Ethics Dunce: Slate Editor David Plotz

SlateDavid Plotz, journalist and editor of the on-line culture magazine Slate, takes on the California Supreme Court in an essay in his magazine, harshly criticizing the 7-0 decision yesterday to deny Stephen Glass the opportunity to practice law in the state. Glass has been attempting for almost 20 year to persuade some state that a star journalist who was exposed as a pathological liar is a trustworthy lawyer. Plotz’s attack on the opinion as smug and self-righteous says a lot more about Plotz and his field of journalism than it does about the court. It  exposes the perils of a non-lawyer delving into legal ethics without even a modicum of research. Mostly, the exercise shows how far journalism has fallen, when the editor of a prestigious on-line journalistic enterprise essentially denies the importance of professionalism. “It’s a job,” he concludes about the law, trying to bring lawyers down to the depths of his own, thoroughly debased line of work.

Not that the decision isn’t ripe for criticism, for it is. In particular, the majority reasoning continues the legal field’s strange hypocrisy of applying a far more stringent standard to the character of those trying to get their licenses that it does to those who have proven themselves unworthy of holding them. The District of Columbia, supposedly one of the toughest jurisdiction regarding legal discipline, recently administered a mild reprimand to a Justice Department attorney who had been practicing on a suspended license for more than two decades. John Edwards, whose trail of lies while deceiving his dying wife and devising schemes to hide his pregnant mistress in order to gull the Democratic party into nominating him for President, has managed to avoid any discipline at all despite the fact that his continuing leave to practice law disgraces every lawyer on the planet. And, of course, the very same court Plotz derides now recently delivered the stunning conclusion that a non-citizen who entered the country illegally and engaged in years of lies to remain here is nonetheless fit to be a lawyer. (Naturally, Plotz liked that decision.) None of these are mentioned in the post.

Instead, Plotz sets some kind of record by rendering his own argument null and void in the second paragraph of his introduction. “I don’t like Steve. And I don’t trust Steve,” he writes.

Thus he announces, presumably unwittingly, that the rest of his post will be devoted to why the Supreme Court of California should have admitted to the practice of law someone he knows personally and doesn’t trust. The Court should give a man a law license—to handle clients’ money, advise them on life and death matters, set up their employment terms, organize their estates, arrange for the welfare of their dependents and loved ones, defend them against prosecution, and help normal citizens bewildered by and vulnerable to the rapidly proliferating laws, taxes and regulations that make every act in the United States, no matter how trivial, a legal risk, find protection and service in our government rather than peril—who Plotz himself agrees can’t be trusted.

What distinguishes the professions like law, the clergy, medicine, accountancy, and once, believe it or not, journalism, from mere jobs is that trust is central to their duties, societal function and very existence.

After torpedoing his own argument (and credibility) before it even begins, Plotz’s essay reveals itself as diatribe against lawyers. How can the judges condemn Glass’s honesty—heh, honest lawyers? Come on. Then, in a stunning display of unconscious contradiction, Plotz argues that the judges’ concern about Glass’s is overwrought since he is so well-recognized as a liar that every client and judge will be watching him like a hawk…so why worry? The same argument could be made for letting Bernie Madoff open shop as an investment manager or Casey Anthony as a day care proprietor. Immediately after this stunning segment, Plotz says, “Admitting Stephen Glass to the bar would help the people of California who need lawyers.” Really? Plenty of lawyers who never fabricated articles for The New Republic are having trouble finding work in California and everywhere else—people who need lawyer can find them. Moreover, nobody—nobody—“needs” a dishonest and untrustworthy lawyer.

Plotz is the editor of Slate. If he believes in Glass’s rehabilitation as much as he claims (never mind that trust thing), his course is obvious. He can hire Glass and take him back into the fold as journalist. He’s not going to do that, of course, He’s no fool.

He’s just an ethics dunce.


12 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Slate Editor David Plotz

    • Particularly the point that everyone would be on their guard. Our host torpedoed that from one angle, but here’s another. If every judge and client and colleague had to check everything he says, then he would be molasses in the gears of a legal system that can’t afford any more slowdowns. That’s a non-ethical consideration but a real one.

    • Well, it is if you are unaware that in 2011 Glass lied to the panel that was investigating his attempt to join the California Bar.

      Here’s a lil hint – when you are trying to show a professional organization that you have changed your pathological-liar ways, you probably should lie to said organization.

      • Gah, my apologies. Thought you were making a comparison, and not in essence saying “Plotz makes a damn fine case for why Glass shouldn’t have gotten admitted”. My bad.

        Excuse me while I go get coffee.

  1. But wait, there’s more!

    Not only was Glass making a career of lies, he even made things worse with his choices of what lies to tell.

    Whether it’s his invention of debauchery at Republican meetings or the racism of “Taxis and the meaning of work”, he was sowing suspicion and division.

    If someone who told racist lies suddenly began always telling the truth, the racism would remain.

  2. Ah, that classic dodge, where anyone holding anyone else to any kind of moral, ethical, or behavioral standard is “smug,” “judgemental,” or “self-righteous.” Gotta love it.

  3. the editor of a prestigious on-line journalistic enterprise essentially denies the importance of professionalism.

    I agree. Who did that?

    Because all I see you talking about here is that crap-pile Slate…

  4. Am I missing something here, or is Plotz essentially telling us that nothing Slate publishes can be trusted because insisting on honesty is snobbish? Does Plotz also feel that the readers of Slate who need news are better served by wrong information than by no information, and that it is incumbent upon the readers of Slate to verify what Slate publishes?

    • To be blunt, I don’t think Plotz thought that post through at all. He comes off as an idiot, and he is not an idiot. It seems like a journalist’s lament that other professions look his colleagues that managed to paint itself in a corner and demonstrate exactly why they do. and should.

  5. What distinguishes the professions like law, the clergy, medicine, accountancy, and once, believe it or not, journalism, from mere jobs is that trust is central to their duties, societal function and very existence.

    I once looked into this issue and came to a different conclusion, that the essential feature of professions – the thing that makes them professions – is that their practitioners can practise in a free standing way. That keeps being undercut as systems get set up to bring them within the systems’ reach, which has already overtaken teachers and is well on the way with medicine, but that criterion applies to the rest of that list apart from journalism, which only ever qualified as a profession by courtesy (apart from a few quasi-independent essayists, who are really something else again). Of course, that gives rise to our need for the practitioners to be trustworthy and so on, since they aren’t constrained to act within systems, but that feature is derivative from the essential feature, not essential and central in itself.

  6. The editor of a rag like Slate is already compromised ethically before he offers his first word. For him then to go on and question the ethics of (perhaps) the one profession that challenges his as the most ethically fallen in American society reveals hypocrisy as another of his misqualities. This is a true, blatant case of the pot calling the kettle black. The even greater irony is that this guy is protesting that a California court actually got it right for once.

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