Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 7/13/17

Good Morning!

1. I owe Robin Meade an apology. The astoundingly bright-eyed, bushy-tailed HLN morning host has been used here as an an example of the sexism of broadcast news media producers, and it is true that she is uncommonly attractive even by “news babe” standards. However, I have come to realize that she is also a unique talent, and more than just a pretty face and figure. Meade has natural presence and charisma, projects genuine optimism and and an up-beat nature, and most unusual of all, doesn’t spin the news or tilt her delivery to signal her own opinion. She’s really good at what she does. I’m sorry Robin; I was biased against you because you are attractive, which is just as wrong as being biased for you. You’re a pro, through and through.

2. Constitutional law expert Eugene Volokh (who is also my favorite candidate for a Supreme Court post if one opens up) published what I consider to be a definitive refutation of the claim that receiving opposition research, as in “damaging information about Hillary Clinton,” is a crime under current law. He also makes a case that it couldn’t be criminalized under future law:

“It would raise obvious First Amendment problems: First, noncitizens, and likely even non-permanent-residents, in the United States have broad First Amendment rights. See Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135 (1945) (“freedom of speech and of press is accorded aliens residing in this country”); Underwager v. Channel 9 Australia, 69 F.3d 361 (9th Cir. 1995) (“We conclude that the speech protections of the First Amendment at a minimum apply to all persons legally within our borders,” including ones who are not permanent residents).

Second, Americans have the right to receive information even from speakers who are entirely abroad. See Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965). Can Americans — whether political candidates or anyone else — really be barred from asking questions of foreigners, just because the answers might be especially important to voters?”

The professor concludes not. I hadn’t even considered the First Amendment issue in determining that the election law prohibition against receiving “anything of value” benefiting a candidate from a foreign nation or individual was not intended to preclude mere information, but Volokh’s argument seems air tight.

3. It doesn’t have to be air tight, though, to render the position that Donald Trump, Jr. attempted to violate the law weaker than Olive Oyl. If our best lawyers can’t agree what is banned and what isn’t, and the law has never been enforced against a campaign for receiving mere information, then the citizen involved in requesting or receiving opposition research under such circumstances could not reasonably have been expected to know that his actions were criminal. There goes mens rea. Ignorance of a clear law is not a defense; mistaken understanding of one that has never been defined (and that may be void anyway) is a very powerful defense. So why is the news media, and so many Democrats, and my Facebook Trump-haters, and many commenters here so certain that this is a scandal, a major story, and  proof that the Trump campaign “colluded” with “the Russians” to allow them to illegally influence our election?

The answer is that they want this to be true so much that they are unable to examine the evidence and analysis with any objectivity at all. That’s an ethics failure: we have a duty to acknowledge our biases and take them out of the equation when we’re trying to understand something. Focusing accusations, criticism and personal attacks on anyone, yes, even a Trump, based on willfully biased conclusions is both incompetent and unfair, as well as a Golden Rule breach.

4. I used one of the moderating options in the Comment Policies yesterday, suspending (for a week) one of the blog’s most active and helpful contributors. The provocation was the phenomenon above: insisting repeatedly and endlessly that the Trump, Jr. meeting proved that Donald Trump and his campaign had colluded with the Russians to tilt the election. This kind of “my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts” approach is toxic to any discussion or inquiry, and anathema to an ethics blog. I have to make that clear to all. The fact in question is that there is–still— no evidence whatsoever that the Trump campaign did anything illegal in concert with the Russian government to affect the 2016 election.

In 2015 an active participant here named “Liberal Dan” would not accept the fact that that George Zimmerman didn’t murder Trayvon Martin based on the known facts, sequence of events and available evidence. I liked Dan; I even was a guest on his radio program. He was obsessed, however. I banned him from commenting on post related to Martin’s shooting after he finally had made the statement that Zimmerman was a murderer—after being acquitted, after the prosecution’s own investigator testified that his own inquiry did not contradict Zimmerman’s account—one too many times. Several too many times, actually. He quit the blog in a snit.

Confirmation bias is a societal malady. And the whole mainstream news media is suffering from it, making the entire nation a victim once removed.

