Arnold Kling  

Journolist Ethics

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Mark Thoma has written a couple of posts about the Journolist story. I have to say that very few of the comments that I have seen, pro or con, have dealt with the issues that concern me.

When people on the right talk among ourselves about people on the left, we sometimes say that people on the left take an "ends-justify-the-means" approach to ethical questions. We tell ourselves that people on the right are obsessive about principles, but people on the left are so convinced that they are good and their opponents are bad that they think they don't need no stinkin' principles. It is in that context that the Journolist story strikes a nerve.

I think in terms of ethical boundaries. Here are some examples of where I come down.

1. I think it is acceptable to express hatred, including death wishes. I tend to think that the hater demeans himself but does not commit an ethical violation. My guess is that if I were on a list serv where people did that, it would not make me quit the list serv, but it would not make me feel good about being on that list serv.

2. I think that a journalist is entitled to say something like, "I think we are spending too much time covering story X, because in my opinion it is not really such an important story."

3. On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable with a journalist saying something along the lines of, "I think we need to suppress story X, or put out story Y to distract people from story X, because story X hurts candidate A." In that case, you are attempting to design/execute a PR strategy for candidate A. Traditionally, that would not have been ethical for a journalist or newspaper columnist. I think an old-time journalist would have felt out of place on a list serv if these sorts of discussions started taking place.

4. If you say, "we really need to discredit person X or cast aspersions on X," I think that crosses a line, also. Again, that is what sleazy PR firms do all the time, but it is not what journalism is about, in my perhaps old-fashioned and certainly not-professional opinion. If somebody has committed an offense that has not been exposed, then expose the offense. But if you find someone offensive, that does not by itself justify smearing the person. Even less does it justify conspiring to smear the person.

Those examples convey some idea of how I would draw ethical boundaries. I would be curious as to how Journolisters would go about articulating their ethical boundaries. They may look at it totally differently, not finding my distinctions helpful at all. That's fine.

Listservs come and go. Ethical boundaries are more important in the long run.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
John writes:

I'm honestly baffled that Ezra Klein is allowed to keep his job at WaPo for running it.
From what I read of the posts they clearly did 3 and 4. Creating a forum where other journalists (even if it wasn't him specifically) are allowed to do 3 and 4 without any consequences is violating journalistic ethics (he should have created ground rules, warned the offenders and banned them).
I am in the investment industry. If I create a forum where traders discuss inside information and I do nothing to prevent it, I have made serious breaches of the expected ethical conduct expected. If it is found out, I wouldn't just be fired, but I would be effectively banned from the industry and probably face legal action. I don't see how the violation of ethics that his forum/list allowed is any less serious. These people strongly influence what the public perceives to be happening.
For allowing the serious violations of journalistic ethics to take place without making a sufficient effort to stop it, he should be fired (at a minimum).

Kevin Driscoll writes:

To me, 3 and 4 are NEVER okay, whether you're a journalist or not because I'm a Kantian. From that perspective, conspiring to suppress stories or discredit someone involves using the viewers/listeners/readers as a means to achieve the end of advancing a candidate or ideology without their consent (because you have not given full disclosure they cannot consent).

The more practical question is, "Do these lists exist on the right?" It may always be a mark against those on Journolist, but it is only an accolade of others if they don't do it.

Yancey Ward writes:

Those are completely reasonable ethical guidelines, Arnold, and most certainly not outside the mainstream of society's expectations. Like John, I wonder how some of these people are still employed in their present positions if their employers have any expectation from them in this regard (probably, they don't, for the most part).

In my old job, had I conspired with others to defame competitors and others in my field, I would have been summarily dismissed, and with good reason, even if the conspiracy never accomplished anything at all. I think it is clear that Klein was told to end the listserv, or get the boot. However, The Post needed to make a stronger example, in my opinion. It leaves open the possibility that they don't care.

Mercer writes:

I think journalists should be judged based upon what they published or not what they wrote on on list server.

"When people on the right talk among ourselves about people on the left, we sometimes say that people on the left take an "ends-justify-the-means" approach to ethical questions. We tell ourselves that people on the right are obsessive about principles, but people on the left are so convinced that they are good and their opponents are bad that they think they don't need no stinkin' principles."

I think you are deluding yourself if you think the right never takes an "ends justify the means approach" and is better then the left in this regard. A few examples easily come to mind:

The right preaches federalism and decries judicial activism. The Bush vs Gore decision contradicts these principles.

The GOP calls itself the party of small government. This did not stop them from passing the Medicare Part D. Getting the senior vote was more important.

Iraq was clearly a mess starting in the spring of 2004. The right was for the most part silent because they did not want to criticize Bush. I remember listening to Rush at the time. He acted like Kerry's choice of cheese for his cheese steak was a bigger deal then US soldiers dying in a war that was going badly. Rush considered Bush as his tribal leader so he should not be strongly criticized unlike Kerry.

Thucydides writes:

I am not sure what your definition of ethics is, but it seems to me that hatred and expression of death wishes is not consistent with the major theories of ethics. Aristotle: good habits that contribute to the well being of the individual and his community; Kant: treat others as worthy of respect, and as ends not means; or utilitarianism, acting consistently with the general good. I realize this is an economics website, not a forum for moral philosophy, but hatred and death wishes don't seem to me to be characteristic of anybody I would consider to be an ethical person.

