Ethics Quiz: The Fake Inspirational Story


Ethics Alarms touched on this area here, when I related the example of a defense lawyer who won over the jury in the sensational Richard Scrushy fraud case with a vivid but made-up anecdote:

My favorite ethics moment is when Scrushy’s main trial lawyer, Jim Parkman, is asked about his headline-making anecdote in his opening statement, in which he quoted his grandmother as always telling him”every pancake, no matter how thin, has two sides.” “Did your grandmother really say that?” Parkman’s asked on camera. “No,” he admits after a long pause. “But she could have!”

Lying to a jury would seem to be a serious ethical violation for a lawyer, and by the wording of the rules, it should be. But every lawyer I’ve discussed Parkman’s tactic with agrees that such non-substantive lies would never result in professional discipline. (I think they should be.)

But what about inspirational stories and anecdotes that aren’t true? Does the end justify the means? Brian Childers’ story about Tommy Lasorda reminded me of another Lasorda story. Managing in the minors before becoming the third-longest tenured manager with a single team in baseball history, the ever-ebullient leader of the Spokane AAA team was faced with a dispirited squad that has lost nine straight games. Tommy bucked them up by reminding the players that the 1927 Yankees of “Murderer’s Row” fame, then and now the consensus choice as the greatest baseball team of all-time, also lost nine games straight. His team was cheered, and not only broke out of their slump, but went on a winning streak.

Asked later if it was true that the team of the Babe, the “Iron Horse” and the rest ever lost nine in a row, Lasorda answered, “Hell, I don’t know. But it turned my team around when they thought so!!”

The 1927 Yankees lost four games in a row once. For a team with a .714 winning percentage to lose 9 in a row would be a statistical anomaly.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the day is…

Are fake inspirational stories ethical?

I have a definite opinion on this, but I’ll state it in the comments.

24 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Fake Inspirational Story

  1. For what little it’s worth, I would say it falls in the same category as one of Aesop’s fables (ie. a fictional story to illustrate a truth).

      • Correct. Aesop’s Fables aren’t represented as being true accounts. Fake stories, even fake inspirational ones can cause real harm.

        Remember the Jewish couple that faked out Oprah years ago by telling the story of how their love blossomed in Auschwitz? How many Holocaust deniers were enabled when it was revealed they made it up?

  2. Rule 3.4(e) of the Model Rules says its unethical for a trial lawyer to assert anything which he knows to be irrelevant to the lawsuit. Whether the tale is true or not, what his grandmother might have told him about pancakes had nothing to do with what the evidence would show at trial. That it is a lie is also a problem.

  3. Thinking about this I think there’s a big difference between when an individual such as Kamala Harris who makes up a story to make themselves look noble and heroic and a inspiring anecdote to bring out the best in others true or otherwise. The first is done purely for personal gain and to unethically boost your reputation. The second does no harm to anyone.

  4. I always attribute a quote to my father that a popular entertainment figure says. Quoting the person sounds hoky. Is it unethical – I don’t think so obviously. Shall I ask my father to say it one time so it will be true? Seems silly.

    And Dan, grandmothers tale about pancake is relevant – it’s an argument about the evidence.

  5. Depends on when and how you tell them and who you tell them to. Telling a historical anecdote like King Alfred burning the cakes or Robert the Bruce watching the spider try again and again to kids is one thing. However, and this is no made up story, just under a year ago I won a major appeal because my opponent lied in his closing statement. This wiped out a $400,000 verdict. The case settled for $135K later, but that probably took his payday down by 2/3.

    • Maybe there was a spider. Tell a Scot that this is a fake story and there will be hell to pay. Come to think of it maybe Trump could use that one.

  6. “You can inspire people without making shit up.” No one but me has ever said that. As far as I know. You can do with it as you will.

    • This story about LaSorda confirms my suspicion he was more than a bit of a huckster and BSer. A little too Hollywood for my taste. But that’s just me. I found his Dodger teams pretty insufferable. Steve Garvey. Yuck.

  7. “Lying to a jury would seem to be a serious ethical violation for a lawyer … ”

    And yet, not only has Lyin’ Ben Crump not been disbarred, he’s the 21st Century Jesse Jackson — always turning up when there’s a “rayciss cops” narrative to be peddled.

