Comment of the Day: Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service

Paterno's inaction: bliviousness...or willful blindness?

In the ongoing debate among Joe Paterno sympathizers (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) and those who believe the late Penn State icon failed his ethical obligations miserably and deserved all the criticism he received, several interesting themes have arisen, including whether “obliviousness” is an excuse, whether critics are engaging in “wahlberging”–that is, claiming that they would have handled a difficult situation better when it costs them nothing to make the claim—and whether the Sandusky incident should be permitted to cloud Paterno’s legacy at Penn State, or should be over-shadowed by it. In this Comment of the Day, Proam covers these topics in response to a commenter who wrote, “Other posters who have tried to in any way justify Paterno’s actions/lack of action – GET REAL!”  Here is his comment, to the post, “Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service.” I’ll have some reactions at the end. Continue reading

As News Media Sinks To New Ethics Lows, Some Friendly—And Urgent— Advice

One of many news story warning labels devised by Tom Scott (

The profession of journalism has now sunk to a point of incompetence and untrustworthiness that constitutes a serious threat, not only to itself, but also to the United States, which must have honest and reliable news sources to function and thrive. As currently constructed, the profession of journalism does not possess the tools or the will to address its crisis. Two recent examples should suffice.

The Saturday before Joe Paterno died, a tweet from a Penn State student-run website erroneously announced that Paterno was already dead. The tweet was immediately picked up by CBS Sports, and subsequently by the news web sites The Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. Howard Kurtz, supposedly the preeminent  media ethics watchdog, re-tweeted the false news himself. Many other journalists did the same. But it was all based on a hoax.  Paterno was still alive. Continue reading

Unethical Endorsement of the Month: Former Rep. Duke Cunningham

It's not just Duke...this guy's in Newt's corner too!

Duke Cunningham’s endorsement of Newt Gingrich’s presidential candidacy is like the kiss of death.

Here is what the former California Republican Congressman, currently in federal prison for multiple convictions on bribery, corruption and tax evasion charges, sent his former House Speaker as Newt struggled to keep his candidacy thriving while being battered by critics from all ends of the political spectrum:

“Newt, a voice out of the past. Down but not out and still fighting. First I do not want anything from you but have been watching the debates. I have 80% of inmates that would vote for you. They might not be able to but their extended families will.”

In a word—unbelievable. If Cunningham is trying to sink Gingrich, the endorsement of a dishonest pol like him, along with the news that Newt’s a penitentiary favorite, is an excellent, if under-handed and deceitful, way to do it. If Cunningham wants to help Gingrich, he could hardly be more incompetent and reckless about it. Has he never heard of cognitive dissonance? When someone most people regard as untrustworthy and dishonest endorses a candidate, that candidate will be pulled down closer to the endorser’s low level of esteem.

A few more endorsements like this—Rev. Wright and Bernie Madoff, maybe?—and that would be the end of Gingrich for President. Whatever Cunningham’s endorsement is—deluded, diabolical or stupid, it’s an unethical endorsement from an unethical man, because the endorsement of someone like Cunningham does the opposite of what endorsements are supposed to do.

Thanks and Mea Culpa

The discussion on Ethics Alarms has been especially lively, diverse and interactive this week, and I want to thank all who participated for their time, passion, reason and civility. My goal has always been to foster better ethical analysis through dialogue, and I consider what I read the past several days to be a significant advance. I am grateful to everyone, especially so because it has been a hectic and difficult period for me.

I also am aware that the typos have been proliferating again, and I apologize to all. It is irritating, not to mention confusing, to have to read posts with errors, and it is unprofessional for me to allow the errors to occur. There can be no excuse for it, and I am truly sorry. Unfortunately, I can’t type, I have always been a poor speller, and I am an even worse proof-reader of my own work. Believe it or not, I proof each post at least four times, and use two different spell-check programs. I have begun to re-proof every day’s output before I go to bed, and it is astonishing how often I find typos that slipped through. Skipping a word that I heard in my head (and then read when it isn’t there) is the most common mistake, followed by typing “ed” instead of “es” at the end of words. The typos are more common when I am on the road, like this week, and have to work on my old, small, netbook with the missing keys.

