March 2005 Ethics Dunces
The retirement of a colleague is a time to put feuds and flaws aside, to applaud a life's work, and to remember triumphs, achievements, and cherished events. This is common decency and manners, of course, but more than that, it is simple kindness. All of us, in the final analysis, have a mixed record in our chosen professions, but unless we are Pol Pot, Typhoid Mary or Larry Flynt, there are likely to be enough bright spots to justify a respectful goodbye. Ethically, this is one area where the principle of reciprocity fits like a glove. Who among us wants to be receiving nasty brick-bats in our final moments on the job?
Certainly broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite didn't get any when he stepped down from what was once the Olympus of network news (now the Death Valley), the CBS Evening News. But in one of the least gracious performances by any public figure since Richard Nixon made his famous exit speech after losing the governor's race in California, avuncular old Walter decided to rake his successor, Dan Rather, over the coals as Rather prepared to step down as the program's anchor.
Appearing on Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN, Cronkite opined that CBS goofed by ever giving his old job to Rather. Bob Schieffer, who is now stepping in as Rather's temporary replacement, should have gotten the job in the first place, according to him.
"He is, to my mind, the man who, quite frankly, although Dan did a fine job, I would like to have seen him there a long time ago," Cronkite told Blitzer. "He would have given the others a real run for their money."
Cronkite went on to say that having made that initial blunder, CBS erred by not rectifying it years ago:
"It surprised quite a few people at CBS and elsewhere that, without being able to pull up the ratings beyond third in a three-man field, that they tolerated [Rather's]being there for so long."
Finally, Cronkite gave his frank review of Rather's performance in the anchor's chair. "I think that there was a general feeling among quite a lot of us around the CBS shop and, indeed, some of the viewers, that Dan gave the impression of playing a role, more than simply trying to deliver the news to the audience," Cronkite told Blitzer. " It's a personality question. I don't think he was thinking of himself as playing the role, although I don't know that. But that is the impression that came across. "
What possible justification can one conjure up for Cronkite's ill-timed hatchet job on a fellow television journalist? There is none. The comments were cowardly; if Cronkite felt compelled to make these opinions public, he should have had the guts to do so when Rather was riding high, and not as he was leaving under the cloud of the forged documents fiasco. Perhaps Cronkite was really upset with Rather for his role in this incident, which has so damaged his former employer's reputation; if so, then that should have been the thrust of his comments, not a general indictment of Rather's abilities. Whether one is a Rather fan or not, one cannot deny that he was always a hard-working and dedicated professional, and as such, he deserves a measure of respect and kindness as he leaves center stage. Cronkite's refusal to accord him as much marks him as petty and mean, as well as startlingly ignorant of one of the first principles of ethical conduct: don't hurt people unless you have an awfully good reason. That makes Walter Cronkite an Ethics Dunce.
And that's the way it is.
Oh, for heaven's sake! Here is Dan Rather having to step down in infamy as CBS news god because he was cavalier about using faked documents to go after President Bush…and this just the latest in a long trail of media scandals involving fake stories, fake credentials, and fake integrity…and Newsweek picks now to feature a phony picture of Martha Stewart, emerging glamorously and gleefully from her prison exile, on its cover?
It raises a real question about whether the news media reads itself. On second thought, maybe they're right not to; it can't be trusted.
Newsweek said that the photo of the 63 year-old ex-con's smiling head on the slender body of god-knows-whom wasn't intended to be deceptive. The subtitle on the cover read "After Prison She's Thinner and Ready for Prime Time," and Newsweek assistant managing editor Lynn Staley claims "Anybody who knows the (Stewart) story and is familiar with Martha's current situation would know this particular picture' was a 'photo illustration.'"
Well, to state the obvious (at least to most people who don't work for Newsweek), that can't be true because most of us don't know what a "photo illustration" is! (It is a work of art that makes use of photography as a primary element.) No, most of us are naïve enough to assume that the photos on news magazines are actually of scenes and people that exist, and not fabulous imaginary monsters with one celebrity's head perched on an alien body. If we want photos like that, we can visit "naked celebrity" porn sites, which will provide the images of any female star in the firmament revealing the unclothed physique of a Vegas showgirl, courtesy of the same technique that produced the smiling, trimmer Martha.
Now, had Newsweek put Martha Stewart's head on the body of SpongeBob Squarepants, Staley would have a point.
"But so what?" you might ask. Who cares, and who is hurt, if Newsweek fakes a cover photo of Martha Stewart, Pauly Shore, Nicole Richie or any one of thousands of weightless celebrities whose impact on humanity if they suddenly vanished from the earth would be zilch? Newsweek is hurt, and so is our ability to trust the news. Sure, the magazine can say that it would fake a photo of Martha but not of Hillary Clinton, but why should we believe them? What imaginary boundary are they respecting? We once thought there was an ethics at work that required cover photographs of the news to be genuine. Time Magazine, you may recall, got in trouble a decade ago for simply shading a cover picture of O.J. Simpson to make him look more sinister. But at least the picture itself was all him; Time didn't, say, use computer techniques to give O.J. the eyes Ted Bundy.
The National Press Photographers Association seems to understand this, and officially branded Newsweek's stunt as unethical. "NPPA finds it a total breach of ethics and completely misleading to the public," NPPA president Bob Gould said on the organization's website. "The magazine's claim that 'there was a mention on Page 3 that it was an illustration' is not a fair disclosure. The average reader isn't going to know that it isn't Martha Stewart's body in the photograph. The public often distrusts the media and this just gives them one more reason. This type of practice erodes the credibility of all journalism, not just one publication."
A final note regarding the "mention on page 3" about the cover being a "photo illustration," which was in small print and, as we have already pointed out, meant nothing to the vast majority of readers. The increasingly common practice of presenting something misleading and pretending to correct it with a statement or disclaimer at the end after the effect of the misrepresentation has already occurred is unethical and needs to be stopped:
This isn't truth in advertising. This is just a way to get away with deception legally. The practice was offensive enough in television, print and radio ads, but now that newsmagazines are adding it to their repertoire, its time to crack down.