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.