November 2005 Ethics Dunces

Senator Arlen Specter

When one ethics miscreant crosses paths with an Ethics Dunce, what do you get? In November of 2005, you get a remarkable repeat Ethics Dunce, as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter has the unprecedented achievement of earning the "honor" twice in one month, in two completely unrelated performances. His first, joining Senator Tom Harkin in a scheme to place their names on government office buildings, showed a blatant willingness to misuse power. His second, a gratuitous attack on the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles for the team's treatment of their malcontent star Terrell Owens, makes one wonder if Specter has any intelligible ethical thoughts at all.

Owens was suspended by the Eagles and sent home for the season, an action upheld by the arbitration system mandated by the NFL's agreement with the player's union. The arbitrator, quite properly, ruled that Owens had been intentionally disruptive, had broken all manner of team rules, and had engaged in outrageous actions damaging to the team, justifying the Eagles's action. That should have ended it; this is none of Arlen Specter's business. But unable to restrain himself, Specter decided that the nation's sports fans were breathlessly awaiting his take on the controversy and has let it be known that the Eagles refusing to play Owens while continuing to pay his salary is "vindictive" and a "restraint of trade." (The thousands of bench-warmers on professional teams who have been similarly paid not to play through the decades somehow missed this obvious anti-trust violation by their coaches and managers.) The Eagles should, Specter reasons, release Owens so some other NFL team can sign him to the enhanced contract that he wanted from the Eagles, and in pursuit of which he was willing to destroy their team and season if they didn't give it to him.

Specter made it clear that he was "not a supporter of Terrell Owens," but said that he did not believe that it was appropriate to punish the receiver by forcing him to sit out the rest of the season. "He's not committed a crime, he's committed a breach of contract. And what they're doing against him is vindictive,'' Specter said.

O.K., let's get this straight. The Eagles are paying Owen his multimillion-dollar salary to sit at home and do whatever he wants, and Specter calls that "vindictive." Hey Arlen…if it's vindictive to pay someone millions of dollars to do nothing after he has intentionally disrupted your business and breached his contract, how much more unfair must it be to pay someone millions who hasn't done those things? And yet, somehow, if the Eagles announced that they were going to start paying me Owens' salary not to do anything, I wouldn't feel abused at all. How odd…what am I missing?

Senator Specter would respond to my conundrum by saying something like, "Silly goose! Owens is a football player, and because what he loves to do is play football, the Eagles are torturing him by preventing him from doingt hat thing he loves!" But Terrell Owens had a contract to play football and a team that was desperate for him to shut up and play. He decided that money was what mattered most, mattered enough to make him sacrifice fulfilling his duties as a football player to wage a campaign of terror to get the team to sweeten his contract. Now he's getting millions without having to risk injury or break a sweat. Poor Terrell.

What Specter thinks would be fair and just is for the Eagles to let Owens get what he and his co-conspiring agent wanted all along…a release from his existing contract so he could sell himself to the highest bidder elsewhere in the NFL. Once that happened, the "Owens Tactic," an unethical form of employment extortion in which a player intentionally misbehaves to force an employer to let him go find greener pastures despite a binding commitment, would become standard practice throughout professional sports. That would be good for Owens, but bad for just about everybody else.

The Eagles are willing to pay millions to Owens to make several points for future T.O.'s yet unborn. Honor your contract. Don't put yourself above the team. Don't expect to be rewarded for misconduct. And last but not least: There are consequences for bad behavior.

Senator Arlen Specter doesn't understand any of this. He thinks the Eagles, who are standing up for a very basic principle of duty, are the bad guys, and that Terrell Owens is a victim. But then, Senator Arlen Specter is an Ethics Dunce. If the last month has proven anything, it's that.

