The Unethical Ethicist?

“I usually commute by train to my job in the City. Recently, at my boss’s request, I drove to work so as to have my car available for taking board members to a meeting. While heading towards the office, I missed a turning, and found myself almost in Docklands before I was able to turn back. Should I claim mileage for the whole distance or only what it should have been?”

I spotted this unsigned query in the May 6 London Times. It was the question of the day in the Ethicist, and something about it didn’t ring true. The Ethicist is the column by Randy Cohen that originated in the weekly New York Times Magazine in 1999, and since last September has also run daily in the London Times.

Cohen doesn’t see anything wrong with the above query, and you’d think he’d be the guy to ask. But even crack ethics professionals get one wrong occasionally. Consider this. On September 15, 2002, Cohen fielded three questions in the New York Times Magazine. This was the third: “I usually commute by bus or train to my job in upper Manhattan. Recently, at my boss’s request, I drove to work to have my car available for transporting board members to a meeting. I missed the Manhattan exit, found myself in Brooklyn and ended up almost going to Staten Island before eventually finding my way to work. May I claim mileage for the whole distance I traveled, or only what it should have been?” The question was signed by a woman in Westport, Connecticut.

The second question of that day’s column came from a Vermont reader who’d found “an excellent $4 ball” in the woods during a round of golf, could tell by the initials marked on it that it belonged to the club pro, played it, lost it a few holes later, and then wondered, “Do I owe him 4 bucks?” In the May 5 London Times the (unsigned) correspondent wondered, “Do I owe the pro £2?”

I e-mailed Cohen about this, and he e-mailed back explaining how the British version of the Ethicist works. “Each week I provide the Times of London two questions responding to their readers and two more that originated in the New York Times, occasionally (once or twice a month, I’d estimate) altering them in trivial ways, mostly involving references that may be unclear to a British reader–dollars to pounds, Brooklyn to Clapham, that kind of thing–as in the example you cite.”

He also wrote, “It is my understanding that the Times of London explained how their ethics column works when they introduced it. What’s more, so as not to give the impression that the column is built around unaltered reader queries, the Times of London runs the questions without attribution. It seems to me a reasonable solution.”

My hunt through Lexis and London Times microfilm did not turn up a serious introduction of Cohen’s new column. I found only this: “We have a new feature reflecting on the dilemmas of modern life. The Ethicist is written by the renowned Randy Cohen, who will tackle your moral queries.” In addition, each column has always ended in an acknowledgement that “The Ethicist originates from The New York Times Magazine.”

That’s hardly enough to make the ground rules clear. And whatever readers might deduce from the lack of a signature under the questions, my guess is that most will assume a letter about winding up in Docklands will have been written by someone who wound up in Docklands.

Is any great harm done that they’re wrong? No. It’s a petty harm, a light bruising of the principle that the facts your daily paper chooses to print are, to the best of everyone’s ability to establish them, facts. But Cohen doesn’t present himself as a paragon. According to, Cohen told an interviewer in 2002, “I make no claims to virtue.”

And Speaking of Ethics . . .

If Cohen’s sin is venial, this next one’s a peccadillo not even God might count. On May 18 Sun-Times reporter Lucio Guerrero produced a story on user reaction to the new CTA test cars–the ones lined on each side by a single row of seats facing inward. Guerrero wrote: “‘I love the new layout,’ said Tony Coppoletta, 25, who rode one of the two test cars being used on the Brown Line. ‘I found that from the seats you actually have a nicer view of the city than when you’re facing in the direction of the train, because you’re not just looking at a specific forward angle, but getting a more panoramic view of the city.'” Coppoletta went on to praise the cars’ new straps in considerable detail.

There’s nothing to object to in this passage except the word “said.” Guerrero found Coppoletta’s comments, and those of someone else he quoted in the article, on the Web’s “chicagotransit” discussion board. He contacted both chicagotransit regulars, verified the quotes, and got permission to repeat them. But they hadn’t been said–not to him. They’d been posted.

