Sunday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/28/21: A Missing Part 2, And More…

“Never on a Sunday” was a surprise international hit film in 1960, a romantic comedy starring Melina Mercuri as a choosy Greek prostitute. The actress also recorded the film’s title song, which had a, er, slightly different meaning in Greek, as my mother, who spoke Greek, delicately explained to me at the time. “Kiss,” mom said, doesn’t exactly mean kiss. Nevertheless the song was covered by lots of singers. including the pre-“Downtown” Petula Clark, and was ubiquitous for months. It was also the first song I ever wrote a parody of, #1 of hundreds.

1. It’s comforting to know that the conservative media is trying to be just as unfair to President Biden as the progressive news media (also known as “the media”) was to President Trump. Yesterday i read many stories about how Biden had a complete meltdown during a speech, didn’t know where he was and asked, “What am I doing here?” As you can see for yourself, that’s a false representation. Joe looks vague and unwell, but he merely got lost momentarily reading a list of names. I have said out loud, “What am I doing?” on more than one occasion while speaking.

2. And this is why it’s important to have a conservative Supreme Court: The Supreme Court ruled on February 26 that Santa Clara County may not enforce a complete ban on indoor religious services as part of California’s draconian pandemic measures. (Wait, I’m confused: who are the fascists again?) Earlier, the Court told California that indoor church services could not be banned because of the pandemic, but allowed the state to cap attendance at 25% capacity and to prohibit singing and chanting.

Santa Clara argued that its ban and limitations on any indoor gatherings should be allowed to stand because its restrictions for churches were the same as those imposed on other establishments where people can visit but not gather in groups. The Justices’ unsigned order last week said that the earlier order “clearly dictated” that Santa Clara’s ban could not stand. Chief Justice John Roberts had written at the time,

“The state has concluded, for example, that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting COVID-19. I see no basis in this record for overriding that aspect of the state public health framework. At the same time, the state’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”

Showing their insufficient appreciation of the interest at stake—the right to worship—were the three liberal Justices, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer.

3. I was going to post a follow-up to this post about the film “Denial” (hence the “Part I” in the headline) and other issues intervened. (Sorry). To summarize briefly, Part 2 was going to recount my own run-in with Prof. Lipstadt at the time of her defamation trial when she was sued for defamation by a Holocaust-denying British historian in 2005. In my previous ethics website, the suddenly returned Ethics Scoreboard, I gave C-Span an Ethics Dunce award based on Prof. Lipstadt’s account that it had insisted that the Holacuast denier’s arguments be presented on video as a condition of her appearance on its broadcast. I wrote in part,

What really puts the “Dunce” in this Ethics Dunce is a seemingly obvious truth: lies do not provide balance. The laudable objective of balance in discussing public affairs or any other controversial issue is to promote fair analysis and broad-based understanding by presenting varying and legitimate points of view on the topic at hand. Lies do not promote either. Lies foster un-fairness and misunderstanding. Is it possible that C-SPAN doesn’t know this? The mind boggles. The contention that the Holocaust occurred is not controversial, any more than the contention that the Pacific Ocean is wet or that the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Since David Irving has made a reputation by claiming the Holocaust didn’t happen, there is also no controversy over his legitimacy and integrity as a serious historian: he has none. He is incapable of providing balance to Lipstadt or anyone else….

Oops. As Ric tells the Captain in “Casablanca,” “I was misinformed.” Lipstadt cited my post on her website, but I soon had to retract the “Dunce” verdict and apologize to C-Span. I wrote,

The majority of ethicists don’t like to put their opinions out in public: it makes enemies, it costs grants and clients, and it risks mistakes. Unfortunately, the practice also contributes heavily to the media’s general failure to apply ethical analysis to news that warrants it, and the public’s difficulty in recognizing ethical issues. Thus the Ethics Scoreboard rushes in where wise ethicists fear to tread…and occasionally falls on its figurative face. This seems to have occurred when the Scoreboard designated C-SPAN, the esteemed public affairs cable network, as an “Ethics Dunce” in March of this year. The conduct involved was far more complicated and required more careful analysis than the Scoreboard provided in its rush to slap a label on it.

The story, gleaned from several media sources, was that C-SPAN had refused to broadcast a lecture by historian Debra Lipstadt unless she would agree to have a lecture by Holocaust denier David Irving (Lipstadt had just won a libel case in Britain against Irving, prompted by one of her books that branded him, among other things, as a liar) be broadcast for “balance.” Accepting Lipstadt’s version of events which held that C-SPAN insisted on the presentation of a Holocaust denying argument before it would air the findings of a legitimate Holocaust historian, the Scoreboard criticized the network for attempting to balance the truth with lies. Naturally, like so many journalists the Scoreboard takes to task, we did not bother to check what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.” That was a mistake, as it almost always is, and unfair as well.