    In his documentary “The Trayvon Hoax,” Joel Gilbert asserts that, when Crump put Rachel Jeantel on the stand as the friend of Trayvon Martin who was speaking to him on the phone just before he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, he knowingly lied to the court, to Zimmerman, and to the world. His research indicates that Martin was actually on the phone with Jeantel’s half-sister, Brittany Diamond Eugene. But Eugene ultimately decided not to cooperate in the trial, and Jeantel was recruited to act in her stead (since Crump had already publicly announced that the girl who was on the phone w/Martin before he died was prepared to testify against Zimmerman).

    Hard to believe, I know. But Gilbert documentary is pretty persuasive.

    • “The Trayvon Hoax” is very good and I recommend it to those who have not seen it (as if my recommendation is worth a damn). However, in the interest of accuracy, Crump did not literally “put her on the stand” as the case against Zimmerman was brought by the state’s attorney as a criminal prosecution. Crump did do so in a figurative way when he made the out of court claim of having the witness and then creating one when it became time to stop cutting bait and start fishing.

      Crump does his lying and misrepresentation (if there is a difference) in his out of court statements and at press conferences, all of it for the purpose of intimidating the soon-to-be defendant in the case he is about to file to induce a cash settlement without a trial, and thus avoid having to do any work for his money.

  8. The Wikipedia version still has Jeanteal in first position although the entire article has been greatly improved and expanded (worth reading). No surprise that it hasn’t been corrected yet. It will be, when the behind-the-scenes wrangling is finished with. Point is, I didn’t remember her name a split second after reading it and I couldn’t care less. It was simply heartening to see that the story itself was supported. Now, if the content had been altered or omitted, I would have made (yet another) formal objection. In this case “who said it” can be less important than the story itself but when the false part of the story is exposed, its doubters or opponents can use it to poison the whole.

    • I don’t understand your point. Jeanteal was a terrible witness whose account imploded under a fairly standard-issue cross examination. Her weird performance was devastating to the prosecution’s case. Why couldn’t they see that and prepare her better?

      As to the bigger story, though, there was absolutely no basis to charge that idiot Zimmerman for first degree murder. None. The Florida Special Prosecutor, Angela Corey, took the case away from the grand jury when she realized the grand jury wasn’t going to indict Zimmerman for Martin’s death. From what I have seen, Zimmerman acted in self defense and deadly use of force was justified. Frankly, if Martin had wrestled Zimmerman’s gun from him and killed Zimmerman, Martin should have been entitled to use self defense to justify use of deadly force.


    • PennAgain: “’who said it’ can be less important than the story itself”

      From everything I know of “the story itself,” I think it stands quite well on its own. (Zimmerman’s version, not the lamestream media’s and race-baiters’ version.)

      The dispatcher asked GZ if he was following TM (AFTER realizing that Z had exited his vehicle). Z replied yes. Dispatcher said, “We don’t need you to do that,” and Z replied “OK.”

      He told the cops that he turned back toward his vehicle, which the audio recording seems to support (reduced wind noise, and Z’s return to normal breathing). After giving final info to the dispatcher (where he planned to meet the responding unit), Z hung up.

      After which, TM stepped up, verbally challenged him, sucker-punched and knocked him to the ground, and straddled him for the “ground-and-pound.” Whereupon, Z fired in self-defense. (He reported that at first, he thought he missed, b/c TM raised his hands and said (normally, not in pain) “Ya got me … ”

      Is that different than your understanding of “the story itself”?

  9. My take: I think fake inspirational stories for short term gain are a dangerous utilitarian trade-off, and I know of several real life examples among my friends and acquaintances through the years. One friend never forgave her mother for inventing a tale about her father’s heroism and death in the line of duty when the guy was really a dead-beat dad who died of alcoholism. Inspiring stories only work if the story-teller is respected and trusted, and lying under those situations is unethical. Moreover, there are plenty of true inspiring stories. The 1927 World Champion Yankees never lost 9 games straight, but the 1953 World Champion Yankees did, the worst losing streak any World Series-winning team ever had.

    They still won the pennant by 8 games.

  10. I would say these tales of inspiration fall into the category of myth. We all grew up hearing the myths about George Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac and his not lying after cutting down the cherry tree.

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