent conversations, neither the police nor the experts on the scene issued limits as to what should or should not be broadcast." She said the station and the police would meet to discuss coverage guidelines for the future.
If you had been the news producer that day, what ethical questions would you have asked? How would you have decided what to do?
This case was written by Thomas Shanks, S.J., Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.