During the unrest leading up to Tiananmen Square massacre, Western journalists squashed the story of the new digital camera, so the Chinese government would not know to prevent the escape of images.
Consider that this was totally out of character for most public relations people. I would say it was unprecedented. I had heard stories that NASA PR people appealed to the senior science reporters during the Apollo 13 crisis not to report just how dire the astronauts' situation was. But never had I heard of a commercial company willing to forgo easy publicity for a greater good.
Now, my editor at EE Times New York was an English major, not an engineer. I wasn't sure he would understand my inclination not to publish. More so than in the doctor profession, my own father -- and many electrical engineering teachers -- instructed me that our challenge was to "first do no harm."
A year earlier, while attending an MIT "whistleblower seminar" on engineering reusability to society, I enjoyed some time with Ralph Nader. Though Nader was portrayed as a lawyer and social activist, I was pleasantly surprised that, when our conversation turned to engineers' ethics, he reached for his (slim) briefcase and pulled out a paper from two decades earlier. It was a thesis -- written by Nader -- on an engineer's basic duty to do the right thing for society, even beyond bosses' orders. It cited references back to the Egyptian pyramid designers. As I skimmed the paper, he cited instance after instance of many (untold) tales where engineers had done "the better thing." Nader had an amazing gift for detail and debate. I was impressed.
Flash back to the two dozen of us in Clancy's meeting room. The ICCE technical papers were printed. There was no such thing as "online" in 1989. Papers form Kodak on the R-G-B imaging of CCD sensors were a matter of record. Digital camera storage (often via magnetic diskette at that time) was plentiful from Casio, Sony, Canon, and others. Modem technologies and error correcting codes were favorable to digital imaging. Sony's own professional Mavica digital camera line was a burgeoning business. There were a lot of reasons to report this news.
Yet in that hotel suite, Sony and Canon were willing to forgo free publicity for the greater good. It was the opposite of traditional PR mandates. Nearly half the room wanted to file stories that day, particularly a Chicago Tribune reporter who had told his editor that he had big news about something called "digital cameras."
Richard Doherty, technology journalist and research director of Envisioneering Group, in 2012.
(Source: Richard Doherty)
So I related the Nader story from MIT. And the room quieted. I feel to this day that I -- and a legacy of technical people doing the right thing -- had overcome the normal mission of filing a story.
A handful of daily news reporters balked. I and a few others presented the argument that lives might be lost -- not just bylines. Soon we all agreed that no news stories revealing the digital camera technologies of Sony, Canon, Casio, Kodak, and others were to be reported for now. No one was to write up how these "film" images were escaping Chinese censors and militia. Not one of us would be scooped. The greater benefit outweighed a transitory byline credit from our editors.
So, I did not mention the full dilemma to my boss. I had already filed more ICCE stories than he could cram into our weekly EE Times print edition: stories on new digital chips from Philips to enhance analog TV display, powerful new audio technologies, emerging LCD displays, etc.
With my silence of omission, I was trusting my technical writing colleagues at the ICCE -- competitive, smart technical writers from McGraw Hill's Electronics, Fairchild's Electronics News, and others -- to uphold the embargo on reporting, lest I and EE Times be in trouble. Fortunately, my confidence was rewarded.
The rest is now history. Digital camera technology was revealed later that summer of 1989. For many years to come, all of us who were in that hotel suite with Clancy enjoyed a sort of secret pride of a job well done. By not doing our "jobs" that day, the world had changed. For the better.
— Richard Doherty is the research director at The Envisioneering Group.
Parts of this article originally appeared on Envisioneering.net.