I will continue to make improving this long-time flaw a top priority, and I remain very grateful for those of you, especially the two Jeffs and my old editor Patrice, who have been especially alert and kind enough to  flag my mistakes. Meanwhile, I continue to return to past posts—all 2, 232 of them, and search for typos to fix. And, dammit, I find them, too.

Once again, thanks, everybody, both for your contributions and your patience.

Ethics Dunces: Administrators at Mustang (Oklahoma) Mid-High School

"No whistles allowed in class, kid. You're suspended!"

In Mustang, Oklahoma, a ninth-grader used his cell phone to snap a photo of  his substitute teacher who was sleeping on the job, in class. Guess what happened?

The student was suspended for violating a school policy prohibiting the use of electronic communication devices during school hours.

This combines the irresponsible unfairness of “no-tolerance” policies with old-fashioned retaliation against whistle-blowers.  The student did the only thing he could do to record a breach of duty by the snoozing teacher, who was cheating students out of their education, cheating the school out of work it had contracted for, and cheating Mustang tax-payers out of their hard-earned cash. Using a cell phone for this purpose was not only ethical but essential to solving the problem. In a business, an employee who used a camera to record on-the-job misfeasance or malfeasance would be protected from adverse job action no matter what policies he broke, because he would be a whistle-blower. The 9th grader was also a whistle-blower. An ethical and responsible school would have thanked him, and held him up as a good citizen of the school.

What does that make a school, then, that uses a strict interpretation of a policy to justify retaliation against the student, and by so doing sends a clear message to other students that the administrators and educators will protect their own, even when they are in the wrong?

It makes that school corrupt and corrupting. It means that the school chooses to teach students the lesson that one should look the other way when wrong-doing occurs, rather than take remedial action.

Just who does Mustang Mid-High School think it is?

Penn State?

Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service

At least Albert Speer didn't have a clear conscience.

I did not expect the speakers at Joe Paterno’s emotional memorial service to avoid stepping on  some of the myriad ethical landmines that lay before them. It was a time to say good things about the late Penn State coach, and there is plenty to say. Still, two speakers did cross deep into unethical territory. Even at a memorial service, when the lessons of the Jerry Sandusky affair are so important for all to learn and accept, it was poor judgment and irresponsible for those honoring Paterno to try to minimize or deny his accountability in the tragedy.

Unethical Statement #1: Nike Co-Founder and Chairman Phil Knight. “Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: There was a villain in this tragedy. It lies in the investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.”

This got a standing ovation, a reaction every bit as offensive as the Penn State student riots after Paterno’s firing, indeed more so. Knight’s rationalization excuses every Enron executive who knew that the leadership was defrauding investors; every Bernie Madoff family member and enriched investor who knew something was wrong but waited for the SEC to act; every member of the Nixon White House who saw the rule of law being trampled but reasoned that since he wasn’t directly involved, there was no reason to speak up; every member of Congress who knew that Rep. Mark Foley was sexually harassing House pages and kept quiet; and every priest who knew that a colleague was sexually molesting boys and did nothing, because the Church leadership was doing nothing. Knight’s defense of Joe Paterno is a defense of all of these, and indeed a defense of evil. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Wolf Blitzer

Watch out, Newt! It's SUPER-WOLF!!!

Once again Ethics Alarms finds itself in the sad position of calling conduct heroic that should be routine. Unfortunately, however, competent and responsible broadcast journalism isn’t routine, and if I was looking for a bold and quick-witted journalist to exceed the standard practice, it certainly wouldn’t be CNN’s plodding, timid and often befuddled Wolf Blitzer. Last night, however, as moderator of the latest GOP candidates debate, he did what few journalists ever have the confidence or courage to do: he challenged a politician on an absurd and hypocritical statement.

And yes, I confess…if Wolf fell slightly short of true Ethics Hero status by a couple of points, the fact that the politician involved was New Gingrich the Unethical put him over the top. If that be bias, so be it. Continue reading

Incompetent Elected Official Of The Week: Oklahoma State Senator Ralph Shortey

I know, I know. Soylent Green isn't the same thing, because embryos aren't people.

