Faulty Ethical Reasoning, By Some of the Best Minds

When the new stories, statements, and press releases that result from ethical lapses are published, there are certain quotes and phrases that jump off the page. The mind reads, revisits, and rereads the quotes and phrases and concludes that an ethical lapse should not be made worse by those involved. Too often, their explanations and faux apologies only serve to confirm that they have an ethical tin ear and that is what got them into trouble in the first place. Some examples serve to illustrate as well as offer guidance on what not to say and do when you are in the headlines.

The ABC News Anchor George Stephanopoulos offers a classic example of what not to do and say after an ethical lapse. Mr. Stephanopoulos has a $108 million contracts with ABC News as the host of a morning television show as well as its primary political anchor. In an interview of the author of the new book, “Clinton Cash,” by Peter Schweizer, Mr. Stephanopoulos doled out a grilling. Mr. Stephanopoulos concluded the interview by explaining that Peter Schiewzer’s book regarding donations to the Clinton Foundation (Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea) did not establish any criminal conduct and that Mr. Schweizer had been a speechwriter for George W. Bush.

What Mr. Stephanopoulos did not disclose was that he had been a Clinton Foundation donor ($75,000) and that he had moderated discussions and served on panels at Foundation events. When the information about Mr. Stephanopoulos’s involvement became public, he issued the following statement:

“I’m sorry because I don’t want anything to compromise my integrity or the standards if ABC News. I don’t want to do anything that would raise questions in the minds of our viewers. I am sorry that all of that has happened.”

The apology uses the word “sorry” and recognized that the failure to disclose the donations, particularly in handling the interview of the author of a book raising questions about the Clinton Foundation, was a breach of trust.

However, the apology did not end the commentary. Mr. Stephanopoulos went on to say that he made the donations because of the “work they’re (the Clinton Foundation) doing on global AIDS prevention and deforestation.” The flaw in this statement and reasoning is that there were no other groups active in AIDS prevention and deforestation that would have avoided the conflict he had as a journalist.

Mr. Stephanopoulos then added:

“I thought that my contributions were all a matter of public record. However, in hindsight, I should have taken the extra step of personally disclosing my donations to my employer and to the viewers on air during the recent news stories about the Foundation. I apologize.”
There it is – the sort-of-sorry apology that attempts to minimize the conflict. Informing ABC and its viewers was not extra steps. Both were requirements given the scope of the conflict. That Mr. Stephanopoulos could hold these views after all the concerns expressed indicates an inability to admit that conflicts of interest do not come in more obvious forms than his did. Yet, he apologizes for what he characterizes as an administrative slip-up.

Mr. Stephanopoulos was referred to as a “fiercely partisan strategist” by the New York Times for his role in the Clinton campaign and then in the first Clinton term as a White House spokesman. Jeremy W. Peters and John Koblin, “Stephanopoulos Gifts Reinforce G.O.P. Doubts,” New York Times, May 15, 2015, p. A1. Senator Hillary Clinton, with whom Mr. Stephanopoulos worked closely is a presidential candidate. ABC has removed him from his role as a debate moderator in the upcoming presidential election. ABC has not taken any further disciplinary action.

The response reveals a fundamental misunderstanding that is taught in Journalism 101. A conflict is a conflict is a conflict and must be disclosed. Even when the conflict results from a good cause. Even when you think you do not have to disclose it, you have to disclose it if it is a conflict. And the fact that there is some public record somewhere that would allow viewers to say, “I think I will go check the Clinton Foundation records and see if George has a conflict.” Viewers have a right to full disclosure. Period. Not only was that disclosure not forthcoming. Its eventual revelation did find those involved repentant. In short, it is not clear that Mr. Stephanopoulos and ABC “get it” in an ethical sense.

Then came USA Today with a pundit opining that analysts overdid it in coming down on poor George. (Michael Wolff, “Stephanopoulos donation furor overdone,” May 15, 2015, p. 1B). Over the years students who have not performed well in my courses have come complaining, “You have cost me my scholarship.” Actually, it was their poor effort in the course that cost them their scholarship. That George had to face the chastisement of those in journalism who uphold their duties on conflicts is a consequence of the poor choices he made. There are often rugged consequences for ethical lapses. The admonishment from his colleagues in journalism is their way of saying, “We are prisoners of each other. When one of us behaves badly, we all suffer.”

What Mr. Stephanopoulos did was wrong. His apologies made things worse. ABC owes Mr. Schweizer an apology and a fair interview. A journalist with a conflict on the very topic of the interview accused the author of the book on the topic of a conflict. The irony speaks for itself and explains why Mr. Stephanopoulos’s post-event explanations are so, well, clueless.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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