Topic: Media

Two Professions, Two Ethical Standards

In 2005, Connecticut attorney Bruce Matzkin was fired from his law firm because he insisted on reporting another lawyer, an adversary in a case Matzkin was defending, to the Bar disciplinary committee for unethical conduct. He sued for wrongful discharge, despite the fact that lawyers are usually unable to make that claim: an employer or client can hire or fire a lawyer at will, for any purpose at all; you have a right to have the lawyer you want. But in a reversal of the usual logic, the Connecticut court backed Matzkin. The ethics rules governing lawyers in Connecticut ( and most other jurisdictions) make it mandatory for attorneys to report serious ethical misconduct by colleagues. Matzkin’s firm had a non-reporting “policy,” essentially to avoid retaliatory reporting of their own lawyers…pretty much the same theory that has rendered Congressional ethical oversight useless. But the policy was invalid, said Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez. "Because the legal profession is self-regulated and relies upon its members to police itself, no lawyer’s employment should be conditioned upon turning a blind eye to violations of the Rules which are applicable to all lawyers," she wrote in her decision.

Fast-forward to 2006. On Christmas Day, NBC fired Marsha Bartel, an award-winning producer with 21 years at the network, after she refused to be involved with "To Catch a Predator," the hit segment that is frequently a feature on “Dateline.” Her reason was ethics: Bartel had many of the same objections to the show that The Ethics Scoreboard has expressed: it involves the network in law enforcement and law enforcement in entertainment, it exploits sad people for ratings, sometimes at the price of losing a conviction, and is built on lies. Bartel stood on principle, and NBC’s response was to fire her. This time, however, the resulting lawsuit failed. The court ruled that as an employee-at-will, Bartel served at the pleasure of her employers, and “wrongful termination” has no meaning in this set of facts.

Television and show business, you see, have no code of ethics; nor does journalism, really. Oh, there are certainly various codes published and taught, but they are only enforced in the most egregious cases, where the employers are embarrassed and the bottom line is threatened. “Dateline” makes money and attracts viewers with “To Catch a Predator;” and the fact that it is sleazy, cynical and unethical can’t stand up to that. For all the problems in the legal profession, there is no question that ethical values still matter to it, and they will usually be supported when it comes to a conflict between integrity and profit. In show business and journalism, however, ethics are too often treated as an annoyance, an impediment, and a luxury. Can Marsha Bartel be fired from her network television job for having principles? Absolutely. But a profession that values ethics at all would not allow a Marsha Bartel to be fired.

Maybe she should become a lawyer.

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