Category Archives: Privacy

The Steve Kroft Affair

 

 

By Casey Bukro

We here at Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists sometimes clash over what is ethical or not.

The Steve Kroft affair is the latest example.

The veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent admits he had a three-year fling with a New York City lawyer, though both are married.

“I had an extramarital affair that was a serious lapse of personal judgment and extremely hurtful to my wife and family, and for that I have nothing but regret,” Kroft said in a statement to the New York Post. Both the Post and the National Enquirer published salacious text messages between Kroft and his lover, proving once again that anything on the internet is not private.

A CBS spokesperson said “It’s a private matter.”

Soon after the scandal broke, an AdviceLine colleague wrote: “Are personal values/ matters the same as professional matters? Should I teach my students that I don’t care what they do in their personal lives as long as they make good ethical choices in their professional ones? Personally, this Kroft story does not interest me. His professional work does.”

Kroft is one of the most high-profile journalists in America. He has been a CBS newsman for 31 years, 26 of them as a correspondent with “60 Minutes,” which specializes in asking the high and mighty tough questions about their personal lives, their entanglements, their dalliances and the quality of their professional judgment.

Here’s what I say to my AdviceLine colleague: What people do in their personal lives reflects on their credibility and integrity. I don’t think you can separate personal and work lives that easily.

By your reasoning, we should have ignored Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, as we did with JFK and his affairs. Looking back on JFK, journalists are criticized now for turning a blind eye to his dalliances. Now we’re more inclined to think about accountability.

Kroft is a very public figure by virtue of his role on “60 Minutes.” Part of his job is exposing the conduct of public officials. I would buy your argument if he were not a public figure. That is why, in ethics, we draw the distinction between public and private individuals.

Also, there is the issue of blackmail. Anyone involved in something he or she does not want the public to know is subject to the possibility of blackmail and manipulation.

Tell your students that they have to be smart enough to recognize that ethical values apply to all facets of people’s lives, especially to public figures, and that they, themselves, become public figures when they become very visible journalists. Think Woodward and Bernstein.

That’s why, these days, we encourage publishers and editors to avoid becoming involved in civic organizations, a practice that once was common, and to a degree still is. There is the public perception that if a publisher is an official on the board of a civic organization, he will favor that organization and give it favorable publicity. He also is seen likely to keep bad information about the organization out of the news.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics warns journalists to avoid conflicts or interest, real or perceived.

All of this is in the realm of accountability, an issue we take more seriously these days. People with ethics issues should not be pointing fingers at others with ethics issues. “60 Minutes” sets very high standards and its correspondents should measure up to them.

Personally, I always thought my role as a journalist meant that I was forbidden from doing things others could do. When I covered finance, I avoided buying stock in companies I covered. I did not join organizations I covered. I did not take part in political campaigns.

You can argue that any American citizen is entitled to do those things, and you would be right. But I always believed that anything I did should be above reproach. Being a journalist was paramount. It is an honor, a privilege and a duty to be smart enough to avoid any activity that could tarnish my reputation, and the reputation of the journalism organization I worked for.

Too often, the public complains that the media gleefully write about the transgressions of politicians and others, while keeping silent about the transgressions of journalists. The “old boy” syndrome. They say we cover up for each other. It’s a double standard. We should report on the transgressions of journalists as vigorously as we do about the transgressions of others. It’s only fair.

Comments are welcome.

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Cosby: When The Media Watchdogs Bark, Or Not

 

By Casey Bukro

The serial rape allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby have reached the stage where people are asking why the media failed to report them when they happened.

It’s complicated and messy, in part because Cosby denies the allegations and calls them “innuendos” from the distant past which he will not dignify with a response.

The public often blames the media for hounding celebrities, sometimes to the point of ruining their reputations. Other times, the media are accused of promoting popular celebrities to the point of being a cheering section.

Both true.

It could be argued that Cosby got the cheering section treatment for decades. But now that’s changing and causes observers to wonder if media watchdogs failed, professionally and ethically.