Credible sources close to the negotiations between Lipstadt and C-SPAN explain that the network never insisted that an Irving “the Holocaust is a myth” lecture had to be televised to balance hers. Lipstadt was going to talk about her new book on C-SPAN, and her book was about the libel case and the trial. C-SPAN felt that it would be appropriate to record some of Irving’s comments about the trial as well, since he was the opposing litigant, and the litigation is the central topic of her book.

This is significantly different. If C-Span chooses to air part of an interview with Charles Manson to accompany a discussion of his case by Manson trial prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, it would not be fair or accurate to say that C-SPAN is balancing an “anti-mass murder position” with Manson’s “pro-mass murder position.” Yet this is akin to the interpretation of C-SPAN’s intent that Lipstadt apparently encouraged in making her dispute with C-SPAN public. As a source wrote the Scoreboard:

A C-SPAN producer said to Ms. Lipstadt, in the course of a conversation about what the network might do or might not do, that they hoped to tape her remarks at Harvard concerning her book about the Irving trial and that they also hoped to tape Irving at some venue or other during which he would talk about the trial.  And, said the producer, C-SPAN might air the two back to back and they might not.  But, said the producer, it’s fairly standard practice at C-SPAN to, for instance, air a book talk by someone who supported the invasion of Iraq and then follow it with a book talk by someone who opposed the invasion…But at no time did anyone at C-SPAN ever say, or imply, or hint to Deborah Lipstadt that her views on the Holocaust had to be “balanced” by the views of David Irving, and if she didn’t like it she could go jump in the lake … 

The Scoreboard (unlike the author of the message referenced above, who is convinced that Lipstadt has intentionally distorted C-SPAN’s position for her own purposes) will give the author the benefit of the doubt, and presume that she is emotionally and intellectually so involved in her battles against Holocaust denial generally and Irving specifically that she genuinely sees no significant difference between allowing Irving to comment on the trial to give perspective to her account, and allowing a Holocaust denier to air his lies to counter her factual research. It is a subtle difference, but a real one. Whether she recognized it or not, Lipstadt mischaracterized both the network’s motives and its reasons.

The Ethics Scoreboard cannot and should not endorse an ethic that holds that it is always wrong to give people with repulsive views air time. C-SPAN’s policy of presenting those who hold controversial or even outrageous and dishonest views to provide depth on specific issues is a public service in the grand tradition of the late David Susskind, who interviewed American Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, sado-masochists, UFO believers, polygamists and others too strange to recount on his ground-breaking PBS program in the Sixties. For most discerning viewers, the best refutation of a Holocaust denier are the denier’s own words and demeanor.

One can respect the position of those who feel that Holocaust deniers are in a special category that warrants an exception to this principle, but the fact that the people at C-SPAN do not agree with them does not justify an “Ethics Dunce” designation.

The Scoreboard was rash and superficial in its analysis, and essentially denigrated the network for doing its job.

I, Jack Marshall, the one who wrote the words, apologize.

10 thoughts on “Sunday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/28/21: A Missing Part 2, And More…

    • I think you have to measure this slip against Biden’s previous ability to remember lists of names and not against the general populace’s ability to remember lists of names, in order to determine if it is a sign of mental decline. If he previously could do this and now can’t, then it’s a sign of decline. If he couldn’t do this previously and still can’t, it means nothing. That being said, I don’t actually know whether this is something he previously could do or not, so I cannot draw conclusions one way or another.

      I have a hard time caring about conservative media misbehaving when all non-conservative media misbehaves on a regular basis with no repercussions. I know I ought to care, and on some level I do, but not on principle. I care because the conservative media now spends all its time making snarky comments and snide innuendos, instead of promoting new policy ideas and reporting on things that matter. It is the focus on the misbehavior that bothers me, not the misbehavior itself. I don’t feel like criticizing “my side” for things that the other side will never be criticized for. That is a pointless endeavor.

      My ethics on this subject have been eroded by years of Trump Derangement spewing from 90% of the media.

    • I do believe that all of us at one time or another, when in the process of discussing a complex or highly detailed subject that we have experienced what I call a brain lock. The symptoms of which is a complete blackout of your thought process while remaining conscious. Basically, you have to ask yourself what am I doing to reboot the processor. This is similar to when your computer stops responding to commands because you have issued more commands than it can process in real time.

      I believe that is what happened to Rick Perry when he suddenly could not retrieve the third agency from memory. That episode bit him in the ass. So if Perry’s cognitive interruption was a problem then the same standard should apply to all or we should apologize to Perry for making an incorrect judgement about him.

      The more complex and intertwined the subject matter the more difficult it is to verbalize.

      • I think the treatment of Perry’s gaffe was unfair, but that’s the way of televised debates. Ford claiming Poland wasn’t behind the Iron Curtain, or Dukakis’s dead fish response to the softball question about Kitty.

        My big problem with reporting on Biden’s line was that it was deliberately misleading. I thought, based on the headlines, that he literally didn’t know where he was, not where he was in a list.

        • Well, he didn’t just get lost reading a list, he also misnamed at least one of the people on the list, calling the execrable Sheila Jackson-Lee, “Shirley”. The conservative media reaction is no doubt overblown, but Biden did make a pretty bad hash out of the speech.

        • But, that is not the point. Conservative media was not mocking him for the “what am I doing here line” but because he had no idea who he was talking to and meeting. He misnamed Shelia Jackson-Lee, who has been in Congress far too long, as well as others on his list, and he didn’t even get Lizzie Fletcher’s name remotely close. She is not “Lizzie Pannelli” or “Lizzie Pannell”. Her name is “Elizabeth Ann Pannill Fletcher” who goes either by “Lizzie Pannill Fletcher” or “Lizzie Fletcher.”


          • The headline was “What am I doing here?” That implies disorientation. Blowing some or many names is typical Biden from decades ago. My father and mother were terrible on names, and bot were were pretty brilliant. This feels like confirmation bias, much like Bandy Lee using trivial episodes of Trump being Trump to claim that he was mentally unwell.

  1. The Supreme Court ruled on February 26 that Santa Clara County may not enforce a complete ban on indoor religious services as part of California’s draconian pandemic measures.

    Here is a telling quote from Justice Gorsuch’s opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

    And one could be forgiven for doubting its asserted timeline. Government actors have been moving the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months, adopting new benchmarks that always seem to put restoration of liberty just around the corner.

  2. Jack wrote:

    It’s comforting to know that the conservative media is trying to be just as unfair to President Biden as the progressive news media (also known as “the media”) was to President Trump.

    At some point, we just have to acknowledge that’s where journalism is today, on both sides. Everybody wants to score points, and if taking something out of context gets you a bunch of re-tweets and page views, well, it’s worth the ethics hit.

    When I read this reporting angle, I was immediately skeptical and my skepticism proved it’s value for the millionth time. That’s because I have learned that we can’t trust the media writing from the right much more, if at all, than that of the left. We should be skeptical of everything we read, try to compare competing accounts, and reach a reasoned decision.

    I know that’s too much work for Gen Z and most of America, too busy with their nihilism to be bothered by objective truth. This begs a Glenn Reynolds quote: “The 21st century isn’t turning out as I’d hoped.”

  3. More from the “Why we can’t trust the right media much more than the left, if at all” files.

    This is an opinion piece, which thankfully, is announced as such in the first paragraph. Still, it can’t be taken without skepticism. The author purports to give us ten “disgraceful lies” the mainstream media have repeated ad nauseum. Let’s quickly examine them:

    1. No. 1. The Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6 was an “armed insurrection” in which five people were killed, including a U.S. Capitol officer hit by a fire extinguisher in the head.

    Analysis: Disgraceful lie. This has been repeated by many in the mainstream media as fact.

    2. President Trump “incited” the riot.

    Analysis: Disgraceful lie. By no rational means did Trump “incite” anyone, and the current thinking, supported by evidence, is that the riot was planned in advance of Trump’s speech.

    3. No. 3: President Trump referred to Nazis and White supremacists as “very fine people.”

    Analysis: Disgraceful lie. No further exposition necessary, as it’s been done to death.

    4. No. 4. Joe Biden and the Democrats are “moderates” who would return us to “normal.”

    Analysis: This is an opinion, and so is the writer’s analysis. One man’s moderate is another man’s radical. Biden is certainly more moderate than many in the Democrat Party.

    5. “Racist police” are out to get Blacks, a mantra of Black Lives Matter.

    Analysis: Partly true, partly false. There are racist police. They treat black people accordingly. Thankfully, they are very few, which makes the claim more a lie than the truth, but it’s not black and white.

    6. BLM/Antifa protests were “mostly peaceful.”

    Analysis: Disgraceful lie. While objectively most protests were not violent, the media portrayed transparently violent protests (one was risibly described as “Firey, but peacful.”) as “mostly peaceful” as well as those actually peaceful. This was deliberate deception by the media, and no mistake.

    7. Silicon Valley Democrats believe in freedom of speech.

    Analysis: Matter of opinion, not a lie.

    8. Hydroxychloroquine is not only useless against COVID-19, but extremely dangerous.

    Analysis: More lie than truth. There is significant debate in the medical community about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, but it does appear to have some value treating COVID-19. How much value is subject to debate, but many in the media at one point were determined to show it as ineffective and dangerous.

    9. Children in the womb are not human and therefore disposable.

    Analysis: Matter of opinion and overgeneralized. It is indisputable that they are “human,” but the argument is that they are not “persons” worthy of protection. I disagree, but unless we are able to discern the soul, it’s hard to say objectively who’s right. I can’t recall much actual “reporting” that stated unborn children are not human.

    10. The “For the People Act,” which would destroy election safeguards and usher in one-party Democrat rule, is “for the people.”

    Analysis: Hyperbole and opinion. Legislation always benefits some of the people, and depending on your viewpoint, the legislation might be more good than bad.

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