Journalists specifically, and media people generally, need to periodically reset their moral compasses to offset human tendencies to drift on the sea of ethics. The uproar surrounding Don Imus' stupid-sexist, racist-remark about the Rutgers University women's basketball team offers several lessons and gives media people an opportunity to hone their moral sensitivities. Certainly, those in the media who were guests of, and often apologists for, Imus and his corrosive style, are publicly into modest, even delicate, sackcloth and ashes reflections. Limited repentance notwithstanding, there are some media ethics lessons to learn from the Imus comment and its fallout.
Three clear lessons deal with (1) bullying exercise of media power, (2) a pernicious herd instinct, and (3) good old-fashioned greed. All of these raise serious questions of moral judgment because of the influence and power of the media.
All three commonly lure media people from their primary obligations: Service to audiences (combined with the inevitable reference to First Amendment protections that create a moral obligation to be of service).
Lesson 1: Avoid trashing vulnerable innocents; stick to those who willingly enter the arena or who can defend themselves. Assault the powerful, not the powerless.
With their undoubted tremendous social power, media should continuously prod power centers, on the assumption that those in power in a democracy ought not be comfortable in the role-uneasy crowns are good things in a democracy. However, for Imus to have selected for his attack an innocent group which had not sought power in the democratic arena was an egregious transgression; like the target of a sniper lying in wait for an unsuspecting, and innocent, victim, there is no defense.
He failed to recognize the difference between groups of people who should be fair game for public ridicule, and those who have no reason to expect it. While it appears acceptable, though morally questionable, for trash talkers to home in on large demographic groupings (racial minorities, women, the poor, immigrants, etc.), when Imus singled out a specific, individually identifiable, group of a dozen young women, he went way too far, and he created a grievous and unnecessary harm.
Lesson 2: Think for yourself and don't go on a show you are queasy about just because "other power people do it, so it must be okay."
The uproar sent media people who had been guests on his show, some of whom had counted themselves as "regulars," or even friends of Imus, into varying degrees of soul-searching. Among others, Ana Marie Cox, Washington editor of Time magazine declared "No More Imus For Me," summarizing the motives for Imus' guests: "Sure, I cringed at his and his crew's race baiting. . . and at the casual locker room misogyny, but I told myself that going on the show meant something beyond inflating my precious ego." (Time, April 23, 2007, p. 37). This from a self-professed former foul-mouthed blogger. And, many of those who appeared on his show reasoned, other media folk of great reputation were doing it, so it must be good. To her credit, Cokie Roberts in 1996 declared she would never appear again on Imus' show after a speech he had given at the National Press Club. After all, those who did appear showered some respectability and credibility on Imus by their presence.
Here, Imus "borrowed strength" (a Stephen Covey term) from his high credibility guests; a reflected respectability that may have prolonged his acceptance, and enabled his long run of corrosive insults. Being favored within this crowd seemed to be important to them.
Perhaps more importantly, by rationalizing that many others also had been guests on the show, thus making their own appearance acceptable, they give up some measure of the personal moral autonomy granted by the First Amendment (particularly important to journalists) as they lined up to follow their media colleagues into Imus' broadcast studio. In this procession one could even find Howard Kurtz, media ethics specialist for the Washington Post. These journalists failed to act independently.
Lesson 3: Listen to your guilt feelings and avoid Imus-type arenas even if such appearances can make your book a bestseller.
Most journalists now profess to have been uneasy about the general content on Imus' show, but were enriched by the exposure. Some even attributed the best-selling status of their books to appearances on his shows. Others say they could discuss critical issues at length. They now seem to be wondering aloud why they allowed themselves to become regulars on a show which otherwise made them feel uncomfortable. They didn't complain, or decline to appear, even when Imus insulted them, their looks, their intelligence, and so on. Their perceived personal benefits-ego enhancement, money-outweighed the humiliation.
Jon Mecham, editor of Newsweek, noted that he had appeared on the Imus show, despite earlier personal insults, because it "was a venue for senators, anchors and historians; to be part of the crowd conferred a certain insider status, a frisson of celebrity." (Newsweek, April 23, 2007, p. 2).
Feeding ego and self-interest at the expense of the common good is a universal moral actus reus.
Despite the lessons, and the public outcries, there are still journalists who defend Imus' style and his words, for whatever reason. Even more deplorably, though, it is suspected that the vast majority of Imus' audience still sees nothing wrong with what he said and is puzzled by the uproar.
Certainly, journalists should hold themselves above such controversy and not be personally linked, but there will be more Imus-like events and journalists should be wary and thoughtful about their basic responsibilities and the seductive distractions that lead them astray.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.4,17-18.