The Ethics Score for 2004: Awards and Disdain for a Year Full of Right and Wrong
The Ethics Scoreboard was launched in February of 2004 in response to a perceived problem. The events in the life of our world too often receive little analysis or consideration in ethical terms -- is this right, or is it wrong? -- both because Americans are reluctant to make ethical judgements about others, and because too many Americans lack the ethics tools and concepts to do so. This is a problem because our culture is inevitably shaped by what conduct we cheer and what conduct we reject.
The Scoreboard’s humble contribution to a solution is simply this: make ethical judgements on people, issues and events as they arise, and explain the rationale for them, using basic ethical values, principles, and systems, and avoiding the insidious rationalizations (“Everybody does it;” “They did it first;” “It’s for a good cause,” etc. etc.,) that make up the bulk of what the public and the media use for justification these days. For the most part, it has avoided commentary on the obvious. Nobody needs to be told that what Enron or Worldcom did was wrong. Occasionally, as with the prison abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib, the Scoreboard’s role has been to take an obvious and well-publicized case of wrongdoing and focus attention on what is wrong, how wrong it is, and whose responsibility it is that the wrong occurred. More often, the Scoreboard’s role has been to call attention to significant ethics issues that are contained in stories reported for other purposes. Dan Rather’s misadventures with the forged National Guard documents was a media story, an election story, but also an ethics story. Britney Spears’ “faux wedding” was a celebrity story, a media story, and an ethics story. (Also a really stupid story.) Baseball’s steroid scandal is a crime story, a sports story, and an ethics story.
The position on this site is that in the long run, it is our decisions about the ethical issues in these events that will matter most.
Despite the best efforts of all concerned, the more than 200 essays and articles that have appeared on the Scoreboard over 11 months still have missed many important topics. Many of these are still with us, and will be visited in 2005. Others will return, with different starring characters, and give the Scoreboard another opportunity. One way or the other, we will strive to do a better job.
As part of the Scoreboard’s farewell to very rich year in ethical debate and ferment, we are awarding our first annual Ethics Scoreboard Awards, which in 2004 will be nicknamed “The Marthas” after the public figure whose travails most perfectly combined the complexities of business ethics, celebrity ethics, legal ethics and politics, Martha Stewart. Many thanks to the Ethics Scoreboard readers who helped out by giving us their selections in the 10 categories. Their votes determined the winners in four of them, and their nominations were in valuable in helping the Scoreboard award Marthas to deserving candidates in the rest.
with some commentary, are the 2004 Ethics Scoreboard Awards.
2004 Ethics Hero:
The American soldier who blew the whistle on the egregious misconduct of fellow soldiers at Abu Ghraib was the easy winner in this category, and appropriately so. He displayed the selflessness, courage and dedication to values that are the hallmark of all ethics heroes.
It is gratifying
to see Scoreboard visitors recognize William Steere, who received virtually
no publicity or public praise for taking a reasonable salary as the CEO
of a large corporation, and putting fairness above ego and greed. He was
the Anti-Grasso of 2004.
winner in a very tough field (containing New York Times’ lying
reporter Jason Blair, Abu Ghraib leash-holder Lynndie England, personal
trainer and secret stud to desperate housewives Mike “The Torchinater”
Torchia, Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, who published his report
on the GOP convention before it occurred), and terrified Minnesota Senator
Mark Dayton, who fled DC to avoid a hypothetical terrorist attack, and
“The Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin, who carried his infant son while
he fed vicious crocodiles to garner some cheap publicity.) Novak won
the nod from voters after he set off the Valerie Plame affair by printing
the name of a CIA operative, then smugly sitting back to watch Karl Rove,
Dick Cheney and others be accused by Plame’s husband of orchestrating
the leak as the government spent millions investigating the issue, and
other journalists (but, oddly, not him) get threatened with imprisonment
for not revealing the source of the information Novak printed.
Trivial Liar of the Year: Dan Rather
Rather’s lie was trivial (he claimed that his unexpected retirement wasn’t
spurred by his ethical misjudgements in the National Guard letter matter),
but it had more significance than all trivial lies of his competition
put together. Rather had a chance to use his retirement as a way of affirming
the importance of journalistic ethics, and instead opted to further degrade
Unethical Website of the Year: Fthevote.com
but disturbing effort by some Kerry supporters to convert Republicans
by offering a sexual encounter in exchange for a pledge not to vote for
President Bush won the “Martha” from voters by virtue of its many faceted
ethical violations. Its premise came perilously close to election fraud
as well as prostitution, it trivialized democracy, and it showed disrespect
for the election, the candidates, and Americans who held opinions different
from theirs. All in all, a very deserving choice.
