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Keith Olbermann and the Crisis in Media and Political Integrity

Last November, MSNBC caught the cable-viewing world off guard when it suspended its most popular commentator, Keith Olbermann, for violating the network’s rule prohibiting commentators from making political contributions.

Olbermann supporters deluged MSNBC with protests.  The network relented and Mr. Olbermann returned to the air two days later.  He thanked his supporters, derided the rule and dismissed any obligation to refrain from making, or publicly disclosing, his campaign contributions.

Thousands of comments were posted, including my own, which was first published on New York’s Empire Page www.empirepage.com/kernel-of-truth.

I suggested that the central issue was not whether MSNBC’s rule to promote journalistic objectivity, or the right of its commentators to fully participate in the electoral process, was more important.  But rather, whether Mr. Olbermann could have done a better job balancing both important values.

I sent him my article and suggested that he revisit the issue to discuss “the conflict between competing yet compelling duties confronting media professionals.”

He responded as follows:

Dear Mr. Brody:

I am in receipt of yours of November 22.

May I ask to what degree do you consider the inaccurate assumption of facts to be a reflection of lack of your integrity or a failure of your ethics?

Because by my count, your piece is predicated entirely on three enormous assumptions about which you could have no independent knowledge, about which you obviously did not check, and which you (erroneously) parroted from some other source.

Something comes to mind about glass houses here, but I’ll defer to you since you have decided you’re the expert.

[s] Keith Olbermann

In belittling my integrity for suggesting he could have done a better job accommodating dual duties, Mr. Olbermann was understandably defensive.  He also reflected the tendency of prominent opinion-shapers in the media and politics to disparage anyone who disagrees with them.

It is with this tone of breezy contempt that Mr. Olbermann, his colleagues on the right, and their counterparts in party politics smear each other recklessly, while maintaining their own unassailable rectitude.

By such conduct, today’s media and political celebrities reveal a fundamental paradox about integrity.  No one doubts his own integrity but is acutely aware of—and feels justified in denouncing—its breach in others.

To demonstrate this point, I ask my students as well as professional audiences whether they lack integrity or know anyone who has admitted lacking it.  The answer is almost always “no.”  But when asked if they know anyone who lacks integrity, eyes roll as if to say, “gosh, where do I start.”

This exercise reveals the common tendency of human beings to measure themselves by their best intentions while judging others by their worst deeds. People process information through the lens of idiosyncratic beliefs and self-interested motivations they can scarcely identify.

This is why most people, although believing they have a hold on integrity, are unable to identify a concrete source for their notions of it.  They attribute their moral compass to “feelings of right and wrong”, “principles of good judgment” and “fundamental values” never doubting their ability to divine such principles better than their neighbor.

It is not surprising then, that people equate integrity with rigidity of belief.  The idea that integrity lies in the boisterous assertion of one’s own conviction has spawned a vernacular of contempt that has overtaken the airwaves and Beltway: dialogue through denunciation, communication through confrontation, moral smugness, high minded pronouncements, personal infallibility and consistency at all costs.

Yet if challenged, the perpetrators of this conduct would protest that they don’t really mean to “strip mine” the terrain of civil discourse in this country but rather that they are simply conforming to the realities of  “political survival” or “ratings success”.

To explore this common self-deception that construes self- interest as a duty, I ask audiences to review a series of 30 ethical dilemmas drawn from current political and business problems, all of which pit self-interest against duty.  Then I ask whether the self-interested course constitutes “survival” or “collusion.”   That is, whether duty is excused because of justifiable self interest, or whether duty trumps self-interest.

This polarity, survival vs. collusion, was originated by psychiatrist Daniela Gitlin, M.D. (www.shrinkunwrapped.com) to separate behavior which truly serves self preservation from that which seeks to justify self interest.

The exercise reveals that the term “survival”, strictly applied, encompasses a very narrow set of circumstances, such as killing in self defense, stealing to feed a starving family, or performing labor under duress as a prisoner of war.  Participants steadily begin to see that most conduct in the name of “survival” is, in fact, an excuse to subordinate duty to self-interest.  As such, it is “collusive” in the breach of integrity.

A prime example of undermining one’s integrity in the name of survival is negative political advertising. Such campaigning brutishly manipulates the truth for the sake of winning, or “surviving” politically.   Everyone is said to hate it but it is widely practiced because it works.

Now, if you asked the politicians who deploy this practice whether the future of American democracy is more important than whether or not they get elected, they would all agree that it was.  Yet, somehow, when their own victory is at stake, they are perfectly willing to actively subvert the cornerstone duty of representative government:  truthfulness.

Similarly, the duty of truthfulness has been sacrificed by its prime guardians—the media—in favor of ideology-peddling.

The head of the Fox network, Roger Ailes for instance, has a habit of calling everyone he disagrees with a Nazi.  In so doing he sets the tone for his commentators who tend to react wholly out of proportion to circumstances, a sure sign of the self-aggrandizing, self-interested ideologue.  Not surprisingly, his network treats news events primarily as a means to advance an ideological agenda, while cynically contending—“we report, you decide”–that it is news.

MSNBC at least tried to maintain the distinction between news and ideology by enforcing an ethical rule against its most popular commentator.  That Keith Olbermann could so smugly deride his employer’s effort betrays the same contempt that Fox commentators have toward their journalistic duty.

The thread of self-interest shall always run through the fabric of our personal and professional interests. The practice of integrity does not deny the reality of complex interpersonal and economic pressures on our decisions, but it does compel us to recognize the tendency of self-interest to masquerade as duty.

Only when we recognize this default reaction, and sever it, can we take the first step toward a more sensible view of

Integrity is not the boisterous assertion of one’s own conviction but the demanding effort to identify and balance compelling but often competing duties:  self interest with truthfulness, loyalty to institutions with devotion to common good, short term return with long term benefit, individual gain with community well being, justice with mercy and so

What Stephen Carter said about civility in his book Civility is equally applicable to integrity:  “[t]he set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others…”

If that common journey is toward a more promising American future, then control of our destiny must be wrested from the self-interested ideologues.   If we fail to do so, freedom will become indistinguishable from license.

To be sure, there will always be those special few politicians who will not take PAC money, who won’t engage in negative advertising, and who will affirm their independence from the dysfunctional rigidity of our political parties.

There will always be media professionals who view the role of truth in civil discourse as too valuable to sacrifice on the alter of financial gain.

But their efforts will be mere footnotes in the tale of national decline unless each of us revives the aspiration to build a culture of service to the common good.

If we fail to do so, what was once a common journey will seem, in retrospect, like a grim retreat from the place we used to hold most sacred.

Stuart Brody is a lawyer and adjunct professor of Ethics and Integrity at SUNY New Paltz, and a former leader of the Democratic Party in New York.   He is working on a book entitled:   The Breaking of the American Heart:  Idealism and the Future  of Integrity in America

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