I just checked. I was certain that I had named Carol Costello an Ethics Dunce a half-dozen times at least, and discovered, to my shock and shame, that she has never been designated one here. Unethical Quotes of the Month, the chief offender in various disgraceful and biased performances by CNN or the news media as a whole, but somehow the most throbbingly ethics-challenged broadcast journalist not employed by MSNBC or Fox has never been honored as an Ethics Alarms Ethics Dunce!
Well, that streak ends now, and I can make it short and sweet.
This morning, Costello once again confidently proclaimed her lack of familiarity with the concept of ethics by summing up the conviction of former Virginian Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife for bribery and corruption this way:
“Now the Virginia legislature needs to pass tough new ethics laws so this never happens again.“
I’m just going to go into my shed with a hammer, and club myself into oblivion, because obviously my life is pointless and an utter failure.
Yes, Carol, that’s right: laws make people ethical. We have seen how tough laws against murder have banished murder from our society, for example. And we all know how successful anti-drug laws have been.
I believe in civility and respect in public discourse, but sometimes it just has to be said, and there is no nice way to say it: Carol Costello is an idiot, and it is irresponsible for CNN to allow her to appear on national broadcasts and make the American public even dumber and more confused than it already is.
Costello’s ridiculous statement, which confounds having rules and nurturing citizens who don’t need the rules because they live and work ethically without them, is of a piece with this jaw-dropping episode, in which The Center for Public Integrity chose—don’t laugh, now—New Jersey as the “least corruptible state” because it had passed the most anti-corruption laws. Laws and rules do not make elected officials, or people generally, ethical. They communicate society’s ethical and moral standards for those who can’t figure them out on their own, but if a state elects a governor with dead ethics alarms, who doesn’t see anything untoward about allowing a businessman with interests in his state to pay for the governor’s daughter’s wedding, then tougher laws are only going to change–maybe—the kind of corruption he’s involved in. He will still be unethical, and unethical public officials do unethical things. The smart ones just find the loopholes in the law. or are so charismatic that we let them get away with it.
Let’s look at it this way: if CNN puts in place a Code of Conduct requiring its broadcasters not to be biased, smug and incompetent, but still hires, say, Carol Costello to be its weekday morning anchor, will the existence of that Code stop Carol, who is biased, smug and incompetent, from being so? Of course it won’t. Similarly, no ethics laws can ensure ethical conduct by elected officials if parties keep nominating unethical candidates and the public keeps electing them.
[NOTE: There’s a runner-up to the Ethics Dunce award regarding the McDonnell conviction, by the way: Washington Post conservative pundit Jennifer Rubin, who wrote this, the thrust of which is that the result “may serve to criminalize a whole range of standard behavior that has been a fixture of politics at all levels of government for decades,” and that this is somehow unfair and ominous—in short, “Everybody does it,” so we really shouldn’t make a big deal about it. If officials at all levels of government have been enriching themselves like McDonnell and his wife did, then that is a horrible indictment of the character of those holding public office, and already in stark violation of the prohibition in every state of conduct that creates the appearance of impropriety, because democracy is based on trust, and such conduct destroys trust. Such conduct must be criminalized, even though laws alone are not enough…thanks in part to unethical enablers like Rubin. ]