Ethics Quote of the Week: CNN’s Jake Tapper

“Even if you side with this president over those of us in the media who challenge him in his administration, it is important to remember the precedent these actions set going forward, perhaps when it’s not your guy in the White House.”

Jake Tapper, former ABC reporter turned CNN headliner, warning knee-jerk Obama defenders that there are rather significant risks in supporting leaders and their governments when they obstruct basic rights, just because you like their policies and don’t like the citizens who are being mistreated.

Martin Niemöller said it better, but some people need the reminder...

Martin Niemöller said it better, but some people need the reminder…

I’m not especially enamored of  Tapper’s quote, and the fact that such a statement is noteworthy coming from a major news media figure is depressing. Tapper introduced his warning by admitting that he was biased himself, “but.”  I suppose admitting a presumably leftward bias is worthy of praise for transparency’s sake—and Tapper has copped to being biased before—yet it also reminds us how truly untrustworthy our supposed bulwark against tyranny (that is, the news media)  is, siding as it does with the party currently in charge with such consistency.

His is also not truly an ethical statement, as it relies on a non-ethical argument, the equivalent of “Hey, we probably shouldn’t kill that guy, because then his gang will be coming after us.” There’s no ethics at all in Tapper’s argument, except that the conduct he’s attempting to encourage, responsible citizenship and the refusal to tolerate the abuse of power, is more ethical than the alternative, which is what we’ve been seeing for almost five years. The Golden Rule, in other words, in not “Do unto others because if you don’t it’s very possible that the soon the others may be doing the same thing to you.”

Tapper’s statement is disturbing in other ways. The fact that he has to make it at all means that a substantial number of Obama supporters really don’t understand that it’s the job of all journalists to challenge this President and any other, and that a substantial number of his colleagues don’t understand it either, or don’t care. That the news media is only now giving full vigor to criticism over the way the Administration handles itself because it finds itself abused is pretty damning, the rough equivalent of Sen. Portman deciding that gays deserve basic rights only after discovering that his son is one. The New York Times editorial board has tried to spin the Benghazi deceptions to protect Obama, and initially sided with the I.R.S. in its targeting of conservative groups, but now it is sputtering with outrage over the AP surveillance and the James Rosen prosecution.

Too late: the illusion of integrity for these Sunday soldiers is long gone. I don’t see why anyone should pay any attention to what the Times is outraged about any more, though it is ruefully satisfying to see them living the experience described famously in the poem by pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), who in fact did end up in a Nazi concentration camps:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Though associated indelibly with the Holocaust, Niemöller’s words also stand for broader applications of tolerance, fairness, respect for the rule of law, courage, integrity, and the dangers of hypocrisy. Tapper’s warning is just a pale version of the same thought. What is frightening to me is that in this century, in this nation, founded by men so suspicious of the inherent abuses of entrenched power and so determined to avoid them, anybody would still have to be reminded of it.


Sources: Huffington Post 1, 2

Graphic: US Holocuast Memorial

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: CNN’s Jake Tapper

  1. I don’t read Tapper’s comments that way, Jack. Watch the video again (the quote in question comes towards the end). Tapper says “I’m a journalist. I have a bias here.”

    My read is that Tapper is not acknowledging a political bias, but in fact acknowledging that he has a bias towards journalism, unfettered. Seen in that context, I believe that Tapper’s comments were actually reasonable – with the caveat that he’s editorializing, not reporting.

    My own bias: Tapper has impressed me over the years for being one of the few members of the Washington press corps who actually seems to keep his political views out of his work. And to that point, you’re probably correct that we shouldn’t need to be reminded that this is the way it’s supposed to work.

    • Yes, I see that confirmation bias nailed me good on that one—I really was giving Tapper credit for admitting a routine pro-Obama bias, as he has in the past suggested of his colleagues, when you are quite right—he’s saying that he is biased against what the Justice Department did because he could be a target too. And THAT also bothers me.

      I agree with you about Tapper, who I recently mentioned in another thread as one of a handful of trustworthy reporters who at least tries to be objective.

  2. On the other hand, that’s probably the best we’re going to get from the bulk of the mainstream media. It’s an unintentional revelation of their group mentality, but it also reflects some wisdom that might rub off on their leftwing followers. If in no other way, we’ve learned that lesson on the Right from the Patriot Act and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. Such exra-constitutional measures- even with the highest of intentions- can leave a legacy that, in the wrong hands, can be perverted into a weapon against the very people it was intended to protect. The Constitution’s protections are sufficient. When we go beyond them, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the machinations of future leaders with either lesser ability or lesser ethics.

  3. On my blog, I have a tendency to offer arguments similar to Tapper’s, and I sometimes get comments similar to your criticism of his argument. It’s a valid point, they’re not statements of ethical principles, but sometimes these are the kinds of arguments you have to make to people who don’t find the ethical argument compelling.

    Anyone who sides with the Obama team on the issue of AP surveillance and the Rosen prosecution is clearly not going to be easily convinced that it’s unethical, but maybe they can be convinced that it’s unwise. “Hey, we probably shouldn’t kill that guy, because then his gang will be coming after us,” is what you fall back on when “Hey, killing that guy is wrong,” doesn’t seem to be working. Also, it’s a way of sneaking “How would you like it if they did that to you?” into the discussion, which is a way of encouraging people to view issues from other angles.

