The “Bad Art Friend” Ethics Train Wreck


I’ve been trying to decide what to do with this story since last October 5, when the New York Times published the longest damn article about a relatively insular ethics and legal dispute that I have ever read. The issues raised by the episode are well worth considering on an ethics blog, but the effort required to describe the facts adequately enough to examine those issues is prohibitive. The Times piece, by novelist Robert Kolker, is over 9,600 words long, and the tale, though interesting from an ethics perspective, just isn’t that interesting.

To fully understand “What’s going on here?” requires reading the whole thing, but I am going to attempt to summarize the main features of this weird story and flag the ethics issues.

Here goes nothin’…

1.Dawn Dorland is an aspiring writer and, according to her friends, an aggressively kind and empathetic person. In 2015, she donated one of her kidneys in a so-called non-directed donation, where her kidney was not meant for anyone in particular but was part of a donation chain, coordinated by surgeons to provide kidneys to recipients desperate for the organ.

Good for her. Kind, compassionate, generous. Obviously ethical.

2. Several weeks before her surgery, Dorland started a private Facebook group, inviting family and friends, and some fellow writers from the Boston writing center that Dorland belonged to. After her surgery, she posted the letter she had written to the final recipient of the surgical chain, whoever that may be:

Personally, my childhood was marked by trauma and abuse; I didn’t have the opportunity to form secure attachments with my family of origin. A positive outcome of my early life is empathy, that it opened a well of possibility between me and strangers. While perhaps many more people would be motivated to donate an organ to a friend or family member in need, to me, the suffering of strangers is just as real. … Throughout my preparation for becoming a donor … I focused a majority of my mental energy on imagining and celebrating you.”

Okay, this is substantially virtue-signaling and self-celebratory, but…okay. There are good reasons to let people know about such an altruistic gesture: it might inspire others to do the same thing. There isn’t anything unethical about letting others know what a great and generous person you are when you really have done something good. Am I more impressed with those who make such contributions and don’t feel the need to broadcast it to others?


3. After the surgery, Dorland was struck by the fact that some people she’d invited to join her private Facebook group hadn’t reacted to her posts. One of them was a writer named Sonya Larson, with whom Dorland had become friends years before and had since, unlike Dorland, become a published author of fiction, rising in the field. After email exchanges between the two initiated by Dorland and some typical catching up chatter, Dorland wrote, “I think you’re aware that I donated my kidney this summer. Right?” Larson responded: “Ah, yes — I did see on Facebook that you donated your kidney. What a tremendous thing!”

Kolker writes, “Afterward, Dorland would wonder: If she really thought it was that great, why did she need reminding that it happened?”

Who cares, and so what? This is narcissism on Dorland’s part, and a symptom of advanced social media disease. Nobody has an obligation to respond the way one wants to any news, especially a distant friend.

Continue reading

Is It Unethical To Use HIV Transmission As A Plot Element In Drama?

In an essay in The Body, an HIV-AIDS community website, Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad argues that it is unethical and exploitive for writers to use the disease as a plot point in TV shows and movies. His argument is pitched at black writers particularly. (In case you are not familiar with the term he uses, the “down low” refers to apparently heterosexual black men who secretly have sex with males.) He argues in part,

Last week’s episode of the popular show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Greenleaf, provided a storyline that’s become all too familiar—the disclosure of HIV status as a spicy and scandalous plot twist.

…During this season, at the end of episode three, a shocking reveal happens: AJ was raped in prison, and the person who raped him transmitted HIV to him. AJ is now suffering from HIV disease and finally tells Grace. That’s how the episode ends. As an HIV-positive Black person, my heart sank, because again, the failure to hold any nuance with HIV emerged, 16 years after the “down low” and HIV plot twists of the early 2000s. It’s as if we’re frozen in time.

… I want to say this to the writers and producers of Greenleaf, and other Black creatives: HIV is not a plot twist device. HIV is not a caricature, and HIV is not predatory. Yes, there are the very real stories of people contracting HIV after being raped, and yes, there are some people who are not fully open to their partners and who may have transmitted HIV. But the narrative of HIV as a hidden monster and prison rape are not what drive the epidemic in Black communities.

…[T]here have been many harmful representations of HIV stories in the media. Let’s start with Tyler Perry’s 2010 film…For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. In his film adaptation, Janet Jackson’s character, “Lady in Red,” is married to a man named Carl Bradmore…His character is struggling with sexual desire and can be seen cruising for other men in the film, and ultimately there is a scene where oral sex is performed in a car. Hardwick’s character Carl Bradmore is in a BMW under a bridge and gets head from another Black man.

…Throughout the film, Lady in Red has a scarf tied around her neck, and toward the end, the scarf is red. She coughs frequently and drinks tea, ostensibly to soothe her throat. The drama erupts toward the end of the film, when they are both sitting on a bed and not facing each other. She says something to the effect of, “You can keep your sorry and your HIV”—which is saved as a grand reveal, to provide shock and melodrama to the story. Shange’s original play includes no “down low” men, and it was written before HIV, so these aspects were specifically added by Perry.

