From The Ethics Alarms “Do The Ends Justify The Means?” Files: The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Inspiring Scam

At one point, profiling the double-mastectomied Paulette Leaphart’s 1,000-mile walk from  Mississippi to Washington, D.C….topless…CNN reporter Jessica Ravitz writes,

“If even one woman’s life was saved thanks to a conversation Paulette started, wasn’t that enough? So what if our hero was flawed?”

Oh, no: the “just one child/just one life” rationalization again! (Which, I now notice, isn’t on the Rationalizations List, and it should be.)

Ravitz writes this to begin a long, detailed, infuriating narrative about the well-publicized and much-hyped crusade of Leaphart, whose journey, displaying her scarred chest,  was to ostensibly demand more funds for cancer research cure and  better and more affordable health care. She said she was a champion for women without breasts “to believe in their beauty and be proud of their strength.”

“By showcasing and embracing her scars, she hoped to inspire others to do the same,” Ravitz writes. “Her journey was bold, visual, moving. It offered a hero to admire and, given Paulette’s audacious decision to walk shirtless in the face of strangers, a rich spectacle to witness. It spoke to African-American women, who face the highest breast cancer mortality rate. It inspired legions of survivors. And it spoke to many who’d lost someone to the disease.”

Ravitz is conflicted, clearly, as she tells the complicated story of the woman whose official cause is admirable, but whose motives are murky, and whose credibility is non-existent. While explaining the mounds of evidence she uncovered that the woman has a record of deception, venality and financial flim-flam, that she sees the long walk as a ticket to fame and cash, and that she has lied and fabricated aspects of her ‘inspirational story” repeatedly while the efforts of journalists to pin her down. Yet Ravitz still ends up by  being wishy-washy and equivocal:

“There’s no way to measure how much of a difference Paulette Leaphart made in shaping the conversation about cancer in this country. She touched many minds and hearts, but whether she did so in the most honest and transparent way remains questionable.”

What? There is nothing questionable about whether Leaphart has been honest and transparent—she hasn’t. Ravitz documents her deceptions impressively. She lied about her cancer treatment. She lied about her eligibility for Medicaid and financial resources. She lied to a documentary team that had arranged to follow her, leading them to end the relationship. She lied on her Facebook page, representing her health travails by using the experiences of a friend. Her unguarded comments suggest that she began the walk as a way to make money for herself as well as research. She accepted contributions under false pretenses.  Yet the journalist still seems to want to say that all of this doesn’t matter,  if some good resulted from it:

In the weeks before publishing this story, I set out to give Paulette a chance to address questions I still had and to respond to accusations made by others. I emailed her twice detailing my reporting and asking for answers about everything from her career and court judgments to her cancer and treatment. When I got no reply, I texted her and even had my editor send her a Facebook message. Then I called her. She indicated she had seen my questions and told me she didn’t want to talk to me.Soon after my first email, Paulette thanked Jesus on Facebook for her “brand spanking new house” and shared a photograph of the home.”I obeyed him,” she said of God, “even when the devil was riding my back.”

Days before we published this story, Paulette took to Facebook Live and said that about 25 years ago, after multiple suicide attempts and a nervous breakdown, she was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder. She said 10 years of therapy helped her integrate more than 20 personalities. She said she was going public with this after reading about the movie “Split,” by M. Night Shyamalan. Once more, I felt for her — and wished I could know what to believe.

After reading Ravitz’s own story, I think we know what to believe, so it’s bizarre that she doesn’t  Disassociative personality disorder is extremely rare, and some experts even doubt that it is real.  It is also one of the great last ditch excuses of all time. Which personality lied on Facebook, Paulette? Is Leaphart’s next stunt going to be a long walk split up among 20 personalities? The woman has no credibility, and can’t be trusted. She had a double mastectomy and she walked to Washington, D.C. Beyond that, nothing is certain.

