Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wag the Dog

Respond to question #3 on p. 166 of text by noon, Tuesday, Sept. 29. Journalism majors and PR majors should respond only to the parts of the question that apply specifically to them.

23 comments:

Adrienne W said...

To me, as a PR major, I would absolutely need to know if the allegations against the president were true. I personally don't think that I would be able to lie and cover over an incident, especially one as big as that, and I know for sure that I would not be able to take part in creating a fake war to cover up an incident that the public should know about, if in fact it even was true. I wouldn't be able to do it because it would go against what I believe is right.
Knowing the truth would of course affect whether I took the job or not. If the story of the Firefly girl was false and I knew that, I could take the job and try to fix it the right way. If i knew it was false though, and seemingly the only way to fix the situation would be to 'spin' it and create some fake situation, then I wouldn't be able to take the job.

Lindsey Claro said...

I am a PR major and first of all, I would never work doing PR for a politician, so I would never be in this situation. I am too honest of a person for that career path. However, to answer the question, I must put myself in this dreaded position.

It would absolutely make a difference to me knowing if the allegations against the President are true, before I dealt with the press. I would need to know all the details to do my job correctly, even if I truly did not want to know. Of course knowing the truth would affect whether I would take the job of "fixing" the situation for the President. If the allegations were false, I would take the job and "fix" it to the best of my ability. However, under "Conflicts of Interest" in the PR Code of Ethics, it clearly states that a member shall: Avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgement or create a conflict between personal and professional interests. If the allegations were true, this situation would clearly create a conflict between my personal and professional interests and I would be forced to walk away from the job. If that makes me a "quitter" than so be it. I refuse to go against what I believe is the right thing to do, even when it comes to the President.

Nick Miggs said...

Me being neither a journalism or a pr major. I found myself looking at this question with out any veil of my conscious for my career. I found that you have to put your gut feelings first. My initial feeling was what happens if i hurt or lose my friends because i have to check their work and it came back completely messed up. On the other hand if i don't do it i may lose my job and hurt the people around me and myself. So when i looked deep down to find out what i would do my heart and my visceral reaction was to do what would be best for myself

Michelle V said...

I am neither in PR or Jounalism but as I read the question I decided to go the PR route. I feel if I was being hired to do a job like this I would want all information available. In order to not get caught off guard it seems best to have the real reason. It would affect my decision on whether or not to take the job because of course you are covering up a pretty big wrong in this situation. In order to find if it's true from either PR or Journalisn point of view you would of course have to interview the girl and any witnesses or people/staff in the vicinity.

Brian said...

As a journalism major, I definitely would want to know if it was true. If Ames was to ask me that question, I would say that it makes a huge difference because my job is to seek the truth and report it. Especially if I thought that something was trying to be covered up, I would demand to know the truth. Not only is it unethical, but it is my obligation to my job. I can't say for certain what I would do, until actually placed into the situation. But based on my own ethical conscious, I think I would seek the truth, and if I was asked to cover it up, I would not be able to do it..In order to verify the claims, I would do my best to interview the girl, or at least her parents. I would try to see if there was a police report filed, and/or check if there were any hospital records of her.

AndreaV said...

I am neither a journalism or a PR major. I think from a PR perspective that whether he did it or not would play a role in whether I worked for him. I think the situation is something that I couldn't personally defend or hide. As far as from a jounalistic persepective I think that an important lesson is not to let one event get over shadowed by others, I think the president molesting a child is just as important to me as a pending war. I think you would need to interview the girl in some way first and perhaps find out if she was infact at the White House on that particular day and also interview anyone in the tour group to find out if there would have been a time when she could have been left alone with him.

Howie Good said...

It's important to me -- and it should be for you, too -- that your responses be well written (or at the very least spelled correctly and in conformance with accepted rules of grammar and usage. It's also important that your responses begin to reflect moral growth. Also, if you're giving the same kind of answers now that you would have been giving if you never took this class, then something is amiss. Your answers should reflect some development in your ethical awareness, don't you think?

Colin V. said...

if i was the PR person working for the president, my job would be to make the president look good, or at least not as bad, to the general public. i feel itd be easier to "lie" if i didnt know the truth, because that way i wouldnt necessarily know if i was actually lying.

if i worked on the press staff my answer to ames question would probably still be the same. if news is out about the firefly girl and the president, damage has already been done, regardless of whether or not the allegations are true. that being said that means i would have to initially treat the situation like anything else and begin to make the president look better.

knowing the "truth" would interfere with my job, so in order for me to do my professional duty, i would opt not to know it. as a PR person i am not an investigator or a judge. so anything that might compromise my duties is seen as wrong. i feel that not knowing is the most ethical choice, for it allows me to do my professional duty, which is ethical.

