The Best in Ethics of 2009. May the 2010 list be longer!
Most Important Ethical Act of the Year: President Barack Obama’s executive order banning torture. The Declaration of Independence already did it once, but the President was right: we needed some reminding.
Ethical Leadership: Howard County, MD, which launched a “Choose Civility” campaign based on the book Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct, by Johns Hopkins University Professor Dr. P.M. Forni. The effort attracted national attention, and has sparked similar movements around the country.
Most Principled Politician: Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Flake, who was stripped of plum committee assignments by vengeful Republicans during the Bush years, is no more popular with Democrats, as he continues to campaign against the earmarks (a.k.a. “pork”) that inflate the national budget with local spending for projects of dubious value, especially in an era of runaway deficits.
Duty Over Politics Award: Defense Secretary Robert Gates. With partisan rancor at an all-time high, Gates began the year by agreeing to stay on at the Pentagon with the Obama Administration. The rancor has only gotten worse, but he is still there, putting the welfare of the nation over partisanship.
Most Ethical Former President: George W. Bush. For keeping quiet. “He deserves my silence,” Bush said when asked for criticism of his successor. Dick Cheney apparently missed the memo.
Outstanding Sportsmanship: Dave Rohlman and Darius MacNeil, the coach and star player on the DeKalb (Ill.) High School basketball team. You can read their story here.
The Kipling Award (given to the individual who most exemplifies the values of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.”): Judith Curry, Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech. Curry, a respected scientist and firmly in the majority camp regarding man-made climate change, stood out from her colleagues in the so-called Climategate fiasco by writing forcefully and fairly about the important ethical and scientific implications of the hacked e-mails, which showed attempts to manipulate the peer-review system in order to bury opposing views, and more uncertainty about the extent and measurement of climate change than the media, public and policy-makers had been led to belive.
Graciousness Award: American Idol victor Kris Allen, who when his name was announced, said “Adam deserves this,” referring to Adam Lambert, the flashy and talented “Idol” stand-out who had just lost the national vote to Allen.
Symbolic Gesture of the Year: Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The man who became famous for landing his goose-damaged plane full of passengers safely in the Hudson River lost a library book in the accident, and contacted the library to apologize replace it. Its title was “Professional Ethics.”
Clarence Darrow Award (presented to the outstanding protector of the weak and powerless): Paul Petersen. Petersen, a tireless national crusader for the right sand welfare of child performers, teamed with victims’ advocate lawyer Gloria Allred in petitioning California to appoint an independent guardian to insure the safety and financial protection of “Octomom’s” eight infants, committed to performing in a TV reality show before their first birthday.
Ethics Enforcer: Tim McGraw. Country music star McGraw was performing at a concert in July when he saw a man in the audience mistreating his female companion. Shouting out, “You don’t treat a woman like that!” McGraw refused to continue the performance until the man had been escorted from the auditorium. If only he worked with Charlie Sheen…
Journalist of the Year: Peter Shellem, the late Harrisburg, PA newspaper reporter who rescued five innocent men from wrongful conviction and imprisonment over the course of his career, through sheer dedication and commitment to finding the truth.
Ethics Watchdog of the Year: CREW. Time was when I was convinced that CREW (“Citizens for Responsible and Ethical Government in Washington”) was another partisan hit group masquerading as a good government advocate. But in 2009 it proved itself to be aggressive and fair in exposing unethical conduct on the part of members of both political parties, and when it CREW makes noise, people should listen.
Most Ethical Website: Factcheck.org. The Annenberg Foundation site ferrets out and exposes public lies of all sorts in the political wars, with no regard to party affiliation. Beware of imitators, many of whom use “factchecks” to disguise partisan arguments.
Most Ethics-minded Entertainer: George Clooney. Picking up the banner once carried by the late Paul Newman and the aging Robert Redford, and recently abandoned by Michael Douglas, Clooney demonstrated a commitment to exploring sensitive ethical dilemmas in his films, this year adding “Up in the Air” and “Mr. Fox” to past projects like “Michael Clayton,” “Syriana,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” and even “Leatherheads.” Keep up the good work, George.
Perfect Apology Award: Oprah Winfrey. There were many public apologies in 2009, most of which could be translated as “I’m sorry I got caught,” or “I’m sorry I’m getting criticized for something I’m not really sorry about.” President Obama continued to issue tactical apologies that amounted to indictments of his predecessors. But Oprah Winfrey, without any prodding, suddenly apologized to novelist James Frey, whom she memorably ambushed and angrily lectured on her show in 2006 after it was revealed that his best-selling “memoir,” A Thousand Little Pieces, was fabricated. The revelation embarrassed Oprah twice: she had made his book a selection of her book club, and initially brushed off reports of his deception by saying that the lies “didn’t matter” as long as they inspired the readers who believed them. When that comment attracted widespread criticism, Winfrey reversed field and invited an unsuspecting Frey onto her show for what amounted to an ethics firing squad, complete with a panel of critics. But in 2009, Vanity Fair wrote and Oprah’s PR staff confirmed that she had called Frey personally to apologize for publicly humiliating him. Many, perhaps mos,t would argue that her attack was justified because he had humiliated her. Oprah, however, proved that she knows two wrongs don’t make a right, and that the best apologies are the ones nobody says you have to make.