A journalist from a well-known sports publication called me, and wanted to get my thoughts for an article he was writing, as well as quote me in his story. I like to help journalists, and it never hurts professionally to get quoted, so I readily agreed. We set a time to talk that was convenient for both of us, later in the week. I gave him my email address, and he said he would send me his contact information before he called at the agreed upon day.
My schedule changed, and the call was going to be difficult. I needed to contact him to reschedule, since I knew he was on a deadline. But I had no contact information, because he never sent the email as he had promised. I called the publication and waited through the endless phone trees and recordings. They knew who he was, but didn’t have a phone number, and wouldn’t take a message. Finally, I tracked down his home number, and left a message.
Days passed, and he did not contact me or confirm that he had received my message (I included several alternate times for our call.) Meanwhile, I boned up on the topic, which was interesting ethically but also more extensive than my current familiarity with it. Since I hadn’t heard from him, I had to assume that he had not received my message and the appointment was still on. Though I was traveling, I arranged to be at my cell phone at the designated time, with his call to be relayed to me from my office. I waited for his call for the better part of an hour. Outside, in Times Square, in 45 degree weather.
He never called. I haven’t heard from him at all.
And I am ticked off.
It’s hard to think ethically when you are ticked off. My immediate impulse was to write a blog post about his conduct, which was both inconsiderate and unprofessional, using both his name and his employers—“E-shaming,” it is called. As I was preparing my outline, an ethics alarm went off in my head. I can’t do it. For one thing, I don’t know what happened; there might be a good reason, though I doubt it. Maybe the little girl whose voice was on the answering machine fell critically ill, and our insignificant appointment was the last thing on his mind. Maybe he lost my contact information. Have I ever missed a phone appointment?
Moreover, there is no reason to escalate my irritation with the writer into a general denigration of his professionalism by making it a public dispute. I don’t know him. This might be completely atypical conduct. If a spat is just between us, it can always be settled with a simple “I’m sorry.” He caused me to waste some time and freeze my face off. Is publicly exposing his conduct a fair or justified response? It isn’t. It is too much.
And it would be motivated by vengeance and anger. So would my next thought: I had researched his topic, and am ready to talk about the issue at length. I decided that I would scoop him—write the article before he did and publish it on Ethics Alarms. But no: another ethics alarm was ringing. The topic was his idea, which he shared with me trusting me not to misuse it. Taking his idea for an article (a very good idea, by the way) as payback for a missed appointment is the height of the “Tit for Tat” rationalization: “yeah, it’s a crummy thing to do, but he did something bad to me.” His bad manners don’t suddenly make my stealing his idea any less unfair, dishonest or mean-spirited.
I’ll wait to write on his topic until after his article is published.
After the ethics alarms went off and stopped me from acting unethically, I realized that there were also practical, non-ethical arguments for not lashing out. It would benefit my reputation and career to keep doing media interviews, after all, and attacking a journalist on-line, even a misbehaving one, is not a good strategy for getting quoted.
That’s often the way it is. The ethics alarms stop you from doing the wrong thing, and give you time to do the smart thing.
So now, instead of using this blog to stick it to someone I feel treated me badly, I’m using it to discuss how ethics alarms stopped me from behaving badly myself. I learned something, and ironically, I have the journalist to thank for that.
Now I can’t even be mad at him any more.
The Rest of the Story: The journalist called me today. He apologized profusely, explaining that he had been unexpectedly sent out of town on another assignment. He asked if I was still willing to take some time to discuss the issue we had been scheduled to talk about four days ago. I said I was, and we set an appointment.
And I’m very glad my ethics alarm went off when it did.
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Special thanks to old friend Loren Platzman, who alerted me to a ridiculous typo in the final sentence, since corrected. Nothing like tripping and falling on your face as you make an exit.