…and almost all the passengers so far are journalists.
An Ethics Train Wreck is an episode involving unethical conduct that rapidly exposes ethical flaws, if not an outright lack of ethics, in a steadily widening group of participants, commentators and stake-holders and even victims. The Brian Williams Ethics Train Wreck, like most of them, could have been averted early in the journey, if, for example, NBC had immediately acted responsibly and suspended Williams when the facts of his 13-year-long fable about being in a wounded helicopter over Iraq were exposed by Stars and Stripes. It did not however, and now NBC executives have First Class seats after apparently knowing about Williams’ lies and doing nothing. It is Williams’ colleagues and compatriots in journalism, however, who are rapidly filling up Coach. In doing so, they are demonstrating that even some of the most famous names in the field have the under-developed ethical instincts of an 11-year-old, and that when substantive ethical analysis is required, they resort to rationalizations. This is discouraging, if not surprising. For example:
Here is liberal lion and lengendary PBS commentator Bill Moyers on Twitter:
That’s the depth of analysis we get from Moyers: flat out Rationalization #22, Comparative Virtue, #2, The “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse, and “Everybody does it.” So what counts most in “journalism excellence” to this multiple Peabody Award winner isn’t that a journalist tells the truth, but that he doesn’t lie about the things Moyers cares about.
The ex-CNN talk-show host, whose credentials as an ethical and trustworthy journalist are, well, non-existent, penned a sarcastic attack on Williams’s critics called “Do we want to tar and feather Brian Williams or let him be the BETTER journalist this ‘scandal’ will make him? And trust me, I’ve been there.” As you can see, his argument begins with a straw man, and a cheaply made one at that: No, we don’t want to tar and feather Brian Williams, we just don’t think liars should be paid millions to tell the nation what happened in the world when he can’t be trusted to be truthful about what happened to him. It goes on to mass a pile of juvenile rationalizations, all of the Biblical rationalizations for example, which is a terrific example of someone projecting his own highly dubious career onto every other journalist. Yes, Piers, we get that someone with your dubious past would have trouble being taken seriously “throwing stones” at another journalist’s ethics, but not everyone is you. Then Morgan repeatedly says that Williams is being pilloried because he isn’t perfect [ #19 “Nobody’s Perfect!” and #20. The “Just one mistake!” Fantasy], and this is so unfair because he’s wonderful and should be given a break [ a classic #11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?” and #38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!”]
Morgan moves on to quoting the infamous #22, used by Moyers above, saying, “Brian Williams didn’t kill anyone.” Oh, is that the high standard we should hold journalists to now? They are unassailable unless they killed someone? Actually, a murderous by scrupulously objective and honest anchor man would be more trustworthy and better qualified than Williams…or Morgan, for that matter.
Then Morgan’s absolutely ethics free argument—this guy lectured us from his perch at CNN, remember—ends with this:
“Brian Williams, I’m sure, will never embellish a story again, nor I suspect put himself in the middle of it. He will, if he is allowed, be a better reporter and anchor as a result of what he is now going through.”
“Why is it that the loudest voices condemning Brian Williams never served in combat, were never combat reporters? “I think that all these people with Twitter accounts who are attacking this person from the safety of their mother’s basement should shut up and let the soldiers and the GIs deal with this.”
It may be true, as Josh Marshall wrote, if you are defended by Geraldo, you’re doomed, but Geraldo could at least devise a defense that doesn’t consist of an ad hominem fallacy—where the critics do their typing does not mean what they are typing isn’t true—and another variation on the Biblical rationalizations, claiming that a critic has to have standing to object to a clear ethics violation. I now realize I need to add this to the list: let’s call it “The Stranger’s Shoes” or “Let’s see you try to be ethical!” I guess only a national network anchorman who was imbedded in combat can object to being lied to by a national network anchorman who was imbedded in combat, right, Geraldo?
MSNBC’s star of “Morning Joe” may be the worst of all. He used the Biblical Rationalizations to threaten any Williams critics in the media or in public life. From Newsbusters:
JOE SCARBOROUGH: You know, one of the things — one of the verses in the Bible that always — always makes me a little nervous before I start judging other people is the one that says that you will be judged and you will be given the mercy that you show others. I think we should all step back and ask whether we are so perfect that we want to be the ones to cast that first stone. Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone. I’m in no position to cast the first stone. And quite frankly, in over a decade in this news business, it is fair to say, looking straight in the camera [he looks right into the camera], I’ve seen a lot, I know a lot, and I know that there are very few people in this industry or in politics that could live by the standard of perfection. Cast the first stone? I would be careful.
Could this be worse? Essentially, Joe, who is both a politician and a member of the media, and an NBC employee, is 1) saying that virtually everyone in the news media is as big a liar and as untrustworthy as Williams, 2) admitting that he knows who is lying, but won’t let the public they are lying to know, and 3) threatening anyone who dares to criticize Williams that he, Scarborough, might expose them in retaliation.