The Ethical Breaches of the 2008 Election

There were ethical lapses during the eternal 2006-2008 presidential election.  And those lapses were aplenty on both sides of the aisle. The Barometer does not grapple with ideology.  Reasonable minds can differ; this country was founded amidst passionate disagreement among the Philadelphia delegates.  However, a conflict is a conflict and truth is truth.  Breaches of ethics know no ideological bounds. But breaches of ethics sully the process.   The role of ethics is to keep the process pure.

In a democracy, the Fourth Estate plays the critical role of dissemination of information.  The Barometer is not sure the founders anticipated SNL and The Daily Show would play a critical role in elections, but, bless their hearts, they do disseminate information to those who do not read.   Still, their parody and satire may well be more accurate than the unsourced and anonymous source stories that became front-page stories in this election.  For the Fourth Estate: Write the truth and get the information to the public, but report via sources who are on the record.  Unsourced and anonymous source stories were a problem in this campaign.  The New York Times twice breached this simple ethical standard of journalism.  The first was the poorly sourced story on Senator McCain about

the Senator’s ethics (February 21, 2008, p. A1, “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Own Ethics Poses Its Own Risk”) that opened with an allegation of an affair.  The sources for the affair were anonymous aides, and there was no independent evidence found or offered.  The Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, concluded the paper crossed a line, “. . . it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed.” (Feb. 24, 2008). Mr. Hoyt also noted that the Times probably helped the McCain campaign because of the public backlash against the unsourced story.  Yes, but did it help the Times and its credibility?  And the very simple ethical test that would have helped the news division as it debated whether to run the story (as Mr. Hoyt explained) is this:  If this were a story about me or someone I care about, how would I feel about the sourcing? The precious First Amendment was sullied on this one.

Gwen Ifill wins the conflict of interest award for this campaign, the interminable campaign.  The Barometer has already grappled with this one (“A Conflict is a Conflict is a Conflict . . . Gwen Ifill,”  October 2, 2008), but the fall-out of Ms. Ifill’s stint as the moderator with Obama book in hand was two-fold.  First, the SNL parody of Ms. Ifill moderating the debate even as she plugged her book illustrated the essence of a conflict.  Second, in what was perhaps her restraint in not wanting to appear conflicted, Ms. Ifill did not take charge of either vice presidential nominee, Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joseph Biden, both of whom babbled, dodged, and wandered aimlessly through a desert of rhetoric and wilderness of fact.  We would have settled for a mirage of some interaction or logic.  The process was sullied.

The New York Times graced us again with an anonymous source story, post-election, with the A1 discussion of Governor Palin’s vapidity.  (“Internal Battles Divided McCain and Palin Camps, November 5, 2008, p. A1).  The wardrobe’s fate, allegations about geographic knowledge, diva accusations, and a host of high-school clique junk were droned into a too-long story.  By the following day, sourced representatives from McCain and Palin refuted it all.  Carl Cameron and Bill O’Reilly of FOX News spent air time running down the list of petty and unsubstantiated Palin allegations. But Mr. O’Reilly could hardly contain his outrage earlier in the year over the Times’ McCain story, referring to the story as a “sloppy piece of journalism” and a “total one-sided, left-wing hatchet job.” (The O’Reilly Factor, Feb. 25, 2008)  Poorly sourced, unsourced, and anonymously sourced stories are a big problem on both sides.  Once again, if this story were about me, how would I feel about the sourcing? An ethical problem and a serious sullying of the process.

No coverage of the campaign would be complete without a reference to Samuel Joseph Wurlsbacher, aka, Joe the Plumber.  “Joe” was the fellow playing football with his son when candidate Obama sallied forth into the plumber’s neighborhood.  Joe asked a question of the then-senator about redistribution of wealth.  Mr. Obama’s answer to Joe became a central focus of the third debate and a classic sound bite for the McCain campaign. 

But, ask a tough question, and, well, the powers are unleashed.  Helen Jones-Kelley, an Obama supporter and contributor of $2500 to the Obama campaign, is the head of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.  That department houses child support records.  Ms. Jones-Kelley asked employees to check up on Joe, vis-a-vis child support payments.  The initial explanation for the search that was offered by Ms. Jones-Kelley was that the agency always checks into the child support payment records of those who come into the public eye.  Funny, the employees asked to do the search were unaware of the policy.  The public disclosure of the employees’ concerns (and bless their hearts for having the fortitude to raise the question) has led to an investigation by the Ohio Inspector General.  That investigation has unleashed an investigation into Ms. Jones-Kelley’s activities for the Obama campaign on state time and computers.  Ms. Jones-Kelley has been placed on administrative leave because her e-mails revealed that she was using state computers to identify donors for the Obama campaign and to arrange a Michelle Obama event. 

Illegal is the least of the IG’s and Jones-Kelley’s problems.  The Joe searches Ms. Jones-Kelley ordered were a breach of trust.  As a director and public servant, Ms. Jones-Kelley should have been leading the charge against these targeted look-ups.  Ms. Jones-Kelley is the guardian at the gate.  And the guardian lost her impartiality.  The challenge of ethics is in holding true to our principles when we have emotional draws toward their violation.  No matter how strongly Ms. Jones-Kelley felt about her candidate, the rules on privacy are the same, even for plumbers who dare ask a tough question of your candidate.  This search of Joe was a sullying of the process.

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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