For Ravitz to even suggest that the benefits of Leaphart’s conduct outweigh her dishonesty shows how insulated from core ethical principles her profession has become. No wonder Dan Rather thought using a forged document as evidence was acceptable journalism. This was Lance Armstrong’s defense too: his cheating to win races helped his foundation raise money for cancer research, so it was all right! This was Harry Reid’s despicable justification for spreading lies about Mitt Romney. “He lost, didn’t he?” Once we decide as a culture that lies are ethical tools in pursuit of a worthy goal, all is lost. Human beings can ratioanalize anything into seeming like into a worthy goal. One worthy, then that goal can justify terrible conduct. This is The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause.”

Paulette Leaphart’s deceptions to make her stunt sufficiently inspiring, newsworthy and profitable are arguably even worse than Rather’s. She will make the public more cynical, and less likely to trust victims who don’t embellish their stories. Scamsters like her kill compassion, leaving coldness, suspicion and doubt. They make society a crueler place. I’m sure fear of this explains the schizophrenic nature of Ravitz’s report, as she both documents Leaphart’s misrepresentations and shrinks from the task of rendering the obvious verdict.

Or perhaps she really does believe the ends justify the means.


14 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms “Do The Ends Justify The Means?” Files: The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Inspiring Scam

  1. I am a regular donor (I’m Caucasion) to my local blood bank. Why? Because I’m healthy and I Can. An hour of my time every 8 weeks and you know what……, my blood helps save the lives of other people in my community. Personally, I think that’s cool. Minority donors in my town are for all practical purposes, non-existent Funny that they don’t support their own communities but a quick to demand more entitlements.

    • I think you are too quick to impugn minorities, sounds racist. Are you sure it isn’t a matter of education? Why do you know it is so important to do? Did you learn through example? A blood drive program? Why not try and take that hour and go and educate? You may find it multiplies the effort.

  2. This is yet another social media-driven disaster. We have proven ourselves unable to handle the medium, either as consumers or producers of content. In the grand scheme of things, social media has probably been the vehicle for more scams, dissociation from the real world, submersion into self-congratulatory alternate reality, fake news, and general mayhem than any innovation in my memory.

    I have occasionally referred to Twitter as “the Devil,” and my loathing for Facebook knows no bounds. I still use it once a week or so just to check on friends and family (for which it is at least useful), but 99% of my input to Facebook consists of “Happy birthday, (first name here). Many happy returns” or to message Jack a link. No Luddite I, as I have been using the Internet since the early 1990’s Usenet days, and Linux as my primary operating system since 1997, so technology and I are old, old friends.

    But the temptation of social media to generate attention in the name of good causes is, to me, the lesson here besides the obvious ethical wreckage caused by “the ends justify the means.” Many of us see the apparent benefits of fame, and want our 15 minutes of it very badly, usually for entirely selfish reasons. When we can achieve that in the name of a good cause, it becomes all the more insidious as a rationalization for otherwise self-serving and dishonest behavior.

    I sympathize somewhat with the dishonest reporter, who simply can’t resolve the ethical conflict in the story between the unalloyed good of raising breast cancer awareness and the indisputable dishonesty of the “heroine.” Women, understandably, are particularly terrified of the ravages of breast cancer, and sometimes that foe can seem so horribly demonic that tossing sweet reason aside even in the face of overwhelming evidence is almost effortless, even mandatory. After all, reason offers cold, heartless comfort in the face of such powerful emotional arguments, however ethically bankrupt.

    But I cannot excuse Ravitz’s failure as a reporter on this basis. Powerful, conflicting emotional stories are an everyday human experience, and it is a reporter’s job to be fair, objective, and honest in the face of the heart-rending human tragedies that real life too often exposes. Ravitz shows here what “do goodery” can do to a professional. Tragically, most reporters these days enter the profession from the ethically flawed premise of trying to “do good” and “make the world a better place.” News reporting is not the right place for those aspirations, and this disastrous failure could be the archetype for why.

