Ethics Hero: Journalist Harris Meyer

Harris Meyer is an Ethics Hero because he won’t let a bad lesson go unchallenged.

Meyer is an award-winning  freelance journalist and a former editor at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald Republic. That was the paper that first broke the story of Gaby Rodriguez last year, which I wrote about here. With the encouragement of her high school principal, Rodriguez, a senior, embarked on some amateur social science research that involved deceiving everyone in her life except her mother, one (of seven) siblings, her boyfriend, and the principal. She pretended that she was pregnant, suing padding. She faked the pregnancy for months, finally announcing the sham in a student assembly. This extended hoax was supposedly designed to expose how pregnant teenagers are treated by their peers and others. It was, by any rational standard, a despicable thing to do—a betrayal and exploitation of her friends,  her boyfriend’s family, her siblings and teachers. Deception on such a scale must be justified, if at all, by both need and necessity. Were there other, less destructive ways to investigate the treatment of pregnant teens? Sure there were; interviews come to mind. Collecting published journals and other accounts. But Gaby’s unethical stunt was in spiritual synchronicity with a reality show-obsessed culture, where fake is entertaining and collateral damage is of no concern.  I wrote:

“Perhaps the worst result of stunts like this is that they help make everyone in a society cynical and distrustful.  Nobody wants to be fooled, and many of us are looking for reasons not to take action, or to rescue, intervene, or reach out. Rodriquez’s deception will just plant a little bit of doubt in the back of the mind of the next Yakima resident tempted to give his bus seat to an uncomfortable, pregnant teen.

“This senior project was ethically misguided in every way: irresponsible, dishonest, unfair. It trivialized teen pregnancy, and played with people’s emotions for no legitimate purpose whatsoever, while teaching the false lesson that it is justifiable to deceive others, perhaps causing them emotional distress, for narrow personal goals. That it was done with school approval is just one more piece of evidence of the ethics and competence deficit in our public schools.”

Little did I know, however, what was to come. Gaby became a celebrity. She was breathlessly interviewed on the Today Show and Good Morning America, and treated like an exemplar and role model. GMA ended its gag-worthy segment ( the principle gushed, “I admire her so much..Her courage, her creativity, her strength!”  Her ruthlessness…) by intoning, “Gaby plans to present her findings to community leaders to help young women fight stereotypes and find the same quality she discovered along the way—courage.”

Harris Meyer realized what the true consequences of Rodriguez’s betrayal of her family and friends is likely to be: more of the same from other, similarly irresponsible pseudo-journalists, wannabe researchers, and celebrity-seeking students who are willing to harm others for a quick hit of fame. Gaby has a book out, “The Pregnancy Project”; she was portrayed by Alexa Vega (“Spy Kids”) in a cable TV movie. So the real journalist has been keeping the story alive, and attempting to extract a message from professional groups that what Rodriguez did was not right, not admirable, and should be condemned, not praised.

He is swimming against the tide. The Washington Chapter of the ACLU, for example, gave Gaby its Youth Activist Award, prompting Meyer to call for a reconsideration. He wrote in part,

“…Exposing social wrongs is hard and important work, but those doing it have to carefully consider means as well as ends, which is something I would think the ACLU in particular would understand. If Gaby Rodriguez’s deception had been truly necessary to obtain some socially valuable information that couldn’t have been obtained in a non-deceptive way, it might have been justifiable. But I’m aware of no evidence that she couldn’t have obtained this information through the ethical means of interviewing pregnant students, and I’m aware of no evidence that what she found out was particularly novel or useful.
 
“What the ACLU is doing here is putting its stamp of approval on students using deceit to advance their own careers, which seems part and parcel of the contemporary reality TV/morality- and ethics-be-damned culture. I’m very surprised and disappointed in your organization.”

