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Anthony Weiner and the Consequences of Consequentialism

 

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

There are very few things left uncovered (literally) in the sad unraveling of Rep. Anthony Weiner — except possibly the mechanics of our ethical justification of our interest in the story. (”Our” meaning we, the public, and our surrogates, the media.)

A case like Weiner’s is clearly catnip to the media and it probably should be. The apparent derailment of a public official seems to fit all of the existing definitions of news that have existed since the founding of the institution in colonial America — and an important function of the news business in the eyes of the framers of the Constitution was scrutiny of the government and the people who comprise it.

But tucked into an assumption like the one I just made is the consequentialist flag that we wave when we say, “Normally, we wouldn’t be interested in this sort of thing, except….”

Consequentialist arguments are powerful and often semantically built as above, resting on the foundation that an exception to the normal way of doing things will produce an outcome that justifies the exception. Consequentialist arguments are powerful because at the end of the debate they often trump the counter-view because of an inherent inconsistency in the framework of the proposition. The non-consequentialist, Kantian-type argument — that we should stick to the rules because we can’t predict consequences — is really a consequentialist argument once you peel away the top layers.

After all, by predicting that you can’t predict a consequence, I am predicting a consequence.

In any event, consequentialism in the coverage of politicians’ sexual escapades has always been the primary justification for extraordinary excursions into what would normally be private territory. In modern history, the consequentialist argument went on steroids in the 1988 U.S. presidential election, when the Washington Post’s Paul Taylor famously popped the “have you committed adultery?” on candidate Gary Hart.

Hart not only denied being adulterous but challenged reporters to follow him around and check his claim, which of course they did, and the rest is history.

The most salient result was not Hart’s withdrawal from a race he might have won, but the rewriting of the unofficial rulebook to make the adultery question fair game.

Indeed, the consequentialism invoked was a convincing argument: We showed that Gary Hart possesses extraordinarily bad judgment: He lied and challenged us to catch him in the lie and then behaved recklessly. Is this the type of person we want leading the free world? Ergo, the ‘have you committed adultery?’ question is a public service.

The media-savvy Bill Clinton, no stranger to scandal, devised a way to circumvent the Hart dilemma by telling the truth, sort of. In an interview with “60 Minutes,” he admitted past “problems” in his marriage but provided no further specifics. In effect, he inoculated himself by giving himself a small dose of the scandal virus, waited for the malaise to pass, and won two terms (during which he suffered a relapse).

In the Wiener case, there were other factors at play in the construction of the consequentialist argument for coverage of all of the details. His techno-sexual derangement probably wasn’t enough to unseat him, at least via the details that initially emerged; he was, after all, not the leader of the free world and, as his supporters (initially) claimed, he had a good record in issues related to the welfare of his district, making his digital dalliances irrelevant. Rather, it was the fact that he clearly and artlessly lied about it that propped up the consequentialist proposition that someone who lies so brazenly can’t be trusted, and if he lies about one thing he’ll lie about everything, therefore our scrutiny was justified….

 

And here’s another reason why consequentialist ethical arguments are so powerful: Retrospective arguments are easy to make because you get to shoot the arrow into the wall first and paint the bull’s eye around it later. But such simple cause-and-effect reasoning circumvents some of the nuances of the issue, including whether all aspects of a public person’s life are legitimately public business, and whether a public official is obliged to copy a page from St. Augustine and fill 13 books with his confessions.

Is lying an automatic disqualification for public life? That’s a complex ethical question obscured by the extremes of the Wiener case. Some would argue, for example, that it’s acceptable to lie under certain circumstances when confronted with a gratuitous threat — an intrusion that is unjustified to begin with. Others would contend that a “no comment” or a Clinton-esque prevarication (”that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”) is just as bad as a lie because it serves to divert attention and inquiry from a matter of legitimate public concern.

My point is assuredly not to defend Wiener. And I’m not saying the whole sorry mess does not justify media coverage, because that’s clearly not the case and I am just as clearly covering it right now.

What I do want to posit is the notion that it wouldn’t hurt to take a close look at the consequentialist arguments we employ when negating a public official’s desire for certain boundaries in his or her private life.

The main argument deployed by Kantian non-consequentialists is that you can invent almost any rationale to justify an action, as was the case in some tangents of the Weiner story. Disclosure of his wife’s pregnancy became a matter of public interest because it was marginally part of the story. A young woman who was apparently an innocent bystander — she was, she says, sent one of Weiner’s digital images by mistake — became the focus of full-tilt media scrutiny because she was “part of the story.”

There is almost literally no end to the “part of the story” thread if you get to make up the rationale as you go along or, even more conveniently, after the fact. That’s not always a bad thing; personally, I think Gary Hart’s judgment is suspect and that Anthony Weiner is unfit for Congress and possibly mentally unwell. Both make insincere victims because they brought much of the scrutiny on themselves — Hart by challenging the media and Wiener by using an obviously insecure medium to transmit messages that would be inappropriate in any context (although it does raise the interesting question of whether boorish behavior online is any difference in substance from similar communication by telephone or in person at a bar).

At the same time, I know many serious-minded and capable men and women who have avoided public service — even county and local elective and appointed offices — because of the lurking fear that they could not survive living in a glass house because anyone who wants to throw a stone can confect a convenient excuse for doing so.

