By now, you may have heard about the teachers and school secretary who gathered last month at a bar in Bangor, Mich.
You may have heard about the verbal game they played, known as “MFK,” where names are thrown out and participants say whether they’d rather marry, kill or have sex with that person.
You may have heard how a six-minute video of their conversation went viral. How it was initially reported that the game involved students’ names — even though that was later denied. How incensed parents expressed their ire at a school board meeting.
And how two teachers and the school secretary resigned after the incident.
What you never heard — and I waited all week, spoke to the school attorney and still can’t tell you — is who filmed that conversation.
That, nobody wants to say. But somebody was sitting a few tables over at the Bangor Tavern that night, and secretly let a camera roll.
So that patron is a part of the story. A big part.
Dangerous digital age
Now, let’s state a few givens here. I DO NOT condone playing the “MFK” game loudly in a public bar. I DO NOT condone teachers mentioning students in ANY form of disparaging conversation. So I DO NOT have a lot of sympathy for these individuals, if this is the respect they show their colleagues and kids. They did reportedly make disparaging remarks about students (although not part of the MFK game) and that’s hugely inappropriate.
But … since when it is OK to just start filming people in a restaurant? And putting their conversations on YouTube? Didn’t we leap over a rather large principle there?
Yes, I know we surrender privacy in the digital age. But is it really OK now to record anyone talking in a bar — or the barbershop, bank or cafeteria —and release it? Is it really OK for news outlets to do breathless stories about bad behavior simply because a video has been posted — without demanding to know who posted it?
“I believe this was initially recorded by a patron (at the restaurant) and then this patron gave it to another person who brought it to us to view, but would not let us have it,” said Robert Huber, the attorney for the school district. “Then, somehow, it ended up on YouTube. And all hell broke loose.”
Huber had to put out fires with media outlets who kept getting the facts wrong (again, he insisted, no students were mentioned in the MFK game). To date, Huber said, he still doesn’t know who the original filmer is (even though a few names have been associated with the re-posting).
And, I’m sorry, but that’s cowardice. No, it doesn’t make what the teachers did less awful. But if you’re going to destroy others’ reputations, even justifiably, have the guts to put your own on the line.
People often think they’re being noble by posting secret videos, as if every clip on YouTube or Facebook exposes wrongdoing to the healing light of justice.
Baloney. There is as much harm resulting from a quick video posting as there is good. And don’t call it journalism. Journalism is not defined by hitting “record” and pretending you’re eating dinner.
Anonymous filming is wrong
When videos like this surface, I’d like to see the filmers turn the camera on themselves, say who they are, why they are filming and what their association is with the subjects.
That way, you could consider the source, the same way you do when reading a newspaper or watching TV news.
But it doesn’t happen. So we never know if the filmer has an ax to grind, or if a video has been edited, or if it was started after a critical event or stopped before one.
Ask yourself this: Would you want every restaurant or bar conversation you ever had played for the public? How many of us would keep our jobs after that? Yes, the school employees acted horribly. But why didn’t the patron walk up and say, “I am overhearing what you’re saying, and I find it wrong and offensive. If you are teachers, you should show more respect.”
Few people have that kind of courage. “Courage” today is pressing a button and handing the video to someone else.
Young people seem to think that’s how the world should work. I do not. YouTube, selfies and reality TV have so blurred the lines that we don’t even know where a camera should or shouldn’t be anymore. The day is coming for a monumental clash of First Amendment rights, privacy and our ever-filming society.
Meanwhile, justice is as capricious as a cell phone being on or off. Do you really think these are the first school employees — or first nurses, judges, police officers or even clergy — to say inappropriate things at the dinner table? Of course not. But if you’re trying to create a more civil society, perhaps you shouldn’t do it with an invisible camera as your weapon.
To paraphrase a pretty forgiving source, let he who is without sin press the first “record” button.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.