There’s nothing so pointless as complaining about a phenomenon that is logical, natural, useful and just, on the grounds that it’s so darn mean. Nevertheless, that is the gist of a Daily Beast column by Michelle Goldberg, another in the increasingly ethics-challenged stable of journalists being assembled at Tina Brown’s slick website.
Ruing the fate that befell journalist Nir Rosen after he not only ridiculed the horrendous attack on ABC reporter Lara Logan by an Egyptian mob, but implied that as a ‘war-monger” she deserved it, Goldberg wrote…
“…it indicated that Rosen has deep, unexamined problems with women, particularly women who are his more-celebrated competitors. But it was also appalling to realize that this brief, ugly outburst was going to eclipse an often-heroic career. The media’s modern panopticon has an awful way of reducing us all to the worst thing we’ve ever done…Again and again, we see people who make one mistake either forced out of their jobs or held up for brutal public excoriation. But the more we live in public, the more we need to develop some sort of mercy for those who briefly let the dark parts of themselves slip out, particularly when they’re truly sorry afterward.”
Ah, yes, the old “one mistake” plea! It is clear that Goldberg adopts this ancient and smelly excuse for outrageous conduct because she likes Rosen’s work ( “He’s one of the most intrepid reporters out there, spending months at a time in war zones, embedding with insurgents as well as American troops…”). But the application she argues for doesn’t work and shouldn’t, because not only is it impossible to trust a professional who has “let the dark parts of themselves slip out,” it is dangerous and illogical as well.
Give Goldberg credit for at least admitting that such incidents do indicate the existence of Nir’s dark parts, thus forswearing the Pazuzu defense currently in vogue (“That wasn’t me saying/doing/writing that!”). Give her credit too for using the word “panopticon.” ) Her argument, though, manages to ignore the fundamental ethical principle most relevant in such cases: trust. She writes…
“There should be penalties for revealing [the dark parts] when there’s genuine contrition, there should also be forgiveness.”
Fine…but contrition and forgiveness do not restore trust, nor should they. Rosen’s judgment, fairness, and as Goldberg admits, attitudes toward women are legitimately suspect, no matter how contrite he is. Normal people did not react to Logan’s ordeal the way he did; he revealed “dark parts” that most people do not have. Why does Goldberg think it is just that Rosen should be trusted as if nothing happened? His comments raise the following long-term issues and doubts:
- He has “issues” with women, especially competitors. Should women trust his judgment now?
- If he can laugh about a young woman’s brutal treatment by a mob, what other “dark parts” are waiting to get out?
- If his hateful attitudes, not only toward women but to “warmongers”, i.e. those with whom he differs ideologically, still exist, can he be trusted to objective in his reporting?
- It he behaved like this once, how can anyone be sure that he won’t do it again?
- Given a choice between another journalist who has never been unable to control his or her “dark parts” and Rosen, why should anyone choose to trust him?
Trust. Conduct like Rosen’s destroys or seriously injures it, and apologies do absolutely nothing to repair the damage. Lost trust has to be earned to be found, and placing the professional back in the same position of prestige and influence he was in before trust has been earned not only is unreasonable, it is reckless.
I suspect that Goldberg’s illogical and ethically inept argument arises from genuine admiration of Rosen’s work rather than serious thought; if not, she really doesn’t comprehend either the critical role of trust or the limits of forgiveness. I forgave Richard Nixon for Watergate, but would I have voted for him to hold elected office again? Of course not. I can…with difficulty…forgive Michael Vick, but I wouldn’t trust him to take care of my dog. Should I? Would you? Would Goldberg?
We can forgive Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, Mark Sanford, and Charlie Rangel for their betrayal of their high offices, but really—how can Goldberg argue that we should welcome them back to power as if their “one mistake” (or in Rangel’s case, multitude of mistakes) never happened? Would Goldberg allow her attractive daughter to be Bill Clinton’s intern? After Helen Thomas revealed her “dark part” as a shameless, ugly anti-Semite, would Goldberg still proudly accept the “Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award”?
Lacking any real support for her contention that “somehow” disgraced professionals shouldn’t have to take a big step backwards in their careers, Goldberg—outrageously and unfairly— dredges up the irrelevant and completely different case of the Harvard law student last year who dared to speculate in a private e-mail to two friends that it was possible that blacks were, on average, “genetically disposed to be less intelligent”…and also that this might not be true. Months later, one of the friends, now an ex-friend, decided to punish her in revenge for competition over a boyfriend, and sent the e-mail—which she had apparently held onto just in case she needed to use it like this— to campus African-American organizations, resulting in the student who wrote the messages being demonized from Harvard to Timbuktu. Thus Goldberg compares Rosen’s loss of his fellowship and job and others Goldberg thinks have been excessively attacked and shunned for their “dark parts” to
“an obscure Harvard law student singled out for two minutes of national hate over leaked racist emails. Not because I sympathized with the awful things she wrote, but because it’s horrible to see obscure people dragged out for mass public vilification, even if in some ways they deserve it.”
Ethics Foul! Goldberg unconscionably places the obscure Harvard student’s ordeal back in the national eye, to bolster her unsupportable contention, adding just a bit more “public vilification” for her own purposes…and misrepresents the incident as well! For the two e-mails were not racist; she was talking to friends, privately, in an academic environment in which anything should be open for debate; and most of all, the law student was not a journalist, reporter, elected official or public figure of any kind, and betrayed no trust whatsoever—it was her trust that was betrayed by the treacherous friend. She did not make her comments in public forums, like every one of the individuals Goldberg defends in her piece. The criticism and attacks on the student were not justified in any way. Why is her story included in Goldberg’s article?
It is included because the author is grasping at straws to support her biased, incompetent, and thoroughly confused argument that professionals (that she happens to admire) shouldn’t lose public trust when they prove themselves untrustworthy, and that saying “I’m sorry” should provoke mass amnesia.