Howie Good said...

it is hard for me to see how a profession based on "lying" qualifies as a profession. . . it also worries me as to what is being taught in other classes. . . and what is or isn't being learned in ours. . . lying, as was explained in our last class, is a socially destructive force. . . it pollutes the channels of public communication and turns the atmosphere in which we live and work toxic. . . if you think it's your job as a pr person to "lie," then you have a very poor concept of pr, don't you think? and you might also want to check the pr code of ethics as to what it says about this issue.lying, as elliott suggests in her model of ethical decision-making, is a well recognized species of evil. if you're going to do it, self-interest doesn't qualify as an ethical justification. and it won't much appease the jury of public opinion either if your lies are ever exposed.

frankly, i'm appalled by some of these responses -- by everything from their poor grammar and spelling to their poor logic and ethics.

GrobM said...

I am looking to pursue a career in advertising. Although, it can be compared to a job in Public Relations. If I am selling a product or idea to people, I don't want to sell a piece of crap. I want to sell something I would own myself.

After reading this chapter I could never get into Public Relations. Manipulating the truth is lying end of discussion. If I was Ames I would put in my two weeks notice. I know I could not live with myself knowing that the President is a "kid toucher" and that I have to clean up the mess. "What feels good after" Hemingway.

It is not fair that PR's don’t have some sort of ethical guidelines to follow like the Journalists do. Even though Journalists failed to follow them in this film. Maybe if they had followed some of the codes of ethics, then it wouldn't have been so easy for PR's to manipulate the press.

Once again it comes down to the bottom line "Money" PR's know this and spread fallacies' and Journalists don't have the time to do proper research, because of the competition. Which leaves the public with a pretty crappy "Watch Dog" It is true, competition doesn‘t always breed excellence!

Vince said...

I'm not a PR major and even if I was and it was my job to smooth over embarassing events with the public I would find lying like that hard to do. I think of myself as a very honest person and since politicians are notoiously dishonest I couldn't see myself working for let alone lying for any of them. Of course its possible for them to tell the truth sometimes and I would have to know that he was telling the truth; that is the only way that I would put my neck o the line for a politician.

Allison Sofer Says said...

As a Journalism major, I think I would absolutely need to know if the allegations were true or not. Like Brian said, my job as a journalist is to seek truth and report it, especially if I thought there was some sort of cover up job. My job, even when it's hard, is to be loyal to the public, and deliver the truth. I would not cover up the story, even if asked. In order to obtain the truth, I would try to interview the girl, or those close to her, like teachers, friends, troop leaders, and her parents. I would try to verify the claims by going to hospitals or police stations and trying to get the information there.

Alyssa said...

I would tell him yes I'd like to know the truth but I would have to hear it from the president so I could repersent him the right way.It would make a difference to me,because there are somethings I just can't handle and to be fair to the president I would have to put someone else in charge of dealing with the press publicly.If I was a reporter I would get both the president's and girl's view of what went on. I would use the presidents date book to see if he and the girl where ever at the same place at the same time in order to see if the two ever had an encounter.

LindsayArden said...

I personally know that I would never work in politics for exactly this reason. I would not be capable of or interested in selling this kind of lie. I would have to know for my own conscience whether or not the allegations were true. If they were, I would have to refuse to defend the President, which obviously, would lose me my job. This kind of political corruption and abuse of power is a shame to democracy. Its as simple as that.

JulieMansmann said...

Speaking as a journalism major, I would hope a reporter covering this story would go to great lengths to verify the Firefly girl's claims. Of course, accusations of molestation, rape and/or sexual harassment are extremely difficult to prove since legal and media officials usually have little to go on but heresay and scientific evidence that can be time sensitive (rape tests, examination of traces of semen, etc.). Did the Friefly girl report the alleged crime to police right away? Did they conduct any forensic testing? This would be the first route I would take since it could provide some of the most concrete information. While it would be favorable to speak with the girl, this is not likely since she is a minor; her lawyer would need to be contacted first, and then one could see if her parents were available for comment. The tour guide our troupe leaders taking her around the White House could provide detailed information about the girl's whereabouts that day. Although I do not know if this is public information, I would also look into security camera tapes from the day of the alleged incident to see where the girl was as well as the president. One thing that is public information is datebooks of government officials, so I would definitely look into FOILing the president's agenda for the day; that way, I would find out where and with whom he was supposed to be with at the time of the alleged incident, and then I could verify if he actually was there. Of course, the president's public relations staff would need to be contacted druing efforts to verify the girl's claims as well in an effort to be fair and balanced. I don't know if the journalists in the movie did any or all of these things; if not, it's unfortunate that they ethically failed their readers and themselves by not doing "good work."

mika said...

