We currently live in a cable news media-induced echo chamber where, much of the time, opinion too easily passes as fact. This is as much the fault of those who listen and believe as it is the opinion makers. Opinion is not fact; it’s opinion.
According to Dictionary.com, an “opinion” is “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.” A “fact” is defined as “something that actually exists; reality; truth.” Example: “Your fears have no basis in fact”; an interesting illustration considering the current state of populist demagoguery that flourishes today.
Journalist Edward R. Murrow famously said, “We cannot make good news from bad practice.” When it comes to the current state of some cable news programs, the line between news and opinion has not blurred, it’s vanished, and what we’re left with is not just bad practice, it’s become reckless malpractice.
America has a long history of political discontent, but thanks to the riches of a vast technology we have quickly evolved from instant coffee to all manner of instant information… a lot of information. Unfortunately, too much of that information is simply wrong, and when that wrong information concerns issues and individuals upon which the citizenry is charged with making decisions that affect us all, that is more than disturbing, it’s dangerous.
In writing and speaking on a variety of ethics-related issues over the last fifteen years, I’ve remained relatively silent regarding the mouthings of political critics largely because I viewed much of their discourse as typical detritus of partisan discontent. However, as the economy took a downward spiral (in many cases, as a result of the ethical lapses on Wall Street, the housing market, fill in your own blank), the rhetoric went from blustering bombast to rancorous incivility faster than an out-of-control Toyota. Particularly divisive is that which comes from those political critics who have the eyes and ears of millions.
While the press has reported many of their more outrageous statements, management at the media outlets who employ these individuals allow them to continue their abuse with impunity all for the sake of “ratings.” However, in a time when many have lost jobs, homes, and hope, this brand of shameless incivility no longer sits on the sidelines. It has become the basis for much of the fear and unreason that has taken hold in the country. In short, the atmosphere has become poisoned with a level of malicious discourse that is not only intolerable but also astonishingly unethical.
During the past ten months I’ve been watching, listening, and reading from the gospels of both liberal and conservative opinion media, specifically, Alan Colmes, Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Keith Olbermann from the Liberal camp; Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly from the Conservative side.
While both camps are, at times, clearly too loud, self-absorbed, and insufferable, what raises my ethical hackles most comes from the Unholy Trinity of political demagoguery: Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck. Particularly disturbing are two aspects: 1. In spite of brash rhetoric to the contrary, Limbaugh and Beck don’t seem to care much about facts (more troubling is that listeners don’t seem to let this get in the way of their own thinking); and 2. All three are exceptionally gifted at pandering to the anger-du-jour.
When I talk about ethics, I am referring to what ethicist Michael Josephson calls “…standards of conduct which indicate how one should behave based on moral duties and virtues arising from principles about right and wrong.”
When referencing standards in my ethical audit of the three, I’ll be using those definitions put forth by “thirty national leaders representing schools, teachers’ unions, family support organizations, faith communities, national youth service groups, ethics centers, and character education experts.”
In 1992, these specialists were brought together in Aspen, Colorado by The Josephson Institute of Ethics to develop and agree upon a set of ethical values. The resulting document, The Aspen Declaration, affirmed that “[Certain] core ethical values… form the foundation of a democratic society, in particular trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, justice & fairness, caring and civic virtue & citizenship. These core ethical values transcend cultural, religious, and socio-economic differences.”
As part of my evaluation of Limbaugh, Coulter, and Beck, I’ll be using one assessment tool that we all know and recognize – the report card. In looking at my first grade report card, I discovered that, while Sister Mary Robert would record my progress on course subjects, she would also grade me on such things as courtesy, cooperation, diligence, following the rules, and respects rights of others – my first introduction to ethical values. The collective total of all grades determined whether I would be “promoted” to the next level.
Following my own written assessment of each, I’ll grade and comment with respect to four of the ethical values defined by The Aspen Declaration (and promoted by The Josephson Institute where I received my own training).
Being trustworthy encompasses honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, and loyalty.
“Honesty in communication,” Josephson writes, “requires a good faith intent to be truthful, accurate, straightforward and fair in all communications so that persons are not misled or deceived.”
Integrity refers to “moral wholeness, consistency between principle and practice... Being principled involves making decisions based on ethical principles even when expediency or self-interest would dictate other choices.”
Promise-keeping – “promises and other commitments create moral duties that go beyond legal obligations; they create a legitimate basis for others to rely upon the promise-maker to perform.”
Loyalty “embraces the moral responsibility to promote and protect the interests of persons and organizations.” However, there are limitations to loyalty. “Loyalty does not justify violation of other ethical values such as integrity, fairness or honesty. Undue claims in the name of loyalty are themselves acts of disloyalty that forfeit the claims.”
One of the characteristics of loyalty, Josephson points out, is avoiding conflicting interests. “Employees and public servants should make all professional decisions using objective, independent judgment on the merits, unimpeded by conflicting personal interests.”
The value of respect imposes a moral duty to treat all persons with courtesy, civility, and decency, as well as tolerance, accepting individual differences without prejudice.
Responsibility refers to an individual’s ability to be accountable, apply self-restraint, and pursue excellence.
“Accountable persons consider the possible consequences ahead of time and accept responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their actions or inactions.”
Self-restraint means that “Ethical people do not adopt win-at-any-cost attitudes.” They “maintain self-discipline and self-control….”
“The pursuit of excellence has an ethical dimension,” Josephson says, “especially when others rely upon our knowledge, ability or willingness to perform tasks effectively.”
Two important facets of the pursuit of excellence, Josephson asserts, are diligence and continuous improvement. “It is not unethical to make mistakes or to be less than excellent, but there is a moral obligation to do one’s best, to be diligent, reliable, careful, prepared and informed.” [Additionally] “Ethical persons continually look for and offer ways to do things better. They are committed to total quality and seek to develop their knowledge, skills and judgment relating to the performance of their duties.”
Civic Virtue & Citizenship –
As citizens, we have “a civic duty that extends beyond one’s own self-interests, demonstrating social consciousness and recognizing one’s obligations to contribute to the overall public good.” Along with voting and paying taxes, civic duties extend to reporting crimes, waste, fraud, and abuse, as well as “giving time and money to charity.”
In my evaluation, I’ll use a similar approach that CBS news icon Murrow used in his assessment of subjects, namely weighing their words and tone. Not just the words of Beck, Coulter, and Limbaugh, but their consistency in those words. Not just their tone, but their consistency in that tone.
In forming my opinion I watched, listened, read, and re-read many of their books and transcripts. Further, I’ll be looking to answer five questions:
1. Does the public listen to these individuals for news, analysis, and opinion, or is it all just entertainment?
2. How reliable is the information that comes from each of them?
3. How much responsibility do they demonstrate regarding the content and tone of the information they broadcast?
4. Why do some listeners regard many of their statements as truth even when the facts say otherwise?
5. Do they ever cross the line of reasoned commentary, and if so, when does it become destructive to society?
Read a chapter excerpt about Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck.
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