This need not take very long.. Ethics Alarms hasn’t honored an incompetent public official for a while, and Oklahoma freshman Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) has pretty much begged for this. You see, Sen. Shortey, citing his own Internet research [oh-oh...], believes that there is a looming threat of food companies using ground-up aborted fetuses in their products, and thus has proposed a bill that decrees that…

“…No person or entity shall manufacture or knowingly sell food or any other product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients or which used aborted human fetuses in the research or development of any of the ingredients.

Even though absolutely nobody else knows of any hint or rumor that Embryo Helper or anything similar is poised to hit the shelves, Sen. Shortey says that he introduced the bill as a warning to companies who might otherwise consider putting boxes of Fetus Frosted Flakes on Oklahoma breakfast tables, and to raise “public awareness.”

Let’s hope Shortey is successful, at least at raising public awareness that the man is an idiot, and can no more be trusted to determine public policy than my dog should be playing bassoon in the New York Philharmonic. Really…where do the political parties do their recruitment, anyway? How can they even locate people this unhinged from reality and their responsibilities? America is in need of innovative, well-executed measures to pull itself out of an epic funk, with crises in all directions, from the budget, to the infrastructure, to employment and housing, to education, immigration and the environment, and this maroon’s top priority is battling cannibalism?

Way to pick ’em, Republicans.

Newt Gingrich and the Import of the Outright Lie like this, Newt fans?

We know politicians and elected officials lie on a regular basis, because the sheer volume of inaccurate, misleading or outright wrong statements they produce is so staggeringly large that there can be no other explanation. Catching one of them in an unequivocal, outright lie, however, is rare. For one thing, partisans and the intellectually lazy have cheapened the accusation of “Liar!” by applying it to situations where lying is not involved. A broken promise, for example, is only a lie if the promisor knew he was going to break it when he made the promise. It is also not a lie when an elected official turns out to be wrong.  A lie is not a statement that turns out to be untrue; it is a statement that the speaker knows is untrue, and is making for the purpose of deceiving others.

Was Barack Obama lying when he claimed, in his 2010 State of the Union, that the Supreme Court had “reversed a century of law to open the floodgates – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections” ? I think so—he’s supposed to be a Constitutional scholar, after all, and should know that, among other things wrong with his statement, foreign corporations were explicitly excluded from the rights affirmed in Citizens United. I can’t prove it though; heaven knows the President has made plenty of other bone-head statements. Similarly, most of the intelligent world believes that Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” bluff was an outright lie, but if Bill really believed, as some have claimed, that fellatio isn’t “sex”..well, his fist-pounding denial was just another Clintonian word-parsing exercise. Journalism is largely at fault for broadening the definition of lie to the point where much of the public can’t distinguish between real lies, the black-hearted variety that should sound ethics alarms and send the citizenry marching on the castle with torches and pitchforks, and the debatable falsehood. In 2010, for example, Politi-Fact called the claim that Obamacare would increase, rather than reduce, the deficit its “Lie of the Year.” It was not a lie at all. Those who maintained that (including me) believed it, and early returns indicate that they may well have been correct. Most of what are called lies in the press are really just exercises in confirmation bias. People see what they want to see, and describe it to back up what they already believe. Just like the news media.

Newt Gingrich, however, now increasingly being recognized as a GOP Bill Clinton without the charm, was just caught in an outright lie. That is meaningful,  and he should not be permitted to escape its implications. Continue reading

Photography Ethics on Trial

Two photography technology ethics cases erupted this week.

The Case of the Fake Amputee: A recently unveiled New York public health campaign warning against Type 2 diabetes uses a photo of an overweight man who is missing his leg.  The man, however, had both legs when the photo was taken. One was digitally removed to make it appear that his right leg had been amputated. The American Beverage Association, fighting the city’s efforts to reduce consumption of sweetened soft drinks and fast food, seized on the photo to press its case. “Clearly, the straight facts don’t support their singular attacks on our products, so they keep falling back on distortions and scare tactics that are over the top,” association spokesman Chris Gindlesperger said in a statement. “That’s disappointing.”  Well, diabetes does increase the risks of amputations, and a fake amputee is no more scary than a real amputee. Real amputees do exist; having a graphically-created one doesn’t change the accuracy of the ad’s message one bit. What does the association’s argument have to do with the photo-manipulation? Nothing. Continue reading