January 2008 Ethics Dunces

Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Media Reporter

The Scoreboard periodically receives protests from misty-eyes idealists who are offended by its oft-repeated assertions that the evidence of consistent journalistic ethics in the media is about on par with the evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. For those who need further convincing, I present Ethics Dunce Howard Kurtz, whose regular Washington Post column and blog often critiques media ethics. Kurtz also hosts a weekly cable show on the same topic. A blogger named Amanda Carpenter eavesdropped on a private conversation Mike Huckabee advisor Ed Rollins was having with a dining companion at an Iowa restaurant, and jotted down Rollins' comments over a significant time span. She then published the comments on her blog. Kurtz happily included many of her notes in his "Media Notes" column. He did so to spice up his coverage of the Iowa Caucus infighting. He did not, apparently, even detect the ethical problem with Carpenter's actions.

To state what the Scoreboard would think should be obvious, secretly taking notes on a private conversation in a restaurant and publishing them online is ethically indefensible. Isn't this obvious? It is a breach of privacy, a clear Golden Rule violation, and dishonest. Don't argue that diners should be more careful; of course they should be more careful, because sneaky people like Carpenter may be lurking. That doesn't excuse her conduct, and it doesn't excuse Kurtz for endorsing it, which is what his reprinting of her notes did. Would you enjoy feeling as if you had to guard your words while dining out, because eavesdroppers might be taking down what you say and preparing to put it on the web? I would like to hear Carpenter or Kurtz explain to me how this conduct differs ethically from electronic surveillance. It doesn't. Both are breaches of privacy and fairness.

The hypocrisy of the journalistic establishment is stunning. It has railed against government intrusions on private communications for national security purposes, but doesn't flinch at spying and eavesdropping in order to communicate &mdash what? Gossip? Inside political trivia? Here's an example of the kind of intelligence Kurtz and Carpenter think justifies having your dinner chat monitored by strangers taking notes: "Rollins also called Andrea Mitchell and predicted Obama would take Iowa tonight. He called Mitchell 'sweetie' several times."

Talk about the end not justifying the means! But the elite U.S. journalists apparently don't see it that way. Their stories are all that matter, you see; the "public has a right to know" what Howard Rollins said while he was eating his salad. But if an FBI agent listened in on Howard Kurtz's table talk, he would doubtlessly regard it as sinister, intimidating, and terrifying.




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