Topic: Media

Unethical Website Designation Withdrawn: (October 2005)

The Scoreboard’s erroneous and misguided designation of www. as its Unethical Website of the Month for October, 2005 is a case study in the dangers of presenting substantive commentary in a format and deadline-driven medium like this website. In this case, the Scoreboard did its balancing act badly, and so takes this opportunity to remove Confirmthem from the rolls of unethical websites and to offer its regrets and apology to its creators, writers and fans.

What was especially dumb about the Scoreboard’s conduct here is that it recognized that Confirmthem didn’t fit the profile of an unethical website and said so at the time:

“Certainly is many levels above the usual websites featured here, which generally range from juvenile to sleazy to outright dangerous. No, this is a professional and articulate site, assembled by learned and serious individuals who are dedicated to creating as conservative a judiciary as possible. Not that there’s anything wrong with thatÂ…”

One would think such an opening paragraph might have sparked the thought, “So what the heck are we doing here?” But no. The Scoreboard was seeking an angle from which to disapprove of the vicious personal attacks Bush Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers had received at the hands of conservative commentators in general and right-leaning blogs in particular. It was looking for a provocative platform from which to discuss the appalling absence of civility on public policy blogs, and it was also seeking an “Unethical Website” in a month in which no interesting candidate had surfaced. So I had the brainstorm that the Scoreboard could kill three birds with one stone by using Confirmthem as the focus of one article that covered each of these categories.

The problem with this “logic” was that Confirmthem was neither the most egregious of the Miers Muggers, nor was it by any stretch of the imagination the most objectively unethical website of October 2005 (or indeed any month), nor is its regular discourse especially uncivil compared to other blogs. Amazingly, the Scoreboard acknowledged this up front too:

Confirmthem wasn’t the most hyper-active participant in this coordinated assault (the National Review’s site probably wins that booby prize), but because it served as something of a clearinghouse for all the printed venom launched at Miers virtually from the second she was named, it is a fair symbol of the wholesale public savaging of a woman who in no way deserved it. Public image assassination for ideological agendas isn’t ethical; it’s despicable. Hundreds of columnists, blogs and websites piled on, and Confirmthem is as good representative of them as any.

But why should this website, written by serious people with good intent, have been singled out to be labeled “unethical” for the excesses of others? It shouldn’t have been, that’s all. The “Unethical Website of the Month,” like Keith Olberman’s “Worst Person in the World” title that he hands out on the MSNBC show “Countdown,” is not meant to be taken literally; still, a website concerned with ethical conduct should not hurl the term “unethical” at another casually, for editorial convenience or rhetorical effect. That’s what the Scoreboard did, however, and it was completely wrong.

The people from Confirmthem learned about their designation in January of 2006 and contacted me, making two complaints. One was that the designation itself was unfair, an opinion with which I formally and officially concur as of this entry. The other was that the Scoreboard had an obligation to alert Confirmthem of its designation in advance and give it an opportunity to respond. In this one instance, I do wish I had done that; maybe it would have resulted in my head being twisted back on straight and thus avoided the need for this on-line self-flagellation now. As a general practice, however, I don’t agree that such notice is required or prudent. The Scoreboard articles are opinion and analysis, and opinions about unethical websites are scarcely different from opinions about other unethical conduct by individuals, corporations, the media, institutions or government agencies. The purpose of the commentary is not to injure or insult anyone or to pick fights, but to encourage and stimulate critical thought about what is right and wrong in our culture. Already one “Unethical Website,” one that richly deserved its title, used the threat of litigation (a bluff, but a bluff that I had neither the time nor resources to call) to force me to take down the Scoreboard commentary. Waving a red flag at the kind of people who run most of the websites that get recognized here is simply asking for prior restraint.

When Confirmthem contacted me, I dutifully went on the website and responded to several hours of critical commentary, some of it abusive but most measured and reasonable, from the site’s readers. My major disagreement with a substantial number of them focused on two contentions. The first was their argument that a website isn’t responsible for the level of civility of its readers’ comments. I think that’s demonstrably false, and I point to the Ethics Scoreboard (though not a blog) as an example. A website has the power to insist on a level of civility in discourse, and should. The counter argument is the equivalent of a bar or restaurant claiming that it is not responsible for drunk, noisy, rude, violent or abusive patrons. Any site that wants to keep its commentary civil and respectful can do so, and if it doesn’t, it should be held accountable for the tone it fosters. The second contention of some Confirmthem writers was that civility isn’t an ethical value. They are, of course, dead wrong. Civility is a component of respect, and embodies the Golden Rule’s principle of treating others as one would like to be treated.

None of this, however, alters the primary fact that the Ethics Scoreboard was both unfair and irresponsible when it called an unethical website. In this case, it was the Ethics Scoreboard that was behaving unethically, and I apologize to our readers and Confirmthem for the error.

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