October 27, 2010

Between Fox and NPR: Juan Williams and the ethics of journalism

This is an interesting case, that by now most of you know the basics of. Alicia Shepard, the NPR ombudsman provides a good objective recap. She concludes:
"In an appearance on Fox News today, Williams defended his controversial remarks, saying he simply had intended to convey his "honest experience" of anxiety. He also said he was told his contract was terminated without an opportunity to come into NPR and discuss the firing.

If he is correct, that’s too bad. I think NPR owed him a chance to explain himself.

I’m not privy to why this announcement was so hastily made. NPR could have waited until his contract ran out, or possibly suspended him pending a review. Either way, a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.

Even though NPR handled this situation badly, the fact remains that NPR must uphold its journalistic standards, which, after all, provide the basis that earned public radio's reputation for quality."
I agree, but would add that I don't think NPR acted unethically in the sense of not upholding one's basic moral duty. Perhaps it could have acted more carefully and conscientiously, but this is not an obligation. As Shepard states, NPR management had warned Williams numerous times as early as 2008 that he was crossing the ethical line, for example after saying (on Fox as usual) in early 2009, that Michelle Obama had a "Stokely Carmicheal in a dress" thing, namely, an "I'm the victim, blame-America-first attitude."

So this was a repeated pattern made all the more egregious for being on a network that, frankly, makes a mockery of the journalistic mission. Thus this issue is as much about context as it is about what Williams actually said.

October 19, 2010

Economics and Inequality

Cornell Economics and Management Professor Robert R. Frank draws attention here to the disconnect between economic research and ethical thinking, specifically on the notion of growing US inequality:
"Economists who say we should relegate questions about inequality to philosophers often advocate policies, like tax cuts for the wealthy, that increase inequality substantially. That greater inequality causes real harm is beyond doubt."

It's refreshing to hear this criticism from an economics and management professor. For he is basically exposing the hypocrisy of neoclassical economics which claims not to be advancing an ethical theory, when in fact it almost always defends growth for growth's sake (an excellent in-depth book on the ethics behind neoclassical economics is The Skeptical Economist, by Johnathan Aldred). Frank points out that the harmful effects of increasing inequality in developed countries has gotten simply too great to ignore: