They used to call it "the liquid lunch." Businessmen left around noon, came back around 2, and in between - under the cloak of "working" - knocked back the booze.
For many years, this was not only tolerated, it was part of business life. Of course, the men drinking were executives wearing suits, and that made it seem OK.
This past week, Detroit's WJBK-TV aired a special report about Chrysler plant workers (in T-shirts, not suits) drinking beer and apparently smoking dope during their 30-minute unpaid lunch breaks. Following a tip from plant employees, the reporter and a cameraperson tailed the workers for 10 days, capturing a familiar pattern: The workers drove to a liquor store, raced to a nearby park, drank and puffed, and made it back on time to finish their shifts.
Finally, the reporter confronted them with a camera rolling, saying, "Hate to be a buzz kill, but shouldn't you guys be building cars?"
The workers scattered. A few days later, Chrysler suspended them without pay.
The TV reporter, Rob Wolchek, has exposed many scams in his career and done much good as a result. And you get no argument here that booze and dope are unacceptable during work shifts. When you're working with big equipment or dangerous tools, it's even more true.
But many Detroiters reacted to this story with, "Hey, that happens all the time." They were referring to auto plant workers. They could have been referring to more.
For example, how many executives do company time with alcohol in their system? A Bloody Mary during a sales lunch? A few cocktails with a business dinner? And let's be honest, plenty of newspaper and TV journalists have stopped at the bar while working on a story.
"OK," you say, "but booze is not illegal. Marijuana is. And Chrysler got money from taxpayers."
True. But has there never been a disc jockey at a national public radio station who smoked a joint before his shift? Hasn't Willie Nelson, a notorious puffer, performed at a few state fairs - venues paid for with tax dollars? Do you think he would have passed a drug test? The seats on his tour bus wouldn't pass a drug test.
Civil service workers? State university employees? Road construction crews? Anyone at a business that has taken a tax subsidy?
I suppose if you followed these people long enough, and confronted them ingesting a substance during work hours, they also would (a) duck like the Chrysler workers and (b) seem guilty of being toasted on taxpayer time.
But what does it all mean?
Well, it means trouble for those Chrysler workers. It means a black eye for their plant -a plant President Obama visited not long ago.
It means the UAW should take heat for not being harsher on such behavior.
But what it really means is no one is safe from a camera. You can be filmed from almost anywhere now, from large cameras 100 yards away to tiny cameras small enough to fit in a pocket. In the old days, a print reporter would have to observe, then confront people, ask for a reaction and write a story. Today, you've got the "goods" once you roll the camera.
Remember, the "tipsters" called the TV station.
Did they put equal energy into asking supervisors to do something first? If not, why? If so, and nothing happened, then is Chrysler taking action only because the story made national news? And what happens if another worker does the same -but isn't caught on camera?
Yes, this issue is worrisome. Yes, it should be addressed.
But imagine a camera following every frosty mug held by a reporter, every toke by a graduate assistant, every liquid lunch of a business exec.
If those Chrysler workers had been lunch-partying inside a building with no camera access, there'd still be a problem, but there would be no story. The lens changes everything.
Our challenge is not only to focus it, but to keep it in perspective.
Contact Albom, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, at firstname.lastname@example.org.