Senator Arlen Specter and Senator Tom Harkin

The Emperors of Rome enjoyed ordering that large statues be erected in their honor, and the Pharaohs of Egypt liked honoring themselves too, usually with giant sculptures or obelisks. This practice seems rather alien to Americans, the M.O. of the kind of leaders our country was established to avoid. It's hard to imagine George Washington presiding over the erection of his own obelisk, Abraham Lincoln taking time out from overseeing the Civil War to supervise the building of his Lincoln Memorial, or JFK reviewing plans for the Kennedy Center once the Cuban Missile crisis was over. True, wealthy donors and philanthropists frequently have buildings named after them during their lifetimes, but only when they pay for the buildings themselves. That's quite a bit different from an elected official using public funds to construct a brick and mortar testament to himself.

There have been state and local officials who have done this sort of thing in the past, and all were local pharaohs who presided over corrupt political machines. In their cases, using public money for personal glory was the least of their transgressions, but the conduct was telling. Once a leader begins to feel that he or she can use a position of public trust for self-glorification, the ethics alarm needs to start ringing. Such individuals can no longer be trusted.

So the fact that the 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee Conference Report (109-300) names two new buildings at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) after the committee's chairman, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA.), and its ranking Democratic member, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA.) is literally and figuratively cause for alarm.

The House of Representative quickly rejected the scheme, but that's not the issue. The issue is that two long-time U. S. Senators have displayed a total lack of any sense of the impropriety and inherent conflicts of interest represented by their imperial act, thwarted though it was. This implicates their judgement, naturally, but also their sense of entitlement. There are hundreds of important Americans, in government and out of it, living and dead, who have not received the honor of a public building being named after them. There are also hundreds, indeed thousands, of such Americans from the past and present who are far more deserving of such an honor than either Tom Harkin or Arlen Specter.

There is even a rule against what Harkin and Specter tried to do: Committee Rule XXI, Section 6, Designation of Public Works, which declares that

"It shall not be in order to consider a bill, joint resolution, amendment, or conference report that provides for the designation or redesignation of a public work in honor of an individual then serving as a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator."

Not that such a rule should be necessary, provided our elected officials in Washington possess even rudimentary ethical instincts. Harkin and Specter have presented powerful evidence that they don't, and the presumptions of trustworthiness that they deserved as United States Senators have officially expired. The senators have exposed themselves as Ethics Dunces, and require close watching from now on.


Howard Kurtz

It is a well-known hazard of the writer's trade that when you author an article about how terrible other writers' spelling has become, you had better go over your own prose with dictionary in hand. Such articles are juicy invitations to those who delight in catching critics in the very conduct they condemn. This principle seems to have eluded Washington Post media watchdog Howard Kurtz, who presents himself as an authority on journalistic ethics though his weekly column on the topic sometimes shows why the term is increasingly seen as an oxymoron. Contributing to this perception are Kurtz's own ethical gaffes while commenting on the errant ways of his colleagues.

A striking example was on display in the latest installment of Kurtz's "Media Notes" column, in which he detailed the woes of the New York Times and media companies generally as a result of the public's growing distain for, among other things, "the ethics of reporters." Then, in discussing Robert Novak's mysterious role in the White House-C.I.A. leaks affair, Kurtz noted that Novak has yet to explain "why he helped two senior Administration officials in the outing of C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame."

That phrase is misleading and inaccurate at best and an endorsement of partisan spin at worst. The word "helped" implies that the primary objective of the two "senior Administration officials" in their discussions with Novak and other reporters was to blow the cover of a covert C.I.A. operative. Although this is the version of events that has been trumpeted by Plame's Bush-bashing husband, Joe Wilson, and is the favorite interpretation of the rabid left, the Post's own reporting leaves little doubt that the blowing of Plame's cover was an inadvertent and unintended result when the "senior Administration officials" (we now know them to be "Scooter" Libby and Karl Rove) tried to discredit her husband's public criticism of pre-Iraq invasion intelligence. That is also the apparent conclusion of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's long and meticulous investigation of the leaks. How do we know this? We know this because Fitzpatrick's indictment of Libby was not for intentionally revealing the identity of an undercover operative, but for allegedly lying about his role in the incident and obstructing the investigation.

