Ethics Quote of the Week: “Ethics Bob” Stone

Is Joe Scarborough the new Arthur Godfrey, as in "nice guy" revealed as "unethical creep"?

“It’s always upsetting when one of your heroes turns out to be an unethical creep.”

Ethicist and business ethics professor Bob Stone on his blog “Ethics Bob,” expressing his disappointment in the conduct of MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough, who persuaded guest and colleague Mark Halperin to “go for it” when Halperin suggested that his description of President Obama’s press conference was not appropriate for public broadcast, and then did nothing to accept responsibility for the uproar when Halperin referred to Obama as “kind of a dick.” Halperin was suspended indefinitely by MSNBC, following a complaint from the White House.

Bob had expressed hope, in a comment to the Ethics Alarms criticism of Scarborough’s role in the incident, that Scarborough would do the right thing by the next day. He did not. And Bob is correct: this is proof positive that Scarborough is an unethical, cowardly creep.

What should “Morning Joe” have done? Several things:

1) He should have told his audience and his bosses that he shared responsibility for Halperin’s gaffe, as did the show itself, since a producer had botched an attempt to bleep “dick” before it was broadcast.

2) He should have publicly apologized to MSNBC and the show’s audience, not for Halperin’s words, but for his own role in causing him to speak them on the air.

3) He should have apologized, also on the air, to Halperin, for assuring him that he, Scarborough, would “catch him” if he “fell,” and to trust him, and then allowing Halperin not only to fall, but to fall on his face as Scarborough admonished him for not being more careful.

4) He should have reminded both the audience, MSNBC and the White House that speaking on live TV is fraught with the risk of choosing the wrong words, and that every professional in the broadcast field can succumb to it, and the proper and fair response to an isolated incident should be to accept a heartfelt apology (which Halperin certainly delivered, on the air and within minutes of his mistake) and eschew other punitive action unless the audience demands it.

5) He should have insisted that Halperin’s suspension be lifted immediately, or, if it was not, insisted that he be suspended as well until Halperin was allowed to return.

6) Then he should have excused himself from the rest of “Morning Joe” until the matter was resolved.

One of the most valuable assets of any broadcast personality is likeability, and this has been Scarborough’s stock in trade since he traded in his credentials as a Republican Congressman to become MSNBC’s token conservative pundit. As Bob Stone correctly states, however, Scarborough is not a nice guy; he is a fake. A nice guy would not allow a friend to be pilloried, embarrassed and disciplined for a mistake that Mr. Nice Guy helped cause to occur. A nice guy wouldn’t say “trust me” and then betray that trust.

“Nice guy,” after all, is just another term for ethical person.

If there is any justice, and if the public is paying attention, this incident will have serious consequences for Joe Scarborough. Once the nice guy guise is gone, Joe doesn’t have that much to offer. There is precedent for such selfish betrayals unraveling far bigger media figures than Scarborough. On October 19, 1953, near the end of his morning radio show, early TV megastar Arthur Godfrey fired his regular TV and radio singer Julius LaRosa on the air, having just profusely  the singer’s performance of “Manhattan.” Godfrey humiliated LaRosa in retribution for a contract dispute and also, reportedly, because of his jealousy over LaRosa’s growing popularity.  The incident shocked Godfrey’s fans, and his carefully manufactured reputation as an avuncular, lovable guy was quickly replaced by the realization that he was just another show business egomaniac with the instincts of a barracuda. It was the beginning of a long slide from superstardom into irrelevance for Godfrey, and a much deserved one.

There is still time for Scarborough to avoid Arthur Godfrey’s fate, and he does not have so far to fall. Absent a complete reversal of course, however, Scarborough is unlikely to regain Bob Stone’s trust and admiration. It is upsetting when one of your heroes proves himself or herself unworthy, and, sadly, most will. It is still important to seek out heroes however, if only because sometimes just knowing that people think of them as heroes is enough to make them act like one.


NOTE: I don’t think Scarborough’s co-host Mika Brzezinski covered herself with glory in this incident either, and nothing is stopping her from doing everything that Joe should be doing and isn’t. She also egged on Halperin. But the show is called “Morning Joe,’ not “Morning Mika.” He is the more accountable of the two.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: “Ethics Bob” Stone

  1. I personally think Scarborough is more accountable than Halperin. After all, Halperin trusted that he was talking to a friend, “off the record”. How many of us are really innocent of not using words like “dick” when we think we’re speaking privately?

  2. Thanks. First time I’ve ever been the quote of the week. You’re right on about what Scarborough should have done. I’m conflicted about Mika: she had a real dilemma, and I think in her position I might have acted like she did, i.e., kept out of it.

    But after reflection I hope I would have had the courage to speak up for Halperin and take some responsibility. There’s still time for her to do that. I like Mika. I hope she does the right thing.

    • I agree—she’s in a tough spot, and it is asking a lot to have her stand up and take responsibility when doing so would also reflect poorly on her—what? Boss? Leader? Star? But I had to bring her into the issue—it seemed vaguely sexist not to. The question for her is, how much is she willing to risk? I’m guessing not much.

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