Ethics Dunce: New York Times Sportswriter Ken Belson

I fear that I am becoming a broken record on this (Note to those under the age of 40: the phrase “becoming a broken record” refers to the archaic devices called “records” which once were used to convey music via another archaic device know as a “phonograph.” If a record was broken, as in cracked, the phonograph’s needle, which…oh, never mind. We really need a new phrase for “saying the same thing over and over again.”), but the popular position that only the pure and blameless have the right to condemn misconduct by others threatens our culture’s ability to discuss and distinguish right and wrong. It has to be refuted, discredited, and buried. For subliminal support for this  unethical stance to be injected into a supposedly straight news item—in the sports pages, of all places—is alarming, for it shows how our cultural attitudes can be warped without our even being aware of it.

This, in its entirety, is a brief “Sports Briefing”  note by New York Times sportswriter Ken Belson, headlined “Baseball.” (The bolding is mine.) :

“If Mark McGwire thought all would be forgiven after he admitted taking steroids, he appears to have miscalculated. In recent days, Carlton Fisk, Jack Clark and Yogi Berra have taken shots at McGwire, who retired in 2001 and this month became a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, his old team.

Now, Adolphus A. Busch IV, a scion of the family that once owned the Cardinals, is having his say. In a statement released Thursday, Busch said: “Mark McGwire made a ‘personal’ decision to use illegal drugs. He deliberately cheated the game and stole its most coveted records along the way. He stonewalled Congress.”

Busch was chief executive of Anheuser-Busch before it was sold to InBev in 2008. When he was in college, he fled the scene after being involved in a car crash that killed a passenger.”

What does the last sentence have to do with the rest of the story? Why is the college misdeed of a 44-year-old beer executive relevant to his comments condemning the steroid use of a former star of the team his family once owned? The answers are ” nothing”  and “it’s not relevant at all.” But the author of the note, Ken Belson, feels that it is appropriate to drag in Busch’s conduct to suggest that he’s no angel, and thus have the audacity to “judge” McGwire.

First, that’s not journalism, it’s punditry, and this is supposed to be a straight news note. Second, it is cowardly. Belson didn’t have the courage to state his (misguided) opinion directly, so he added an irrelevant and prejudicial factoid to his story. Third, his sneaky implication makes no sense ethically or logically. I’m sure Busch would condemn his own conduct in the accident, but his opinions on car crash conduct neither limit nor inform his views on steroids and baseball.

Belson’s point appears to be that any transgression or wrongful act in one’s life disqualifies that individual from making judgements about what is unethical behavior in others. This would, presumably, apply to parents, social commentators, journalists, politicians and everyone else. How convenient for the scoundrels, cheats and sociopaths! And how tragic for our eventual quality of life, living in a world where anything goes, because no one is guiltless enough to take a stand against wrongdoing.

Belson’s clumsy and journalistically irresponsible stunt shows him to be ethically ignorant, which means that he would unqualified to make such a point even in an appropriate forum. Indeed, this offensive little blurb undercuts Belson’s moral authority far, far more than Mr. Busch’s college crime undermines his.

Stick to sports, Ken. Trust me: you’re an Ethics Dunce. And you owe August Busch an apology.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: New York Times Sportswriter Ken Belson

  1. I used to have an old CD that skipped… or maybe you could say “broken MP3” like they say on Futurama.

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