“It’s your call, but seems nitpicky…” Guerrero told me–e-mailed me, rather. “Because I wasn’t standing next to them on the train, in my estimation, is not relevant.”

It is nitpicky. Where Guerrero wasn’t standing is relevant only in the not so important sense that when readers get an impression from a story of how the reporter is going about his business, it’s better if they’re right. Besides, credit should always go where it’s due. These discussion boards are a terrific source of public opinion. Reporters don’t need to hide the fact that we monitor them.

Justice, Military Style

The Abu Ghraib scandal makes this a good time for the McCormick Tribune Foundation to put out a press release, but the foundation doesn’t work that way. If the foundation were inclined to toot its horn it would let reporters know that it’s offering, at no cost, a document that plumbs the complexities and paradoxes of military justice.

Every couple of years the foundation brings journalists and military people together at Cantigny, Colonel McCormick’s old estate in Wheaton. The August 2001 conference produced a 168-page report titled The Military, the Media and the Administration: An Irregular Triangle. It examines the fundamental tensions between these three power centers, tensions that can go off the charts when any of the armed forces is rocked by scandal.

Remember Tailhook in 1991? The Annapolis cheating scandal of 1992? The U.S. marine jet that cut through the wires of an Italian cable car, causing 20 people to fall to their deaths in 1998? The USS Greeneville, the sub carrying civilians on a 2001 pleasure cruise that struck and sank a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine people? None of these cases approaches Abu Ghraib as a news story, but they were big news at the time. At Cantigny military officers discussed how the cases had been managed, lawyers how they’d been adjudicated, and reporters how they’d been covered.

In military courts the judges, jurors, and prosecutors all wear the same uniforms. That’s why, on the one hand, some critics insist military justice is a hopeless oxymoron, and on the other, “unlawful command influence” is powerful grounds for overturning a conviction. Unlawful command influence is some officer who’s everybody’s boss saying what he thinks before the verdict’s in, and thereby–in appearance if not reality–determining the verdict.

In the military, everybody’s ultimate bosses are the secretary of defense and the president. Which brings us back to Abu Ghraib and to a spate of recent articles that wonder if there’s any way in the world the so-called handful of rotten apples who’ve been not only named and pictured but denounced at the highest levels can receive anything close to a fair trial. Irregular Triangle digs deep into the nuances of unlawful command influence, and when you read it you might feel an ounce of sympathy for the position Donald Rumsfeld found himself in when he told Congress he hadn’t read the Taguba report or even seen the pictures until just the other day. Arguably he’d been doing what he was supposed to do, keeping his distance while commanders in the field cleaned up their mess.

A lot of reporters would probably benefit from reading Irregular Triangle. I asked Vivian Vahlberg, director of the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s journalism programs, if she intended to let the media know it’s available, and she said no. “I had thought of it, but it’s not something we do,” she said. “We are not and do not want to be a political foundation. We’re happy to make it available, but we’re not going to take a more productive role in it.”

She went on to say that the foundation had distributed as many as 6,000 copies of the report when it was published, so presumably the reporters who would benefit from it already have it.

Don’t count on that. Earlier in 2001 the foundation held a conference on the media and terrorism. Paul Bremer gave the keynote speech and declared, “The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. What they will do is stagger along until there’s a major incident and then suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God, shouldn’t we be organized to deal with this?'”

Thousands of copies of the report on that conference were mailed out too. And when Bremer was named by President Bush last year to run Iraq, nobody remembered he’d said any such thing until I pointed it out in Hot Type a month ago. I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of reporters stuffed Irregular Triangle in a drawer when it arrived and now have no idea it’s there.

When Vahlberg said the foundation has no interest in politics she had in mind the politically charged headlines Bremer’s three-year-old remarks at Cantigny had just stirred up. That kind of attention makes the foundation uncomfortable. There’s nothing so sensational in the Irregular Triangle report, though some less-than-admiring things were said about Rumsfeld.

