Ethics, schmethics…

Yesterday, I did an unlikely thing: I lectured a class at USC on ethics.

Those who know me most intimately will roll their eyes at this point, because I am known as somewhat iconoclastic on the subject. When confronted with the simplistic ways in which we usually talk about ethics in our society — one that generally has nothing to do with actual right and wrong — I have been known to mutter “ethics, schmethics!” among friends who know and understand me. And I tried to be frank with the kids as to what I really thought, so they’re probably pretty confused by now.

What I tried to communicate was that I think the way modern society (and the media in particular) approach the subject of “ethics” makes a mockery of true moral discernment. We approach something requiring fine, sensitive distinctions with a club rather than a more delicate instrument.

We concoct “ethics rules” and then obsess about whether people in public life have properly crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s, and neglect whether they’re doing the right thing. And media share the blame for that. The “objectivity” model means that news reporters aren’t allowed to say a person did something wrong or dishonest, or pushed an unwise policy course, or otherwise make a value judgment. But they can sure as hell report whether someone filed his campaign finance disclosure on time — a purely bureaucratic act that measures no moral quality other than how organized the candidate is. So it is that we get “high drama” over whether Mark Sanford followed the rules properly, when the real question, the real moral issue, is what he tried to do to our state by fighting with every ounce of his being to keep us from getting stimulus funds — among other things.

I figure there’s a hierarchy to crime and moral wrongdoing. At the top you have murder, rape and child abuse. Then various gradations of assault. Then armed robbery, and lesser property crimes. Then white collar theft. Then “technical” crimes, and at the low end of that you have most of the acts that we lump into the category of “ethical” violations in politics and the media. Still a bad thing, but let’s have a sense of perspective.

Speaking off the cuff, and noting that the kids were getting glassy-eyed, I decided to get more specific. I spoke to them about how easy it was to be “ethical” in the conventional, facile sense as a journalist working in the MSM. When you’re in a newsroom of 140 people (like The State 10 years ago) and it’s part of a newspaper building of 500, with about as many people in advertising as in news, and they’re on a separate floor, it’s simple. No one in advertising would dare try to influence what news does (such as ask journalists to go easy on an advertiser), and no one in news would even take time to think about what advertising was. Everyone is pure, and hermetically sealed. (I shared with them the story of a friend who once worked in a city room in Little Rock where the city editor kept a gun in his desk. The gun, he explained, was there in case anyone from advertising dared to enter the newsroom. News people used to be like that.)

But that business model has collapsed. And we live in a world in which there is as much demand as ever for news, but the conventional model to pay for newsgathering is gone with the wind. From somewhere is going to come the new business model that will make newsgathering and commentary pay. And there are thousands of us wandering around on the frontier of that new world, trying to find our own respective paths through the Northwest Passage of our day.

To bring it down to Earth, I told the kids a story, a very current story.

Last week, I started selling ads on my blog. I have three now, soon to be four. This is very gratifying, but very weird, because I am not only my own writer, editor, photographer, press operator and circulation manager, but I’m the one and only ad salesman. I try to make it as clear as possible that my judgments and what I write will NOT be influenced by who takes out an ad — and to be open with my readers about the business side, and let them be the judges. But for an old MSM man, it’s weird.

Anyway, right after I started selling ads, Kevin Fisher — a candidate for city council in the 4th district — started complaining that he couldn’t get the media interested in a story about opponent Tony Mizzell having paid a $1,000 fine to the state Ethics Commission just before entering this race. Kevin’s implication, of course, was the Tony ONLY paid it because he was going to run for council.

I made a mental note to ask Tony about it, knowing I would be meeting with him Tuesday morning (THIS Tuesday morning). In the meantime, I sent him an invoice for the ad he had taken out on the blog — he was my very first customer. I suppose I could have handed him the bill when I saw him, but I wanted to keep those transactions — the bill, and my interview with him — as separate as possible. So I sent it to him Monday night.

Then, at breakfast the next morning, late in the interview, I asked him about Kevin’s accusation. It was a long, long story, stretching over two or three years (and of course that’s Kevin’s central accusation, that Tony should have paid the fine long ago). Here’s the short version: After he lost his re-election bid to county council (you may recall he was chairman of Richland County Council) four years ago, there was some money left in his account. He was therefore, according to the ethics rules of our society, required to keep filing quarterly reports, and he paid someone to do so. At some point, something was not properly accounted for. He learned that the Ethics Commission had a problem with that, and he talked to a woman with the commission, and thought he had it straight, although there was still some unfinished business. He failed to follow up, and so did the woman, and a short time later he heard from someone ELSE at the commission who said he owed $28,000 in fines.

That was a year or two ago. He went ballistic, and hired James Smith to represent him. The legal proceedings dragged out, and at the start of 2010 (I think he said January), a compromise was worked out. James notified Tony that he was to pay $1,000. A few days after that notification, Tony paid it. A few days after that, he entered the race for city council.

That’s what Kevin thinks is what Joe Biden would call a BFD. You be the judge.

Anyway, at the end of the interview Tuesday morning, an uncomfortable thing happened: Tony took out his checkbook, and wrote me a check for the amount he owed me for the ad. Seriously, imagine how weird that felt to an old newsman. I was thrilled to get the money (I scanned it, and will probably frame the image, the way small businessmen used to do with their first dollar); he DID owe it to me. But still…

Add to that the fact that Kevin was expecting me to make a huge deal of this thing that just sounded like a confused muddle to me, and what’s a journalistic pioneer to do?

I told all that to the kids at the J-school, and asked them. They looked at me blankly.