I watched this film in shock…. My mother was a Tyler Perry fan; she thought his desire to (and practice of) giving leading roles to Black actors was something to celebrate. I on the other hand felt… here again is another media representation of the [down low] monster as a viral operative to drive the drama of the plot, and to both titillate and disgust. There is data that suggests that Black people aren’t doing anything behaviorally different than white people when it comes to intimacy or other vulnerable ways to become HIV positive. The difference in disproportionate infections comes from anti-Black racism that discourages trust of systems and incarcerates and criminalizes Black people. Our vulnerability is undergirded by the lack of infrastructures of care and the breakdown of food systems in the hood and in the rural South.

Until we truly consider the truth about HIV and not the easily propagated myths, we are doing more harm to our communities and aren’t standing in solidarity with HIV-positive Black people…. Isn’t it time for TV and film catch up and stop with the same tired use of HIV as plot twist or cautionary tale. Continue reading

Unethical Maybe, Unprofessional Definitely: Saturday Night Live With Host Donald Trump

donald trump larry david snl

Last night, Saturday Night Live was terrible, even for Saturday Night Live. The skits were flat and desperate, the performances were slack and lacking energy. My reaction from the almost joke-free cold open (if an actress can’t do a better impression of Rachel Maddow than that, it’s time to hang it up) was, “They are intentionally tanking this!”

My impression got stronger as the show went on. If anything, SNL’s current young cast usually tries too hard. The key to live comedy performing is radiating energy and control, as well as communicating that you are having fun. Last night it was the mostly opposite: no energy, no enthusiasm. An off night that just happened to fall on the night that Donald Trump was hosting? Maybe. You can say my suspicions are born of confirmation bias, but I was surprised. These are supposedly pros. They should be able to deliver if they had to perform with Satan.

Trump wasn’t phoning it in. He was doing his best, and it wasn’t bad by the standards of a non-performer. The SNL cast acted as if it didn’t want to associate with him. Continue reading

So What’s The Theory, SNL, That After 40 Years, It’s OK to Plagiarize?


Saturday Night Live’s  “Draw Muhammad” sketch this week was very funny, but then, the cast knew that, since it had already been funny on a Canadian television satire show called “22 Minutes.” The skit, in short, was stolen. You can compare for yourself here.

Yes, what SNL does every week is incredibly stressful, difficult and risky. Writing, rehearsing and performing more than an hour of new material week after week is the equivalent of walking a tightrope with rabid weasels following you. I wrote and directed two original satire stage shows, and it was like riding a roller coaster that crashed every other time you buy a ticket—and you can’t stop riding. So I am sympathetic, very sympathetic. The temptation to swipe proven material from another source must be very strong when time is short and the ideas aren’t coming. Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart never stooped to plagiarism when they had to churn out new comedy classics for Sid Ceasar to perform every week on “Your Show of Shows,” but then they were Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart. I understand.

Nevertheless, this is a high breach of comedy writing ethics, especially for Saturday Night Live. After 40 years, it is an icon now. It has the status as an elder statesman of satire, a role model for Comedy Bang Bang! and Funny or Die and Archer and every other show written by people who have been watching SNL all their sentient lives. For this show’s writers and cast to cheat validates comedy plagiarism, or, perhaps, invalidates Saturday Night Live.

It will be better, but still unethical, if it turns out that the show bought the skit. For 40 years, SNL has built a reputation as brave, irreverent comic kamikazes who present brand new, original, daring, up-to-the-minute topical material never tested in front of an audience before. If its writers are now recycling the work of other less storied satire shows and their less well-remunerated writers, what does that mean? Is the grind becoming too much? Is the show unable to meet the expectations its previous incarnations created?

Or has it been cheating all along?

Acting Ethics: Why We Don’t Want Actors Being Too Picky About Their Roles


In the strange ethics category of “Conduct That Isn’t Exactly Wrong But That Will Have Nothing But Bad Consequences To Society If There Is A  Lot Of It” (CTIEWBTWHNBBCTSITIALOI for short) is actors rejecting roles because they have philosophical or political disagreements with the script.

We’ve had two high profile examples of this occur lately. All we can do is hope that it’s a coincidence. The first was when about a dozen Native American actors, including an adviser on Native American culture, left the set of Adam Sandler’s first original movie with Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six,”a western send-up of “The Magnificent Seven,” claiming some of the film’s content was offensive.

Really? An Adam Sandler movie offensive?

The second and more troubling was in LA,  where five actors quit the cast of the new play “Ferguson,” which consists entirely of dramatizations of the Michael Brown murder grand jury testimony, because the actors apparently felt that it did not appropriately support the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” narrative.

That’s really stupid, but I’m not getting into that again.

