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
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“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family! [REVISED and CORRECTED!]

(The Introduction is here.; Chapter I is here.;Chapter 2 is here.)

 Kris takes Santa’s throne

Kris’s rave reviews as Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade are so good,  Doris hires him play Santa at Macy’s flagship New York City store on 34th Street. He agrees, which is strange, when you think about how busy he should be at this time of year, supervising the elves and all. If he really is Santa, or even if he thinks he is, taking the job in New York is irresponsible.

His supervisor gives him a list of toys to “push”—toys that are overstocked. “Now, you’ll find that a great many children will be undecided as to what they want for Christmas. When that happens, you suggest one of these items,” Kris is told. “You understand?”

Kris says he understands, but later makes it clear in his comments to a co-worker, that he has no intention of “pushing” the merchandise.:

“Imagine…making a child take something it doesn’t want…just because he bought too many of the wrong toys.That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years!”

That being the case, there is exactly one thing Kris needs to do. He needs to quit. What he cannot do, and must not do, and has a clear ethical obligation not to do, is to accept a job when he has no intention of doing what the job requires. This is a sales job. If Kris doesn’t want to sell, then he will be accepting a pay check under false pretenses. This isn’t noble conduct, as the film would have you believe. It’s unethical conduct. It’s wrong.

Kris needs to put himself on his own naughty list. Continue reading

Remembering John Simon (1925-2019 ): The Day The Meanest Critic Alive Made Me Happy

John Simon, who died three days ago at the age of 94, was known as a merciless, even cruel cultural critic.  From the Times obituary:

John Simon [was]one of the nation’s most erudite, vitriolic and vilified culture critics, who illuminated and savaged a remarkable range of plays, films, literature and art works and their creators for more than a half-century…In an era of vast cultural changes, Mr. Simon marshaled wide learning, insights and acid wit for largely negative reviews and essays that appeared in New York magazine for nearly 37 years…In a style that danced with literary allusions and arch rhetoric…he produced thousands of critiques and a dozen books…While English was not his native language, he also wrote incisive essays on American usage, notably in the 1980 book “Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline.”

I met him exactly once (and we later had an online exchange), but in that single encounter he said something that meant a great deal to me, and that I will never forget.

As a drama critic, Simon made Frank Rich seem like an old softy. I don’t care for his kind of critiques, applying rarefied personal standards so divorced from the average audience member that they give no guidance at all. Simon was fun to read if you had no stake in the play or movie he was trashing, but those who worked full-time in show business generally hated him, and it is no wonder.  In one compilation of his reviews, “Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films” (1982), he was positive about just 15 of the 245 films he discussed.  William F. Buckley .quipped that Simon “reviewed movies in the same sense that pigeons review statues.”

He was accused of being racist, misogynist, homophobic or grossly insensitive,  denied being any of those things, and argued that no person or group was above criticism, especially those who, in his view, lacked talent and covered themselves in mantles of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity and used them to claim preferential treatment in the marketplaces of culture. But some of his quotes resonate with me:

  • “I do not like uniforms. I do not like people who are a professional this, that or the other. Professional writers, actors and singers are O.K., but I don’t like professional Jews, professional homosexuals, professional blacks, professional feminists, professional patriots. I don’t like people abdicating their identity to become part of some group, and then becoming obsessed with this and making capital of it.”
  • “My greatest obligation is to what, correctly or incorrectly, I perceive as the truth. Kästner says, in essence, ‘All right, the world is full of idiots and they’re in control of everything. You fool, stay alive and annoy them!’ And that, in a sense, is my function in life, and my consolation. If I can’t convince these imbeciles of anything, I can at least annoy them, and I think I do a reasonably good job of that.”

In 1998, my now retired  professional theater company, The American Century Theater, was in the midst of its 1998 production of “Lady in the Dark,” the 1940 experimental musical by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill. At that time, it was the first full run of the show since the original had closed on Broadway.  Our star, Maureen Kerrigan, informed me that her old room mate was married to the terrifying John Simon, and that both had traveled from New York to see her in the next day’s  Sunday matinee performance. Simon was infamously disdainful of musicals, and once described a guaranteed Broadway hit as “A loud, vulgar musical about Jewish Negroes.”

This was not happy news. We had already gotten our usual pan from the Post, which had no interest in our mission of producing American stage works at least 25 years old that had fallen out of the professional theater repertoire. Now we were going to be eviscerated by John Simon. He was used to watching all-Actors Equity productions in 2000 seat theaters, with multi-million dollar budgets. Our show had what I considered to be an excellent cast, but only Maureen was Equity. We did have a brilliant director—me. Somehow I doubted Mr. Simon would appreciate our talents.

After all, it was a production of a lavish show with a huge cast in a small black box theater seating 130 at best, with a full orchestra crammed behind scenery, on a budget about 1% of what the opus would take to do justice to now. I was expecting to be humiliated.

Simon watched the performance with a critic’s poker face, and afterwards, never inquiring about his verdict,  I volunteered to drive him and his wife to the airport. They both sat in stony silence for most of the trip, and then Simon suddenly said, “I’m very glad I saw your production.”

“Why is that?” I asked. He said, “I saw the Encores production, the concert version, several years ago, and I found it incomprehensible. I wrote in my review then that “Lady in the Dark” shouldn’t be revived. Now that I’ve see the whole thing, I realize I was wrong: it deserves to be revived and get a full production. Thank-you.”

Well,  that was the whole reason we started TACT: to give audiences a chance to see American shows that weren’t being produced, and to demonstrate why they shouldn’t be forgotten. Coming from maybe the toughest, most demanding critic who ever lived, Simon’s statement was high praise. And, of course, I knew he wasn’t just saying it to be nice, because he didn’t care about being nice.

I will always be grateful to John Simon for making me feel like the theater and the dedicated “Lady in the Dark” cast and production staff accomplished something important, when he, unlike so many in the theater, didn’t hand out praise indiscriminately.

Addendum: This is as good as anywhere to finally confess that having my young, struggling theater company take on one of the most famously difficult and complex musicals of all time was reckless and irresponsible. We were always dangerously short of money, and were committed to keeping tickets under 20 dollars. Our typical show to that point had cost 10-15 thousand dollars, and some of those lost money. “Lady in the Dark” ended up costing over $50, 000, easily the most expensive in the company’s 20 year history. Had the production flopped, it would have been the end of the experiment, and nobody knew whether anyone would want to see a nearly four-hour, three-act 60-year-old musical about a troubled professional woman undergoing psychoanalysis.

Fortunately, people did. The show played to over 100% capacity, and nearly broke even.  “Lady in the Dark” did wonderful things for the company, attracting subscribers, donations, and respect. But it was pure moral luck.

Officially Kicking Off The Holidays: The Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide, Updated And With A New Introduction For 2019

 

The Ethics Alarms Ethics Guide to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece It’s A Wonderful Life,” perhaps the greatest ethics movies of all time, has become this blog’s official welcome to the holiday season.  Once again, I have reviewed the post after another viewing of the film. It is a mark of the movie’s vitality that I always find something else of interest from an ethics perspective.

The movie is an important shared cultural touch-point,and exemplifies the reasons why I harp on cultural literacy  as so vital to maintaining our nation’s connective tissue. The film teaches about values, family, sacrifice and human failings unlike any other. I hope its power and uniqueness disproves the assertion, made in one online debate here this year, that new cultural creations inevitably and effectively supersede older ones, which, like copies of copies, eventually the cultural values conveyed get fainter and less influential.

Last year I wrote with confidence, “No, they really don’t,” but now I am not so sure. In , I learned that my druggist, about 35, married and with children, had never seen the movie. I gave him a DVD over the summer, and suggested that he watch it with his whole family, which he said he would: he moved on to another CVS branch, so I have no idea if he did or will. I used to be  amazed at how many people haven’t seen the movie; now I am not. Last year I wrote that my son’s girlfriend admitted that she hadn’t; this year he has a new girlfriend,  and she hasn’t either.

