Ethics Dunce: Tony Kornheiser


No pardon for you, Tony...

No pardon for you, Tony…

Tony Kornheiser is a sportswriter and humorist as well as a television and radio personality. I’ve been reading, watching and occasionally laughing at him since I moved to D.C. eons ago, when he was a Washington Post columnist. This post has nothing to do with sports, however, though the issue arose in a sports context. It has to do with the depressing fact that Tony’s mode of ethical analysis is still based on consequentialism and an ignorance of moral luck, and that he is, despite being an educated, erudite and clever man, typical of the public in this respect.

It is depressing, and thus I say, “Ugh.”

For the second time in two days,  the ten minutes I had time to watch TV randomly brought me to a discussion of umpire Marty Foster’s botched third strike call to end a close game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. Tony was arguing with Michael Wilbon on their hit ESPN show, “Pardon the Interruption.” [ Aside: And why did my channel surfing pause there? Because the project that has eaten my life the last couple weeks requires me to mention, in a speech, the HBO Larry David show “Curb Your Enthusiasm, ” and I keep wanting to say “Pardon the Interruption.” I blew it again last night, so naturally, the first thing I see this morning is the show I’m trying to purge from my brain.] They were debating whether Foster should be disciplined for his bad call, an idiotic issue, since the answer is “Of course not; are you nuts?” Umpires make hundreds of judgment calls every game, and mistakes are inevitable. As I wrote yesterday, Foster’s handling of this botched call was exemplary, because he admitted that he had erred. Punishing him or any umpire who misses a visual call would be unfair and destructive; such punishment could only be valid in the case of actual misconduct or negligence, as in the case of an umpire ignoring or not knowing the rules.

But “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—ARRRGH!!!!—“Pardon the Interruption” is based on stupid arguments, so this was hardly a surprise. Here was Tony’s assessment —this is close to his exact words; I grabbed a pen and wrote it down seconds after he spoke—

“Even if Foster had called the pitch correctly and Zobrist walked, it would only put runners on first and second. And there were two outs in the ninth…it’s not as if Foster took the game away from the Rays. So I don’t think you fine the umpire.”

This is ethics idiocy, as well as baseball ignorance, and just plain ordinary idiocy:

  • If you fine an umpire for a mistake, you fine him for the mistake, not for the consequences of the mistake after the fact. A mistake, from the mistake-maker’s point of view (which is the only one that counts) must be judged by the circumstances at the time the mistake was made. In the case of a home plate umpire in a major league game, here are the relevant circumstances: there is  a batter at the plate and a pitcher is pitching to him. That’s it. The game situation is irrelevant to how an umpire calls balls and strikes. There is no sliding scale of required accuracy, in which pitches can be more incompetently judged when the game isn’t on the line.
  • How much the bad call hurt the Rays isn’t to be judged according to how likely it was that a correct call—ball four, putting the batter Zobrist on base—might have changed the outcome of the game. Whether or not the Rays could have rallied to pick up the tying run is 1) impossible to know and 2) moral luck: the hypothetical end result creates the illusion that the mistake was better or worse, but in fact the mistake’s ethical status was set and determined when it was made.
  • Tony’s analysis, in addition to confusing consequences with ethics, is also logically wrong. Foster’s mistake did take the game away from the Rays, because it reduced their chances of winning from some chance to no chance at all. His argument is the same as this one: “Hey, the patient was old and sick. OK, the doctor giving  him poison instead of medicine was bad, but come on: it’s not as if the patient was going to live another ten years. The doctor didn’t kill him.” The doctor did kill him, though, just as Foster killed the Rays.*

Naturally, Tony’s partner, Wilbon, didn’t counter with any of this, because he’s an Ethics Dunce too. Note also that Kornheiser’s conclusion was correct—-Foster shouldn’t be disciplined—-even though his reasoning to reach that conclusion was ethically and logically flawed.

Smart people in the media who use inept ethics reasoning help make our culture more unethical in tiny but significant ways. They net effect of thousands of little moments like this is to make the public less ethical and dumber. Gee, thanks, Tony!

* I had no place where this fit, so I’ll put it in a footnote. Thirty years ago, it was obvious that Kornheiser is a basketball and football guy who only wrote or talked about baseball when he absolutely had to. He didn’t know the game very well, didn’t watch it often, and wasn’t a fan. As a columnist, that was all right, because Kornheiser usually wrote about the sports he knew and enjoyed. On his ESPN show, however, Kornheiser became obligated to opine on all sports, which means that he was obligated to become competent to do his job. Yet the show has been running for a decade, and he still is a baseball ignoramus. He hasn’t done his homework; he doesn’t care about the sport, so he just fakes it when he has to discuss a baseball issue. It’s lazy and irresponsible, as well as unfair to his viewers. This is why I watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm” instead.



6 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Tony Kornheiser

  1. Jack,

    Maybe they should start fining and suspending MLB umps for bad calls as soon as the networks begin fining and suspending sports prognosticators (and stock pickers) for being wrong. Another example of ethical dilution by a thousand cuts, and unfairness to viewers. These “experts” are inevitably wrong more often than not, but they’re back on the air the next day being paid huge amounts of money to pretend to be somehow miraculously able to predict the future

      • Hah!

        But I don’t think so. Weatherpeople use a lot of scientific data and I don’t think they purport to be precise. Look at the hurricane experts who show all fourteen different paths predicted by their various computer models. Weather people strike me as being pretty darned modest. I think they have an inherent respect and understanding of nature’s power and unpredictability. Sports guys and TV stock pickers strike me as being smug. Plus, I went to high school with the sons of a hurricane guy in Miami. Their dad was just a very earnest, smart dad who went to work and did his job as best he could, which was fairly well as it turns out.

  2. Judging Tony Kornheiser’s ethics on any one subject is like criticizing Burpee because every seed in my packet doesn’t produce a tomato plant…. Tony gets by on sheer volume and mass and his audience could care less about real analysis; they just want manic quips…

    PTI panders to a specific demographic, and does it quite well.. That’s why i haven’t watched it in years.

    • I don’t see the analogy. All those seeds aren’t linked, and signature significance applies to Tony, or anyone, saying something this unethical and dumb.. If Tony doesn’t know that’s idiotic reasoning here, then he doesn’t know its idiotic reasoning, period.

  3. Well, after reading all these comments, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I occasionally watch and enjoy the PTI — exclusively for the basketball commentary. In my experience Kornheiser tends to be fairly consistent in his judgements: If an act causes great damage to the game then the punishment should reflect the damage caused; if an act causes little damage then the punishment will be light. Many people agree that punishment should fairly reflect the severity of the act, and by extension its immediate consequences, so his position is not surprising. It sounds to me like Kornheiser discounted the act’s effects to such a degree as to warrant no punishment at all — the “no harm, no foul” rule.

    I think we’ve all come to the same conclusion here, but by different paths. I guess that shows that in ethics, intuition can be right, even if the logic is flawed.

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