Last night, I asked Kevin (for a second time) for an interview. We set one for Friday morning, but he took occasion to e-mail me back (the ellipses are places where he reports conversations with other individuals that I haven’t confirmed):

Sure Brad, always good to see you — even when I’m disappointed in you, as I am now. How can you not post on Tony Mizzell being fined $1000 by the Ethics Commission, failing to pay it for over two years, then paying only when he filed to run for city council, blaming it on others etc. (look back at the emails for the details and documents). Does the public not have a right to know any candidate’s history of ethics law violations and fines?
Of course, your former colleagues have thus far taken the same approach, with only WACH-TV having reported the story to date…..
What happened to journalism…? …
Very disappointing, very discouraging. But we soldier on. I’ve got something at 8 Friday morning but could meet you at 9. Somewhere in the Vista? Kevin

I told him I’d discuss it with him when I saw him, although I might post something in the meantime. Of course, I knew he wouldn’t be satisfied with what I’d post. But look at what a nice guy I am, handing him the ad-check anecdote for him to use to question my character…

Kevin’s a little happier today because the letter that he was complaining The State hadn’t run on the subject ran today. Me, I’m just continuing to wander out here in the ethical wilderness…

16 thoughts on “Ethics, schmethics…

  1. martin

    Gee, I sure can understand eyes glazing over after such a display of intellectual self-gratification.

  2. Burl Burlingame

    Here’s one I wondered about this morning. The Republicans sent out a fund-raising flyer that contained an incorrect phone number for information — it instead connects to some phone-sex line. Much hay is being made of that. But I think, so what? It’s a typo and sloppy proof-reading. (Brad knows that every phone number in a newspaper story is test-called by a copy editor, or should be.)
    No, what bothers me more is that the RNC flyer was designed to look exactly like a census form from the government. THAT seems unethical.

  3. Bob

    Do what is right, don’t do what is wrong. Seems simple, but what is right versus wrong is tied to the perception of the individual. “Ethics” are an attempt to define to a group the boundaries of what is right versus wrong.

  4. Thom Berry

    A good post that started this nearly worn-out middle-level bureaucratic functionary pondering some things.
    I’ve also given lectures to J-school classes where students’ eyes begin to glaze over after a few minutes. That bothered me in the sense that these are going to be the “multi-platform” (translated one person gang, stringer on contract with no benefits)journalists providing fodder for the 24-hour gotta-get-it-on-now news cycle. How many would have, or dare to take, the time to run a story down to get the facts right. Of course, I wonder what the late Reid Montgomery, Perry Ashley and others of my J-school professors thought of me and my colleagues back in the day (just after the Earth cooled).
    Brad, your situation reminds me of what we still can see in pockets of our state and elsewhere. You’re the publisher, reporter, editor, ad rep and business manager all wrapped up together with all the attendant issues that go with them. Earlier this week I had a call from the publisher/editor/reporter of a small weekly in the lower part of the state. When I called him back, the lady who answered the phone, his wife, said he was out delivering the papers.
    We did connect, had a good conversation which led to his story. He cared about it and wanted to get it right because it was important to his readers in his community.
    The Web’s community needs good journalism practitioners. Let’s just work to make sure we all get the story right for those whom we serve.
    Use your own good judgement. We may not like it but hopefully, we’ll respect the thought and effort that went into it.
    BTW, I ended up telling war stories to that J-school class as well. Some of the kids even woke up.

  5. Doug Ross

    As long as there are relationships between the members of the media and politicians, there will be decisions made favoring those politicians.

    I’m always more interested in what people DON’T write about. Let’s use Strom Thurmond as an example. Did The State ever feel it was obligated to the citizens of South Carolina to report on his health, mental acuity, personal foibles, etc. during his last couple terms? I don’t recall there being any real reporting or editorializing done during that time. The coverup is the always the more interesting story.

    I only need to look back to my failed attempt at running for the school board in 2002 to know that the political landscape of South Carolina is littered with ethically challenged individuals. And not the “failed to fill out the proper paperwork” type… people who lie, cheat, and steal on a regular basis while collecting a check from the public. Favoritism, nepotism, and quid-pro-quo deals are common.

  6. Doug Ross

    This is why I (and the largest number of blog readers in SC) go to fitsnews to get a more unfiltered view of the political scene. If what he was writing wasn’t true, he would have been shut down long ago. It’s too bad The State doesn’t feel the same obligation to the public.

  7. Brad Warthen

    Bob, quite sensibly, says “Do what is right, don’t do what is wrong. Seems simple…”

    And that’s the problem. In a pluralistic society that’s terrified of making value judgments, for fear some ideologically correct scold will cry out “WHOSE values?!?!?”, we don’t dare talk about right and wrong.

    So we create “ethics” rules that are neutral and “objective” and require people to jump through bureaucratic hoops, and talk about whether the paperwork has been filled out properly…

  8. Brad Warthen

    I mean, seriously — what do you say about right and wrong to someone who just said what Doug just said? It illustrates my point about how wildly our values differ…

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    @Doug–it was widely reported that he was living at Walter Reed Medical Center, for one.
    @Brad–Yeah,I agree. If you think FITSNews is the model of reporting truth, you probably also think Fox News is fair and balanced…which makes Bob’s point.

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    and Brad, I see you have added to your collection of District Four candidates…Was Kevin Fisher too cheap?

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    Yeah, I figured….

    All I can say that you might print is that it’s rather rich of Kevin Fisher to ding Tony Mizzell for a technical violation of technical finance reporting rules. Pot Kettle Black

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