Home > Politics > Keith Olbermann’s Political Contributions: A Withdrawal from the Bank of Integrity

Keith Olbermann’s Political Contributions: A Withdrawal from the Bank of Integrity

As a professor of ethics and integrity, people often ask me, is there any difference between ethics and integrity?   Rushford Kidder, Founder and President of The Institute for Global Ethics answered the question most succinctly:  “Ethics is a regime of compliance, integrity is a culture of values.”

To illustrate the difference between ethics and integrity, let’s look at a recent event that attracted a great deal of attention in political and media circles:   Keith Olbermann’s two day suspension as a commentator for MSNBC after making contributions to political campaigns, in violation of that network’s rule.

As a matter of ethics, Mr. Olbermann’s violation is clear on its face:    In the name of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest, MSNBC promulgated a rule prohibiting commentators from contributing to political campaigns.  Mr. Olbermann was bound to the rule as an employee of the network and he violated it.   Breach of ethical rule, end of inquiry.

But does Mr. Olbermann’s breach of the ethical rule disqualify him from claiming integrity in making those contributions?  Or, to put it more generally, can someone breach an ethical rule and still act with integrity?

The answer is,  yes.  Of course.   Our society routinely accords respect to violators of ethical or legal rules where such breaches are committed in the name of an overriding interest or duty, such as civil disobedience, or, its counterpart in the business world, whistleblowing.

More commonly, people in workplaces across the country bend or break ethical rules every day in service of a larger duty.    Take, for example, the employee who is told by his boss that a co-worker is about to be laid off and warned to remain silent about it, or face discipline for disclosing confidential information.  Knowing that the co-worker is about to sign a mortgage he may no longer be able to afford, the employee figures out a way to warn him, despite the boss’s order and the rule against disclosure.

Issues of integrity can be more complicated than ethical ones: where ethical rules pose strict requirements to avoid conflicts of interest, integrity seeks to reconcile conflicts among interests.    And, unlike ethical prescriptions, there are no written rules.

As the layoff scenario reveals, practicing integrity is not necessarily about right vs. wrong, but about juggling two “right” values at the same time.  We know from personal experience that this balancing takes a fair amount of deliberation, and, usually involves risk.

Let’s take another example of the distinction between ethics and integrity from contemporary events:  the Wall Street broker compelled by his company to peddle inferior stocks in which the company has heavily invested.  Like the employee in the layoff situation, the brokers are confronted with a conflict between the duty of loyalty to their employers–to sell the stock and sustain the fortunes of the company–and the duty of truthfulness–to accurately advise their clients concerning the quality of the stocks they sell.

To highlight the competing duties at stake, I often ask my students to play act these scenarios in a manner that respects both interests, or duties:  that is,  to convey the truth without breaching the duty of loyalty.  The successful students manage to imply the truth—to the co-worker or brokerage client, as the case may be–through hints, humor, body language, fluctuations in intonation, and other means of indirect communication to avoid expressly violating their employer’s order.

This raises a question that goes to the heart of why people practice integrity.   Why would someone make the effort to figure out complex solutions in order to serve multiple duties, usually at some risk to themselves, rather than simply taking refuge in the easier and safer duty, in these cases, doing what the boss wants?

The answer is that people who practice integrity view self interest through a wider lens than immediate gain or personal safety, and see their responsibility—their very self esteem– in terms of a greater good.  To a larger or lesser extent, most people try to do this.  Surveys reveal that integrity is by far the most highly regarded personal quality.  Still, it is not easy.  The person who practices integrity is someone both skillful in discerning multiple duties, and willing to take calculated risks to serve them.

This concept of integrity—quietly trying to accommodate multiple duties–flies in the face of the popular belief that integrity requires a very public and uncompromising commitment to a single duty.   In his excellent article, We Don’t Need Another Hero, Harvard ethicist Joseph Badaracco debunks this notion, citing examples of how true heroes of integrity are typically modest, understated and pragmatic.  The psychiatrist, Daniela Gitlin, MD refers to this phenomenon as the “invisibility of integrity”.   Integrity, like physical health, is invisible; its absence is conspicuous.

The accommodation of duties cannot always be accomplished invisibly.   Unlike the employee in the layoff situation and the stock broker who could honor the duty of loyalty by bending, not breaking it,  Mr. Olbermann could not contribute to a political campaign without breaching the MSNBC rule against such contributions.

However, by advising MSNBC in advance of his intent to contribute, he might have negotiated a compromise of network policy that would have served both duties.  Barring such result,  by disclosing to viewers his contribution despite the rule, Mr. Olbermann could have brought the conflict between competing yet compelling duties confronting media professionals before the public in the context of his principled effort to accommodate them.

Here he chose the opposite course:  concealment without accommodation.  The employee and broker who acted integrally in the examples above did not conceal their actions to avoid taking responsibility, but rather so they could act more responsibly.   Here, Mr. Olbermann’s concealment seemed to serve no purpose other than avoiding detection.

Mr. Olbermann did not see it that way.  When he returned to the air on November 9, 2010 after his suspension, he denied knowledge of the rule, an incredible claim in view of the diligence likely to have preceded contract negotiations over so prominent a position.  Next, he derided the rule as “probably illegal” , citing no authority and completely dismissing the legitimate ethical intent of a rule aimed at bolstering public confidence in the journalistic objectivity of commentators.

He also dismissed the value of disclosing his contribution because, as a matter of public record, people would find out about it anyway.  By such patent disparagement of accountability, he was acting, as nearly all of us have at one point or another, including Presidents, like a child getting caught at something shameful and deploying the most implausible arguments that pop into mind to deflect guilt.

In Mr. Olbermann’s defense, it is difficult to discuss the finer points of integrity when caught in the cross hairs of a media frenzy.    Still,  In reacting this way, Mr. Olbermann missed an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to the duty of truthfulness, the breach of which his show so robustly criticizes.

His disavowal of personal responsibility illustrates another important lesson about integrity.  It is a common foible of human beings that we tend to look at our own actions in the most favorable light, while viewing the actions of others in the least favorable.   All around us, we see the breakdown of integrity,  in politics, business, sports and the media, but few people are willing to admit their own complicity in this general breakdown.

People who practice integrity are able to break that pattern.  They resist the temptation to automatically equate what they believe with what is right.    They have the determination to embark on an often uncomfortable journey to uncover their prejudices, unconscious motivations and self interested impulses and delineate duties beyond their own self interest, and then take risks to serve them.

Even those with such skills falter.  No one can practice integrity all the time.  There are no rules to guide us in the practice of integrity. The mountains of new ethical regulations promulgated in response to every latest scandal only distract us from that daunting fact.  Yet, falling out of integrity does not mean you can’t regain it.   This is why I call it a practice.

As a people, we accord great respect to those who acknowledge their breaches.   One of our distinctive American characteristics is that “everyone deserves a second chance.”   Mr. Olbermann should take that chance to re-engage his viewers about this process of trying and failing to act with integrity, and the courage to show up and do it better the next time.

By doing so, he will be making a contribution far more durable than a financial one to his favorite candidates:  depositing rather than withdrawing from the public bank of integrity.

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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