In the remaining six categories, Ethics Polluter of the Year, Worst Ethics Story of the Year, Most Unethical Corporation, Most Unethical Politician, Most Unethical Media Outlet, and Most Unethical Sports or Entertainment Figure, the nominations from voters carried due weight. The award winners, however, were determined by the ProEthics staff, and we will take the heat.
And the Martha
for Ethics Polluter of the Year goes to:
911” would have been perfectly acceptable as hard satire or even as a
partisan argument, but film-maker Moore promoted it as truth, which it
objectively was not. The degree to which Michael Moore was lionized and
embraced by the Democratic party certainly communicated the idea that
it was perfectly acceptable to distort facts to win elections. The supporters
of both presidential candidates absorbed the lesson, which launched Swift
boat attack ads and an avalanche of slanted “documentaries” on the left
and the right. Later, after Moore’s candidate lost, he helped fan the
flames of divisiveness and contempt for political adversaries with his
infamous “Jesus-land” graphic.
nominations were necessary; Abu Ghraib lapped the competition in this
category. Not only did it call into question America’s commitment to core
American values; the scandal lowered American prestige abroad, endangered
future prisoners of war, and showed how easily war and lax leadership
can corrupt values. It may well come to pass that the developing “Oil
for Food” corruption story will have even darker ethical implications,
but that is evidently a tale for 2005.
The Final Nominations for Most Unethical Corporation are:
And the award
for Most Unethical Corporation of the Year goes to:
2004 was an “in between” year for corporate scandals: a lot of court cases involving past malfeasance (Enron, which got more nominations than any other company, wasn’t even doing business in 2004), and a lot of potential scandals percolating until more facts become known (Did Merck know that Vioxx posed a health risk? Stay tuned…). Of the nominees, Halliburton got so much flack for fanciful unethical activities related to Vice President Cheney that it seems unfair to single them out for their real ethical missteps. Fannie Mae appears to be more a story of ineptitude than anything else; American Airlines execs tried to pull a fast one with their pension games but finally did the right thing. Northwest’s breach of confidentiality was bad, but it was just one misguided act. Unocal, however, continues to do business with major human rights offenders like Burma, and has received very little adverse publicity about it. In a relatively quiet year for ethical violations on the corporate side, it gets the Martha.
for Most Unethical Politician goes to:
DeLay gets the award because of his unapologetic use of unethical tactics in pursuit of his political objectives, and the fact that he is still powerful, active, and looking for his next ethical principle to violate. He is well on his way to punishing the reticent House Ethics Committee which couldn’t continue ignoring DeLay’s multiple violations and finally (and overly gently) admonished him for them. He may well gut the entire House ethics oversight system, which is already fairly impotent. Yes, McGreevey was despicable, and Rowland was an old fashioned corrupt pol, but they were inept at their unethical work; DeLay is a master at it. Waters’ family enrichment is just the most recent such conduct to come to light. She has lots of company in both the House and the Senate, and while the conduct is rather more irritating because of the shrill tone of moral superiority that she frequently adopts, her level of unethical behavior is, sadly, not unique. And Sharpton? He’s certainly in the running for a career award, but for him, 2004 was relatively ethical.
And the Most
Unethical Media Outlet in 2004 was:
Nobody who has visited this web site with any frequency can be surprised at this result, which could be predicted from the fact that no four line summary of CBS’s ethical misadventures could even cover the full extent of them. CBS had culpability in the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction;” it allowed former Ambassador Joe Wilson to float his conspiracy theories on the air and then conspicuously failed to report later that his version of events had been thoroughly discredited. In the final week of the 2004 campaign, it was revealed that CBS news had been planning to unleash the story of the “missing explosives in Iraq,” immediately before the election, despite the fact that it was both old and ambiguous. Earlier, a CBS producer had attempted to feed information to the Kerry campaign. A thorough housecleaning at CBS news is on the way.
As for the others: the Times has Dan Okrent, its on-staff watch-dog, doing an excellent job as he strives to restore the paper’s tarnished integrity. The Sun-Times circulation fraud is just the most egregious in an industry-wide scandal that is still unfolding. And as for CNN, well, who ever thought James Carville and Paul Begala were “neutral”? It was a bad precedent, to be sure, but hardly earth-shaking, or even CNN-shaking.
be many, more, but the final winner would still be:
He is the biggest star, with the most influence, and his willingness to cheat and lie about it has legal, health, economic and cultural impact, none of it good. At this moment in time, his career stands as a powerful incentive to cheat, as his actions are inseparable from his success, fame, and wealth. We shall see if his career has a different message in a year or two. Ethics Scoreboard can only hope.