Ethics Quiz: The Problem of the Buried Video

"He stole my vote!"

The video is meaningless. It shows college student Barry Obama speaking at a 1991 rally for radical college professor Derek Bell. At one point, the future president hugs Bell. So what you say? No kidding. That doesn’t mean that the anti-Obama truth squad wouldn’t try to make something out of it; indeed, they are now. The video has surfaced as Andrew Breitbart’s farewell poke in the eye to Democrats, and it’s not much of a poke.

The only interesting aspect of the tape is that Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree said that he had the video and buried it during the 2008 campaign.  “I hid this during the 2008 campaign,” Ogletree said. “I don’t care if they find it now.”

Your Ethics Quiz: Is it unethical for an individual to hide theoretically damaging material relating to a presidential candidate he favors until after the election, if the material in fact contains nothing that would affect the vote of any individual with  intelligence superior to that of the average civic-minded horseshoe crab?

My answer: Definitely. I don’t care whether the information is extra-marital affairs, drug use, a DUI or appearing at a frat party in a tutu. No one has the right to withhold information, even stupid and useless information, from the media and electorate.  If the information is relevant, then the public has a right to know about it. If it isn’t, as this tape appears to be, then why hide it? If the tape was intentionally kept from the public, the conduct can’t be defended on the basis that it did no harm—the intent was to do harm. If one person would have changed his vote because he doesn’t want a President who ever hugged Derek Bell, even though that person is probably a fool, no one had no right to take away that vote through deception.

It’s all hypothetical, apparently, because Prof. Ogletree has explained that his “confession” was a joke, and was understood as such when he made it, if not reported that way. [Thanks to Barry Deutch for the link.]

So nobody hid anything, and those those horseshoe crabs who voted for Obama weren’t deceived after all.

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Problem of the Buried Video

  1. Professor Bell created “critical race theory” – and Obama heavily emphasized that when he taught law school.

    This leads to a couple of reasonable questions:
    1. Does Obama believe in the tenets of critical race theory?
    2. Has critcial race theory been applied via the Justice Department or any other government agency?

    Also, I have a feeling there may be more to this… in the past, Brietbart’s tapes have started “meh…” then proven to be more devastating when follow-ups were released.

    I get the feeling that Ogletree hid that stuff for a reason… and maybe is hoping that the Fluke-Limbaugh controversy will drown this out…

  2. The video was aired as part of a documentary on the PBS series “Frontline” in 1991, and has been available on Youtube and the Frontline site ever since. It was hot hidden. Since both Ogletree and the audience laugh at his remark, it could be interpreted as a joke.

    To state that Obama “heavily emphasized” Critical Race Theory when he was a professor is an exaggeration. It is a controversial theory, but not one that has been discredited, and would probably be a part of any law school curriculum.

    Some of Breitbart’s tapes have been devastating, and some have turned out to be outright manipulations and lies.

  3. I need to make further corrections to my post. The documentary on “Frontline” was broadcast in 2008, not 1991, and was entitled “The Choice.” In it, “Frontline” explored Obama’s time at Harvard as part of the run up to the election. The actual speech was given in 1990. You can find their response to the controversy here: Also, I believe it is inaccurate to say that professor Bell “created” Critical Race Theory, although he was certainly a proponent.

    Sorry to be so sloppy.

  4. Jack, there are only two possibilites here:

    1) Ogletree is insane and believes that he has magical powers of suppressing footage that he doesn’t own and that has always been available to anyone willing to pay the TV station for the rights;


    2) The man was telling a joke. Which would explain why he laughed as he was saying the words.

    Think about it: Why would Ogletree — or anyone — even WANT to hide this completely harmless video? It’s ridiculous on its face. And why would an intelligent person like Ogletree claim in seriousness to have buried a video that was always available and that he never had any control over?

    See Rawstory and .Frontline.

    • You could be right—in which case, Ogletree could clear up the confusion. He’s not generally a funny guy, and he’s on my radar as a cheat already ( It is puzzling to me, given that the radio talk show bunch and others were using any piece of garbage they could get their hands on during the campaign, that they didn’t find this one. I don’t think you can rule out a 3rd possibility—that a Harvard professor has such a low opinion of voters that he would take the step of hiding a clip that only has negative implications if you are a conspiracy theorist and a nut. It IS a big voting bloc.

      Meanwhile, the ethics question if the answer is #3 interests me. Would I have used it if I didn’t think Ogletree should have been bounced from his job long ago? Probably not.

      • Unless you think the TV station that owns the clip is in on the conspiracy, I don’t see how Ogletree could possibly be accused of “hiding a clip.” Even if you think Ogletree had motive — and your case for his motive is very weak — he lacked opportunity.

        The right-wing conspiracy-theorist voting block was not a voting block that Obama ever had a chance with, so it doesn’t matter how numerous they are. (Left-wing conspiracy theorists wouldn’t care about this clip.)

        • Silly me, I think lawyers should not engage in misleading comments in public, since their professional standards say they are forbidden from doing so. Technically, lies/misrepresentations and punks undertaken outside the practice of law are not professional violations, but I still believe they are more unethical for lawyers than everyone else—especially a law professor. Until Ogletree says he was joking, his professional ethics and obligations as a law professor cause me to take him at his word.

          Otherwise, I agree with you completely.

          • I disagree both that professional ethics forbid telling a joke, or that this sort of joke was, in fact, a misleading statement.

            (Of course, SOME jokes — such as racist jokes — may be unethical to tell. But the unethical part of a racist joke is the racism part, not the joke part.)

            Nor do I agree that famous people are obligated to respond to every ridiculous conspiracy theory that comes along. (Especially someone who is not a public official.)

            By the way, Ogletree spoke to the press yesterday saying his comment was a joke.

            • I didn’t say that. I said that law professors shouldn’t state untruths in public. If it was obvious that the comment was a joke, then that’s different. Jokes are fine. Public hoaxes and mistatements are not.

              I said he should clarify it on the record, and he did. I don’t know why it took him so long. Anyway, I linked his explanation to the post. Thanks for finding it.

              NOW the incident reminds me of the Georgetown professor, Peter Tague, a couple of years ago who was telling a class about how fast rumors spread, and said that he had just heard that Chief Justice John Roberts had died, as an example of such a rumor. Seconds later he emphasized he had made the rumor up, but it had already been tweeted by a student, and was picked up by some news reports.

              It may not be unethical to joke, but if you are a person of reputed credibility and prominence, you might want to keep it to Knock-knock jokes.

              Remember Reagan’s “joke” about bombing the Soviet Union? Thank god there was no Twitter in those days.

              • Fair enough. And thanks for updating your post.

                LOL about the college professor getting burned by the tweeting student. In that case, he had probably been telling that joke to classes for years without any harm done, but communications technology got too fast and ruined it. :-p

  5. When someone seeking high office is shown, time and again, to be the friend, confidant, co-worker or political ally of the worst of anti-American radicals, it is neither harmless, useless nor a joke. Men who can wield the power inherent in the office of the United States Presidency- both enumerated and through influence- must be of the highest character and purpose. People ARE judged by the company they keep. It’s a good, reliable indicator.

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