The movie is in black and white, and many Gen Xers and Millennials disdain uncolored films the way I once avoided silent movies.  Will anyone be watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” 20 years from now? I wonder. The movie begins in heaven, and has a strong religious undercurrent. Religion is increasingly mocked and marginalized today, and  I see no signs that the trend is reversing. Aside from the nauseating Hallmark Christmas movies, most of this century’s holiday fair is openly cynical about Christmas and everything connected to it.

Here’s an example of how rapidly  cultural touchpoints vanish: I’m going to poll how many readers remember this:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don’t we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker ‘n’ too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, ‘lope with you!

Hunky Dory’s pop is lolly,
Gaggin’ on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie’s collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an’ polly voo!
Chilly Filly’s name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly’s jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!

Now just answer the poll, don’t go giving away the answer. Nobody knows all the lyrics that I just posted, nobody but the author ever did. The first verse, however, was once familiar.

Maybe there is hope: it was recently announced that a new musical adaptation of  the movie may be coming to Broadway as early as next year. The songs will be written by Sir Paul McCartney, and interest in The Beatles is surging.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” would be an excellent basis for a middle school ethics course. I haven’t seen a better, richer film for that purpose come along since, and I’ve been looking. Despite the many ethics complexities and nuances that the film glosses over or distorts, its basic, core message is crucial to all human beings, and needs to be hammered into our skulls at regular intervals, far more often than once a year.

What is this message?  In an earlier posting of The Guide I described it like this:

Everyone’s life does touch many others, and everyone has played a part in the chaotic ordering of random occurrences for good. Think about the children who have been born because you somehow were involved in the chain of events that linked their parents. And if you can’t think of something in your life that has a positive impact on someone–although there has to have been one, and probably many—then do something now. It doesn’t take much; sometimes a smile and a kind word is enough. Remembering the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” really can make life more wonderful, and not just for you

Finally, I hope you all have a terrific Thanksgiving, and that the holiday season is joyous for all.

And now, heeeeeere’s GEORGE BAILEY!
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Post Road Trip Ethics De-Brief, 11/20/2019, AND Morning Warm-Up, 11/21/2019

Bvuh.

Thinking is a chore right now, never mind typing.

We returned from a triumphant two-Darrow ethics program New Jersey tour, highlighted by the intense Darrow oratory performed by actor/legal instructor Paul Morella. This does a cynical ethics CLE presenter’s heart good: finding myself short of time, I asked the assembled NJ Bar members to vote on whether Paul should omit Darrow’s famous Leopold and Loeb closing argument, or Darrow’s own desperate plea for an acquittal when he faced a jury considering his own guilt of jury tampering in the 1911 MacNamara case. The group almost unanimously voted that we complete both closings, with my ethics commentary as well, bringing the program to an end almost a half hour later than scheduled. Nobody left, and believe me, in most CLE seminars, the lawyers seldom stay one second longer than they have to.

Brought a tear to my eye…

No rest in sight, though: tomorrow, I take an early flight to team up with rock guitar whiz and singer Mike Messer in Las Vegas for Ethics Rock Extreme. And I’m punchy now...

1. Well, maybe the NFL is learning…News item: The Miami Dolphins released already suspended running back Mark Walton on Tuesday, hours after he was arrested on charges of punching his pregnant girlfriend multiple times in the head. Walton had been serving a four-game suspension because of  three arrests before the season started. He was sentenced in August to six months’ probation after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor weapons charge.

Now let’s see if the Patriots sign him…

2. Just a quick impeachment hearings note: It is astounding to me that witnesses are being called by the Democrats to testify regarding their opinions on a President’s phone call to a foreign leader. Big black headlines shout that witnesses called a phone call “inappropriate.” Who cares? The President has the authority to decide what is “appropriate,” and there are no impeachment articles in the Constitution designating “acting inappropriately” according to someone else’s opinion as a “high crime and misdemeanor.”  Leaders become leaders because they do thinks that others think are “inappropriate.”

Don’t get get me  started on presidential actions through the centuries that experts, government veterans and other critics at the time thought were “inappropriate,” or worse.

I started compiling a list of what I would consider genuinely impeachable actions by past Presidents The list makes the current impeachment push look even more contrived than it already is.

3. I see that the group that surreptitiously filmed Planned Parenthood staff discussing abortions was hit with over 2 million dollars in damages. Good. Continue reading

The Garrett-Rudolph Attack: Yes, It’s Unethical For Even NFL Players To Try To Kill Each Other….

As if the game itself, legally played, weren’t enough to cause its players brain damage, in a Thursday Night televised pro football game this week Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ripped the helmet off Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and clubbed him in the head with it. The league acted swiftly, suspending Garrett for the rest of this season, including the playoffs should the Browns make them, and reinstatement is by no means assured.

Good.

This is the longest suspension for an on-field incident in NFL history. I can find no fault with Garrett’s apology, Level One on the Apology Scale, issued before the sentence came down. He said, Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/30/2019: “Happy Birthday Little Sister!” Edition

Good Morning!

Today marks the birthday of my younger sister, whom I have referred to here frequently. Growing up with her and following her life and career imbued me with an early and ongoing appreciation of the effects of sexism and pro-male bias in society, and I’m indebted to her for that. She has always equaled or surpassed me in ability and enterprise, yet often watched me receive more credit or praise for the same things she could do and did without similar acclaim. I know she resented me for that (probably still does—she won’t read Ethics Alarms, for example), and it frequently bruised our relationship over the years. She also taught me about moral luck: in general, I have been persistently  lucky, and she has not, and the difference was so evident that I learned very early in life not to congratulate myself for how the dice fell. She is finally happy in retirement, is about to welcome the first grandchild for this generation of Marshalls, her two adult children are healthy and prospering, and her beloved Nationals just forced a Game 7 in the World Series. She will have a happy birthday. Good. She deserves it.

1. Tales of the double standard, and the imaginary double standard. MSNBC and much of the progressive noise machine has decided to paint Rep. Katie Hill as a victim of a “vast right wing conspiracy,” in Hillary’s immortal phrase, and a vicious husband. If he indeed was the one who shared the salacious photos of Hill involved in various sex acts,  vicious he certainly is. But how can anyone say, as lawyer Carrie Goldberg does, that  “Katie Hill was taken down by three things: an abusive ex, a misogynist far-right media apparatus, and a society that was gleeful about sexually humiliating a young woman in power…None of those elements would be here if it were a male victim. It is because she is female that this happened’? Nonsense, and deceptive nonsense.

Hill resigned because a House ethics investigation was underway regarding her admitted sexual affair with a Congressional staffer and an alleged affair with her legislative director. She was not going to be kicked out of Congress for either or both; she probably resigned in part because she knew the investigation was going to turn up more and worse. The Naked Congresswoman Principle also played a part, as I discussed here. Does anyone really believe that equivalent photos of a male member of Congress displaying his naughty bits in flagrante delicto (my late, great, law school roomie loved saying that phrase) with both sexes would be shrugged off by his constituents and the news media? Who are they kidding?

Hill was arrogant and reckless, and is paying the predictable price, though she was not smart enough to predict it. Trail-blazers—I’m not sure being the first openly bi-sexual member of Congress is much  of a trail to blaze, but never mind—are always under special scrutiny and have to avoid scandal at all costs. Did Hill ever hear of Jackie Robinson? Allowing those photos to come into existence showed terrible judgment; using her staff as a dating resource was hypocritical for a member of the  #MeToo party and workplace misconduct too.

The fact that she is being defended tells us all we need to know about the integrity of her  defenders. Continue reading