Topic: Media

Ethics Dunce, Reconsidered and Revoked: C-Span

The majority of ethicists don’t like to put their opinions out in public: it makes enemies, it costs grants and clients, and it risks mistakes. Unfortunately, the practice also contributes heavily to the media’s general failure to apply ethical analysis to news that warrants it, and the public’s difficulty in recognizing ethical issues. Thus the Ethics Scoreboard rushes in where wise ethicists fear to tread…and occasionally falls on its figurative face. This seems to have occurred when the Scoreboard designated C-SPAN, the esteemed public affairs cable network, as an “Ethics Dunce” in March of this year. The conduct involved was far more complicated and required more careful analysis than the Scoreboard provided in its rush to slap a label on it.

The story, gleaned from several media sources, was that C-SPAN had refused to broadcast a lecture by historian Debra Lipstadt unless she would agree to have a lecture by Holocaust denier David Irving (Lipstadt had just won a libel case in Britain against Irving, prompted by one of her books that branded him, among other things, as a liar) be broadcast for “balance.” Accepting Lipstadt’s version of events which held that C-SPAN insisted on the presentation of a Holocaust denying argument before it would air the findings of a legitimate Holocaust historian, the Scoreboard criticized the network for attempting to balance the truth with lies. Naturally, like so many journalists the Scoreboard takes to task, we did not bother to check what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.” That was a mistake, as it almost always is, and unfair as well.

Credible sources close to the negotiations between Lipstadt and C-SPAN explain that the network never insisted that an Irving “the Holocaust is a myth” lecture had to be televised to balance hers. Lipstadt was going to talk about her new book on C-SPAN, and her book was about the libel case and the trial. C-SPAN felt that it would be appropriate to record some of Irving’s comments about the trial as well, since he was the opposing litigant, and the litigation is the central topic of her book.

This is significantly different. If C-Span chooses to air part of an interview with Charles Manson to accompany a discussion of his case by Manson trial prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, it would not be fair or accurate to say that C-SPAN is balancing an “anti-mass murder position” with Manson’s “pro-mass murder position.” Yet this is akin to the interpretation of C-SPAN’s intent that Lipstadt apparently encouraged in making her dispute with C-SPAN public. As a source wrote the Scoreboard:

A C-SPAN producer said to Ms. Lipstadt, in the course of a conversation about what the network might do or might not do, that they hoped to tape her remarks at Harvard concerning her book about the Irving trial and that they also hoped to tape Irving at some venue or other during which he would talk about the trial.  And, said the producer, C-SPAN might air the two back to back and they might not.  But, said the producer, it’s fairly standard practice at C-SPAN to, for instance, air a book talk by someone who supported the invasion of Iraq and then follow it with a book talk by someone who opposed the invasion…But at no time did anyone at C-SPAN ever say, or imply, or hint to Deborah Lipstadt that her views on the Holocaust had to be “balanced” by the views of David Irving, and if she didn’t like it she could go jump in the lake … 

The Scoreboard (unlike the author of the message referenced above, who is convinced that Lipstadt has intentionally distorted C-SPAN’s position for her own purposes) will give the author the benefit of the doubt, and presume that she is emotionally and intellectually so involved in her battles against Holocaust denial generally and Irving specifically that she genuinely sees no significant difference between allowing Irving to comment on the trial to give perspective to her account, and allowing a Holocaust denier to air his lies to counter her factual research. It is a subtle difference, but a real one. Whether she recognized it or not, Lipstadt mischaracterized both the network’s motives and its reasons.

The Ethics Scoreboard cannot and should not endorse an ethic that holds that it is always wrong to give people with repulsive views air time. C-SPAN’s policy of presenting those who hold controversial or even outrageous and dishonest views to provide depth on specific issues is a public service in the grand tradition of the late David Susskind, who interviewed American Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, sado-masochists, UFO believers, polygamists and others too strange to recount on his ground-breaking PBS program in the Sixties. For most discerning viewers, the best refutation of a Holocaust denier are the denier’s own words and demeanor.

One can respect the position of those who feel that Holocaust deniers are in a special category that warrants an exception to this principle, but the fact that the people at C-SPAN do not agree with them does not justify an “Ethics Dunce” designation.

The Scoreboard was rash and superficial in its analysis, and essentially denigrated the network for doing its job.

I, Jack Marshall, the one who wrote the words, apologize.

Below, for the record, is the article that will no longer appear in our Ethics Dunce category.


March 2005 Ethics Dunce: C-SPAN

Richard Cohen has probably been the object of more Ethics Scoreboard ire than any other newspaper columnist in captivity, but he deserves credit and thanks for flagging an especially idiotic lapse of ethical common sense by the cable network C-SPAN. In a column entitled “C-SPAN’s Balance of the Absurd,” the Washington Post’s liberal standard-bearer reports that Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory professor who is a Holocaust scholar, was to have an upcoming lecture broadcast by C-SPAN until she objected to having a lecture by a Holocaust denier, David Irving broadcast to provide “balance” to hers. C-SPAN’s idea of balance was especially odious to Lipstadt because her new book chronicles the libel case brought against her by, you guessed it, the very same David Irving. In an earlier book, Lipstadt had stated that Irving distorted and manipulated the historical in order to further an anti-Semitic agenda; Irving sued for libel in the England, and resoundingly lost. The court found that Lipstadt’s representations were correct. Irving is a liar, distinguishing him from some other Holocaust deniers who are merely ignorant or dumber than a box of Handi-Wipes.

What really puts the “Dunce” in this Ethics Dunce is a seemingly obvious truth: lies do not provide balance. The laudable objective of balance in discussing public affairs or any other controversial issue is to promote fair analysis and broad-based understanding by presenting varying and legitimate points of view on the topic at hand. Lies do not promote either. Lies foster un-fairness and misunderstanding. Is it possible that C-SPAN doesn’t know this? The mind boggles.

The contention that the Holocaust occurred is not controversial, any more than the contention that the Pacific Ocean is wet or that the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Since David Irving has made a reputation by claiming the Holocaust didn’t happen, there is also no controversy over his legitimacy and integrity as a serious historian: he has none. He is incapable of providing balance to Lipstadt or anyone else.

A fun parlor game could come out of this, called “C-SPAN Balance.” The idea would be to find the perfect balance to anyone discussing an established fact. Let’s see…if we were interviewing a psychologist about how and when to tell your child that there isn’t any Santa Claus, C-SPAN would insist that we interview “Kris Kringle” from “Miracle on 34th Street” who will of course claim that he is Santa Claus. And surely whenever a Bush administration official is discussing Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center, C-SPAN should track down one of the whackos who claims that the attacks were planned by Israel. Or George Bush himself.

Or Santa Claus. It is too horrible to contemplate that the executives at C-SPAN actually believe that Irving’s position isn’t a lie, so, with a shudder, we will put that idea aside. Instead, this Ethics Dunce should write on the blackboard a hundred, no, a thousand times:

Lies aren’t balance.

Maybe it will sink in.

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