Vernon Jarrett, Witness to History

I was always a little hesitant to call Vernon Jarrett. There was something gruff and impatient in his voice when he answered, but then we’d talk for what seemed like hours. Storms assailed him and history haunted him. In 1991 he talked to me about a column Richard Roeper had just written about being hassled by blacks back in Roeper’s old neighborhood. Jarrett didn’t like it. Jarrett, who at different times also wrote for the Tribune and the Defender, was a Sun-Times columnist then, and Dennis Britton, the editor, told me he wished he’d had a black “voice” younger than Jarrett’s to reply to Roeper. Jarrett, then pushing 70, told me a younger columnist wouldn’t know enough to respond in the right way. “He’s disturbed because someone looked at him funny,” Jarrett said of Roeper. “I remember when they were setting fires, trying to kill distinguished black persons such as Dr. Percy Julian. I’m accustomed to them throwing bombs in your house and a mob of three or four hundred gathering in front of your door.”

The last time we talked was late in 2002. The Chicago Association of Black Journalists had been founded in his living room back in 1976, and he was so unhappy with the turn CABJ had taken that he’d led an old-guard insurrection to reclaim it. When the move failed for parliamentary reasons, he and his allies set up a new shop, the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. He was 80, but he became its president. He was still president when he died last Sunday night of cancer.

“My introduction to journalism started when I was in seventh grade in a little black church down in Tennessee,” said Jarrett in 2002, his thoughts ranging far beyond the subject I’d called him about. “Ordinary black people like housemaids, bedpan women, yard boys, mechanics, chauffers, what have you, at one time had such a reverence for education that every male teacher was called ‘professor.'”

What happened? I asked.

“We went to the big cities,” he said. “We got lost from each other.” He’d founded academic scholarships and competitions to try to turn blacks’ minds back to scholarship. “I took two kids to a parent salute the school board gives, and they came up and read from Frederick Douglass like they were anchorpeople on TV,” he said. “Folks stood up and cheered them. These kids have never been the same. They’re now in college.

“Why do so many black kids play basketball?” he went on. “Acclaim. Recognition. At one time white kids completely dominated basketball in Illinois at the high school level. Alonzo Stagg felt sorry for black kids trying to play basketball. He didn’t invite them to his annual holiday tournament because he didn’t want them embarrassed. My argument is that if you revive some of that community trust and confidence in these kids, they’ll do with math and physics what they once did with basketball. I stole that idea from Percy Julian.”

Jarrett was proud of the distance he’d traveled from Paris, Tennessee, and of what he’d accomplished in life, but he always seemed prouder of his brother. “My brother was on the faculty at Oxford,” Jarrett said, bringing him into the conversation for no obvious reason. “He was a visiting professor of English, and he came out of that hick town. He retired as president of Atlanta University. My brother was chairman of the Rhodes Scholar selection committee for the southeastern United States for a long time. Thomas D. Jarrett, University of Chicago PhD with honors, 1947. He got his master’s at Fisk.”

Jarrett told me the devotion to scholarship he remembers from his boyhood in Tennessee “reminds me to a large degree of what you see in the Asian community. I’m trying to re-create the climate that got lost after World War II when we started moving to the big cities. We have kids who take an oath they will read at least once every two weeks to their parents from the pages of African-American history. We have two or three little test schools around South Shore, where I live, and I have an office at South Shore High School. We have kids from the streets reading Du Bois and Douglass, and some of them had never heard of them before.”

That was our last long conversation. A couple of days later I called and asked what he thought about the nice things Trent Lott had just said when Strom Thurmond turned 100. Lott said America could have avoided a lot of problems if it had elected Thurmond president.

“July 18, 1948,” Jarrett said. “I was just entering journalism.” That was the day Thurmond broke with the Democrats and founded the Dixiecrat Party. Segregation now and forever was its motto. Jarrett knew the date by heart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.