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Media Ethics and the Fourth Commandment. The Case of Robert Budd Dwyer, Pennsylvania State Treasurer. Dear God, who always watches over us like a parent, may our communities be places of charity and harmony .

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Media Ethics and the Fourth Commandment

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media ethics and the fourth commandment

Media Ethics and the Fourth Commandment

The Case of Robert Budd Dwyer, Pennsylvania State Treasurer

opening prayer

Dear God, who always watches over us like a parent, may our communities be places of charity and harmony.

May you inspire us to make our contributions to family, media, ethics and morality both loving and just, guided always by mutual respect. AMEN.

Opening Prayer
decree on the mass media from the second vatican council 1 2

“Mother Church knows that if [means of mass communication] are properly used, they can be of considerable benefit to humanity…

  • “But the Church also knows that they can be used in ways that are damaging and contrary to the Creator’s design…
  • “Indeed, she grieves with a mother’s sorrow at the harm all too often inflicted on society by their misuse.”
Decree on the Mass Media from the Second Vatican Council #1-2
the background of the case study

During the early 1980s, Pennsylvania state employees overpaid millions of dollars in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes.

  • To refund employees’ money, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania accepted bids from companies to calculate the amount of refund each was due.
  • The winning bid was worth $4.6 million.
The Background of the Case Study
the controversy

The firm that won the contract, Computer Technology Associates, was owned by a man named John Torquato, Jr.

  • Torquato used kickbacks and bribes given to Pennsylvania politicians in order to win the contract.
  • An anonymous memo informed the Governor of Pennsylvania of the bribes.
  • The governor passed the information to the U.S. Justice Department for investigation.
The Controversy
the role of r budd dwyer

R. (Robert) Budd Dwyer, Pennsylvania State Treasurer, was charged as part of a conspiracy to defraud the state and accepting an illegal bribe of $300,000.

  • Dwyer was offered a plea bargain of five years in prison in exchange for:
    • A guilty plea on one count of accepting a bribe,
    • Resignation from office, and
    • Cooperation in the investigation.
  • Dwyer refused the offer, and the case went to trial.
The Role of R. Budd Dwyer
the trial and verdict

In December 1986, Dwyer was found guilty on all charges, but continued to profess his innocence.

  • The maximum sentence Dwyer now faced was 55 years imprisonment and a $300,000 fine.
The Trial and Verdict
the press conference

On January 22, 1987, the day before his sentencing, Dwyer called a press conference to “provide an update on the situation.”

  • Many expected Dwyer to announce his resignation at the noontime press conference.
  • As the local television news producer, you have two choices. Would you:
  • Carry the press conference live at noon, or
  • Tape the press conference and use edited footage during a live report tomorrow at Dwyer’s sentencing?
The Press Conference
the press conference continued

Five major Pennsylvania television stations decided to cover the press conference live.

  • At 12:00 p.m., a nervous Dwyer stood with his attorney, again professed his innocence, declared that he would not resign as State Treasurer, and read this statement:
The Press Conference (continued)
dwyer s statement

“I thank the good Lord for giving me 49 years of invigorating challenges, stimulating experiences, many happy occasions, and, most of all, the finest wife and children any man could ever desire…

  • “Now my life has changed, for no apparent reason…
  • “People who call and write are exasperated and feel helpless. They know I'm innocent and want to help…
  • “But in this nation, the world's greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime they know I did not commit…
Dwyer’s Statement
dwyer s statement1

“Since I'm a victim of political persecution, my prison would simply be an American gulag…

  • “I ask those that believe in me to continue to extend friendship and prayer to my family, to work untiringly for the creation of a true justice system here in the United States, and to press on with the efforts to vindicate me, so that my family and their future families are not tainted by this injustice that has been perpetrated on me.”
Dwyer’s Statement
the problem of budd dwyer

After reading his statement, Dwyer takes what seems to be a lengthy natural pause.

  • As the news editor for the local television station, you are now faced with the following questions:
  • Is this press conference still news worthy?
  • Would you keep rolling with cameras, knowing the press conference is costing you money in advertising and commercials, or would you cut to the studio?
The Problem of Budd Dwyer
the press conference continues

By this point, Dwyer had stopped reading his prepared text.

  • Now, he called to three of his staffers, giving each an envelope.
  • Dwyer did not tell anyone what was in the envelopes, but he does mention that one is for his wife, another for the governor.
The Press Conference Continues…
the press conference continues1

After handing out the three envelopes, Dwyer opened a fourth, manila envelope and withdrew a .357 Magnum revolver.

