Ethics Hero: Jerry Lewis

Great comedians are usually, as Sid Caesar once memorably told Larry King, “miserable sons of bitches,” and few fit that description better than Jerry Lewis. As a result, he also stands as a classic example of how not-so-nice people can still do wonderful, heroic deeds. In Lewis’s case, the deed is the  Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. Lewis has announced that because of his failing health and advanced age (he is 86), the 2011 version will be his final telethon, and the show itself is being drastically scaled back from over 20 hours in its heyday to about 6 hours. The decline of his Labor Day telethon tradition is as good a time as ever to give Lewis—arrogant, loutish, egomaniacal, tough old bastard that he is—his due. Jerry Lewis is an Ethics Hero. There’s just no way getting around it.

For decades I thought that Jerry Lewis’s involvement with MDA was a stunt cooked up by his publicist during his decline in popularity, to ensure that he would have public visibility after studios stopped offering him movie roles. That was wrong: Lewis started doing telethons for muscular dystrophy in 1952, when his stardom was just blooming and he was still teamed with Dean Martin. his fundraising for medical research began as a series of local broadcasts and went national in 1966. By then Lewis’s career was indeed on the wane (his last hit movie had been “The Nutty Professor” in 1963), but the telethon had already been a constant in his life for 14 years. Jerry wasn’t doing it for himself. He really was doing it for “the kids.” Continue reading

The NPR Ethics Train Wreck

Ethics train wreck scholars take note: when an organization’s image and existence is based on multiple lies, an ETW is inevitable.

Oh NO! It's another Ethics Train Wreck!

National Public Radio is now in the middle of a massive, six-months long ethics train wreck that began with the hypocritical firing of Juan Williams on a trumped-up ethics violation. The disaster exposes the culture of dishonesty and entitlement at the heart of NPR, and by extension, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To the extent that their supporters blame anyone else, it is evidence of denial. This is a train wreck, however, and the ethics violators drawn into the wreckage are many: Continue reading

The Ethics Of Ending Public Broadcasting

The seeming inability of elected officials and politicians to deal with basic decisions involving responsibility, prudence, accountability and honesty is coming into sharp focus as yet another debate over taxpayer-funded public broadcasting on PBS and NPR gets underway.

Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn has introduced legislation that would cut all federal funding, an estimated annual $420 million, for public radio and television as part of the necessary effort to close the nation’s more than $13 trillion debt. As one of thousands of measures that will have to be taken to stave of fiscal catastrophe in the future, the move is truly a no-brainer, an example of the standard budget-balancing strategy of eliminating the most non-essential expenses, no matter how nice it may have been to have them when resources were more plentiful. In a rational, ethical environment where politicians didn’t regard their interest group contributors as more important than the welfare of the nation as a whole, Lamborn’s proposal wouldn’t be considered controversial. The rational response from all would be, “Well, of course! That’s $420 million that can be better used.”

But no. Continue reading

Media Ethics and Haiti

  • Rebecca Solnit has written a powerful piece questioning the news media’s accounts of “looting” in Haiti. She argues that people in the midst of a disaster with a breakdown of infrastructure and government assistance are acting reasonably and justifiably when they take food and other necessities from abandoned stores. She believes that media accounts emphasizing looting warp the public perception of what is happening, vilifies the victims of the disaster, and prompts excessive measures against the “looters,” who are only trying to survive. She has a point. You can read her whole piece here.
  • There is something oppressive and coercive when so many networks and cable channels interrupt regular programming to carry a telethon, as they did last night. It turns an appeal for help into a demand for help. Continue reading