But wait: "Media Notes" is a column, right? Can't Kurtz ethically state his opinion?

Yes…if he makes it clear that it is his opinion. But Kurtz's statement was framed as fact in the context of discussing another issue entirely, the demoralization of the staff at the Times. That makes it misleading, and whether intentional or just sloppy, it is unethical journalism because it confuses and misinforms readers. Worse, his statement aligns him with partisan critics of the administration who have consistently distorted the Plame affair for political gain. The common usage of "outing" implies an adverse, intentional, and unauthorized public disclosure of an individual's private secret. This is the Joe Wilson/Move talking points claim: Wilson's wife was intentionally endangered to "punish" her husband, an accusation that is an extension of the "The Bush Administration is the Embodiment of Evil" theory that has energized the Angry Left since the Florida recount. If Kurtz subscribes to this unsubstantiated theory, then he should do so openly and not under the guise of objectively examining ethical problems of other reporters.

Kurtz's use of a misleading and partisan-promoted description of a very complex and still murky series of events was so casual and matter-of-fact that it raises the question of whether he even realized what he was doing. But when one is discussing in print the range of reasons why readers increasingly distrust and dislike the news media, it would be wise to be especially careful not to engage in precisely the kind of conduct that one's article deplores. Kurtz's bungling of journalistic ethics while discussing them wins him an embarrassing Ethics Dunce award.

Now I'm going to check this article for spelling.

Washington State University

The slide into fascist tactics begins with willful rejection of the ethical principles of fairness and respect. Next comes the jettisoning of the Golden Rule, to be replaced by uncontrolled utilitarianism, in which the most outrageous measures are deemed acceptable because of the perceived importance of a cause. It is an educational institution's job to teach this. The Washington State University has decided to demonstrate it.

Student playwright Chris Lee's Passion of the Musical was a politically incorrect satire that advertised itself as being likely to offend its audiences. During the final performance of the play, a group of 40 student protestors repeatedly stood up, shouted about being offended, and verbally threatened audience members and the cast. When the playwright asked campus security to remove the disruptive students, it refused, instead telling Lee that he should change the word "black" in his satirical song "I Will Do Anything for God, But I Won't Act Black" to "blank" to avoid provoking his audience to violence. Lee incidentally, is black himself.

It was later discovered that the University administration had purchased the tickets for the protestors to disrupt the show! Later, the school attempted to justify the disruptions by claiming that they were "protected expression," (they weren't) and that because the play provoked and "taunted" the audience, it had become the equivalent of a public forum. This was, of course, bad constitutional law, bad logic, and patently dishonest reasoning. Astoundingly, Washington State President V. Lane Rawlins was quoted in the campus paper as saying that the protestors "exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner by letting the writer and players know exactly how they felt."

And too bad for the writer who wanted to see how his play was received by the people who actually wanted to see it, tough luck for the actors and production staff and all those who had worked to produce it, and never mind the audience members who had bought tickets to view it. Had this grotesquely distorted First Amendment interpretation devised by the Washington State University's smug and ignorant ideologues been in effect, every major controversial American stage work from Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Cradle Will Rock to The Boys in the Band to Hair to Angels in America would have never reached an audience intact.

This is not just censorship; it is school-sponsored thuggery, the tactics of Brown Shirts and the ethics of the mob. Luckily the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights (F.I.R.E.) has taken up the playwright's cause, since the left-tilting A.C.L.U. these days would be more likely to join the University's efforts to intimidate a campus artist than oppose them. But F.I.R.E. has a daunting job ahead. The mainstream media couldn't be bothered to report this shameful and truly frightening story of officially sanctioned jackboot campus tactics, and based on the communications recently issued by Washington State University administrators, the school is still self-righteous about its conduct, just like the fascist regimes whose tactics they have endorsed.




Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy