Where Does the Media Buck Stop?

You're a reporter. You see a drowning man.

Do you whip out your pad and take notes for a story? Of course not. You save him, and then take notes.

The issue is not always that clear cut, however.

When should a reporter shed passive observance and become involved? ABC's "20/20" and officials from Palisades High School sharply disagree.

"They . . . stood around with their hands on their tripods while 200 of our children engaged in self- and life-destructive behavior," charges Palisades High School psychologist Linda Swimmer-Levine.

"Our job is not be chaperones," replies veteran "20/20" field producer Joseph Lovett.

The dispute centers on an outdoor party.

The date was Jan. 20, a Friday evening. The location was an area that kids call "Top of the World," a plateau atop steep, winding, perilous Las Flores Canyon Road in Malibu. The event was a birthday party for a Palisades High School student where heavy drinking and some drug use reportedly occurred.

Lovett and a two-man camera crew were also there. They were on a story that "20/20" was preparing on problems in the Palisades. Correspondent Stone Phillips would arrive a few days later.

The story, Lovett was to say later from New York, is intended to raise the question: "If we can have such an epidemic . . . of alcoholism and drug use among our very, very young people in such a well-to-do and aware community, then what can we expect in the rest of the country?"

"20/20"--like "60 Minutes" and other media before it--had come to the right community.

In the last 20 months, 10 Palisades-area residents, including seven high school students, have died violently. Most of the deaths were related to alcohol or drugs, most recently when four 17-year-olds were killed in an auto crash last October. Three, including the driver, had been drinking, according to toxicology reports.

Palisades High School Principal Jerry Dodd and Swimmer-Levine, who was interviewed by "20/20" for the yet-unscheduled story, are both angry that Lovett and his crew observed the party for their own purposes, but did nothing to stop it.

"I'm upset that they were passive observers to a crime being committed, and that they exploited the situation," Dodd said.

"They're using the title of journalist to hide behind and not take responsibility," Swimmer-Levine said. "The very act that got them in here (for a story), they watched being repeated."

Here is Swimmer-Levine's account:

On Jan. 20, she was visited by a student saying she had been interviewed by Lovett, who asked her to let him know about any parties that would be occurring while the "20/20" crew was in town. The student showed the psychologist a flyer promoting a party that night. The flyer advertised a keg of beer and nitrous oxide (for inhaling), and it promised: "The higher you drive, the higher you get."

Swimmer-Levine refused to give Lovett's hotel number to the student. Instead, she brought the flyer to Dodd, and he notified the police. A student thought to be planning the party was told that the police had been informed, and he promised to spread the word that it was off.

"Our intent was to stop the party," Swimmer-Levine said. "I would have moved heaven and earth to do that."

The party wasn't stopped. What's more, Lovett and his crew found out about it, and taped it, interviewing kids in silhouette.

The police didn't show up.

As it turned out, there was no nitrous oxide or keg of beer there, and not much drugs, according to a 17-year-old student who was present. But the student, who asked not to be identified, said people brought their own booze and about half the crowd was "pretty drunk." She said she heard that "someone almost went off the cliff on a motorcycle."

Swimmer-Levine said she heard that, too--from the "20/20" crew members a few days later. "They told me they weren't sure he was going to make it," she said.

The psychologist quoted one of the crew as saying: "What a ride that was. We were frightened driving up there, because that was one treacherous road. We hope those kids were good drivers, because it's hairy coming down from there, especially if you're drunk."

Swimmer-Levine protested to Lovett and the next day fired off an angry letter to "20/20" executive producer Victor Neufeld (with a copy to ABC News President Roone Arledge). About Lovett and his crew, she wrote:

"Aren't their hands dirty for being 'responsible' adults watching minors involved in illegal activities? Aren't their souls slightly moved when they think of the havoc these kids could have delivered to the highway just below them. . . . Don't you feel they had a moral responsibility to phone the police when their shoot was over, at least?"

More than a month later, she still has received no reply.

"She just didn't like what was going on at that party," Neufeld claimed by phone from New York. "That is not our responsibility."

He quoted ABC News guidelines: "Our responsibility is to report and record news events, not to participate in them or seek to influence their outcome."

None of them?

"If we were driving by a burning car, of course we would pull somebody out of it," Lovett said. "I think of myself as a compassionate person who does compassionate stories. But what we were witnessing (at the party) was habitual behavior. They (the youths) were not perceived by me to be in any immediate danger. They were doing what they were normally doing on a Friday night."

Lovett said he was unaware a cyclist almost went off a cliff and heard no one mention that to Swimmer-Levine. He said he and his crew remained at the party about an hour. "Kids were drinking beers. I smelled marijuana. I watched cocaine being passed. But I'm not a Breathalyzer test. I can't tell you how many were loaded."

Or were as turned on by the camera as by drugs and booze.

Although Lovett insists that the presence of "20/20" served to "calm" the party, that is disputed by the student who was quoted earlier.

"As soon as they brought in the camera, everyone started to act differently," she said. "Everyone was more forceful and started showing their bad side. There were some suicidals up there, and they started breaking bottles and acting very strange."

And where were the police?

As it turns out, Dodd had called the Los Angeles police, whose jurisdiction excludes Malibu. The detective who received Dodd's call didn't pass on the information to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as he should have and will be disciplined, said Capt. Vance Proctor, acting area captain for the West Los Angeles division of LAPD.

So no cops--either in front of the camera or operating the camera.

"The parents know about this kind of behavior, the school authorities know about this kind of behavior, and the police know about this kind of behavior," Lovett said. "They should have come to stop it, and if they had, we would have filmed that too."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World