Ethics Train Wreck Analysis: The Richard Jewell Case

“Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s excellent but much maligned film about a historical episode with many ethics twists and turns, is extremely accurate and fair in all respects, except for the glaring exception of the screenwriter  Billy Ray’s representation that reporter Kathy Scruggs obtained the information that Jewell was under suspicion by the FBI in exchange for one night stand with the agency’s lead investigator. This was the point where the Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck of 1996 acquired a car containing the 2019 movie “Richard Jewell.”

Let’s look at those other cars.

I. Jewell

Jewell was a socially awkward, lonely, obese man who lived with his mother. He was in many ways a stereotypical misfit with low  self-esteem, who developed ambitions about becoming a law enforcement officer, a job that would would provide him with the respect and power that he lacked and wanted. The film begins with Jewell’s stint as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm, where he becomes friends with attorney Watson Bryant. Jewell quits to pursue his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer, and Bryant, in saying good-bye, asks his friend to promise that if he ever acquires the authority he seeks, he won’t become a jerk, and abuse it.

This was a real life conversation. Bryant recognized that Jewell was a border-line Asperger’s sufferer, whether or not he knew the name or the clinical condition, and exactly the kind of personality who should never be given a shield and a gun.

Jewell took a job as a campus security officer at Piedmont College, and rapidly realized Watson Bryant’s worst fears by reacting to his authority by abusing it, being over-zealous and generating an unusual number of complaints from students. Jewell was fired, but the need for security personnel at the upcoming Atlanta Olympics gave Jewell another chance at some authority at least. He probably shouldn’t have had such a chance. Jewell was not a man who should have been in the security field or the law enforcement field; his judgment was poor, and his emotional problems made him a bad risk.

Thus the conditions for the ethics train wreck were put in place. It was up to moral luck whether hiring Richard Jewell would turn out to be a disaster, or a  fortunate near miss. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely, a classic example of a bad decision having a good result—at least for a while.

2. The Bomb

In the early morning of July 27, 1996, Jewell, now working in Atlanta’s Centennial Park as part of the Summer Olympics security force, noticed an abandoned backpack by a bench. Over-zealous, officious and a fanatic about following procedure, Jewell insisted on reporting the pack as a “suspicious package,” despite the chiding of his colleagues, who wanted to take it to Lost and Found. If, as was overwhelmingly likely, the backpack had been just a backpack, Jewell probably would have been mocked. But again moral luck took a hand. He was right. It was a bomb. Jewell and other officers began clearing the area, and the bomb went off, killing one victim, Alice Hawthorne, and wounding many, still  far less serious damage than what might have occurred had Jewell not been so scrupulous in his discharge of his duties.

3. The Hero, the Scapegoats, and the Tip
Continue reading

The Ethics Mess That Is US Race Relations, Chapter II: Playing Rosa Parks

I don’t understand why this story should even be news, but the fact that it was treated as news, and worse, promoted as news by an NAACP official, is significant , disturbing, but, sadly, not at all surprising.

Sherrilyn Ifill,  the president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York, was returning to Baltimore from New York on Amtrak last week  as she often does. She was sitting in a general-admission area of a largely empty passenger car when a female junior conductor asked her to leave her seat and move into another car  because she had “other people coming who she wants to give this seat.”

Now as it happens, I was once asked to move to another Amtrak car. I had no idea why, but assumed there was a good reason, and the inconvenience was negligible.  Maybe a large group was getting on at the next stop. It was, simply, not a big deal. I’ve been asked to change seats on airlines, too, sometimes with an explanation, sometimes not.

But then, I’m not a high official with a civil rights advocacy organization with an interest in exacerbating racial disharmony in order to sat in business. . Ifill tweeted, “When I was laying [the junior conductor] out to the conductor, at one point, I said, ‘I can sit where I want,’ and I thought, ‘This isn’t 1950.” Continue reading

Anatomy Of A Fake News Story: The Rainbow Cake And The Christian School

Wow, what a coincidence!!!

The headlines:

  • NBC News: Christian school expels teen after rainbow sweater and
    cake were deemed ‘lifestyle violations’
  • Fox News: Kentucky student expelled from private Christian school
    over rainbow shirt and cake, mom claims
  • Courier Journal: Louisville Christian school expelled student over a
    rainbow cake, family says
  • BuzzFeed News: This Mom Is Claiming A Christian School Expelled Her
    Teen Daughter Over A Picture With A Rainbow Cake
  • NY Post:Teen expelled from Christian school after rainbow shirt,
    cake photo
  • Chicago Tribune: Girl expelled from Christian school after posing with
    rainbow cake
  • New York Daily News: Freshman expelled from school for wearing rainbow shirt
  • The Washington Post: “Christian school expels teen after she posed with rainbow birthday cake, mother says.”

All of these headlines are misleading and deceitful, and intentionally so. This combines several varieties of Fake News, including “Outright false stories” deliberately published to mislead, “Fake headlines and clickbait,” and “Incompetent reporting.”

The facts of the episode only incidentally involve a rainbow cake, and the incident in question was the culmination of an ongoing contractual violation, not the extreme homophobia that that the various stories represented it to be. The frequent use of “mom says” and “family says” were cover for deliberately incompetent reporting. The family was, to be blunt, lying, and the truth of the episode was readily available to anyone with the diligence and integrity to look for it.

The Post story was typical of media confirmation bias at work, and indeed was the one many other sources began with. Reporter Michael Brice-Saddler wrote that  Kimberly Alford bought a custom a cake to celebrate the 15th birthday of her daughter, Kayla Kenney.  Alford told the credulous reporter that she instructed the bakery to decorate a cake with bright colors that ‘pop,’ and by purest accident, the resulting rainbow design matched her daughter’s sweater that she just happened to be wearing though she is not gay. Mom took a picture of Kayla smiling next to the birthday cake, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

If anyone believes the story about the amazing rainbow coincidence, I have a bridge to sell them. Yet the Post reporter did, just as Post reporters chose to believe that a Catholic school boy in a MAGA cap was harassing and smirking at a helpless old Native American.

The Post story continued, Continue reading

Even MORE Of The Kinds Of Things That Would Have Been On A Full-Time Impeachment News And Commentary Blog…

1 . You know I can’t let this pass: New Age guru and cool Democratic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson tweeted out both fake news and, given her number of followers and <cough> far more effective disinformation for the kind of idiots who believe Russian bots than any foreign mischief-maker on Facebook:

She only could believe this absurd “report” if  a) she was so ready to believe anything bad about this President that literally nothing could be too absurd to swallow, and b) if she was so irresponsible that she would tweet it to her gazillion followers without checking.  It seems that she read a phony article published on Nov. 16 by MoronMajority.com. by the light of her lava lamp, after itwas then picked up by  the Daily Kos, which could easily use the name “MoronMajority.” After pulling down the tweet, Williamson had the chutzpa to write she wrote that we had to be vigilant against “big lies” in the coming campaign….you know, like hers.

2. Then there is this from Rep. Al Green, who was calling for Trump’s impeachment, and entered resolutions to that effect, long, long before there was any Ukraaine phone call:

Rep. Al Green (D-TX) said on Saturday during an interview on MSNBC that President Donald Trump needed to be impeached “to deal with slavery.”Green, who has previously stated that Trump must be impeached or else “he will get reelected,” said this week that there is “no limit” to the number of times that Democrats can try to impeach the president.

In other words, he is just like every other House Democrat, just not as subtle. And perhaps a little bit more stupid. Asked to explain what slavery has to do with impeachment, Green replied,

I do believe, ma’am, that we have to deal with the original sin. We have to deal with slavery. Slavery was the thing that put all of what President Trump has done lately into motion.We cannot overlook what happened when he came down the escalator and just demeaned people of color when he talked about the s-hole countries. It’s insidious … racism, the president has played on racism and he’s used that as a weapon to galvanize a base of support to mobilize people.So, I appreciate whatever we will do, but until we deal with the issue of invidious discrimination as a relates to [the] LGBTQ community, the anti-Semitism, the racism, the Islamophobia, the transphobia, and also the misogyny that he has exemplified, I don’t think our work is done.

Ah! Now he sounds more typical. This is, of course, Big Lie #4, “Trump is a racist.” John Hinderaker correctly notes on his blog:

Green’s rant is valuable, not because it makes any sense, but because it gives us a window into the Democrats’ real motive for wanting to impeach the president–sheer hatred over political differences. Combined, of course, with the realization that in all probability, he will be re-elected next year if they do not succeed in evicting him from office.

How long can the news media and the public fail to acknowledge this? Continue reading

A Cautionary Tale: The Corruption Of Post Columnist Colbert King, Part II

Part I is here.

King refused to apply his usual ethics alarms to Obama, but continued to be a credible and objective analyst where the D.C. government was involved. He was an instant Donald Trump-hater, however. the second the 2016 results were known. I can understand reaction to the two-time runaway winner of the Ethics Alarms “Asshole of the Year” award. But King concluded Trump was a racist—his embrace of  birther accusations against his beloved Obama was enough to guarantee that—and once Trump was elected, King became the Post’s counterpart to Trump-deranged Times columnist Charles M. Blow, except that King at his worst is usually more endurable than Blow at his best.

King’s latest anti-Trump screed, however, shows how far a smart pundit can fall when the cognitive dissonance scale and confirmation bias work in tandem, especially when old age marches on and one is mired in both work and personal bubbles where a single bias dominates.

The column begins with one of my least varieties of fake news, future news, when a journalist sets out to push a negative view of a politician based on what he will do.  The headline is “It’s a good bet Trump pardons his felon allies. Here’s when that’s most likely.”

I don’t think it is a good bet, though it is certainly possible. King assumes it is a good bet, as his column makes clear (along with all of his previous columns relating to Trump) because he thinks of the President as a corrupt racketeer. King’s once nimble mind  is now incapable of imagining a justification for pardoning the “allies” in question, Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, and Paul Manafort. I can: arguably all three of them were indicted and convicted because of the “resistance”effort to try to drive Donald Trump from office, and to send a message to anyone who might be of value to his administration that they would instantly be in cross-hairs if they dared to try to support the President. President  Trump might feel responsible for their plight, and use his absolute clemency power to relieve their burdens. If so, it would not be an unprecedented political or personal use of the pardon and clemency power. King reallywas just using this question as a pretense to vent about the President, whom he detests, shredding his own credibility in the process. For example, Continue reading

A Cautionary Tale: The Corruption Of Post Columnist Colbert King, Part I

Colbert King is 80 now, but he is still a regular columnist with the Washington Post. As a recent column demonstrated, he has finally fallen prey to the Post culture and no longer is what he once was: the rare pundit, in his case, a liberal one, who could be counted upon for fairness and integrity regardless of the topic. The one-two punches of Barack Obama and Donald Trump showed how cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias can corrupt the best of us, and make no mistake about it, King was once one of the best.

Although he is an African-American, he stood out for decades among his corruption- enabling black colleagues in consistently calling out the D.C. government’s corrupt leadership—notably Marion Barry but many others—on their arrogantly dishonest, venal and untrustworthy practices and attitudes.

Then Barack Obama happened. I listened in surprise on a local Sunday talking head show as King defended Barack Obama’s quiet, decades long assent to the black liberation (that is, anti-white, anti-American rantings of Reverend Wright, Obama’s “spiritual mentor.” Were these rationalizations I heard Colbert King uttering? King reliably mocked rationalizations, and yet here he was using them, notably “Everybody does it,” to defend  a black Presidential candidate’s approval and association with a black racist and demagogue.

Once Obama was elected, King got worse. Not only could Obama do no wrong, but those who criticized were enemies in his eyes; worse, King treated Obama’s appointees and cronies with similar reverence, a complete reversal from his approach to the  parade of incompetent or criminal black politicians in D.C.  Notably, he defended Obama “wing man” Eric Holder, the racialist Attorney General, when he was refusing to comply with a legitimate Congressional inquiry into the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious fiasco. His excuses for Holder and his attacks on Republicans were so redolent of partisan hackery that in 2012 I was moved to write my one-time Ethics Hero the “Open Letter”: Continue reading

Veteran’s Day Ethics Warm-Up, 11/11/19: Wishing My Dad Hadn’t Died Before He Figured Out How To Comment On Ethics Alarms…[CORRECTED]

Pop Quiz:

How many military veterans are currently running for President in 2020?

Answer: Two…Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

[Correction notice: I forgot about Pete in the first version of the post. Thanks to Jutgory for the catch, and thanks to Mayor Buttigieg for his service.]

1.  Here’s that “violating democratic norms” Big Lie again. This one was flagged by Ann Althouse (Thanks, Ann!)

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman,  an appointee of President Bill Clinton,  said in a speech at  the annual Thomas A. Flannery Lecture in Washington, D.C. last week, “We are in unchartered territory. We are witnessing a chief executive who criticizes virtually every judicial decision that doesn’t go his way and denigrates judges who rule against him, sometimes in very personal terms. He seems to view the courts and the justice system as obstacles to be attacked and undermined, not as a coequal branch to be respected even when he disagrees with its decisions.'”

Althouse comments,

How do you get to be a federal judge and think the expression is “unchartered territory”? That’s a written speech too (presumably). Did he visualize some entity that issues charters authorizing people to speak about the courts in a particular way? You don’t need a license to speak in the United States, and to require one would, ironically, violate our norms. The expression is “uncharted territory,” which would simply mean that Trump is venturing into a new area of speech that we haven’t previously explored and therefore have not mapped…Now, I agree with the idea that Trump’s speech about law is unconventional, but what determines that he has violated all recognized democratic norms? It’s often said that the judiciary is the least democratic part of the government, that it’s countermajoritarian. So what are the norms of democracy that say a President should not criticize the courts?! You might just as well call this purported norm a norm of anti-democracy.

Anyway… the weasel word is “recognized.” It takes all the oomph out of “all.” Trump’s speech about judges violates “all recognized democratic norms.” Who are the recognizers? The judges? Judges certainly have a role talking about democratic norms, which are often part of the determination of the scope of the judicial role: Judges refrain from doing what is left to the processes of democracy. But part of democracy is speech about government — which includes the judges — and that speech is not limited to flattering and deferring to them. It does not violate the norms of democracy to criticize and attack judges.

Bingo. And it is because of judges whot say these sorts of things that the President is not unreasonable to accuse the judiciary of  bias. Ann chose not to mention that this was also a “norm” breached by Barack Obama, more than once, but I will, the point not being “everybody does it,” but that to this judge and others, what Obama did was apparently only objectionable when Trump did it too—a common theme in the anti-Trump propaganda of the last three years. Continue reading