5. Verizon exposed 14 million subscribers to having their records acquired by third parties, thanks to a Verizon contractor’s gross negligence and incompetence. If tech firms can’t be trusted to have sufficient cyber-security, who can? If they can’t guarantee the safety of the personal information they demand, why should they be permitted to demand it? In addition to civil damages, such breaches should trigger criminal fines by the government. Unfortunately, the government is even less trustworthy in this area. How do we punish that incompetence?

6. A note from Ethics Scout Fred:

A handful of Republican operatives close to the White House are scrambling to Trump Jr.’s defense and have begun what could be an extensive campaign to try to discredit some of the journalists who have been reporting on the matter.

Their plan, as one member of the team described it, is to research the reporters’ previous work, in some cases going back years, and to exploit any mistakes or perceived biases. They intend to demand corrections, trumpet errors on social media and feed them to conservative outlets, such as Fox News. via Talking Points Memo via Daily Kos.

Digging up truthful information to challenge the credibility of an accuser is in general ethical. So why does this creep me out?

It’s creepy, Fred, because it is attacking the messenger. That’s what wrong with opposition research too: digging up dirt on an adversary to destroy his or her reputation as an alternative to rebutting his or her arguments or position. It is both a form of ad hominem attack and intimidation when used against commentators, pundits and reporters. When the ethics line is crossed is tricky, but a safe rule is to discredit the argument, not the individual who makes it.

26 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 7/13/17

  1. There goes mens rea. Ignorance of a clear law is not a defense; mistaken understanding of one that has never been defined (and that may be void anyway) is a very powerful defense.

    Well said.

  2. Regarding #5. – If tech firms can’t be trusted to have sufficient cyber-security, who can?
    This may be similar to the phenomenon where your great car mechanic drives a junker, or that really good remodeling contractor lives in a house that’s a shambles. That is, the tendency by experts to not address problems immediately, especially if there is cost, if they can do it themselves, sometime later…when there’s time.
    I can see a large tech firm putting off assigning adequate people to cyber security until…the big project everyone is working on is over…and the next one. I can also see the resistance to hiring outside experts, with the rationalization that: “Hey, we have X thousand engineers! We can do it in- house.”
    This is a failure of management, clearly, but one that highlights a common tendency.

    • I have seen this professionally for years: IT companies have the most broken tools and code, because fixing it takes time away from client needs a.k.a. money streams.

  3. 1. Good for her. However, if she works for a corrupted organization like CNN, can her producers, etc. be trusted even if she can be? Put another way: is it ethical to distrust a good reporter because her news organization is absolutely corrupt? Secondary question: how long can a ‘good/ reporter survive in such and environment without being corrupted herself?

    2. This is great news… to those resorting to login and decency. I expect it to be ignored by progressives. Bonus points if they attack Volokh instead of the logical argument…

    3. Progressives can ignore any fact that does not support their narrative. So can conservatives (human nature does not change), but progressives have made it a virtue in their circles.

    4. Chris is a good foil when his TDS meds are working (snark) and I learn a lot about progressive viewpoints that I could not learn in South Texas. I hope he returns, and takes the meds again.

    5. This will not change until we hold those that allow it criminally responsible. But CEOs rarely go to jail. In a related point, if we put some Owners and CEOs in jail for hiring illegals, that practice would stop. Until we do, we only have half of a solution no matter what else we get done.

    6. So GOP operatives are acting like their Democrat foes have acted for decades. Cannot say I approve, but I also cannot blame them, given how well this progressive tactic has worked against the GOP in that time. I also predicted this last summer, saying that I was seeing many former conservatives advocating winning at any cost, including copying the progressive playbook. Further prediction: this will work, because the public is conditioned to respond to the smear as if it matters to the story. Stay tuned: this is just the beginning of a bumpy ride for the ethics cognizant.

    Thank again, Jack, for these updates!

    • Re: 5:
      Why the obsession with putting people/employers in jail? Every call for more laws and more jail sentences is a call for a more oppressive and intrusive government.

      To Jack’s points:

      “If they can’t guarantee the safety of the personal information they demand, why should they be permitted to demand it?”

      They can demand all they want. We need not acquiesce. But, if we want the service, we make the trade-off. We take a risk. Gambling on the competence of other people is often a losing proposition.

      “In addition to civil damages, such breaches should trigger criminal fines by the government.”

