Bashir’s Legal But Unethical Comments

By Lee Anne Peck

Occasionally, when outraged news consumers want to vent about a professional media organization and/or its staff, Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists will receive calls from these disgruntled citizens.

Our line, however, helps journalists with ethical dilemmas they face; we do not take complaints from callers who want us to get someone reprimanded or fired.  We do advise these callers to contact the news organization with which they have an issue and voice their concerns. (See the SPJ code of ethics which states: “Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.”)

Such was the case after MSNBC political talk show host Martin Bashir’s commentary Friday, Nov. 15. I returned to Colorado from a trip to South America the weekend after his diatribe about Sarah Palin; I was clueless to the outrage Bashir had caused, but three callers to the AdviceLine wanted his head.

Bashir, formerly a host of ABC’s Nightline program, took Palin to task for her comments about the U.S. debt to China and slavery. On air, Bashir told the story of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, who had a slave “flogged and pickled, then made … another slave shit in his mouth.”

“When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery,” Bashir said during his commentary, “she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance, she confirms that if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, then she would be the outstanding candidate.”

Let’s consider the SPJ code of ethics. What does this code say about behavior such as Bashir’s? The guidelines are often too cut and dry for specific situations, of course. However, we could start with these principles from the code. Journalists should:

  • Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
  • Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
  • Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

Did Bashir have the right to speak the way he did about Palin? Sure—First Amendment rights. Was it ethical for Bashir to say those things about her? Probably not. Just because it was legal for him to say those things doesn’t make it right for him to say what he did merely because of the “golden rule.” The public made that very clear.

He apologized on air the next Monday, but that wasn’t good enough. On Dec. 4 he resigned.

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