We don’t see many examples of professional actors doing this for several reasons. One is that they can’t afford to. Acting, except for the top fraction of a per cent, is anything but lucrative; it’s a subsistence level job, redeemable because it is, or can be, art, and tolerable as long as the actor doesn’t have a family to support, or has a trust fund.

The main reason this is unusual, however, is that an actor isn’t responsible for the content of the play, movie or TV show he or she acts in, but only the skill with he or she helps present that content to an audience. Actors—and technical artists like costume and light designers—are the conduits through which a writer’s work of performance art gets to live. They don’t have to like a show, agree with it or understand it, which is a good thing, since many excellent actors don’t have the  education, experience or intellect to understand complex and profound works. As one realistic actor friend once told me, “If we were that smart, we’d be smart enough to be in another profession.” Continue reading

Note To Ethics Dunce Norman Lear: That’s Not “Reverse Racism,” Norman. That’s Just Racism.

Norman Lear, Ethics Meathead..

Norman Lear, Ethics Meathead…

On what has become racism Friday for some reason, I read with annoyance excerpts from Norman Lear‘s new autobiography. The relentlessly liberal ( and smugly so) TV writer, producer/director and liberal activist who created “All in the Family,” “Maude,” Sanford and Son,” and People for the American Way, tells this tale:

“Mike Evans, the actor who played Lionel, the son of George Jefferson on All in the Family, wanted to write as well as act, and I suggested he take a crack at the Good Times pilot script. He brought in Eric Monte, a black writer he wished to team up with. Eric (who later sued me, Jerry Perenchio, Tandem and CBS for something like $185 million) came from the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, so we settled the James and Florida Evans family there. [Editor’s note: The suit was settled for $1 million.] I was charmed by Eric Monte and, having worked for years with Mike, liked him a lot, too. A number of black writers worked with us through the years, but thus far none had created a show. Mike and Eric now had the opportunity to be the first.

They blew it creatively with a poor copycat of a script. But even though what they wrote was a far cry from what we shot, we did not seek to change their credit as the sole co-creators. I could be confessing to a bit of inverse racism here when I admit that it even pleased me to see them credited and paid. That would not have happened, at least not gratuitously, if they were white.”

I have news for Lear: that’s straight up racial bias, also known as racism. He is admitting that he gave excessive credit to two writers for a subpar script because they were black. Continue reading

Shia LaBeouf, Plagiarism Addict, With Much Worse To Come

Shia past and present, with apology...

The child star past and present, with apology…

Actor Shia LaBeouf, known to Disney Channel aficionados as the annoying little brother on “Even Stevens” and to movie fans as Indiana Jones’ son and the Transformers Guy, is so much more, and not in a good way. His rapidly expanding list of reckless and socially-clueless episodes, including the obligatory misconduct behind the wheel of an expensive car, signals that he may be the new Lindsay Lohan, a talented former child-star raised to adulthood without basic life-skills, respect for others, and an appreciation of the difference between right and wrong. This is a tragic scenario that we are cursed to witness again and again—we saw it in 2013 in the increasingly obnoxious and desperate conduct of pop star Justin Bieber. Give a child wealth, power and adulation without first imbuing him or her with values, discipline and humility and what do you get? A menace.

As LaBeouf’s acting career has waned with his growing reputation as an untrustworthy (and sometimes violent) jerk, he has refashioned himself into an aspiring artist. Unfortunately, he lacks some basic traits of successful artists, like integrity and creativity. His inclination, being raised, like most child stars, in an unstable environment by self-absorbed and dysfunctional parents, is to cheat. In 2012, LaBeouf attached his name to three short graphic novels and a webcomic series. This year, we learned that at least two of the graphic novels contained text plagiarized from other writers. Then LaBeouf attached his name as writer to the short film (which he also directed) called “,” which was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival and received some praise there. The  short, about an online film critic, included a strong resemblance to Daniel Clowes’ 2007 comic “Justin M. Damiano,” as well as large sections of dialogue directly lifted from it. No one picked up on the plagiarism until LaBeouf  released his film online.  Continue reading

Ethics Alarms: the News, the Web, and Other Things

Why People Think the Media is Biased, Reason 61,567: Chris Matthews recently mocked new Mass. GOP Senator Scott Brown for signing a book deal to write his autobiography. “Didn’t people used to write their memoirs after their careers?” Matthews sneered. Gee, Chris, I don’t know: Weren’t you extravagant in your praise for Sen. Barack Obama’s autobiography, published before he was half-way through his first term?

How Writers Are Different From Lawyers: A free-lance writer lays out her ethical principles here, which includes not lending her talents to causes she doesn’t believe in. She is on firm ground, because citizens don’t have a Constitutional right to have their ideas professionally communicated to the world. Citizens do and must have the right to use the laws of their country for their own benefit, however, and to have the best representation possible when they are accused of crimes. That is why we can make judgments about a writer’s principles based on her choice of clients, but to do the same with lawyers is an attack on the principles of democracy. Continue reading