      This conclusion is not obvious. You can expect a class action. You can expect Verizon to do a lot to fix the problem. You can expect a downturn in revenues and stock price Target took hits when it screwed up. Wells Fargo took hits for upselling products.

      “How do we punish that incompetence?”

      Free markets can be very effective at punishing incompetence.


      • Why the obsession with putting people/employers in jail? Every call for more laws and more jail sentences is a call for a more oppressive and intrusive government.

        Short answer: Got a better suggestion? Seriously.

        Long answer:

        Human nature is guided by gratification and avoidance to pain, at the most basic level. We like reward and dislike pain. The law inflicts varying level of ‘dislike’ to correct behavior. These fall into three groups, in my estimation:

        Nuisance, or remedial training: Traffic tickets are a form of remedial training, inflicting ‘pain’ in the form of interruption of schedule, hassle with the system, and relatively minor loss of freedom in terms of court appearances and discretionary income. You get fined, and have less money for eating out that month, for instance. This works because you know that the second level is waiting if you ignore or do not comply with this lower level. If you have more disposable income, this is less of a deterrent.

        Active correction: minor loss of freedom and greater loss of money. Here the pain is ramped up to catch the attention of most citizens. A short stint in jail, lengthy court proceedings, and associated inconveniences disrupt your normal life, sometimes interfering with your livelihood in the process. You can lose large portions of your income to fines and bail, as well as attorney and court fees. The pain level is significantly above the speeding ticket level for most citizens. Again, those more wealthy can weather this better than most.

        Incarceration or death: this is the loss of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Your wealth can be lost, your liberty restricted, and your life ended in this category. This is where EVERYONE has the same to lose, wealthy, middle class, and the poor.

        So back to your question, JG. The people we are discussing, business owners, politicians, and C level executives represent the 5% to 1% of society, generally speaking, with incomes and resources far above most citizens. The first two levels are of minimal consequence to this group, and can be totally ineffective in the case where self discipline is absent. Examples of this abound from Lindsey Lohan and Ethan Couch to Loretta Lynch and Hillary Clinton (or Trump, if you dislike the examples.) These seem to often be ‘above the law’ to the average American. They are sometimes so wealthy, and connected to get more easily, that money does not work as a deterrent. The only way to change this group’s behavior is to deprive them of more than mere wealth: you must restrict their liberty to change their behavior (and to inspire their peers.)

        I am open to suggestions and criticism to my logic here.

  4. On point No.6 i find this interesting, has it shows the republicans are finally gearing up to finish what the press started themselves in relation to destroying the public trust in mainstream news. Yet the resistance are doing the same thing going back as far as 2013 to find a video of the trump family dining with the Agalarov family and Rob Goldstone. See the link now whether the video is useful who can say the fact someone dug around for it though shows the desperation of the resistance in proving the Russian trump connection

  5. 4) Growing up and being formed in a series of hierarchies (as we ALL are), in the realm of discipline and growth, I took away a few key themes. In my own life those biggest hierarchies were family, then cadet training at texas A&M, then the military itself. There were times when my sister would receive a strong reprimand by my parents. There were times my peers at A&M would get strongly disciplined by the upperclassmen. In the Army, there was one time a bunch of us Lieutenants were in the Captains office, and one particular LT was, well, less than stellar. He was constantly receiving grief, but it’s not that he didn’t want to do better. Well, in the office the Commander lit into him for something or other and the rest of us all KNEW he deserved it.

    But after we were dismissed, the one thing I knew we mustn’t do was pile it on him, even if we COULD do so from a position of not screwing up. Except part of our restraint was knowing that all of us screwed up at some point and by mercy or patience just never received the ire of the Commander.

    We were his peers and the Reprimand came from higher. Piling on at that point would have done no good for the LT that received it. Sometimes it’s best to just let the reprimand stand alone. Commentary in the angle of approval of the reprimand (however justified) just strikes me as bordering on gratuitous.

    If particular conduct, deserving of a reprimand, had gone on long enough to shake faith in the justice of the superior and only belatedly received the needed reprimand which restored other peer’s confidence in the justice of the superior then any votes of contentment with the reprimand ought to be communicated in private.

