Topic: Media

The Gossip Columnist’s Ethics

Roger Friedman, the Fox News entertainment columnist, recently got himself fired for reviewing the upcoming X-Men film “Wolverine,” before its release, on the Fox website. He had viewed a pirated version of the film, a breach of ethics on that basis alone, but even worse when one considers that the film is distributed by Twentieth Century…that’s right…FOX. Friedman undercut the product of his own employers, a grossly disloyal act, engaging in dishonest conduct, the on-line pirating of commercial films, that his company is aggressively trying to discourage. So blatant was his misdeed that some even suggested that Friedman was trying to get himself sacked, for reasons unknown.

Unlikely. The real lesson behind Friedman’s fall is a classic: those who habitually bend ethical principles for their own purposes are likely to lose any sense of what is or isn’t right, leading to increasingly extreme, rationalization-driven unethical conduct.

Journalistic ethics have been in free-fall across the profession for many years, but entertainment gossip columnists have represented the least ethically reliable journalists of all. The annals of Hollywood’s Golden Age are full of stories about the powerful rival columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, who both used their columns to punish slights, gain favors, seed rumors, and facilitate anonymous back-stabbing. In fact, the term “ethical gossip columnist” is a perfect oxymoron. One has to have shaky ethics to do the job at all, so it is no surprise that those shaky ethics sometimes fall apart altogether.

Friedman was hardly an ethics role model, even for his shady craft. In addition to emulating Hedda and Louella by rewarding favorites and slamming those who refused to help him, he was prone to running explosive stories with little or no confirmation, most notoriously when he falsely (as carefully demonstrated by blogger David Poland) claimed that Newmarket Films and Mel Gibson avoided cities with large Jewish populations in their distribution of his controversial film, “The Passion of The Christ.” Fox clearly tolerated Friedman’s habits because he brought in viewers and readers, and the result was both predictable and had the whiff of a just dessert. Fox happily profited from Friedman’s unethical proclivities, but believed that his malfunctioning ethical compass would never lead him to harm the people who signed his paycheck. It doesn’t excuse Friedman, who certainly earned his dismissal, to note that Fox reaped what it had sowed. Keeping an employee who is chronically unethical is a little like having a wild animal as a pet: when you get mauled, you have no one to blame but yourself.

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