Topic: Media

Columnist Ethics: No Reverse Slippery Slope

It is over-used to be sure, but the "slippery slope" analogy has considerable value in ethical analysis. We use it to describe conduct that just flirts with the unethical, but that also makes it easier to rationalize far more damaging acts. The ethical slope down is slippery because the distinctions between each marginally more unethical act are so vague and blurry that once the first line is crossed (at the top of the slope), it becomes a near certainty that the other lines will be crossed in no time at all.

But water doesn’t run up hill, and neither does unethical conduct. Recent criticism regarding the conduct of some political columnists with government connections has extrapolated backwards from the clearly unethical shenanigans of Armstrong Williams, who accepted a pay-off from the Department of Education to flack its pet policies in his commentary. Either because of partisan agendas or logical lapses, too many in the chattering class have been seeing phantom ethical fouls.

Exhibit A: free-lance columnist Maggie Gallagher. Gallagher writes a syndicated column; she is also an acknowledged and credentialed expert on the institution of marriage. This sort of mixture is hardly unusual: many syndicated columnists, such as Walter Williams (economist), Garry Wills (historian) and Dick Morris (shameless and amoral hired gun and pollster) are professionals in other fields as well. Gallagher was paid as a consultant by the administration’s pro-marriage initiative. Her job was to write materials distributed to the public. Later, Gallagher wrote columns about marriage and its relationship to the social health of the nation, as she had long before serving as a government consultant on the topic. She was not, unlike Williams, paid to sell the government’s point of view through her column; indeed, she was paid to write materials for the government because of her own views previously published. Nevertheless, Gallagher has been subjected to a barrage of criticism, with one of the 75 papers that carry her column dropping it with a tongue-lashing (or ink-lashing). The Middletown (Ohio) Journal argued that Gallagher’s columns:

"have consistently made compelling arguments for the preservation of the traditional family and the institution of marriage. But when she accepted money to produce government literature — propaganda, some would say — as disgraced syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams did on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education and the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program, she gave her detractors reason to question whether her beliefs are genuine or are for profit. She compromised her integrity, just as Williams did."

As explanations go, this one is the equivalent of Swiss cheese. There is nothing wrong with the government producing literature in support of its various initiatives, be it anti-AIDS, pro-exercise, anti-drugs or pro-marriage. Noting that "some would say" that such materials are "propaganda" is just a snide cheap shot: the government has a right to make its case, and to hire experts to make it persuasively. How, exactly, does accepting payment to use one’s expertise in advocacy of a project call into question the legitimacy of one’s beliefs when they were a matter of record long before the payment? The argument is nonsense. The fact that this may have given "her detractors reason to question whether her beliefs are genuine or are for profit" is not justification for dropping the column, unless the "reason" is valid and fair. This one is not. Presumably the Journal is claiming that there was an "appearance of impropriety," but that term has an accepted meaning. The "appearance of impropriety" results when the circumstances of a professional act would cause a reasonable and objective observer to question its compliance with ethical principles. The fact that partisans with an agenda or the logically challenged may torture the facts to claim impropriety does not qualify.

As Gallagher has herself acknowledged, she should have disclosed the government consultant work to her readers simply to set forth any possible sources of bias on her part, even though the integrity of her opinions regarding marriage was amply documented by her previous work. But that kind of an omission, under this set of facts, is not a major ethical failing, and is not the ethical failing she has been accused of with such vitriol. She is not Armstrong Williams.

Exhibit B: Charles Krauthammer. Krauthammer, the articulate conservative columnist, was one of several conservatives summoned to the White House for a discourse on foreign policy and the ideology of government. Apparently these discussions were used as resource material for President Bush’s Inaugural Address, and when Krauthammer praised the speech in his column, he was immediately accused of failing to disclose a conflict of interest. He was obligated, the critics said, to disclose the fact that he was one of the many cooks who had seasoned the soup.

This is further yet in the wrong direction…up…the slippery slope. There is no conflict here. Krauthammer was not paid by the White House. He was not, he says, even told that his opinions would be grist for a Presidential speech. Nor does he have any way of knowing that his comments affected the speech in any way. Krauthammer is a conservative, and so are Bush, his advisors, and his speechwriters. It is to be expected that their ideas would overlap. Krauthammer did nothing wrong

The use of the reverse slippery slope is harmful in several ways. The purpose of ethics is to understand the difference between good and productive conduct and bad and harmful conduct, not to find ways to attack people who are making a good faith effort to do their jobs honorably and well. Using a clear ethical violation like Williams’ cash-bought commentary to cast ethical aspersions on journalists whose conduct is very different in significant ways confuses the public about ethical standards (and the public is confused enough) and inhibits other journalists who begin to be hyper-sensitive about perceived ethical missteps.

We are seeing a similar phenomenon now as the television networks over-react to FCC punishments for exposed breasts during Super Bowl half-time programs and rock singers who can’t restrain themselves from uttering obscenities on live award shows. Suddenly TV honchos think a humorous commercial showing 80 year-old Mickey Rooney’s bare bottom is a potential FCC violation. Then the Fox network decides to pixilate a cartoon character’s rear end. From Janet Jackson’s breast to Mickey Rooney’s butt, to an animated tush on "The Family Guy." Backwards up the slippery slope. Idiocy!

The distinction between Armstrong Williams and the Gallagher and Krauthammer situations should be similarly clear. The fact that they aren’t to so many in the media is yet another yardstick of the ethical confusion in the fourth estate.


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