I'm Talkin' About Ethics


“I’m talkin’ about friendship.  I’m talkin’ about character.  I’m talkin’ about, hell, Leo.  I ain’t embarrassed to use the word.  I’m talkin’ about ethics.
Miller's Crossing 1990
Even a gangster like Johnny Caspar in the Coen Brothers’ film believes there should be a code of behavior in business.  Otherwise there would be chaos.  Absolute power would impose itself on disorder and enforce arbitrary rules on weaker competition.  “Take your flunky and dangle.”
It’s been an ethically meandering road from Socrates to Johnny Caspar (nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition) but really, the development of an awareness of morality would have been needed from the moment two human beings shared space.  Today power is effectively wielded through money.  Ethically, the Bible may have said it most succinctly, concerning the love of money being the root of all evil.  I've been a journalist for about a quarter of a century.  In recent American history ethical journalists have sought out truth and tried to report it, sometimes in the face of a well-financed opposition.
Journalism schools have been wringing their hands for years, trying to figure out how to deal with the constantly changing media landscape, as if the landscape depicted in the media is the reality.  That’s the illusion. Technology doesn’t bring clarity to the illusion.  It magnifies it.  “The medium is the message.”  Remember?  The “truth” resides with the journalist who has the ethical conviction to seek it and to report it.  It does not exist in the phone that has the power to preserve an image and distribute it without context to multiple platforms.
About ten years ago in Phoenix I represented a PBS public affairs program, Horizon, on a panel discussing the problematic state of journalism.  One of the panelists had recently visited England and was enamored of the style of British confrontational journalism he'd seen and complained that we, as Americans, did not ape that style. Some Americans love to ape the Brits.  I countered his argument by saying the problem with journalism has nothing to do with a perceived lack of aggression but has always been and continues to be the corruption that comes with money.
The 1976 film, Network, was written as satire but, Dios mio, it has come to pass for the most part.   As Noam Chomsky spelled it out in 1988’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by the eighties, network news organizations were among the spoils as the networks were taken over by corporations.  At first mom and dad let the kids play on their own, but gradually over the years, the helicopter parents had their noses in the computers and had the kid’s futures micromanaged.  That had nothing to do with news, of course. By imposing public relations standards and insisting on ratings victories, basically, by expecting the news to sell itself, we have the situation whereby news became product and then became “content” that must be clicked by you, the consumer, as if it were just another brand of cereal with a celebrity on the box.  In fact, the term “product” has been used to such an extent that even “News Directors” use the term without irony.
So if valuable information regarding everything you hold dear - your freedom, your financial well-being, your voice in your government in this democracy - must sell itself to you, you’re fucked.  Because just like wandering down the cereal aisle in a supermarket, you’re drawn to the pretty pictures, the endorsements, or the sweet, sweet sugar.  If the message doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll move on, even if the message is truthful and could save your life.  You’ll move on because it’s not as interesting as what’s on your phone at that moment.
The individual journalist is really anyone, but for the sake of clarity let’s say “Robin” actually has some knowledge regarding ethics either studied at a Journalism school or picked up on the job. As any human being with strengths and weaknesses Robin can get the information, the interview or access by bulldozing or finessing, depending on the circumstance.  Ultimately the style is not the point - that’s become the brand these days.  “Hard-nosed Journalist!” “Investigative Team!”  That sounds a lot better than, “You’re on the consumer beat, asshole, now shake a few trees and see what drops.” The journalist has a lot of tools but ethics is not a tool.  Aesthetically, ethics would be the vision of the sculpture before the artist takes chisel to rock.  Unfortunately, the patron steps forward and says, “hey, my ears aren’t that big!”  The artist must then decide whether to get paid.