I realize this isn’t the first time the question has been asked, but where do we draw the line between private lives and public interest? What are the main consequentialist factors in an action that disqualifies someone from elected office? Is there a calculus we can use to justify an intrusion we normally wouldn’t make into what we normally would consider a private aspect of life?

I’d like to hear your thoughts. What’s your formula for finishing the statement, “Normally we wouldn’t publish details of someone’s sexual indiscretions, except….”

News and the Institutional Ethic: Why News Affects the Way We Think … and Why It Matters

Jan 24th, 2011 • Posted in: Commentary

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

In 1954, Edward Murrow did something that made him uncomfortable: He took an editorial stand in his ostensibly objective news program, “See It Now,” and leveled an opinionated attack at Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who had ruined lives and careers with reckless and largely unfounded accusations against individuals he claimed had communist leanings.

Recalling the incident years later, Murrow protégé Walter Cronkite noted that Murrow was troubled about taking an editorial position, but felt he had to break the rules because the situation was dire. It was an exception to the rule, noted Cronkite, but it was “the exception that made it so powerful.”

You couldn’t get away with it every time and not expect the whole house of cards to fall, which it should if news were to be replaced with an unrelenting cascade of opinion, Cronkite said in a CBS documentary about Murrow that was produced decades later.

Let me make a disclaimer right up top: I’m not yearning for the “good old days,” not dismissing the benefits of new information technology, and assuredly not insinuating that pre-internet journalists were uniformly scrupulous about fairness, objectivity, and ethics.

However, I contend that in prior decades there was a prevailing institutional ethic of objectivity, fairness, and accountability in the news business. When I was much younger, I worked with a couple holdovers from the Murrow era — even a few old-timers who had worked directly with Murrow. While the old-timers had opinions and while they were human beings who often failed to keep those opinions out of their news, more often than not they did their best to present a balanced menu of the day’s news.

Had they been pressed for an opinion of what news is, they might have echoed that of a real old-timer, Walter Lippmann, who felt that the function of news was to “signalize” an event, bring to light hidden facts, put information in context, and paint “a picture of reality” on which the citizen can act.

Such views might strike many as quaint, outmoded, and even laughably obsolete in today’s digital high-volume echo chamber, where facts are molded to comfortably reinforce opinion and consumers with increasingly short attention spans are grabbed by the lapels via biased talking points, rants, and hypnotic visuals.

Some in the news community — as well as some academics who study news — actually welcome this new era of news, celebrating the death of “top down” or “elitist” news and glorifying the liberating effect of the digital technology that takes news out of the hands of the corporations and turns it over to bloggers, everyday citizens, and amateur videographers.

While there may be validity to a portion of that argument, I return to the idea that the institutional ethic of news not only propelled the accomplishments of some outstanding news organizations but also provided a type of mental discipline for reporters and news consumers alike — a framework for critical thinking, reasoning, and compassion.

For example, old-school news stresses (I’ve not yet conceded the use of the past tense) the importance of attribution. Where did the information come from? How was the figure derived? What are the exact criticisms of the person central to the story, and who made them? Repeat them word for word, the old conventions told us, and put quotes around the words so we know precisely which words the source said.

The green-eyeshade editors also would insist that factoids be put into context. What, Editor Eyeshade might ask, does the fact that Politician A voted for “the largest tax increase in history” really mean? Does it mean, as is often the case, that he or she (and a lot of other people) eventually voted to pass the federal budget?

The institutional ethic of old-school news endorsed, and strongly encouraged, the expression of strong opinion — but in a separate area such as the editorial page or the commentary section of the local newscast. There was, of course, no hermetically sealed barrier between the two journalistic roles, but there was an implicit recognition that a newsperson could wear two hats (e.g., serve as both a reporter and a commentator), that the two roles are fundamentally different, and that someone with opinions still could construct objective news.

Perhaps the most useful old-school ethic — and the one whose possible passing eventually will be the most mourned — is the editor’s or news director’s expectation that a journalist would seek comment from those in disagreement with the fundamental narrative of the story.

There often were several results from this forced march into new territory, and those results often came as a surprise to the evolving journalist:

  • First, you found out that what a lot of what people tell you isn’t exactly true. Source A might not exactly be lying about Source B, but Source A generally sees things through a particular lens of experience and more often than not selectively deals the cards to provide himself a winning hand in the game of public opinion.
  • Second, you often learned that Source B isn’t such a monster after all. In fact, Source B may have good reasons for harboring views with which you still might not agree, but for which you might develop some understanding.
  • Third, you might find considerable middle ground between sources A and B — ground populated by sources C, D, E, and F, most of whom are fairly reasonable people who, if your news organization has sufficient resources to allow you time to speak with them, can provide you with considerable insight into the human condition.

Let’s not stand in the way of technological progress and let’s not marinate in nostalgia, but at the same time let’s recognize that there actually were some good things about the good old days — among them allegiances to the old-fashioned ethics, no matter how imperfectly practiced, of objectivity and fairness.

Getting back to Murrow: What worries me most about the constant blaring of the opinion-driven new media is that, like an orchestra that always plays at full volume, there’s no room left for the crescendo. And come the day that a courageous journalist needs to make an exception to the rules to point out something that just isn’t right, there might not be any rules to break and no ability to hear over the din anyway.