At first, let me excuse for my poor ability of grammar and composition. Hope you can u
understand what I mean.

My major is Political Science, and so I'd like to answer these questions by standing the place of Brean.
For me, it makes a huge difference whether the allegations is true or not.
Of course,it is really hard to find out whether the allegation is true or not,because I will be stucked with dillemma between ethics,and the loyalty to the president because I work for the president and if the allegation is true, I have to betray him when I act by following the sense of ethics.
But as a result,I don't think I can save the president by making up a huge story about "bomb" issue.
I think it makes things getting worse.
As you know, it always contains the danger of being exposed that it is FAKE story,and also,we have to keep acting even if I feel guilty after that.
In general, many lies are needed for covering one lie all the time and it is agains for ethics.Rather than that, I think it's much better to verify the fact about "Firefly girl" by interviewing the people who were around her when she was suffered by the President. And if we have the record of security camera, maybe we can investigate based on it, and we also need to try to get the detailed information about the specific time, place, and situation for making sure the credibility.
Actually,as a representative of citizens, the president have to be a person who can think about what is really good for the majority of people in the country. And so,making up such a huge fake story relates to all citizens to cover only one mistake is far beyond unethical and should not be forgiven.
Therefore, when I really think about the president and citizens, veryfying the fact and make it clear as soon as possible is the most important duty I think.

Sam Speer said...

Being a journalism major, if I worked on the presidents press staff, I would much alike the other journalism majors, find out the compete truth. The book says, journalists need to verify information through multiple sources before going public. As the SPJ Code of ethics states, it is the duty of a journalist to seek the truth and report it. The seeking the truth could be a vigorous task, but the only way to prove something is to dig around and research. In this case, the main goal of the research is to prove that this Firefly girl did have contact with the president, and then work from there. Some possible sources would be neighbors, a presidents secretary could be used as an anonymous source, friends, teachers, coaches, parents, doctors who treated the girl etc. Julie did bring up a very idea about looking into the date books of public officials, which could literally prove on paper the presidents agenda for that day of the incident, which I believe is a public record, but if not I could submit a FOIL or FOIA request. These could provide stepping-stones in order to get a clearer picture of what to investigate more thoroughly.

Jaime Prisco said...

I am a journalism major. As it has been said in the past post, truth is what journalist do. It would amaze me if a journalist would choose any other route when it comes to the firefly girl situation. The only way I would feel secure with myself as a professional is if I investigated the reports and tried to find what actually happened. This is not something small, it's not something that doesn't make a difference, this is a large allegation. The President also has a right to be proven innocent if these claims are proven to be false and though we often talk about how journalist arent police, the code of ethics uses the word SEEK. To seek truth one must look for it which involves a bit a legwork. Of course it matter if these allegations are true or not.If finding out the truth behind this situation doesn't matter than what does? To find the truth,I think i would start with the police and try to get as much information from them as possible. I would try to find out the reported date of the incident and when it was called in and, if possible, a breakdown of the conversation. I also agree with Julie, i think a FOIL report would need to be sent in requesting as much information on the presidents whereabouts. I would also search for valuable witnesses though that may be a bit difficult because of the extreme circumstances. Maybe other people who were touring that day saw the girl or saw something strange going on. I would take some time but the necessity of the truth greatly outweighs the time consumption. If I didnt try my best to find out all the information I could, I would feel like a failure. The public needs someone who is going to do the things that they can't themselves. They also need someone they trust and can rely on. If finding out the truth about this situation does not seem to be all that important than what makes a person a truthworthy and reliable journalist. Absolutely nothing. I just feel as if all journalist should have a need and hunger for the truth. They should WANT to get to the bottom of a situation and find out every last bit they can. It's their duty to the public.

nekaiya trotman said...

