The Moral and Ethical Dilemma of ‘Gotcha’ Journalism


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

The recent video of the Cos Cob School assistant principal went viral, made national newscasts, and places our school system in an unfortunate light. There is widespread acknowledgement that Mr. Boland’s comments displayed a lack of judgement and do not reflect the values of our community or those that we expect from our school administrators. The discriminatory nature of his remarks is unacceptable to us all and the resulting anger is justified. However, just as important, and equally disturbing but lost in the focus on the content, is how this information was obtained in the first place.

For the better part of two years, the national Republican Party has pushed a narrative centered around parental concerns that our public schools are implementing a more progressive curriculum than many parents feel is appropriate. The fuse for this effort was lit when former Trump chief advisor Steve Bannon issued his rallying cry that the “path to save the nation” was through local school boards. This resulted in volunteer school board members and superintendents across the nation being targeted by frustrated parents and angry, organized groups over concerns ranging from overly progressive curriculums to covid procedures. We have seen this play itself out in our own community as well.

For some, Mr. Boland’s comments serve as ironclad confirmation of these parental concerns. But, whatever one’s opinion about the content exposed in this video, real journalists do not “set up” people to lure unsuspecting subjects into agreeing to meet, whereupon that person is unknowingly taped, and the content of that conversation made public for all the world to see. Unfortunately, in the case of Project Veritas, the means are irrelevant if they achieve the desired result. The result of this mess is that Mr. Boland has been placed on an administrative leave of absence and will likely lose his job.

There will no doubt be concurrent internal and independent investigations of our public-school practices and procedures to examine whether his comments were his alone or representative of the Greenwich school system. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong has also made it clear that he will investigate the matter as well. For Greenwich, the result will be a steady stream of unfortunate local and national publicity. Likely, Greenwich will see its litigation risk increase significantly as rejected job applicants for positions at Cos Cob and other Greenwich schools, evaluate whether they were discriminated against and if their case merits legal pursuit. Given the age related, political and religious biases expressed by Mr. Boland, there should also be concerns about the GPS’s ability to attract qualified applicants going forward. While all of this plays out, many will see this video as a validation of their worst suspicions about our school’s academic approach.

After the release of the Veritas video, Senate candidate Leora Levy held a press conference at which she introduced James O’Keefe (the head of Project Veritas), who was welcomed with thunderous applause. The stated objective of this event was to “condemn indoctrination and discrimination in CT Schools” which no one should tolerate, and all can support. While it is understandable that Republicans would embrace this apparent confirmation about their concerns regarding our schools, should they also be equally concerned about the tactics employed by Project Veritas in terms of how this information was obtained?

During his comments, Mr. O’Keefe pointed to a group of local media and said, “if all of you guys were doing your jobs, there wouldn’t be a need for people like me.” So, is Project Veritas “real journalism” as Mr. O’Keefe suggests, or is it simply a predatory exercise whose methods and practices are justified if they result in some level of confirmation of a political position. Time will tell what effect this form of “gotcha” journalism will have on our political discourse. It is important for us to think about the consequences of accepting this type of reporting as a normal component or approach of our daily news cycle. Confirmation of one’s political bias or concerns is always comforting, and immensely gratifying. But irrespective of one’s political leanings, it is equally important that the source of that confirmation should be above reproach. Will an expansion of this questionable type of journalism impact people’s ability to trust one another? Is it tolerable because it produces satisfactory outcomes? These are all worthy questions that must be considered going forward. The most vital question of all is, in journalism “do the ends always justify the means?” We should all fear for the future of our democracy if the answer is yes.

Quigley is the past chairman of the Greenwich Republican Town Committee