Eventually money becomes a problem because Robin grows tired of not being paid well as a journalist and fears being laid-off.  Robin could become a "News Director" and enforce top-down mandates to market the product. You know, corporations are quite happy to have talented people tow the company line and present the story the company wants to present.  That’s what public relations people do.  Nothing wrong with that.  They get paid well. That’s not what journalists do.  I was once journalistically chastised by my boss's boss's boss, a Public Relations man, who was personally affected by one of my stories, who said he was capable of taking off one hat and putting on another.  That's a PR argument.  A journalist sees conflicts of interests a mile away.
The Washington Post made history with its Watergate coverage and inspired a generation of journalists and currently is among the few national publications and news networks aggressively covering the Trump administration.  However, journalists tend to grow cynical after a while and figure out we live in a capitalist society and we are utterly naïve if we don’t try to make as much money as we possibly can before we die.  “I’m doing it for my kids.”  I know. That’s being way too hard on the average person trying to make a living protecting the First Amendment of the Constitution.  There’s a great big lobby protecting the Second Amendment, but where’s all the money protecting truth?  Well, maybe love of money is the root of evil.
Media money is concentrated in fewer hands. You have to wonder at what point do the major media decide to lean toward a political ideology for their enrichment?  It's happening now.
That brings us to ethics.  Simple ethics.  Doctors have them.  Lawyers have them.  In business, however, it’s apparently okay just to say you have them.  Everyone knows it’s a “buyer beware” kind of reality in American business.  The economic meltdown of 2008 pretty much exposed the naked greed of Wall Street, as if nudity hadn't been on display since the eighties’ “greed is good” era.  I love this passage from Michael Lewis’ The Big Short:
“The only problem from the point of view of Howie Hubler’s traders, was finding a Morgan Stanley customer stupid enough to take the other side of the bet—that is, to get the customer to sell Morgan Stanley what amounted to home insurance on a house designated for demolition. ‘They found one client to take the long side of the triple-B tranche of some piece of shit,’ says one of their former colleagues, which is a complicated way of saying they found a mark. A fool. A customer to be taken advantage of.”   
Yes, laws are passed to protect consumers, but those laws can be ignored, or those enforcing them can be corrupted by those who are being regulated, and laws can be reversed. Politicians are a huge part of the problem because no one expects them to have ethics.  But of course they do.  Unless they don’t.
As I write this President Donald Trump’s White House just granted ethics waivers for ex-lobbyists who’ve joined his government.  Got an ethics problem?  No problem.  So if the lobbyist’s former companies get an economic boon from the new administration, it’s just business.
And honestly, that’s not even the scariest reality right now. Tristan Harris is what’s called a Design Ethicist.  This is on his website:
Called the 'closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,' by The Atlantic magazine, Tristan Harris was previously a Design Ethicist at Google and left the company to lead Time Well Spent a non-profit movement to align technology with our humanity. Time Well Spent aims to transform the race for attention by revealing how technology hijacks our minds, and to demonstrate how better incentives and design practices will create a world that helps us spend our time well.”
If you’ve bothered to pull your nose out of your phone for five minutes you might have seen him talking about how large tech companies design their products to keep you addicted to them.  I said, if you bothered…oh, never mind.
There’s someone out there with a conscience!  Remember when your parents said your conscience will haunt you if you do something wrong?  That’s where ethics comes from.  Obviously lots of people figured out how to stick that little voice in a little box in the back of their minds next to the memory of penis envy in the high school locker room.
It’s really not that hard to see.  We live with constant distraction and economic pressures and the all pervasive burden of living.  A little shortcut here, a sidestep there isn’t going to matter.  Quite frankly, it probably doesn’t matter if it stays at that level for the average person.  Although keep in mind, somebody’s probably getting screwed by your “harmless” deal.  Unfortunately, shortcuts and sidesteps are not harmless in journalism.
There will always be the examples of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.  Journalistic ethics were created to gain public trust and anyone can tell you how long it takes to gain trust and how quickly you can lose it.  The only real defense a journalist has when he’s accused of having no integrity, is, in fact, integrity.  And if he never had it in the first place, he’s a peddler of “fake news.”