  • He advised those in the crowd, “Please leave the room if this will offend you.”
  • Those in attendance cried out to Dwyer, pleading with him to put the gun down.
  • Some others tried to approach him to take away the gun.
  • “Don't, don't, don't; this will hurt someone,” he warned…
The Press Conference Continues…
the press conference ends

Dwyer then put the gun barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

  • He collapsed against a wall in a sitting position, blood pouring from his nose and an exit wound at the top of his head.
  • All of this was happening in front of five television news cameras, filming live, while people were screaming and using profanity in shock.
The Press Conference Ends…
the video of the press conference

The video listed below is a broadcast from the point when Dwyer begins handing out the envelopes…

  • REMEMBER: This is an actual eventof an actual person shooting an actual gun to actually end his life.
  • BE WARNED: The shooting takes place at the 0:54 mark in the video.
  • If you choose to watch the video, ask yourself:
    • At what point shouldyou stop watching?
    • At what point willyou stop watching?
The Video of the Press Conference
the problem with budd dwyer

You are working at a local television station in Philadelphia on January 22, 1987.

  • Due to a major snowstorm throughout Pennsylvania, many schools are closed and many school-aged children are home watching television.
  • Over the next several hours, a decision has to be made whether to air the graphic images as they are, or to edit the footage for evening news telecasts.
The Problem with Budd Dwyer
the problem with budd dwyer1

You must think of what decision you would make if you were:

    • The News Editor of the Television Station,
    • The Advertising Director of the Television Station,
    • The Attorney for the Television Station, or
    • The Owner of the Television Station.
  • Would your role at the station change your decision on airing the footage of the suicide? Why or why not?
The Problem with Budd Dwyer
the results of the case

All television stations in Pennsylvania aired some taped footage of Dwyer's suicide, but in three different ways:

    • Moststations aired the footage up to a point just prior to the shooting.
    • Others froze the action just prior to the trigger being pulled, but allowed the audio of the shooting to continue under the frozen image.
    • A handful of television stations aired the entire press conference unedited.
The Results of the Case
the results of the case1

WPVI in Philadelphia chose to re-broadcast the suicide footage in fullon their 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm Action News broadcasts…


  • WPXI in Pittsburgh broadcast the footage uncensored on the 5:00 p.m. newscast. In explaining the decision, WPXI news operations manager By Williams said, “It's an important event about an important man.”
  • Williams did not air the footage in the main evening newscasts at 6 and 11 p.m. “Everyone knows by then that he did it. There are children out of school.”
The Results of the Case
the aftermath of the dwyer case

The broadcast of the shooting became a topic for educators and led to questioning the wisdom of airing live news broadcasts in settings with schoolchildren in the audience.

  • This issue had also been faced the year before, during the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986.
  • The shuttle’s launch was shown live in many classrooms since Christa McAuliffe was to be the first teacher in outer space.
The Aftermath of the Dwyer Case
the unread statement of r budd dwyer

Budd Dwyer never finished reading his statement, committing suicide before explaining why he was committing suicide.

  • Dwyer’s unfinished statement gave the full reason for taking his own life:
  • “I've repeatedly said that I'm not going to resign as State Treasurer…
  • “After many hours of thought and meditation I've made a decision that should not be an example to anyone because it is unique to my situation…
  • “Last May I told you that after the trial, I would give you the story of the decade…
The Unread Statement of R. Budd Dwyer
the unread statement of r budd dwyer1

“To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story…

  • “But to those of you with depth and concern the real story will be what I hope and pray results from this morning - in the coming months and years, the development of a true justice system here in the United States…
  • “I am going to die in office in an effort to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride…
The Unread Statement of R. Budd Dwyer
the unread statement of r budd dwyer2

“Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S…

  • “Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don't want to cause physical or mental distress…
  • “Joanne (his wife), Rob (son), DeeDee (daughter) - I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy…
  • “Good bye to you all on the count of three…
  • “Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.”
The Unread Statement of R. Budd Dwyer
the reason behind the suicide

Perhaps the main reason Dwyer committed suicide was one not mentioned in his statement.

  • Since Dwyer died in office the day before sentencing, his widow was able to collect full survivor benefits totaling over $1.28 million.
  • A spokesman for Dwyer suggested he may have killed himself to retain the pension for his family, whose finances had been ruined by legal bills.
  • Does this make Budd Dwyer’s suicide more acceptable, or even noble?
The Reason Behind the Suicide?