Ethics Observations On Tim Geithner’s Ethics Quote Of The Month

Stress Test

“I remember during one Roosevelt Room prep session before I appeared on the Sunday shows, I objected when Dan Pfeiffer wanted me to say Social Security didn’t contribute to the deficit. It wasn’t a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute. Pfeiffer said the line was a ‘dog whistle’ to the left, a phrase I had never heard before. He had to explain that the phrase was code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.”

—- Former Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, revealing that the White House wanted him to mislead the public on the deficit, debt and Social Security, in his newly published memoir, “Stress Test.”

Some ethics observations:

  • Sadly and predictably, the conservative news organizations are going bananas over this passage, while the liberal organizations—that is to say, all of the rest—are scrupulously ignoring it or trying to. Why sadly? Because in an ethical, objective journalistic culture, every reporter would be examining this admission, and critically.
  • Any journalist who is not bothered by this account has implicitly adopted the position that it is acceptable for the President of the United Sates and U.S. officials to mislead the public regarding crucial matters they have a right to know and understand. This is an unethical position for anyone, but especially for a journalist.
  • Of course, this is not the position of most left-oriented journalists. The position of these journalists is, apparently, that it is acceptable for Democratic Presidents of the United Sates and officials in Democratic administrations to mislead the public regarding crucial matters they have a right to know and understand, since they have exhibited no such tolerance when Republicans have occupied the White House.

  • More unethical still, the position of these journalists appears to be  that it is only acceptable for this Democratic President of the United Sates and officials in his administration to mislead the public regarding crucial matters they have a right to know and understand, since they have held past Democratic Presidents, such as President Johnson, to higher standards of transparency, and vociferously so.
  • This double standard (Quadruple standard? What is a double standard in applying a double standard?) is especially irresponsible, because this President famously proclaimed that his administration would be the most transparent in history.
  • From this anecdote, we learn that Dan Pfeiffer, now the head of White House communications, believes that his job is to lie, and get others to lie, for political and electoral advantage. What does it tell us that the head of White House communications believes that his job is to deceive and mislead the public? Pfeiffer has been sent to the Sunday talk shows to give the White House’s position on controversies such as the I.R.S. scandal. I’ll put these in the form of questions, because there is only one honest, objective non-partisan answer to any of them:
  1. What does it tell us when the White House sends a paid liar to explain issues to the public?
  2. What does it tell us about the President and the White House that its communications chief sees his responsibility as obscuring the truth, rather than relaying it?
  3. What does this anecdote tell us about the culture, values, ethics and trustworthiness of the administration?
  • If they know this—and do you really think it possible that they do not?—why would any news show allow Pfeiffer on the program as a spkesperson, giving him a forum to mislead?
  • The growing message coming from the columnists and pundits on the left–the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne, Bob Beckel and many more—is that the Benghazi controversy is, in Milbank’s words, a “nothingburger,” even though they concede that the White House “may have” conspired to mislead the public regarding the real nature of the attack by programming United Nations delegate Susan Rice to lie, just as Pfeiffer tried to do the same with Geithner. This account gives credence to critics claims that this is exactly what happened. Is the fact that the White House routinely deceives the public really all right with these people? No big deal? Everybody does it?  Do all progressives and Democrats feel this way? If so, that is a major scandal in itself.
  • I heard Laura Ingraham argue on Fox News this morning that Geithner was obligated to resign if he felt he was being pressured to lie. That would have been one ethical response, and perhaps the best one, but I don’t agree that this was his obligation, or even the decision that best served the nation. He was obligated not to lie, and more, to tell the truth about Social Security. I don’t recall, nor can I find, and record of Geithner admitting that Social Security’s problems would add to the debt or deficit, so it seems he deceived the public by omission.
  • As I have stated in other cases of administration officials cashing in with memoirs that reveal sensitive conversation that were presumed at the time to be confidential, Geithner should have held his memoir until President Obama was out of office, and ideally, long after. His description of the conversation with Pfeiffer is a breach of trust, and a venal one.

_____________________________________

Sources: Newsbusters, Daily Mail

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at jamproethics@verizon.net.

13 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On Tim Geithner’s Ethics Quote Of The Month

      • Geithner’s tax issues are excusable generally, because the tax system is absurd. I’ve had my own tax problems; I won’t throw that particular stone. Appointing a Treasury Secretary with such issues was unconscionable, however, and signaled the kind of hypocrisy and double-talk that we have come to know and love the last 6 tears.

