ABC’s News’ periodic segment “What Would You Do?” is public opinion manipulation crossed with bad social behavior research, seeking the entertainment value of hidden camera shows. The segments stage outrageous public scenarios—a caretaker mistreating a wheelchair-bound senior, for example, to see how bystanders will react. Any potential benefit of the segments—might they encourage people to consider intervening when they see blatantly unethical behavior?—is swallowed whole by the more likely negative results. One is that the existence of a hidden camera show that stages such charades creates inevitable cynicism and skepticism. Most witnesses to crimes and other shocking public conduct have enough mental and social hurdles to clear before they can reach the decision to take action without ABC News giving them another. The thought “I wonder if this is fake?” may be just enough to still someone’s ethics alarms and cause them to discount the duties of rescue and confrontation. Indeed, several of the scenarios stages for the show have been unconvincing. “What Would You Do?” also provides a convenient rationalization for those who are inclined to ignore fellow human beings in peril: “This must be set-up.”
In addition, “What Would You Do?” often carries a more sinister feature, courtesy of the biased journalists at ABC. Sometimes the simulated conduct appears to be designed to portray the worst of human values, with the clear implication that such conduct is common in America. And sometimes, like last week, this is driven by a political agenda.
“What Would You Do?” hit rock bottom with this episode, which falsely purported to provide insight on Arizona’s SB 1070. From the ABC News website:
“What Would You Do?” decided to travel to Arizona. We installed our hidden cameras at BK Carne Asada and Hotdogs, a popular restaurant in Tucson, and hired actors to portray an off-duty security guard and a Latino customer. Later, host John Quinones, who is Hispanic, went undercover to see how restaurant patrons would react when he was the one facing racial profiling.”
The segment was pointedly introduced by an overview of the controversy surrounding Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law. ABC’s clear implication: this is what the law permits; this is what racial profiling looks like. That was more than misleading. It was a lie.
What the segment actually showed was a cartoonish staged scene in which an actor costumed as a generic security guard crudely harassed Hispanic actors. Barging into the restaurant, the “guard” loudly declared, “I’m just looking to make sure these guys are legal citizens! And if they’re not legal citizens, they shouldn’t be here! They should be deported. They look Mexican!”
What was wrong with this? A lot:
- Such conduct has absolutely nothing to do with the Arizona law, which only applies when a law enforcement officer has legitimately detained an individual for another legal infraction. ABC is intentionally misrepresenting a law its producers and reporters don’t like, to make it appear consistent with President Obama’s irresponsible and factually wrong statement that someone “buying ice cream” could be harassed by police because of how he looked.
- Security guards don’t arrest people or check their credentials in restaurants! The law isn’t enforced by security guards. ABC couldn’t put the actor in a police uniform (that’s illegal) so it resorted to this, which made the scene as plausible and realistic as if the actor was costumed as Bozo the Clown or an Imperial Storm Trooper. ABC was slyly (Stupidly? Unconscionably?) conveying the ridiculous message that Arizona’s law would embolden uniformed jackasses to engage in spontaneous racial harassment raids. Has this happened anywhere? No. Would the law encourage such outrageous conduct? Only in the minds of deluded ABC zealots. Is it likely to happen in Arizona or anywhere else? Of course not. In fact, it is less likely to happen in Arizona, where a higher percentage of the public is of Hispanic heritage.
- The conduct portrayed was not racial profiling, which is a controversial law enforcement tactic based on statistical probabilities that subjects innocent citizens to increased scrutiny and inconvenience solely because of their appearance. There was no law enforcement involved, or official authority misapplied. The scene was no more nor less than “obstreperous jerk with likely psychiatric issues disrupts an eating place and starts insulting customers.” [In the segment, almost everyone in the restaurant reacted vocally and assertively in condemnation of the boorish security guard’s unprovoked harassment. This did not, as ABC implied, prove that most Americans would find the operation of the Arizona statute offensive, but that most Americans won’t tolerate a bigoted idiot interrupting their meal and bullying strangers. Big surprise. ]
- The fake episode could easily launch rumors that this was how the Arizona statute operated, which was exactly what ABC seems to have intended.
- Segment host Quinones introduced the episode by saying this:
“So, we took our cameras down to Arizona, where a controversial, new law would give police the authority to question and perhaps deport anyone who, in their eyes, appears to be in the U.S. illegally.”
Unforgivable and despicable, journalism at its worst. ABC News has an obligation to accurately inform the public, not to actively misinform it. This was not a fair or factual description of SB 1070, which does not “give police the authority to question and perhaps deport anyone who, in their eyes, appears to be in the U.S. illegally.” John Quinones and his illegal immigration sympathizing superiors may oppose the law, but they may not use the resources of ABC News to erode support for it (this segment was produced shortly after polls showed that at least half the American public approve of the Arizona law, much to the mainstream media’s disgust) through intentional misrepresentation. Quinones also employed the favorite dishonest device used by many in the media as well as pro-illegal immigration advocates, referring to the law as “anti-immigration.” This is not shorthand, but intentional obfuscation. The law is pro–legal immigration, and anti-illegal immigration. ABC and Quinones are violating all standards of competent, fair and objective journalism by using an inaccurate and pejorative term.
Despite the unethical structure and assumptions of the “What Would You Do?” segment, “Good Morning America” hosts Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos introduced it as legitimate perspective on the Arizona law:
Roberts: “Also this morning, imagine being threatened with deportation, even though you haven’t committed a crime and it’s all because of how you look. John Quinones goes undercover to Arizona’s controversial immigration law…”
Stephanopoulos: “We’re going to turn now to our undercover report from the front lines of the border wars. Arizona’s immigration law passed last year. It stirred up a lot of controversy. So, John Quinones went to Tucson to put people’s attitudes to an unusual test. And as I said earlier, this is sort of an ultimate, “What would you do?”
Well, at least George got the last part right. The segment was the ultimate example of an unethical format, as well as the ultimate example of terrible TV journalism and biased network news: misleading, inaccurate, manipulative, poorly researched, politically motivated, and incompetent.