Since I am a journalism major I would definitely have to know if it was true. If I didn't I would be going against everything my job entails. The most important aspect of being a journalist is to seek truth and report it and if I did not do it in this situation I would not be fulfilling my job. I owe it not only to the public but to my profession to deliver the truth the best way I know how.

As a Journalist there are going to be many situations that you are put in where you may be tempted to do the wrong thing due to bribery, loyalties, friendships etc. but at the end of the day following the code of ethics will always be the right thing to do for you as well as the profession.

Some documents and sources I would use would be emails, bank statements to check for hotel room bills,hospital records etc. I would try to get information out of the woman's friends and neighbors, people who have worked with her in the past and anyone who has had contact with her during the time that she was "with" the president.

Anonymous said...

As a journalism major, my task is to seek truth and report it. Why would I want anything less than the truth? I would answer Brean's question by saying, "It makes a difference because that is my job. How can I report information to others and not be fully sure if it is true?" Even if I didn't want to know if the allegations were true or not, I have a loyalty to my readers to find out if it is true or not. They trust what I am writing, so I need to be able to make sure that what I am letting them read is true. If I was the reporter covering the story, I would not make any assumptions because that can definitely lead to possible defamation. I would want to investigate and get the story straight. I would interview anyone else on the tour, to find out if she had separated the group at any point. I would also interview any staff members to see if they noticed anything unusual. I would also want to interview the girl and the president as well. I could use security cameras as a source of information, if anything. This story would take a lot of investigating before printing. If the job is done halfway that is exactly how the story will come out.

Kevin Harvey said...

First of all I would never wind up in the situation of working in PR for the government in the first place. I would be ousted in no time. Though if the slightest chance I were to, I would have answered Winfred Ames question about the Firefly girl differently. I would have been honest and told her myself that I didn't know whether it was true. I would also do my job as a PR person to prevent such a news story breaking without first knowing whether the story was true or fictitious. In the case that it did break it would have most likely been that the President was guilty no matter the truth. Journalist would word it so to get people to stop and read. In the Presidents defense I would tell him to speak of only positive monumental things about Congress that address issues that haven't been reported on before. And it's not wrong in my mind to advise him to leave the media hanging and talking for a bit on certain issues that he should leave open-ended. I would rather die before I misled a nation with a made up fictitious war. That in my mind is complete disregard to the PR profession. It's to display and defend with honest and positive things your client is doing. Maybe even to distract the public from jumping to conclusions without first really knowing the truth. I would need to know in the end though, and in talking with the president I learn that he indeed is guilty. I would not only quit I would go straight to a journalist and tell them the story I got directly from the president with hard evidence. With the attention I get from that as being the source, all while being honest, I'm sure another job would come along.

Patrick Mattei said...

PR Major here- If I was in this position, the truth would definitely matter in how I handled the situation. If it turned out that it was true, I don't think I would be able to take the job; I think it would be too hard to not only do some form of damage control to allow letting the press control the story, but it would also bother me too much to work for this person and defend him.

If I was unsure, I would have to find out the whole story- not only for the sake of the client but for myself.

Colin V. said...

if you are going to accept the job as PR for politicians, then you are accepting what comes along with that. that means making your prospective politician look good. if every PR politician left when someone lied then there would be no need for the profession.

it is so easy to say "no way i won't do it if i have to lie" but seriously sit down and think about it. if you don't want to lie, then don't put yourself into a career path that will require it. however if PR for politicians becomes part of your career path, i feel that the lesser of two evils is to go on through your profession without ever knowing whether or not you are lying.

take defense lawyers for instance. they may, more often than not, be defending a guilty party. but it is not their job to know, it is their job to defend that person to the best of their ability so they can get a fair and just trial. it is not their place to judge, and i feel that knowing would just get in the way of their ability to do their job. innocent until proven guilty.

ethically lying is wrong, i agree with you 100% on that professor good. but i also owe myself to what my profession may stand for, which can be ugly. i feel that lying about the firefly girl, and knowing about it, is so much worse than doing your job without ever knowing the exact truth.

i would never want to put myself in a place where i would have to lie for a living, but we arent talking about me, we are talking about the "wag the dog" incident. and i feel that in order to do my job and do it well, it wouldnt matter what the president had done. I would prefer not to know. it would put my own ethical beliefs in the way of doing my professional duty.

and, in the oh so grand movie fashion, once ive done my job and saved the president and become the most celebrated PR person in history, I'll throw my "badge" on the desk and tell them "I'm done with this." and then proceed to storm out with my pride and ethics still intact.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.