    “Doing good” is a powerful motivator that can create ethical conflicts that make rationalizations almost mandatory for the sanity of the person experiencing them, especially when internalized as a raison d’être. How could Ravitz live with herself if her article damaged the noble cause of breast cancer awareness by exposing one of its messengers to the harsh light of truth, a light that would possibly destroy a woman who survived something so terrifying and has arguably achieved (at least at some level) the laudatory goal of increasing interest, awareness, and possibly donations to that worthy cause?

    Yet that is what she must do — compassionately, if possible, but only to the extent that it doesn’t tarnish the truth. And circling back to social media, what would be the impact on Ravitz’s career from the outrage there if she had done what her profession demands? I think we all suspect that it could be significant, even permanent.

    Which brings us finally to this: Is it even possible for reporters to be fair and still remain employed these days when writing about such emotion-driven issues? The outrage machine has devastated so many careers in many professions, but certainly news reporting is near the top. It seems that we have reached the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” point where the truth is less important than bringing home a paycheck, and every article must be written with an eye toward social media’s reaction.

    I can only draw one conclusion from this: Chaos.

    • Never mind. I checked at the link. The person who I thought might be Stevie Wonder is identified as Shameka Fulston.

  3. Dissociative Identity Disorder isn’t as rare as you think, although my suspicion is that this woman is using the pity ploy to get more people to sign on for her cause and get more media attention. Seeing the movie “Spilt” which is more an over the top horror movie than anything else and not an accurate portrayal of people with DID as the key to recognizing that she had this disorder, seems a tad calculated to me. I’m sorry that the reporter let her emotions get in the way of objectivity.

    • I don’t know what “isn’t as rare as you think” means. There is a lively debate over whether it is the same or distinct from “Multiple Personality Disorder.” The most famous “real case,” the basis for the movie “Sybil”, turned out to be a hoax.

      It’s very rare, and may be non-existent.

      • There was also The Three Faces Of Eve several years ago. And Multiple Personalities are rare enough that I have only seen one case that was a possible in 30 years as a psychologist.

      • I doubt that it is non existent Jack. The the relationship between trauma and dissociation is well established. You probably remember the Chowchilla kidnapping and several of the kids involved suffered from dissociative episodes. Whether this woman actually suffers from multiple identity disorder and seen a clinical psychologist who confirms this is unknown to me. Self diagnosis is pretty much worthless as you certainly know.

  4. Breast cancer is such a touchy subject, I have no surprise that it is used as a scam. Most men, for instance, are unaware that they, too, can be breast cancer victims. And quite frankly, I have no surprise that a ‘journalist’ is willing to perpetuate the scam because “it feels good”. This is basically the news medias position on virtually anything these days, mirroring the liberal position. In a politician, I can live with compassion…in a reporter I want hard-nosed reporting of facts. Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to get that anytime soon.

  5. Looking at this from a different perspective, I see Jessica Ravitz’s confliction as part of the story. As a journalist, I think she did a fantastic job of tempering known facts with fiction, such as confirmation of cancer diagnosis via medical documentation. Ravitz took the time to research this woman’s background, talk to friends (current or former), as well as Leaphart’s family and medical experts.
    Ravitz wrote about her uneasiness and eventual distrust, in such a way, that I was reminded of my own real life experiences. Like the good friend that I believed in, supported professionally and personally and laughed for hours with, who was actually scheming to destroy me at work the entire time. There were little signs along the way, signs I wanted to ignore, yet filed away in the conscious drawer labeled, “Review if Needed”. There was a desire to believe in the goodness of my funny, talented, intelligent and quirky friend. Eventually, I visited the Review drawer and came to the realization that my friend was a sociopath. Much like Ravitz, I wrote about my confliction, hesitation and desire to believe in the good, despite the accumulating facts. I researched prior work history, saved texts and FB messages and reviewed security video at work. I stayed and she was fired. Last I heard, she is reinventing herself, as a nurse. God help her patients.
    I don’t believe Ravitz intended this to be a news report. It was more of an accounting of facts, questions and personal experience, therefore, I see no ethical violation here.

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