Unethical Trio: An Ambush, An Incompetent Diagnosis, and Partisan Journalist Hackery

Doctors and Kurtz

There were three notable unethical performances last week from professionals who should know better:

I. Dr. Benjamin Carson, neurosurgeon. Carson was invited to give the keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast (don’t get me started about why there even is a National Prayer Breakfast, and why the President should feel obligated to attend it) last week and turned what is traditionally understood to be a non-partisan, non-political speech into a direct attack, without explicitly designating it as such, on President Obama’s policies. Yes, it was a well-written, well-reasoned and well-delivered speech, but it was an ambush. Many conservatives were pleased to have President Obama  subjected to an articulate complaint that “spoke truth to power,” yet the objectives and specific content of the speech doesn’t matter: that wasn’t what Carson was invited to do, and it wasn’t what he should have done. Dr. Carson has subsequently justified his actions in self-congratulatory terms as an act of courage, but in reality it was an instance of a citizen seizing an opportunity to grab national attention and a prominent soapbox that weren’t his to grab. His actions made the President of the United States a captive audience to his amateur analysis of national affairs. It was disrespectful, and because it was given under false pretenses, dishonest.

2. Dr. Connie Mariano, former White House physician. Mariano, interviewed on a CNN newscast about the ever-popular topic of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s girth ( the puckish Guv had just mocked himself on  David Letterman’s show by eating a donut on the air), opined that Christie’s weight was “… almost like a time bomb waiting to happen unless he addresses those issues before he runs for office,” Mariano told CNN.  “I want him to run. I just want him to lose weight,” she said. “I’m worried he may have a heart attack. I’m worried he may have a stroke.” Christie told the press that Mariano was out of line, and that absent the opportunity to examine him, the doctor had no business offering a professional opinion and should “shut up.”  He was absolutely correct, but the pundits were all over him, calling Christie “thin-skinned,” especially since he had opened the issue for media attention with his Letterman gag. I know this may be too subtle to grasp for the dolts in the media, but there is a material difference between a layman’s opinion about Christie’s weight and the opinion of a doctor, which will be presumed by the public to be authoritative. Mariano’s statement violated multiple ethics rules of her profession, and professional ethics principles generally. When a doctor opines that a named individual is at risk of a stroke, that is a diagnosis, and it is unethical to diagnose a patient without an examination and without the patient’s consent. Christie has his own doctor: Mariano was undercutting the care of that physician by publicly challenging his diagnosis even though Mariano had never seen a lab report or a blood pressure reading. Having made her incompetent diagnosis by photograph and television screen, Mariano then revealed it to the public at large before bothering to communicate with her “patient.” Christie was justified in being angry, and the media displayed its ignorance and bias in defending the Dr. Mariano. Dr. Mariano then compounded her offense by offering the unethical excuse that one doesn’t have to be a doctor to see that Christie is overweight. True, but she didn’t say that he was fat, or that people who are obese are at higher risk for health problems. She offered a professional opinion that Christie is personally at risk of having a stroke without knowing his health status, and that she may not do.

3. The panel of “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s media ethics program hosted by Howard Kurtz. The show no longer makes an effort at balance, and last Sunday’s episode was the worst I have ever seen. Once upon a time Kurtz attempted to select guests for objectivity and ethics expertise; no longer, apparently. His panel of Steve Roberts, Ryan Lizza, and Lauren Ashburn joined the reliably liberal-biased Kurtz in a united front. The nadir was reached when Kurtz criticized the news media for publicizing the accusation of an unidentified 16-year-old Dominican Republic prostitute that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had engaged in sex with her multiple times on his visits to the island. The panel all agreed, and  agreed that in addition to the fact that the only source was anonymous, the reason the report wasn’t newsworthy was that it came from The Daily Caller, “a conservative website” that wasn’t a “reliable source.” This is naked partisan hackery. The ethical issue to be discussed should have been whether an accusation of consorting with under-age prostitutes is news when the accused is a U.S. Senator. The Daily Caller, which is the creation of former CNN pundit Tucker Carlson, is every bit as reliable as its equivalent websites to its left, like the Huffington Post (which panelist Ashburn writes for), Politico, and the site that pays Kurtz, The Daily Beast. The panel’s implication that “conservative” equals biased and unreliable is especially unfair, not to mention incredible, at a time when the venerable NBC news machine has been caught intentionally distorting video and audio recordings in pursuit of liberal agenda items. There are no “reliable sources” in the news media today, as a panel on a show called Reliable Sources should have the integrity to admit. Furthermore, if it was going to take this approach to the Menendez matter, integrity demanded that it try to distinguish for its audience the “reliable” media’s handling of anonymous accusations of sexual harassment against GOP presidential contender Herman Cain. Politico, which is, of course, more reliable than The Daily Caller because it approaches issues from the wise and rational perspective of the Left, launched a media feeding frenzy with a series of anonymous accusations that were reported on ad nauseum by every major media outlet and that ultimately sunk Cain’s candidacy. The Cain matter can’t be distinguished, though, because it was exactly as wrong and unfair as what is happening to Menendez.  The issue is anonymous sources—like the Washington Post used to suggest that Rick Perry was a racist, for example—not the reliability of  The Daily Caller.