  1. I am a bit bothered by your line here, Jack. Sure, it is a breach of trust for Geitner to publish this information, but was it not also a breach of trust for the White House to tell him to go on TV and lie to the voters ? I think there should be a risk for the Pfeiffers and their bosses, that if they tell someone to tell lies for them, they may be found out in time for there to be meaningful consequences. Waiting until everyone involved is out of politics before making the revelation just gives them a free pass, and encourages the next generation to use the same tactics.

    Switching context, if your boss in a law firm tells you to lie to the court, what do you do ? Please don’t say ‘Wait until he retires’

    • 1. To answer the last question first—You report this directly to the law firm’s management committee, and/or leave the firm.
      2. If Geithner isn’t going to blow the whistle when there is some consequence for doing so (other than speaking fees and book sales), then it is unethical to do it afterwards, when it is so far removed from the event that all it odes is cause embarrassment. A workplace, like a home, should be a place where people are comfortable making mistakes, speculating, or vetting bad advice and ideas. Moreover, the presumption is that this is the case—taking confidential conversations outside is a professional breach, in every profession.

  2. “■Sadly and predictably, the conservative news organizations are going bananas over this passage, …”

    Jack – Can you expound upon your comment quoted above? What are the ethical implications of the conservative groups going bananas over Geithner’s recollection of his conversation with Pfeiffer? And how can we be sure that Geithner’s recollection is accurate and trustworthy?

    • It’s sad that the conservative outlets are overplaying it, and the others are ignoring it. It is worthy of being part of the discussion, particularly in light of the Benghazi memo. It is, or probably is, a useful piece of information regarding the culture at the White House. Why are communication staff telling cabinet officers what to do?

      The phenomenon is tragic—one ideological side refuses to be objectively critical, causing the other side to be overly critical, thus justifying accusations of hyping, which rationalizes further suppression of real issues. I think this is what happened, essentially, in Iraq. The isolationist, pacifist left was making absurd, fear-mongering claims about the looming Iraq invasion, which could have and should have been justified purely on the basis of Iraq’s violation of the cease fire terms. But every day opposition was pumping pure fakery into the discussion—I heard Janeane Garafolo argue on Al Gore’s radio network that an invasion would cost 500,000 American lives, for example. So the administration played fear-mongering back, over-hyping evidence of WMD’s to turn public opinion.

      Gaithner’s anecdote may have been an anomaly (though it wasn’t), a miscommunication, a mistake, or a pattern and a policy—or he just wanted to make himself look good in his book. But he wrote it, and put his name behind it—we should take it at face value, especially since there is other evidence of similar conduct.

  3. …we should take it at face value, especially since there is other evidence of similar conduct.

    Given Geithner’s well-established mendacity, hypocrisy, and self-promotion, and the fact that he is fully aware that “revelations” like this are likely to sell more copies of his book, I’ll pass on taking anything he says at face value, thanks… even if the subject of the commentary is equally unethical.

  4. He has not integrity, ethics , morals and obviously he has no respect for himself as long as he gets the almighty dollar and paid retirement. It is obvious he has little respect for his own family members by his actions. The other sad thing about all these meetings, there will be a lot of dog tail wagging and tongue licking words from Congress, but in the end as always they all know nothing is going to happen to them. There is nothing in place to hold these people accountable and they know it. They know they may be embarrassed for awhile, but in the end they walk away with retirement plans in place, no jail time and they each along with their family have all their benefits in place still.

  5. The growing message coming from the columnists and pundits on the left–the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne, Bob Beckel and many more—is that the Benghazi controversy is, in Milbank’s words, a “nothingburger,” even though they concede that the White House “may have” conspired to mislead the public regarding the real nature of the attack by programming United Nations delegate Susan Rice to lie, just as Pfeiffer tried to do the same with Geithner. This account gives credence to critics claims that this is exactly what happened. Is the fact that the White House routinely deceives the public really all right with these people? No big deal? Everybody does it? Do all progressives and Democrats feel this way? If so, that is a major scandal in itself.

    this begs two questions.

    Does the American public at large tolerate routine deception by elected officials? If the answer is yes, we can only expect more and worse.

    How do Dana Milbank, Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne, Bob Beckel have more credibility than David Duke?

    • The American public is being encouraged to think that way, and cognitive dissonance among Democrats is leading them to think that way.

      I don’t think David Duke is your comp here. He’s a racist, not a liar. How do Dana Milbank, Richard Cohen, E.J. Dionne, or Bob Beckel have more credibility than Ken Lay, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, Susan Rice, Rod Blagojevich, Eliot Spitzer, Baghdad Bob, Vladamir Putin or Jay Carney?

      They don’t.

  6. Answers:
    yes
    We expect it and we get it. Such are lowered expectations.
    they do not
    No one has credibility anymore.

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