With Christmas almost here, and a new year following shortly after, people tend to get reflective. For journalists why not reflect upon a newsroom ethics issue 24 years ago when a local drug bust became a First-Amendment clash.
T'was December 1986, and Doug Stone was assignment editor at WCCO-TV the day FBI agents and local police were scrambling around a Minneapolis convenience store where the sting had gone down, concluding a lengthy undercover investigation.
WCCO photographer Gary Feblowitz showed up on the scene for a routine twenty-second spot news piece to run that night. His reception wasn't a warm one.
Feblowitz was reportedly hassled by police, worried that his footage would blow the cover of the undercover agents. "Give up your camera, or you're going to jail," an agent eventually told Feblowitz. He complied.
For years, according to Stone, his newsroom had honored a gentleman's agreement with authorities not to reveal identities of undercover agents if it would put their lives in danger. Had the FBI informed WCCO about an apparent hit put out on one of the undercover agents, Stone says they would have agreed to mask the agents' identities.
After getting word of the seizure, Stone called around the Minneapolis Police, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Attorney's office. There was now less than four hours before the 10 p.m. news, and Stone wanted to get that footage back.
Finally, the U.S. Attorney General's office called back with an hour and a half to air-time, and a deal was reluctantly brokered: WCCO would get their cameras and footage back, but federal agents had to oversee the editing.
All in all, three law enforcement agents, a DEA agent, a county sheriff's deputy and an assistant U. S. attorney walked into the newsroom carrying the camera and tape 20 minutes later. As Stone put it, "an unlikely mini-cam crew."
The mood in the editing room was difficult, but three minutes before 10 p.m. the story had been finished, electronically masking the undercover agents.
Looking back, Stone believes the deal may not have been worth it, as it was the foot in the door for several more law enforcement incursions into the newsroom in the following months.
Eventually, WCCO filed suit in federal court for their rights at news scenes, and won. Despite the long and expensive process, Stone feels the court battle was worth it.