Ted writes:

I don't care about this story really, but a few points anyway. #1 and #2 are pretty much irrelevant. And #3 and #4 are just expressing in words what we all know a lot of journalists have done since the dawn of political commentary and pamphleteering. And I hope you don't actually believe the right-wind media is all sincere. The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, talk radio, even libertarian publications like Reason all regularly bias coverage, ignore stories, over-hype stories - often in extreme ways. And if you are Fox News and occasionally the Wall Street Journal you just make stories up.

However, like most things, competition and an informed consumer can overcome these problems. With access to a wide variety of news sources you wash out the ideological biases of the left and right. Of course, if you are uninformed and you just go to ideologically appealing news, then you probably don't care about the truth anyway.

Also, we haven't even seen the e-mails have we? We are basically believing someone and given conservatives tendency to literally make stories up I take it with a grain of salt until I see them myself.

Snorri Godhi writes:

The last 2 items in the list are a good starting point.
First of all we must ask: who is being hurt?
First, the dupes who believe what they hear on the news; but I'd think that, unless there are laws against the sort of collusion in the JournoList [and probably there are], then only those who pay for the news have a right to complain: they pay to learn what is going on, not to get a brainwash; they are being ripped off.
(Apparently somebody from The Economist was in this, but I am happy to say that I let my subscription expire several years ago.)
Second, the targets of the smear campaigns. In this respect, I found it ironic that in the JournoList discussion on Wright, somebody complained that US libel laws are too lax.
Third, the news corporations that stand to lose business when such conspiracies are inevitably exposed; but that is their problem to deal with.

I agree that #1 is more an indicator of insanity than an ethical violation.
WRT #2, when I say that I think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict receives way too much attention, I don't feel that I am doing anything unethical.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Slightly off-topic: for me, the most interesting part was discovering that the journolisters actually believe their own propaganda:
* they believe that people who themselves call "pathological government haters" want "a deficit driven militarist/heterosexist/herrenvolk state"
* they believe that, when people take to the streets to protest against government spending, "Their desired end looks more like a corporate state than a rugged individualist paradise."

Here then is another ethical violation: the journolisters were ripped off by the institutions from which they graduated. On the basis of the evidence, they got out of university more stupid than they got in.

Ted writes:

Ted,
I don't have a problem at all with journalists who make their ideological biases evident. The bloggers who are the modern incarnation of pamphleteers can work behind the scenes all they want to support candidates, stories, etc. I have no problem with this at all.

My problem is with the ones that pretend that they are objective when they are anything but. If a journalist portrays himself to the public as unbiased but is secretly working some angle, then the paper selling their work as unbiased has defrauded you.

David C writes:

"When people on the right talk among ourselves about people on the left, we sometimes say that people on the left take an 'ends-justify-the-means' approach to ethical questions."

Most people believe this. If the ends don't justify the means, then we should eliminate the justice system because the ends of preventing crime doesn't justify the means of locking people up. If the ends don't justify the means, then we should eliminate the Federal Reserve because the ends of a more stable and higher growth economy don't justify the means of lowering the value of people's money by money supply changes. If the ends don't justify the means, then we should eliminate the military because the ends of protecting ourselves from others don't justify the means of killing our attackers. An "ends don't justify the means" belief system is an absolutist libertarian one that few people share.

Nate L writes:

Not being for campaign finance disclosure, it makes me uneasy to suggest it. But could journalists conspiring to commit #3 and #4 be prosecuted for colluding to make undisclosed campaign contributions to politician A?

Rollins writes:
We tell ourselves that people on the right are obsessive about principles, but people on the left are so convinced that they are good and their opponents are bad that they think they don't need no stinkin' principles.

There is now of course a similar debate going on on the right, in regards to Andrew Breitbart. The right blogosphere/punditry seems about evenly divided. Half are of the opinion that Breitbart got the Sherrod story wrong and should apologize. Ramesh Ponnuru, Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, and others are at least somewhat in that camp. The other half are all in for Breitbart (Rush Limbaugh, Powerline, Glenn Reynolds, Mark Levin, Dan Riehl). Powerline went so far as to say that Breitbart probably made a mistake, but should *not* apologize for it, which seems a pretty clear case of "opponents are bad, so we don't need no stinkin' principles."

Arnold Kling writes:

The Breitbart case is interesting. I believe that Breitbart is wrong, because it was his responsibility to look into the context before publicizing the video.

Paul Krugman also thinks that Breitbart was wrong. But in Krugman's case, I assume it is because he hates Breitbart. If there were a principle involved, such as the principle of not making false accusations of racism based on unreliable hearsay, then Krugman would have apologized or issued a correction for what he once did to me.

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/02/kling_vs_ny_tim.html

Chris Koresko writes:

@Arnold,

Krugman accused you of racism based on that?

If so, he just lost any credibility he might have had, in my book.

I look forward to the day I'm publicly called a racist. It may never happen, but if it does I'll be proud of the company.

Dan Weber writes:
I look forward to the day I'm publicly called a racist

Be careful what you wish for.

By defending Breitbart, the right missed a big chance. The lesson of the Sherrod affair could have been "let's not over-react to accusation of racism." Instead, it seems to have broken down into wagon-circling and protecting the tribe.

dorf writes:

The charge of racism should not be taken lightly. I looked at Mr Krugman's (minor) misquote. Mr Kling said (at Cato) that a gang of thugs were stealing his daughters' future (inflammatory language, since it sounds like rape). This charge of Kling's was addressed to Paulson and the new thugs (Obama administration).

Krugman uses Kling's language to argue that inflammatory rhetoric surrounds the efforts to stimulate the economy. Krugman slightly misquoted Kling, but his actual language("keep your hands off") is even worse.

Mr Krugman is right. Mr Kling is wrong.

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