Who acted responsibly?

By STEPHEN M. MINDICH  |  February 2, 2007

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A Mooninite in a Central Square window
As announced in a five-column page-one Boston Globe headline this morning, Phil Kent, Chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting Systems, has accepted full blame for the havoc-creating guerrilla-marketing campaign that disrupted Greater Boston on January 31. Kent also agreed to make restitution to Boston and state law-enforcement agencies whose efforts to deal with the perceived terrorism threat reportedly cost more than a million dollars. And in a full-page ad in the Globe, the Turner Broadcasting/Cartoon Network/Time Warner executive publicly apologized “for the confusion and inconvenience caused in your community on Wednesday by an unconventional marketing tactic.” He went on to say, “We never intended this outcome and certainly did not set out to perpetrate a hoax.”

There still appear to be a lot of people who find Kent’s apology and the offer of restitution inadequate and who want Turner to pay punitive damages as well. But it strikes me that far from demonstrating corporate greed, or warranting further punishment, Turner Broadcasting’s official response is fair, reasonable, and responsible.

On the other hand, there now seems to be strong evidence that, if true, exhibits corporate behavior that reeks of greed and avarice — and perhaps even criminal behavior — on the part of the ironically named marketing company Interference Inc., which executed (and  perhaps created) the campaign. According to the Globe report, an executive from Interference sent an email at 1:25 pm, well after Boston’s meltdown was national news, to one of the two men who installed the now-infamous “bright light” devices around town, asking him to “pretty please keep everything on the DL.” In other words, don’t tell anyone anything.

If that still unconfirmed email is real, 1:25 pm was moment when the marketing ploy crossed the line from being a backfiring promotion to an intentional hoax. If that is indeed the case, whoever decided to send that e-mail deserves to be criminally prosecuted.

Certainly, the two poor jamokes — who, performance artists or not, inexplicably and unfortunately made fools of themselves at their arraignment and subsequent theatre-of-the-absurd press conference — should never have been arrested and charged with intentionally perpetrating a hoax. One would hope that Martha Coakley will now just drop those charges, but if there is criminal responsibility on the part of Interference Inc. pursue it vigorously.

All of the above, however, doesn’t address the question of why the level of alarm and massive anti-terrorist activity continued for so many hours after it was established — fairly early in the day — that these light screens were in no way dangerous. Granted, law-enforcement’s initial response was appropriate.  There’s no point taking chances. But even the authorities’ explanation that they acted as they did in the context of additional Homeland Security warnings about suspicious activities in other cities — and the possibility of two pipe bombs being found locally — doesn’t justify either their continuing massive effort or the fact that they didn’t inform the public that the cartoon-character devices were benign. Context is important, but in this instance, it just doesn’t justify a city-wide response that continued into the late evening — and unquestionably added to citizens’ angst and upped the effort’s costs.

The arguments defending it all suggest that because the threat of terrorism in our country remains real — of which there is no doubt — that any actions in the name of fighting the war on terrorism is acceptable and that any suspicious act — even one as un-extraordinary as a guerrilla marketing campaign — must be dealt with in an extraordinary way. Many of our protections of free speech and civil rights slide down that slippery slope, and we all need to put that into context.

Related: Boston agrees to pay $3.2 million to Stephan Cowans, Umess, Big Red, More more >
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