The Ethics Score for 2004: Awards and Disdain for a Year Full of Right and Wrong

The Ethics Scoreboard was launched in February of 2004 in response to a perceived problem. The events in the life of our world too often receive little analysis or consideration in ethical terms — is this right, or is it wrong? — both because Americans are reluctant to make ethical judgements about others, and because too many Americans lack the ethics tools and concepts to do so. This is a problem because our culture is inevitably shaped by what conduct we cheer and what conduct we reject.

The Scoreboard’s humble contribution to a solution is simply this: make ethical judgements on people, issues and events as they arise, and explain the rationale for them, using basic ethical values, principles, and systems, and avoiding the insidious rationalizations (“Everybody does it;” “They did it first;” “It’s for a good cause,” etc. etc.,) that make up the bulk of what the public and the media use for justification these days. For the most part, it has avoided commentary on the obvious. Nobody needs to be told that what Enron or Worldcom did was wrong. Occasionally, as with the prison abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib, the Scoreboard’s role has been to take an obvious and well-publicized case of wrongdoing and focus attention on what is wrong, how wrong it is, and whose responsibility it is that the wrong occurred. More often, the Scoreboard’s role has been to call attention to significant ethics issues that are contained in stories reported for other purposes. Dan Rather’s misadventures with the forged National Guard documents was a media story, an election story, but also an ethics story. Britney Spears’ “faux wedding” was a celebrity story, a media story, and an ethics story. (Also a really stupid story.) Baseball’s steroid scandal is a crime story, a sports story, and an ethics story.

The position on this site is that in the long run, it is our decisions about the ethical issues in these events that will matter most.

Despite the best efforts of all concerned, the more than 200 essays and articles that have appeared on the Scoreboard over 11 months still have missed many important topics. Many of these are still with us, and will be visited in 2005. Others will return, with different starring characters, and give the Scoreboard another opportunity. One way or the other, we will strive to do a better job.

As part of the Scoreboard’s farewell to very rich year in ethical debate and ferment, we are awarding our first annual Ethics Scoreboard Awards, which in 2004 will be nicknamed “The Marthas” after the public figure whose travails most perfectly combined the complexities of business ethics, celebrity ethics, legal ethics and politics, Martha Stewart. Many thanks to the Ethics Scoreboard readers who helped out by giving us their selections in the 10 categories. Their votes determined the winners in four of them, and their nominations were in valuable in helping the Scoreboard award Marthas to deserving candidates in the rest.

Here, then, with some commentary, are the 2004 Ethics Scoreboard Awards.

2004 Ethics Hero: Joseph Darby
(Significant Runner-up: William C. Steere)

The American soldier who blew the whistle on the egregious misconduct of fellow soldiers at Abu Ghraib was the easy winner in this category, and appropriately so. He displayed the selflessness, courage and dedication to values that are the hallmark of all ethics heroes.

It is gratifying to see Scoreboard visitors recognize William Steere, who received virtually no publicity or public praise for taking a reasonable salary as the CEO of a large corporation, and putting fairness above ego and greed. He was the Anti-Grasso of 2004.

2004 Ethics Dunce: Robert Novak  

A surprising winner in a very tough field (containing New York Times’ lying reporter Jason Blair, Abu Ghraib leash-holder Lynndie England, personal trainer and secret stud  to desperate housewives Mike “The Torchinater” Torchia, Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, who published his report on the GOP convention before it occurred), and terrified Minnesota Senator Mark Dayton, who fled DC to avoid a hypothetical terrorist attack, and “The Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin, who carried his infant son while he fed vicious crocodiles to garner some cheap publicity.)  Novak won the nod from voters after he set off the Valerie Plame affair by printing the name of a CIA operative, then smugly sitting back to watch Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and others be accused by Plame’s husband of orchestrating the leak as the government spent millions investigating the issue, and other journalists (but, oddly, not him) get threatened with imprisonment for not revealing the source of the information Novak printed.

Trivial Liar of the Year: Dan Rather

Good choice. Rather’s lie was trivial (he claimed that his unexpected retirement wasn’t spurred by his ethical misjudgements in the National Guard letter matter), but it had more significance than all trivial lies of his competition put together. Rather had a chance to use his retirement as a way of affirming the importance of journalistic ethics, and instead opted to further degrade them.

Unethical Website of the Year:

The creative but disturbing effort by some Kerry supporters to convert Republicans by offering a sexual encounter in exchange for a pledge not to vote for President Bush won the “Martha” from voters by virtue of its many faceted ethical violations. Its premise came perilously close to election fraud as well as prostitution, it trivialized democracy, and it showed disrespect for the election, the candidates, and Americans who held opinions different from theirs. All in all, a very deserving choice.

In the remaining six categories, Ethics Polluter of the Year, Worst Ethics Story of the Year, Most Unethical Corporation, Most Unethical Politician, Most Unethical Media Outlet, and Most Unethical Sports or Entertainment Figure, the nominations from voters carried due weight. The award winners, however, were determined by the ProEthics staff, and we will take the heat.

The Final Nominations for Ethics Polluter of the Year (awarded to the person or group whose celebrity, credibility or notoriety was used to degrade public perception of ethical conduct) were:

  • Senator James Imhoff, who said he was “outraged” over the criticism of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, since the abused were enemies of the U.S.
  • Barry Bonds, whose career now stands for the proposition that cheating and illicit drug use can lead to fame, riches, and success.
  • Michael Moore, who skillfully blurred the boundaries between satire, fiction, innuendo, fact and advocacy to mislead many, slander some, and make himself rich and famous. 
  • Reality show producers, who rewarded people for inflicting emotional distress on loved ones (“My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee;” “Scare Tactics”), being narcissistic (“The Swan”), lying (“Survivor”), and avoiding responsibility (“The Apprentice”).
  • The Republican and Democratic Parties, both of whom justified the use of dirty tactics, lies big and small, and loop-holes in the election laws on the grounds that the unworthiness and dangerous policies of their opponents made such tactics necessary and thus acceptable.
  • Paris Hilton, a celebrity who enjoys stardom and media attention despite an idle and dissipated lifestyle as well as the lack of any apparent talent or skill, simply because she is wealthy, from a famous family, thin and attractive, is the most representative of several celebrity candidates whose very existence warps the values of young Americans.

And the Martha for Ethics Polluter of the Year goes to:
Michael Moore

“Fahrenheit 911” would have been perfectly acceptable as hard satire or even as a partisan argument, but film-maker Moore promoted it as truth, which it objectively was not. The degree to which Michael Moore was lionized and embraced by the Democratic party certainly communicated the idea that it was perfectly acceptable to distort facts to win elections. The supporters of both presidential candidates absorbed the lesson, which launched Swift boat attack ads and an avalanche of slanted “documentaries” on the left and the right. Later, after Moore’s candidate lost, he helped fan the flames of divisiveness and contempt for political adversaries with his infamous “Jesus-land” graphic.

The Worst Ethics Story of the Year (awarded to that news event that represented the low point of ethical conduct in 2004) was:
The Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse Scandal

No other nominations were necessary; Abu Ghraib lapped the competition in this category. Not only did it call into question America’s commitment to core American values; the scandal lowered American prestige abroad, endangered future prisoners of war, and showed how easily war and lax leadership can corrupt values. It may well come to pass that the developing “Oil for Food” corruption story will have even darker ethical implications, but that is evidently a tale for 2005.

The Final Nominations for Most Unethical Corporation are:

  • Fannie Mae, which has managed to misstate and mismanage billions of dollars in assets while rewarding the CEO who oversaw all of it with an obscenely rich severance package.
  • Halliburton, which though not being secretly assisted by Vice President Cheney as one of the more unconscionable (and widely believed) campaign lies had it, managed to over-bill, under-manage, and generally louse up much of its important work in Iraq.
  • American Airlines, whose top management persuaded workers to reduce their pension guarantees while secretly maneuvering to protect its own.
  • Northwest Airlines, which provided confidential customer information to the U.S. Government after explicitly denying (in 2003) that it would ever do so.
  • Unocal, which recently settled a human rights lawsuit alleging that it should be held liable for damage done by its Southeast Asian government partners, who engaged in slave labor, rape, and other atrocities while building an oil pipeline in the region.

And the award for Most Unethical Corporation of the Year goes to:

2004 was an “in between” year for corporate scandals: a lot of court cases involving past malfeasance (Enron, which got more nominations than any other company, wasn’t even doing business in 2004), and a lot of potential scandals percolating until more facts become known (Did Merck know that Vioxx posed a health risk? Stay tuned…). Of the nominees, Halliburton got so much flack for fanciful unethical activities related to Vice President Cheney that it seems unfair to single them out for their real ethical missteps. Fannie Mae appears to be more a story of ineptitude than anything else; American Airlines execs tried to pull a fast one with their pension games but finally did the right thing. Northwest’s breach of confidentiality was bad, but it was just one misguided act. Unocal, however, continues to do business with major human rights offenders like Burma, and has received very little adverse publicity about it. In a relatively quiet year for ethical violations on the corporate side, it gets the Martha.

The Final Nominations for Most Unethical Politician are:

  • New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who used his closet homosexuality to explain his sudden exit as governor, just as a welter of other scandals were about to bring him down anyway.
  • Connecticut Governor John Rowland, who resigned before he could be impeached for enriching himself with favors and services from state contractors, and who is now facing imprisonment.
  • California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose family raked in over a million dollars in fees and contracts with businesses and candidates the Congresswoman has helped. Hmmmm…
  • Presidential Candidate and Saturday Night Live Host Al Sharpton, whose entire career marks him as one of the most habitually unethical public figures on the national scene. During his campaign, he managed to use a disproportionate amount of his donated campaign funds on luxury suites and room service.
  • House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has reigned by intimidation, abuse of power, and brazen exploitation of loop-holes in the political fundraising laws.

The Martha for Most Unethical Politician goes to:
Tom DeLay

DeLay gets the award because of his unapologetic use of unethical tactics in pursuit of his political objectives, and the fact that he is still powerful, active, and looking for his next ethical principle to violate. He is well on his way to punishing the reticent House Ethics Committee which couldn’t continue ignoring DeLay’s multiple violations and finally (and overly gently) admonished him for them. He may well gut the entire House ethics oversight system, which is already fairly impotent. Yes, McGreevey was despicable, and Rowland was an old fashioned corrupt pol, but they were inept at their unethical work; DeLay is a master at it. Waters’ family enrichment is just the most recent such conduct to come to light. She has lots of company in both the House and the Senate, and while the conduct is rather more irritating because of the shrill tone of moral superiority that she frequently adopts, her level of unethical behavior is, sadly, not unique. And Sharpton? He’s certainly in the running for a career award, but for him, 2004 was relatively ethical.

The Final Nominations for Most Unethical Media Outlet are:

  • The New York Times. Between botching the Jason Blair situation, using misleading headlines, slanting its campaign coverage and being sloppy about facts, figures and corrections, 2004 will go down in the book as The Grey Lady’s most ethically embarrassing ever.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times, which defrauded the public and its advertisers by inflating circulation figures for years.
  • CNN, which willfully ignored all principles of conflict of interest and journalistic integrity by allowing paid consultants to the Kerry campaign continue to serve as hosts of  “Cross-fire.”
  • CBS, which shamelessly promoted its parent’s publishing products in prime-time as “news,” and allowed its “60 Minutes” producers and its iconic anchorman to let political bias warp its news judgement, including attempts to influence U.S. elections.

And the Most Unethical Media Outlet in 2004 was:

Nobody who has visited this web site with any frequency can be surprised at this result, which could be predicted from the fact that no four line summary of CBS’s ethical misadventures could even cover the full extent of them. CBS had culpability in the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction;” it allowed former Ambassador Joe Wilson to float his conspiracy theories on the air and then conspicuously failed to report later that his version of events had been thoroughly discredited. In the final week of the 2004 campaign, it was revealed that CBS news had been planning to unleash the story of the “missing explosives in Iraq,” immediately before the election, despite the fact that it was both old and ambiguous.  Earlier, a CBS producer had attempted to feed information to the Kerry campaign. A thorough housecleaning at CBS news is on the way.

As for the others: the Times has Dan Okrent, its on-staff watch-dog, doing an excellent job as he strives to restore the paper’s tarnished integrity. The Sun-Times circulation fraud is just the most egregious in an industry-wide scandal that is still unfolding. And as for CNN, well, who ever thought James Carville and Paul Begala were “neutral”? It was a bad precedent, to be sure, but hardly earth-shaking, or even CNN-shaking.

The final 2004 category is Most Unethical Sports or Entertainment Figure, and the multitudinous nominations include:

  • Britney Spears, for a generally ridiculous year highlighted by her “faux wedding.”
  • Basketball star Ron Artest, who attacked Detroit Piston fans in the stands and then, when offered the chance to show some contrition on the Today Show, used the time to plug his CD.
  • San Francisco Giants left-fielder Barry Bonds, who has created a massive problem for major-league baseball by breaking or threatening decades-old records while using steroids, and publicly lying about it.
  • Former Miami running-back Ricky Williams, who retired because NFL drug-testing interfered with his illegal recreational pot use.
  • Players and executives involved with the National Hockey League strike, which has ruined small businesses across the country and hurt the economies of many communities, just because labor and management couldn’t agree how many millions of dollars the players deserved.
  • New York Yankee Jason Giambi, who never told team doctors attempting to treat his mysterious ailments during the 2004 season that he had been using steroids.
  • New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, who, when he found himself in a close play at first base in a crucial play-off game, cheated by slapping the ball out of a fielder’s hand.

There could be many, more, but the final winner would still be:
Barry Bonds

He is the biggest star, with the most influence, and his willingness to cheat and lie about it has legal, health, economic and cultural impact, none of it good. At this moment in time, his career stands as a powerful incentive to cheat, as his actions are inseparable from his success, fame, and wealth. We shall see if his career has a different message in a year or two. Ethics Scoreboard can only hope.

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