In a long series of exchanges, the organization made it clear that it wouldn’t budge. Still Harris is trying to get the real lesson of Gaby’s story told, and has pitched the idea to other writers and publications. The important story isn’t about pregnancy or courage, but ethics:

“…the much more enlightening and edifying story would have been about the ethics of this project. Based on my conversations, many folks unfortunately have not thought about the ethics of experimentation, a key component of science in all fields. Many folks seem not to be aware of the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment of the 50s. Even this good NPR report on the Zimbardo experiment doesn’t properly raise the issue of poor and dangerous ethics. This is a very timely and important issue…”

Indeed it is, and Meyer is doing a great service by not letting it go. Exactly the wrong message was injected into the culture by this misbegotten “experiment,” and it will take  persistence and dedication to extract and correct it. The only hero to come out of the Gaby Rodriguez fiasco is Harris Meyer.

 

18 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Journalist Harris Meyer

  1. The moral imbeciles (sorry, I dislike name-calling, but there’s no other way to frame them) who have been applauding and rewarding Gaby Rodriguez for her stunt (it cannot be dignified with the term, experiment), not only guarantee that we will be seeing more of this sort of thing but, I am convinced, actually wish for such an outcome. This is of a piece with couples crashing White House functions, or parents creating an illusion that their kids are in danger, all for a shot at a reality show. There used to be an old joke about someone working on movies, whose job required that he go through demanding and demeaning stunts, for no real return. Asked why he didn’t quit, since he got so little out of it, he would reply, “What, and leave show business?” Back in the day, it was told as, and understood to be, a joke. Today, it still is. Only now, the joke is on us, and some few are getting to be heartily sick of being on the receiving end of the punch line. I begin to despair that those few will remain just that, a few.

  2. I love the book cover…

    The Pregnancy Project: A Memoir: I Pretended To Be Pregnant in High School and Learned the Meaning of Family, Friends, and Living Beyond Stereotypes.

    I mean, seriously. Can I please judge this book by it’s cover? Please?

  3. Unfortunately, I think her project went beyond self-indulgence. It only reinforces the very stereotypes and stigmatism she ‘claims’ she wants to fight against. Why did she need to do this? Aren’t there any teenage girls who get pregnant who could write down what happened to them, how they felt, and how they were treated? Of course there are, and numerous pregnant teens could have been interviewed, or written a book, or given a presentation with more than one point of view. These could have been analyzed for common themes and meaning. Of course, this HAS already been done.

    So why are such ‘investigative’ studies done? They are done when the actual sources can’t be trusted or won’t talk. An example of the latter would be people engaged in illegal activity. An example of the former would be an account of the treatment of blacks in the South in the 1950’s. At the time, a first hand account by someone who was black wouldn’t be considered as credible as someone who was white. This project is of the same vein. Everyone who thinks she is courageous or thinks the project has merit thinks of pregnant teens as irresponsible and low class. They feel a ‘responsible’ girl like Gaby needs to do the project because they will dismiss anything an ACTUAL pregnant teen says. Gaby’s project is only courageous if you think she allowed herself to be seen as ‘trashy’, ‘slutty’, or ‘low class’ by pretending to be pregnant. Think about that when you see her getting accolades. What they are really telling her is “How terrible it must have been to let people think you were one of THEM for a few months even though you knew all the time you were one of US”. If you disagree, then can you tell me why so many people think such a thing needed to be done at all when there are plenty of first hand accounts already and why it was ‘courageous’?

    • Yes, on top of everything else, it was lousy research. She could never feel like a real pregnant teen, because she knew she wasn’t She knew she could ditch the padding any time she wanted to. And the reactions to her weren’t genuine, because she wasn’t genuine.

      I think the principal should be fired.

  4. To me, Gaby’s pregnancy deception for research purposes sure does seem similar to Peter Gleick’s identity deception (Ethics Alarms, Feb. 23, 2012) for “truthiness” purposes.

    The main difference seems to be that Gaby had just a little more help along her way.

  5. ‘“Gaby plans to present her findings to community leaders to help young women fight stereotypes”

    How convincing is an example of one? ‘This happened to ME,therefore X number of women must be experiencing this too’. Poor research, poorly drawn conclusions, nothing but attention seeking.

    When I return to the US, I am often how little news is on the ‘news’. News programs are dominated by this kind of ‘you go girl’ fluff, the recaps of the reality shows, who got eliminated on Dancing With The Stars, and eventually they get around to the real news.

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