    I donno. If a particular person feels reviled, there’s less incentive to improve conduct if, while that person is down and defenseless, that person’s peers are seen to add on to the reprimand.

    I don’t even know if I should have posted this or stayed silent.

    • Tex, I, personally, am staying silent. I have an opinion, but it is mine, only, though I’d bet most folks will intuit it. I also have a policy, which will not change in a week.

    • If I’m not mistaken, sometimes in the military one’s own peers will throw a “blanket party” or otherwise take discipline into their own hands, particularly if the commander was hard on the unit for the actions of a screwup. In college band we would sometimes call an “audible” on a peer who was acting up and grind his face into the dirt. Many’s the time the teachers and counselors in the 1970s would just let the kids work it out among themselves, even if it meant the problem kid or the one who didn’t fit in getting a beating, or, in one case at summer camp, lowered down into the pit toilet, there to stand waist deep in the urine and feces until dawn.

      When it was over, though, the reviled one got the message – he was hated universally. It was one thing when two people just didn’t get along, then it’s probably equally on both of them, and both of them will get a talking to to just stay away from each other. It’s quite another when one person becomes universally hated.. At that point it’s usually on him. Sometimes it’s just that he’s wired wrong – an aspie or borderline special needs kid being mainstreamed, other times it’s that he’s got other issues, still others choose to be cut-ups for whatever reason. Chris is none of these. He is a millennial not yet thirty, with too much time on his hands since he’s a teacher, with views hardened like concrete, who just doesn’t know when to agree to disagree and move on. I’ve never seen more posts from anyone else (I’m actually trying to cut back), nor have I seen anyone else keep threads going long after everything worth saying had been said, either just because he had to have the last word or he had to be right.

      I’ve also never seen anyone else so forcefully challenge the moderator here, to the point of hostility, and get away with it. I’ve seen others get nasty, and just as quickly get thrown out. I’ve seen others overreach, like Luke, like Scott, like Valky, and they have all paid the price. Chris until now was the Teflon jerk. It’s time something finally stuck, and it did.

      • But we’re not all being punished for the misconduct of one. I’m all for letting a person know via argument when they are flat out wrong or even after awhile if they are flat out dumb or jerks when it is still an argument.

        It’s the commentary after the reprimand during the suspension that strikes me as bordering on gratuitous. To a degree like kicking a dude while he’s down.

        • I have no problem with kicking someone when he is down if he deserves it. In my opinion Chris deserves a lot more than a week’s suspension and I would love nothing better than to see his arrogant, loud, jerky mouth silenced forever.

          • Very much disagree with you on seeing him silenced forever. I can think of very few topics in which Chris and I would agree. But, and this is a pretty big but, his blind spots (read bias here) that lead to the unending reiterations of the same point irrespective of anything that anyone else says, are finite. In other areas of disagreement, I have seen him graciously concede a point and state that his initial position was not correct.

            To take an analogy: I have had long debates with people regarding gun control over the years. I can only think of one person in 40 years that I have convinced to reject gun control and concede that gun control is not about safety or reducing crime etc. But the point is NOT to convince the person you are debating. It is to convince the undecided that are listening (reading) the debate. Same thing applies here – you are not going to convince Chris that he is wrong in his assumption that there is collusion between Trump, Inc. and the Russians. But those who are here and are undecided may be convinced that there is no “there, there” yet. (I remain open to being convinced as new evidence is presented, but it does not yet exist).

  6. Nobody’s mentioned this vis-a-vis the Trump Jr./Russia collusion thing, but it does seem curious – why would the Russian government, if it was bent on helping Trump, try to give the material directly to Trump’s campaign?

    It seems to me that they could’ve simply released that material to some intermediary (for example WikiLeaks) and it would’ve had an even more dramatic effect. After all, Trump Jr. et. al. would have to explain where they got it from for it to have any credibility, and that seems rather foolish even for them.

    So this whole thing makes no sense. The Russian government, if they were interested in influencing the campaign, didn’t need Trump’s help. In fact, it’s easy to argue that any such assistance would’ve worked against their putative ends.

    I guess it’s no surprise nobody in the media has thought about this. After the Trump Brain-Eating Amoeba infects you, your cognitive skills are the first thing to go. All that’s left are feelz.

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