July 2006 Ethics Dunces

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele

Some Ethics Dunces are really "Double Dunces," as their conduct is both ethically ignorant and just plain dumb. If the Scoreboard had a "Double Dunce" designation, Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele would be one.

Steele, a rare black Maryland Republican, is running for the U.S. Senate. He recently called a group of nine reporters together for lunch and gave them a so-called "backgrounder," comments that they could use but not attribute directly to him. His comments included specific criticisms of President Bush regarding Iraq and the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina. According to the rules Steele laid out at the luncheon, his comments could only be attributed to "a Republican Senate candidate."

Dunce #1: This is just wrong. Anonymous criticism is sniper fire---unfair, destructive and cowardly. If Steele wants to criticize the President or anyone else, the ethical course is to take responsibility for it, be accountable, and do it openly. This ethical principle applies in politics, the workplace and social life. Anonymous criticism is, quite simply, despicable. The target of the criticism can't respond, because there is nobody to respond to. It causes the one criticized to suspect others who are innocent of any wrongdoing, possibly damaging personal and professional relationships. It is the verbal equivalent of a rock thrown through a window, a scandalous rumor scrawled on a bathroom wall, or an unsigned letter designed to cause a wife to suspect her husband of infidelity. Often news reports explain that a critic has insisted on anonymity because he or she is "afraid of reprisals." The translation of this is that the source is "unwilling to accept responsibility and accountability for his or her conduct, but wants to engage in it anyway." That is unethical. And that is what Steele did.

Coming at such a politically charged time, it didn't take people long to figure out who Bush's critic was. The same day his anonymous remarks were published Steele had to own up to his secret attack and attempt to spin his way out of the self-made mess. This is where he pulls down the Double Dunce, as it was foolish for him to think that the loud report from his metaphorical sniper's rifle would not eventually be traced back to him.

Conceivably, Steel could be awarded a triple Dunce for attempting the silly excuse that reports of the "Senate candidate's" criticism left out his positive comments about Bush, and thus were misleading. Would someone please explain to the ethically, journalistically and politically obtuse Lt. Governor why favorable comments about a Republican President that only could be attributed to an un-named Republican candidate would never be considered newsworthy, while a Republican candidate's critical comments about his party's own president would be? If Steele wanted both his positive and negative comments reported, all he had to do was to hold his interview on the record. He, and only he, was responsible for the so-called distortion.

But based on this episode, taking responsibility does not seem to be one of Michael Steel's virtues.




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