The hackery of the Reliable Sources panel wasn’t over, however. Kurtz ran a video of Menendez being questioned (on the run) by a reporter about the prostitute’s accusation. Sen. Menendez scowled, said that the accusation was “unsubstantiated,” and proceeded to take the same partisan route nicely cleared by Kurtz’s panel, blaming the story on a vendetta by conservatives. Later, Kurtz and others on the panel noted that Menendez had “denied” the allegations. He may have denied the allegations elsewhere, but what was immediately striking about the video was that he did not deny them. He said they were unsubstantiated. Now, the most casual viewer of the various profiler shows on TV, as well as dramas like “Lie To Me” and “The Mentalist,” knows that when someone’s immediate reaction to a direct accusation is to deflect it rather than deny it, something may be amiss. The panel had two ethical choices: let the video stand for itself (Menendez looked and sounded guilty, in my estimation, but then he is one of the most unethical and corrupt members of the Senate, and has a lot to be guilty about), or note that there was no denial in response to the reporter’s direct question. Instead, the panel ran interference for the Democratic Senator, crediting him with an on-camera denial that he did not make.


Sources: Bluefield Daily Telegraph, CBS, CNN



27 thoughts on “Unethical Trio: An Ambush, An Incompetent Diagnosis, and Partisan Journalist Hackery

  1. Re: Dr. Benjamin Carson. I’m surprised at your assessment of his presentation as being unethical. He placed great emphasis on citizens being unafraid to speak out without fear of repercussion and to speak freely and to speak the truth. What difference does it make that President Obama happened to be at that meeting? It seems to me chances are good Obama might have passed on attending since he’s had no problem avoiding this type of gathering in the past. I think the average American has had it up to here with political correctness toward our President. The media has bent so far over backwards in their love affair with him that it’s difficult to tell what the truth is anymore, i.e., if it concerns Obama it’s great and wonderful. The only place you can hear anything close to a check and balance about the current administration is on Fox News, and they’re only preaching to the choir. How refreshing to hear the message out of the box in mainstream America. I, for one, totally appreciated Dr. Carson telling it like he sees it and speaking his mind about what a serious mess our country is in. Kudos to Benjamin Carson. As the WSJ editorial said in this week-end’s edition, “Benjamin Carson for President.”

    • I know this is the trope, but it’s still wrong. He had no more business making that speech at that time than Beyonce would have changing the lyrics to the Star Spangled banner to make a pitch for immigration reform. And obviously the President’s presence was crucial–that’s the reason he made the speech.

      I know it’s satisfying to see Obama get a dose of his own medicine—this was exactly what he did, also wrongly, when he directly attacked teh Supreme Court during the State of the Union message. Still doesn’t make it right, in either case.

        • Either way, it was a little badly needed truth. It’s a tough situation where “ambushes” are the order of the day. But, as you say, Obama tore down that protocol on his own.

          There is no more reason to follow principles of fairness when they are no longer enforced.

          • It doesn’t when their unilateral observance by you puts your opponent in a commanding advantage. Actually, Dr. Carson’s address was fairly mild and respectful. He merely stated an opinion shared by a great many. I can’t see how it was so out of line. Did Obama have any reason to expect or demand that everyone present was to kiss his painted toenails with nary a word of “disharmony”?

  2. I find the phrase ‘amateur analysis of national affairs’ somewhat difficult to swallow. Carson spoke mostly of the importance of education being vital to self-improvement, and touched on health care. He’s devoted much of his life to helping improve education, and if a prominent surgeon is an amateur in the field of health care, then congress really has no business touching it.

    I’ll agree it was an ambush. If we take as given that Obama has his opinion on how best to run the country, and that Carson has his own, then by virtue of the fact that Obama was elected and Casron was not, Carson was well out of line to attack him when his guard is down. If, however, we take as given (as many contend) that Obama is perhaps actually wrong – and willfully disregarding the will of the people, the testimony of numerous physicians, and the evidence that things are not going according to plan – then I would say that Carson has the civic duty to try and make him see reason. If the president is ignoring evidence (and there is plenty) that the path he has charted is flawed, then I would expect him to be challenged at every opportunity. And if he will not allow himself to be put in a position to be challenged – if he won’t argue his case, won’t defend it – then yes, he needs to be ambushed, and needs to be challenged on the street, in his office, in his car, and on vacation, until he DOES step into an area where it is appropriate to challenge him.

    Carson stated his opinions in front of a man he knew disagreed with him. He did so without attacking or belittling the president’s own policies. He was quite careful to assure everyone that he was not seeking to attack, but that he was not willing to allow decorum and the fear of hurt feelings to keep from from saying something he felt needed to be said. The organizers of the prayer breakfast may have a case for offence, but I don’t think the president does.

    • Our government has clearly articulated ways for petitioning elected officials, and many avenues of free speech. Accepting an invitation under false pretenses and hijacking an event not created for the purpose you are using it for isn’t one of them. He has an obligation to speak out—agreed. That obligation doesn’t excuse subterfuge,disrespect, unfairness and dishonesty.

      I mentioned his amatuer public policy expert status, I admit, to set someone up for this analogy: would it be appropriate for the President, asked to give a keynote address at a neurosurgeon college graduation, to prepare and deliver his personal views on how neurosurgery should be practiced? Everyone assumes they know how to be President, though it’s the most difficult job in the world. His speech was presumptuous. He gave his opinions, which are no more valid and have no more authority than yours or mine, false weight by misusing his charge.

      • Jack,
        I agree with you overall, it was an ambush and it was unethical. The only thing I disagree with you on is the “amateur analysis” comment. I am not sure what you were trying to accomplish with that description of Dr Carson other then set up your analogy but I think you went a step too far with that one. Based your analogy it can be easily said that any commentary by anyone on national affairs other than a former President has no weight as they are amateurs yet you don’t acknowledge that what the doctor did comment on seemed to be in his wheel house. Isn’t it a citizens duty to take interest in and guide our government or should that only be left to those elected “experts” that are featured here so often? That’s my only criticism on the Doctor Carson post.
        My vote would however go to Dr. Connie Mariano, she in her professional capacity went against her professions ethical code. I think the journalists are runners up for the same reason but I don’t think the case is as strong as Dr Mariano.

        • My problem is this—the doctor was asked to speak according to his presumed expertise, as a man of faith and a physician. He and any citizen have a right to make their opinions heard on anything, but I object, and will always object, to specialists who use a platform based on their legitimate expertise to speak on topics where they are not experts—the forum gives undeserved and misleading weight to their clients. If I pay to hear Linda Ronstadt sing, she has no business making me listen to her views on the Iraq war. If I am introduced at the Rhode Island Bar as a keynote legal ethics speaker, I have no business using that forum to expound on the national debt. James Taranto of “Best of the Web” similarly objects to sportswriters who add political commentary in the context of their reporting, and weathermen who opine on Israeli relations in the middle of reporting on hurricanes. It is mixing professional opinion with amateur ones, and I believe that is misleading and wrong.

          • As I said my only issue was the “amateur analysis” comment. I don’t disagree with your take and I mostly agree with your reply. The “amateur analysis” just struck me as how dare a highly respected and educated man comment on national policy. I may have read more into it then it deserved it just seemed like you objected that he should be entitled to an opinion on national affairs beyond what he holds a degree in.

      • “Accepting an invitation under false pretenses”

        I guess I don’t understand what false pretense there was… When he was invited, did he agree to say nothing that disagreed with the president, or was he asked to speak for X minutes about issues he felt important and able to speak on?

        Because if it was the latter, I think he had ample ground from which to speak on all the topics he covered, and fail to see how it was “rude” (as the dunce-like Kristin Powers called it) or an ambush.

        Just because President Obama didn’t like what he heard doesn’t make Carson wrong, or the bad guy.

  3. I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment on Dr. Carson’s speech. In fact you are off the mark. Not only do I applaud Dr. Carson for what he did I wish more physians were more like him. He was very respectful in calling out a problem with physicians allowing themselves to ignore the ramifications of public policy.

    You claim on your site that that too many individuals keep quiet about problems whether in government or in their own daily lives. He was asked and invited to make a speech. Is he supposed to pretend nothng is wrong? For Dr. Carson to be invited to speak and not discuss a problem within the medical profession that will get worse; and that will affect his ability to practice, and for all of who need and utilize doctors and nurses who be shocking to me. Don’t you see a contradiction in your post??

    • You’re not addressing the post, nor the reply above to Aaron. He was not invited to speak on any topic that engaged him. He was invited to speak consistent with the prayer breakfast theme, and not jury-rig what he wanted to say into an otherwise unrelated context. It was not a medical policy forum, or a policy at all. I am invited to speak all the time, and I know and understand the expectations of my hosts in inviting me. For me to exploit the opportunity and embarrass both my hosts and the mots honored guest is unconscionable, no matter how powerful my speech might be.

      And if you disagreed with his off-topic comments, and found them poorly reasoned and offensive, would you still say that he was justified inj giving them? Because, you see, the justification has nothing to do with the validity of the content.

      • I stand by my comment. Not only was he well within the prayer breakfast discussing his religious views and how they correspond to life today, and in the medical field in particular.

        For the record, I disagree with having religion and politics mix-a prayer breakfast I believe is inappropriate. I also didn’t agree with Dr. Carson’s views on tithing, which is a religious element. To say he was unethical I still disagree with you on this point. He was well within reason. I think he handled it well considering his life as a physician, and the lives of his young patients are in serious jeopardy.

  4. Re: Dr. Carson’s speech: What was he invited to do? As I don’t make it a habit to tune into Prayer Breakfasts and the clip I watched on C-Span doesn’t specify a particular topic on which he was supposed to speak, I am unclear as to why you say “that wasn’t what he was invited to do.” While I agree it is puzzling why he’d deliver a speech about anything political, I didn’t hear anything that felt like an attack on Obama’s policies. In fact, what I heard were suggestions about how many of the today’s problems have solutions worth exploring (e.g., education, taxes, healthcare). Obama didn’t create the dismal state of American public educational system; he didn’t create the crazy, complicated tax code rife w/ loopholes. Obama surely didn’t single-handedly create a national deficit in the trillions. While “Obamacare” is criticized and vilified by many (on both sides of the aisle), it sure sounded to me like Dr. Carson was advocating something close to universal healthcare and the complete removal of the the “bureaucracy” in the middle (aka the greedy, inhumane insurance industry), which “Obamacare” doesn’t come close to accomplishing. But those shortcomings are because he had to compromise and back away from pushing for universal healthcare due to the stranglehold of the lobbyists for for-profit insurance companies and big pharma and to appease the rigid party of “NO” on the other side of the aisle. Anyone who’s actually researched and/or read the law knows that the changes being implemented are merely a start in the right direction. There is much improvement to our dismal healthcare system still needed and long overdue. So, if Obama must be criticized for that, so be it. He caved. If anything could’ve/should’ve been said by a distinguised neurosurgeon in this regard, it’s accurately labeling who exactly is perpetrating this sham of a healthcare system Americans continue to accept as adequate.

    • Spinning faster and faster! The main speech is traditionally about the role of faith in American life and human endeavors. It is supposed to be anything but a catalyst for argument and division, which this speech was and was designed to be. Anyone who can look at the massive, baroque, extensive new bureaucracies up and down the system created by Obamacare and not take the doctor’s comments as critical of that legislation is a master at denial. You’re not arguing that the speech was appropriate; you’re arguing that it was a good speech. That’s besides the point I made completely. The State of the Union might be a good speech, but the prayer breakfast wasn’t the place for that, either.

      • I asked you what Dr. Carson was invited to /address because I really didn’t know. I assumed it shouldn’t have had anything to do with politics and said as much. I merely said that I didn’t hear anything that sounded like an attack, which is how you framed it. My point of disagreement with you was only that. I don’t think it was a good or bad speech and I’m not spinning anything. I admit I digressed a bit in my comments about the health care law & industry (because of it’s impact on my profession & family), and that I mostly agreed with Dr. Carson on that point. I didn’t, as you accuse, spin anything or say it was a good or appropriately place speech. I’m not justifying any part of the speech just because I happened to agree with him on some of it. You assigned that to me erroneously.

        But since we’re now out on this tangent, I must disagree with you about the “massive, baroque, extensive new bureaucracies up and down the system created by Obamacare” comment. Have you read any part of the law? To what do you refer? There are eventually supposed to be state- or federally-run exchanges, but those are no where near implementation. The new law continues to allow big insurance, big pharma, & big medicare to operate pretty much as usual — what are those in comparison, tiny, innovative, & efficient?? Let’s not even address ethical! Sometimes change is messy, takes lots of time & effort, and creates a temporary worsening before the improvements are noticed.

        • Well, yes, since you ask, I read all of an early version of the bill, all 2000 plus pages, which is more than I can say for 90% of the members of Congress who voted for it, and my sister wrote a section of it. It will require a dizzying number of new levels of bureaucracy to manage and regulate. One count says 159 new bodies—maybe its half that. Here’s a diagram: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2884494/posts You may be the only person I’ve heard of who thinks the speech was not a political speech critical of Obama, and intended to be.

  5. Again, I agreed the speech was political and critical, as well as inappropriate for the setting. Why do you insist on assigning words, opinions & positions to me that aren’t there? I was simply disagreeing with your label of “attack” and asserted that most of the things he criticized were NOT Obama’s policies or creations.

    • Really, Barbara? the distinction between political criticism in an ambush setting and the term attack is what that was all about? the speech was equally inappropriate whether you want to call it an attack or not.

  6. Ashburn and Kurtz were both correct to say Menendez denied the charges during that on-the-run interview. Here’s what Menendez said:

    It’s amazing to me that anonymous, nameless, faceless individuals on a Web site can drive that type of story into the mainstream, but that’s what they’ve done successfully,” he said. “Now, nobody can find them. No one ever met them. No one ever talked to them, but that’s where we’re at. So the bottom line is all of those smears are absolutely false and, you know, that’s the bottom line.

    But the way “Reliable Sources” edited the clip, that last sentence, in which said the charges “are absolutely false,” was cut out.

    So the question is, are the “Reliable Sources” panelists obligated to refer to nothing but what’s in the content of the clip? I don’t think they are. They also referred to the charges of financial impropriety against Menendez and the NYTimes call for Menendez to resign from his chairmanship, neither of which came up in the clip they played. Since they don’t seem to be limiting their discussion to just what was in the clip that was played, I don’t think they’re obliged to pretend that Menendez hadn’t denied the charges, when he had.

    By the way, there’s a transcript of the “reliable sources” episode available.

    • I think I agree, Barry, with two caveats. One, not showing the part of the quote where Menendez arguably denies the allegations and saying, based on the clip, that he did deny is an example of the media making the public stupid—the obvious take-away is that what Menendez was SHOWN saying constitutes a denial. Believing that aids and abets every slippery miscreant present and future, and sets the public up for more lies and spin. Second, I don’t think I’ll give credit to Menendez for a direct denial. I’ve been burned by politician deceit and slippery phrasing before, and so have we all…Bill Clinton, after all, was never “alone” with Monica, and he didn’t “have sex with her—oh! I didn’t think you meant BLOW jobs!” By the profiler standards, it’s still suspicious that “attack the accuser” comes long before the denial, and that the denial isn’t specific—“At no time did I have sexual relations with an underage prositute, or any prositute, in the Dominican Republic or anywhere else. Instead he says “So the bottom line is all of those smears are absolutely false and, you know, that’s the bottom line.” Which smears? Just the false ones? By definition the smears are false—is he denying all the allegations, or just the smears?

      I’m not trying to be difficult, but Menendez is as unethical as they come, and Reliable Sources was giving him more slack than someone with his instincts can be safely afforded.

  7. As for Dr. Connie Mariano, this is not unexpected when medicine is politicized. Obesity is a problem, and like many problems, it is subject to distortion and lies because the ends justify the means. Obesity has also been redefined down and put into a one-size-fits-all model that has obvious problems. The current recommendation is that I, as a 5’8″ man, should weigh no more than 160 lbs. That is insane. OK, I need to lose weight, I know that, but I think 200 lbs is more realistic for me. I have weighed 160 lbs before. I felt terrible, weak, and people were worried that I had cancer or AIDS (I’m serious about that). That was 20 years ago, as well. At 200 lbs, I will still be considered morbidly obese! When I weighed 210 lbs, I still sank in a swimming pool! My pulse, blood pressure, and bloodwork are all in normal ranges, but I am waiting for news that the government will deny me health insurance or will allow me to have my pay docked because I weigh too much.

    The current war on obesity reminds me much of the war on drugs. Drugs are bad enough and cause enough problems without the need to lie about them. There is no need to distort the truth about drugs and the same is true for obesity.

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