In 1898, an exchange took place between Frederic Remington and his boss, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had sent the artist to Havana to sketch pictures of hostilities purportedly taking place in Cuba.
Remington wired, “Everything is quiet. No trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”
Hearst responded, “You furnish the pictures… I’ll furnish the war.”
While today’s press is not quite as flagrant as Hearst, they nonetheless are constantly challenged by ethical issues.
On Monday I talked about a recent open mic moment where Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul were caught sharing strategy points clearly not meant for public ears. His conversation with McConnell revealed that Paul thinks his party will only “win” the shutdown fight if they are seen by the public as eager to negotiate:
Paul: I think if we keep saying, “We wanted to defund [Obamacare], we fought for that and now we’re willing to compromise on this,” I think they [the Democrats] can’t, we’re gonna, I think, well I know we don’t want to be here, but we’re gonna win this, I think.
The question I asked readers to consider was not about political content, but rather, the responsibility of the press.
“Is it fair,” I asked, “for the media to air, what intended to be, a private conversation between colleagues, or does the media have a duty to report any and all remarks – even those which may have been intended to be private – in order to let the public witness, firsthand, the real motivation of politicians?”
My purpose here is to demonstrate how an individual or news organization, can go about making ethical decisions utilizing the three-step decision-making model put forth by The Josephson Institute of Ethics. In making an effective decision, one must take the emotion out of the equation and look at the issue through the lens of objective criteria.
Step 1: Who are the stakeholders involved?
A: Certainly Republicans as well as members of Congress. However, as their remarks contained information that affects Americans, I would add the American public to that group. An ethical decision-maker has a moral obligation to consider the possible impact his or her decision has on all stakeholders.
Step 2: Which ethical values are involved: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Justice & Fairness, Caring and Civic Virtue & Citizenship?
A: From an ethical perspective, the conversation between McConnell and Paul covers the values of Trustworthiness which includes Honesty; as well as Responsibility and Fairness.
Both men are talking about policy issues that impact Americans. Clearly, it is important that political leaders be truthful with the public. “Truthfulness,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, “precludes intentional misrepresentations of fact, intent, or opinion. Sincerity precludes all acts intended to create beliefs or impressions that are untrue, misleading or deceptive, including deliberate omissions, half-truths and out-of-context statements.”
From the perspective of the press, they have an ethical responsibility to report the truth. “The powers of the press,” Josephson writes, “should be used responsibly to advance public interest without causing unjustified harm. As a watchdog, the press should be fair, vigilant and aggressive in assuring that people of influence are held accountable.”
However, Josephson adds, “Journalists should consistently demonstrate a commitment to justice, fairness and balance, seeking out and reporting opposing perspectives and provide reasonable opportunity for people written about or quoted to respond or clarify.”
Since the majority of media outlets have reported and/or played the entire conversation between the two, they can’t be accused of taking any words out of context. However, after an Internet search, I could not find a single interview where a news organization asked Senator Paul to clarify his comments. The press should have reached out for clarification, or stated that he declined their request.
Step 3: If two ethical values conflict, an ethical decision-maker will choose that value which, according to the decision-maker’s conscience, will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run.
In the case of the media airing a private conversation between Senate colleagues, one could make a case for a conflict between Fairness and Responsibility. The reporter or cameraman on the scene could have interrupted the conversation and told both men that they were being recorded. The news director could have chosen not to air the conversation.
If, for example, Senator Paul had told Senator McConnell, “Listen, I just heard that Seal Team 6 is, right now, attempting to capture a terrorist in Somalia.” That would have been a conversation involving national security that the public may indeed have a right to know, but not at this time.
Or, if Paul told McConnell, “Listen, I just heard that Senator so-and-so’s son has just been arrested for drug dealing.” That would have been a private and personal conversation that does not bear on the public’s immediate right to know.
However, the public does have a right to know this particular conversation because both men are talking directly about how they and their party are dealing with policies that directly affect the American public: the budget and the debt ceiling. From my perspective, the most effective choice would have been for the news director of local TV station WPSD-6 (Kentucky) to inform both Senators of the recorded conversation and offer them a chance, through another interview, to clarify their remarks, then air both interviews.
While this may seem like a simple decision regarding the public’s right to know, my purpose here is to demonstrate the need for all of us to step back and think through ethical decisions without getting caught up in a lot of emotional baggage. From the responses I’ve received, you can see how many reflect a strong political viewpoint.
Many ethical issues that we face require no more than clear, principled reasoning which treats core, ethical values and principles as ground rules of behavior.
While one reader wrote that “The fantasy of ‘Mr. Smith’ going to Washington to stand up for the ‘little guy’ is non-existent”; if political leaders and the press employed consistent ethical principles to their decisions, we would see a remarkable rise in public trust.
In the end, the press should be treated as a public trust, requiring journalists to inspire credibility and confidence in the honesty, accuracy and fairness of the information they convey, and when they make a mistake, as they sometimes will, they are duty-bound to make a full, fair and prompt correction.