It’s so easy to violate your integrity. It also can become a habit. I just had a close call at Integrity Junction myself, and, of all things, another blogger saved me. In part, this account is to thank him.
It was inevitable that the daily task of highlighting and discussing ethical issues and the ethical choices of others would generate some backlash, and it certainly has. As a lawyer, I know where most of the landmines are, but the danger of a deep-pockets corporation that has been properly chastised budgeting enough money to ruin you with a spurious lawsuit is always a possibility. In eight years of writing online about ethics, I have only been successfully bullied into taking down one post, that one regarding a viatical settlement company that was even more sleazy than the industry generally. The article relied heavily on direct quotes from the company’s own website, yet I received a stern “cease and desist” letter from the company’s toady of a general counsel, accusing me of libel and defamation.
2005 was a tough year at ProEthics, which was just getting established; the mortgage was a monthly challenge, and we had several financial emergencies. It was no time to spit in the wind, especially in defense of a web post that would probably get a total readership approaching the roster of a weekend bowling team. I pulled the article. It has bothered me ever since. But as a remarkable number of commenters on the “Mike McQueary and Me” post seem to be unable to comprehend, real world, pragmatic and yes, selfish considerations do factor into ethical decisions. The trick is to know how to do the factoring, and even more important, to have prepared yourself to do the analysis quickly when the time comes.
I recently received another cease-and-desist letter, demanding that I take down a post I wrote a few months ago, based on an AP story about the mismanagement of several 9-11 charities. One of the operators of the charities mentioned in the story and in my post has hired a reputation-cleaning outfit that is doing all of the dubious tasks such companies do, including complaining, harassing and threatening websites and blogs that include negative opinions or facts about their clients. The hit-group assigned to me has added bogus comments to the post (failing to mention that their opinions were bought and paid for), and repeatedly sent me ominous e-mails hinting at impending legal action.
The most recent letter, formally demanding that I remove “false and defamatory content,” caught me at an energy low tide.The last thing I need now is a frivolous lawsuit, and even dealing with the harassing e-mails is taking more time than I can afford to devote to it. I sat at my desk and the rationalizations started flooding into my head:
“Why not just delete the damn thing and be done with it? There are over 2000 posts on the site. Nobody would miss it, including me. The post itself was nothing special, really just a link with some added commentary based entirely on the AP story. I had written to the reporters who researched the story to inquire if they had really been contacted as the various e-mails suggested and to request some more information, and they couldn’t be bothered to respond: well, screw them. Yes, there is principle involved: these people use extortion tactics to strangle free speech and keep important facts from the public, but my measly blog post is hardly going to be a turning point in the battle against them.”
With all this bouncing around in my head (having rationalizations bouncing around in your head should always set off an ethics alarm), I came within seconds of hitting the reply button and writing back, “All right, fine, jackass. I know you haven’t a legal or ethical leg to stand on, but I have better things to do than battle low-lifes like you and your employer. I’ll pull the damn post. I hope your children get over the shame of being raised by someone with your reptilian values and disgusting occupation.”
Then, fortunately, I remembered a blog post by Ken at Popehat…a few actually. Ken, besides being a wit, a deft social critic and a compelling writer, is also a lawyer, and has authored several sharp-edged posts about the importance of bloggers not allowing threats and intimidation to be effective in stifling their legitimate opinions. Ken has called for a national resource of pro bono attorneys willing to help bloggers fight corporations and others who do this, using state anti-SLAPP legislation, which is designed to provide a legal remedy against the misuse of lawsuits to stifle free speech. He has also urged bloggers not to submit to exactly the tactics I was ready to capitulate to, pointing out that doing so makes it more difficult for everyone else, by ensuring that the intimidation and bullying continue….because it works.
So I didn’t hit the reply button. I sent this:
“As I have repeatedly told your colleagues: when I am sent documentation—not assertions, but documentation—that anything in my post was in any way false or misleading, I will not only edit the post but issue a retraction and an apology. If there is any indication that the AP or its reporters have announced a correction or a retraction to the original article, I will do the same. I have seen none. If you are aware of any, I would be grateful if you would forward them.
“I am a lawyer, and I know what defamation is. My post is not libelous, and I have seen no evidence that it is even erroneous. I have not published anything with malice or with knowledge that it is not true, and relying on a published news story is not reckless, a complete defense. I regard your conduct to be in clear violation of Anti-SLAPP laws, and the fact that your employer would encourage such harassment does not speak well of him. I repeat: I will issue a correction if and when you supply me with reliable documentation. Your uncorroborated statements do not qualify, as I am sure you know.
“Ethics Alarms does not seek, ever, to misrepresent facts, but I must rely on major media accounts, and documentation.
“Meanwhile, may I have your permission to quote you in a post about high-pressure tactics used by paid reputation-cleaners to bully people into pulling factual articles?
You know what? They backed down. The immediately response to this message was…
“Thank you for your swift response and cooperation. We will contact you when the AP retracts the story.”
Right. I’m not holding my breath for that.
Thanks. Ken. Thanks, Popehat.
Whew! That was close.
8 thoughts on “A Close Call at Integrity Junction”
Good job. It is always nice to read about someone who stands up to pressure.
Nah, read the comments on the McQueary post. I’m a child-hating coward and monster who shivers in terror when confronted with wrongdoing.
I still think the name of the unethical reputation defender should be part of the story.
You know what? I can’t figure out which outfit it is. I thought I had traced it, but I haven’t. Your last reprimand had convinced me to post it, but I have to be sure.
Hah! I shall now double down on my criticism of your criticism of complaints about improper religion.
Also, you get an Attaboy. I think the descriptions of your own ethical struggles, both when you win (here) and when you lose (the previous job you recently mentioned), are some of the more interesting posts. It’s easy to see a situation and think “I’d do the right thing there,” but when you see someone’s actual thought processes behind their decisions, you can more readily see where they do and don’t match your own thoughts, and where you may go off the rails despite good intentions.
It’s good not to back down when your intimidated. Like maybe if someone said you shouldn’t draw pictures of a certain someone… like Pat Sajak… or someone older…
Everyone draw Pat Sajak Day?
Just kudos to you, Jack. Ethics and courage go hand in hand, don’t they?