    And as you point out with the Niemöller quote, this argument is also a call to mobilization. Some don’t think the AP surveillance and the Rosen prosecution are right, but they don’t think they’re very important compared to other issues (the economy, Citizen’s United, global warming, healthcare, take your pick) and pointing out that there are larger implications is a way of causing people to re-think that.

    • That’s an important point to make, Mark—thanks. This is why religion and moral codes—“Do the right thing because you’ll be damned for eternity if you don’t”—has always been much more effective than ethics in controlling social conduct. It’s also why laws work better than ethics blogs in some areas….but also why they don’t work well enough, since people figure that if there’s a way to avoid the penalty, there’s no reason not to break the law. The argument that “if there’s no God, why do good?” shows so horribly unethical an orientation, but it is considered a valid debate topic.

  4. I’m going to agree with others and say you were too harsh on Mr Tapper. He has been exceedingly consistent in his efforts to get actual answers out of the White House (he even once said words to the effect of ‘that’s great, but you didn’t actually answer my question…’).

    Does he have a liberal bias? Probably, but his reporting on the White House has been excellent these last several years, and his statement really is more of a condemnation of people who are not ethical (most everyone else in his business) – “Okay, fine, you think it is fine because it goes after people you don’t like… But next time, when these same tactics are used against people you do like, you will have no argument to defend yourself, because you will have already given your tacit approval.”

  5. “What is frightening to me is that in this century, in this nation, founded by men so suspicious of the inherent abuses of entrenched power and so determined to avoid them, anybody would still have to be reminded of it.”

    It’s the only possible result of an educational system devoted to teaching praise of unfettered government. But arguing that teaching the Government needs to be feared and watched is merely seen as a conservative talking point these days, I’m afraid.

    • I wonder what they teach caused the Trail of Tears and the Tuskegee Experiments?

      Misplaced paperwork?

      • The Trail of Tears resulted from a strong president (Andrew Jackson) successfully defying the Constitution, the separation of powers and state’s rights. It illustrates the point of what can happen when the Constitution isn’t defended. It becomes a piece of paper. If Obama has his way, it won’t even be that. Now… what the hell are the Tuskegee experiments?

          • I take it that this “Public Health Service” was some sort of federal agency? Why did they go to Tuskegee Institute with this moronic “experiment” with disease for which no cure yet existed, how did they pick their subjects and was the program voluntary or not. The NPR account is vaguer and, because of that and the fact that this IS NPR to begin with, the entire story needs further examination. This also apparently involved only a couple of dozen subjects. If you want to talk about a true abuse of power in defiance of the Constitution, look to the detention of the Nisei in WWII. That scares me a lot more.

            • The Tuskegee syphilis experiment[ was a … clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government.

              The Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began the study in 1932. Investigators enrolled in the study a total of 600 impoverished sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama; 399 who had previously contracted syphilis before the study began, and 201 without the disease. For participating in the study, the men were given free medical care, meals, and free burial insurance. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for “bad blood”, a local term for various illnesses that include syphilis, anemia, and fatigue.

              The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards; primarily because researchers knowingly failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease they were studying.

              By 1947, penicillin had become the standard treatment for syphilis. Choices available to the doctors involved in the study might have included treating all syphilitic subjects and closing the study, or splitting off a control group for testing with penicillin. Instead, the Tuskegee scientists continued the study without treating any participants and withholding penicillin and information about it from the patients. In addition, scientists prevented participants from accessing syphilis treatment programs available to others in the area. The study continued, under numerous US Public Health Service supervisors, until 1972…. The victims of the study included numerous men who died of syphilis, wives who contracted the disease, and children born with congenital syphilis.


              I don’t quite agree that this is “one of the worst breaches of medical ethics of all time”, but it’s sufficiently horrific to be classed with them.

              Unfortunately, the only reason I don’t class it as “one of the worst” is because even worse things are happening now, in 2013 not 1953, to Intersex kids, and because of even worse things again that happened post-war with Japanese “researchers” as bad as Mengele being allowed to continue experimentation in the US.

              • Actually, penicillin was known earlier. It wasn’t until the War that an emergency program came up with a way to cheaply mass produce and it became viable over the preceding sulfa drugs as a treatment. Apparently, this Tuskegee incident was the result of some government/university run medical project that was poorly conceived and executed. That, in itself, is hardly without precedent. It seems that the racial angle is what mainly elevates it to notoriety. I’d heard of it before, but failed to study it fully due to the inevitable politicization aspect. Federal grant programs and partnerships tend to take on a life of their own.

  6. Thanks for the poem, Jack. Tremendous. It reminds me why I majored in English as an undergrad rather than, oh, say, political science. Of course, I also didn’t know what the heck “political science” was. I’ve since come to believe it involves the study of “how to get yourself or someone who’ll pay you elected to a political office without regard to any of the things that are important to an ethical or civilized society.”

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