Especially troubling are media reports that, in exchange for an exclusive interview, Cosby made a deal with the National Enquirer to delay a story about a new rape accusation while the civil suit in another rape case was going on. That strikes to the heart of media responsibility to report the facts, and whether the media did that in Cosby’s case.

The Columbia Journalism Review  says the press is responsible for ignoring Cosby rape allegations, pointing out that People Magazine published an article in 2006 about five women who accused him of rape.

About 20 women have accused Cosby of assaults, most dating to the 1970s and 1980s.

From a wider perspective, rape is one of those issues where the media tend to reflect societal attitudes, which includes the issue of privacy for both public and private figures. And all of that is changing fast. Media always had a responsibility to lead public opinion, not just follow it.

Not so long ago reporters ignored the private peccadillos of powerful figures in the belief that what they did in private was their business, not the public’s. Their silence was called “a gentleman’s agreement.”

Think President John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Kennedy was a known cavorter, but the White House press corps ignored it, in part to stay in the president’s good graces.

Rumor had it that Eisenhower had an affair with his war-time chauffeur, Kay Summersby, who confirmed it in 1975 in a memoir titled “Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower,” before she died. The rumors stayed mostly under wraps until the memoir appeared.

But rape is far more complicated. In the past, police departments sometimes minimized it as a he said/she said sort of thing. Women were sometimes twice victimized by rape and then accused of bringing it upon themselves. Sometimes they were ashamed to talk about it, especially when alcohol was involved.

It is a topic coming out of the shadows as women are more inclined to talk about it, and the media more inclined to report on it partly as a result of that openness and changing social views. That comes at a time when other sensitive issues, such as gay rights and abortion, are discussed more openly.

The Cosby accusations  stretch over decades, enough time to show how differently the issue is treated, then and now.

The case against Cosby snowballed recently after supermodel Janice Dickinson publicly accused the entertainer of drugging then raping her in 1982 when she met with him, hoping he would help advance her career. Dickinson is one of about 20 women who tell similar stories, one of whom was 15 years old at the time.

Nostalgia is another time-related thing.

Entertainment is a fantasy, just as Cosby as Cliff Huxtable was a fantasy. But it was a fantasy that the public desperately wanted to believe, wrote Vox.com’s Amanda Taub. They wanted to keep happy childhood memories of the Cosby show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pitfalls of Identifying Bystanders as Bombers

By Casey Bukro

Stupidity is not a crime, and ethical lapses usually will not land you in jail.

But they have consequences, as the New York Post learned when two men sued the tabloid newspaper for showing them in a front-page photo at the height of the search for Boston Marathon Bombing suspects, with a “Bag Men” headline.

CNN reported that the men, 16 and 24-years old, accused the Post of libel, negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy for showing them standing next to each other in the April 18 edition. Also displayed in large letters on the photo were the words: “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The photo appeared three days after the Boston bombing, making it appear that the FBI were searching for them. One of them wore a backpack.

Post editor Col Allan said the Post did not identify the men as “suspects.”

Huffington Post reported outrage at the use of the photo, with some calling it “a new low” and “appalling.”

Later that day, authorities released photos of Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

NBCNEWS.com reported that the two innocent men were stunned to see themselves pictured on the front page of the tabloid and one of them suffered a panic attack.

Minimize harm, advises the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. And be judicious, it says, about naming criminal suspects before they are charged. Though the two men were not  named by the Post, it’s an apt comparison when showing their faces.

The New York Post photo is considered an example in a series of errors and false reports that were rampant during the frenzy of trying to learn motives for the bombing, and who did it.

Crowd sourcing, it turned out, was not as valuable as its supporters might have supposed. Authorities essentially told the public they were not interested in the flood of iPhone photos that were offered of people and things considered suspicious. Instead, authorities zeroed in on the Tsarnaev brothers by using highly sophisticated identification technology.

There’s one more questionable thing about that New York Post photo, and that’s the use of the words “Bag Men.” You don’t have to be from Chicago or New York to know “bag man” is slang for a person who collects money for racketeers, or a mob errand boy.

It was bad enough that two innocent men were linked falsely with the Boston bombing. It got worse when they were tainted with language that implied criminal activity. Words hurt. They also can get you sued.