Dear Diary

Published: November 18, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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It’s Tuesday May 23, 2006 and I’ve just arrived at my hotel. After traveling all day from California, I’m in New York to give a report to the public via the media on Honesty and Trust in America.

In the Spring of 2006, with a host of ethics scandals involving CEOs, politicians, athletes and other celebrities you might think that my life as an ethics specialist would be one continuous media junket filled with an infinite amount of radio interviews, and TV “face time” with pundits and news people beseeching me for context and insight, not to mention the corporations lining up for ethics talks.

In fact, it’s not.

The reality is that ethics – beyond the brushfire of “Breaking News” – is the proverbial “third-rail” of media interest. Don’t get me wrong, there are many in the media who do good work, give attention to the serious issues at hand. It’s just that when it comes to the ethical aspect of those stories, most of them check into Short-Attention-Span Theater.

Thursday, May 25, CNN has just announced the verdicts of former Enron President Jeff Skilling and former CEO Ken Lay in one of the largest cases of corporate malfeasance in the history of America. It’s not that the media didn’t devote in-depth coverage to the verdicts of the duo, they did. From about 12-noon Eastern Time through the evening news, the media had every business analyst, legal analyst, and pundit bombarding us with every aspect of the case: what happened to investors, employees, the loss of jobs, homes, retirements and what it means to future CEOs who might cross the line. All good stuff.

What the media doesn’t cover what they consistently leave out in all their analysis is the bigger picture: What does it all mean?  Where are we headed? Are the ethics scandals of the last few years the result of a few rogue individuals, or are they a symptom of something deeper?  Has America become a culture of corruption?

That was then and this is now: November 18, 2011 and we’ve got the Penn State scandal; Energy Secretary Steven Chu testifies before a House subcommittee about the appalling decision-making behind giving solar company Solyndra half a billion in loan guarantees just before it goes under; presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is accused of making over $1.6 million in “consulting” (code for lobbying Congress) fees  on behalf of mortgage giants Fannie and Freddie; and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is out and about hawking his book on how he bought roughly 100 members of Congress.

According to a recent Gallup poll (Sept. 26), “A record-high 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed…”

One week earlier (Sept. 22), Gallup reported that 55% of Americans “…do not have confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.”

It’s no wonder the Occupy movement is gaining followers throughout the country. People are fed up.

Back to the diary –

From May 23rd to May 26, 2006, we had a virtual tsunami of ethics-related stories, yet, with the exception of the Enron verdict and the debate over the FBI’s seizure of files from Democratic Representative William Jefferson’s office, the media offers no analysis, no context, and no insight into the issue of unethical activities on a larger scale.

When I ask my publicist about this, she tells me, “The producers we talk to all say they’re busy chasing other stories.”  My question: “What other stories? Ethics underlies the stories they are “busy chasing”!

I return to Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room and become mesmerized by a story about an underwater volcano. “We’ve never seen pictures like this before, Wolf,” the field reporter says.

Today, we’ve the issues we face are even more daunting: Rebuilding the economy, restoring jobs, not to mention the deficit, to name the most obvious.

But I would argue that ethics and its long-term implications is the critical substructure within all of those stories. If a record 81% of Americans no longer have trust and confidence that their political leadership is meeting its responsibilities in dealing with these issues in an open and ethical manner, new leadership is required. If the Media, long believed to be America’s ethical “watchdog,” is perceived by the public as lacking trust, who are we to turn to for accurate, fair reporting?

The final question in the 2006 poll asked: “What 2 or 3 specific changes would have to take place in order to improve honesty and trust in America?

More than 8,000 Americans responded in telling political and corporate leadership as well as the media what is needed most – much of which we are hearing today from the Occupiers:

“We need to stop applauding money and start applauding ethics.”

“We need to make sure that everyone is accountable for their actions.”

“We need to stop rewarding the most adept liars and cheaters with great wealth and success.”

“We need a media that… actually does some investigation into important issues not trivial ones.”

“We need less media pundits… [that] do nothing but spread hatred in order to make themselves more popular.”

“We need more statesmen as leaders.”

“We need to remind each other that we are all Americans. We’re not Republicans or Democrats, Liberal or Conservative, Left or Right.”

“We need leaders who communicate openly with the people.”

“We need to teach people to value others no matter who they are.”

Friday night, May 26, 2006, my bag is packed and I’m ready for the flight home. I click on the Fox channel to find more “in-depth” coverage on the new American Idol. I click toHeadline News to watch a “rigorous” report on the record-setting gasoline prices projected for the Memorial Day holiday. I click to CNN and catch a teaser-ad for Anderson Cooper’s “sober and vitally important” analysis on the “real” truth behind… The DaVinci Code!



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