Ethics Upside Down

Policy made plain.
April 10 1998 3:30 AM

Ethics Upside Down

A Washington journalist pilloried for his integrity.

Everyone he consulted, including me, told Stuart Taylor he'd be in the doghouse if he went to work for Kenneth Starr. Taylor is the Washington journalist whose 1996 AmericanLawyer article forced the world to take Paula Jones seriously. Since then, in print and on television, he has been a prominent anti-Clinton commentator on Flytrap.

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Taylor told Starr no thanks. But now he's in the doghouse anyway--for even considering a job with the special prosecutor. "A massive conflict," says White House spinner Paul Begala. "He conveyed a sense of independence and objectivity that I now think is fraudulent." The White House had not previously revealed its admiration for Stu Taylor's independence and objectivity. But many of Taylor's journalistic colleagues, who do admire those qualities, agree that they are now called into question. Taylor thus finds himself dropped into the maw of a journalistic ethics controversy. This is a simultaneously terrifying, infuriating, and boring place to be. (While there, perhaps, he may even bond with Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist who is suffering a similar--and, in my view, similarly unjust--torment for taking a job in the Clinton White House.)

With a flurry of documents, Taylor can demonstrate--and will, if you don't stop him--that he was never concurrently considering Starr's offer and writing about the case. Furthermore, what he considered seriously was not exactly a job but a full-time unpaid advisory role. But the interesting question is: So what? What if he had considered an actual job? What if he had actually gone to work for Starr? Why should that taint his past output or harm his future career as a journalist?

"Conflict of interest" is an overused and underanalyzed concept. Why is a conflict of interest a bad thing? For a journalist, there are two possible answers. 1) The conflict causes some kind of personal advantage to distort either your perception of the truth or your willingness to honestly state what you perceive. In other words, it amounts to a bribe. Or 2) the conflict reveals a previously hidden incentive or tendency to misperceive or misstate the truth.

As it happens, Taylor--a pal of mine--is a zealot for the truth and driven to distraction by lying. That's what got him into this mess. He is not a conservative or a Republican. He voted for Clinton in '92. But he believes, as he wrote in the March 21 NationalJournal, that there is "powerful evidence ... implicating the President of the United States in dozens of perjuries [and] efforts to obstruct justice and cover up" matters both sexual and financial. And he sincerely believes it would be a tragedy for the country if a president was allowed to get away with "mendacity" on this scale, if proved. You may find this a bit overwrought (I do), you may question the facts or take a more worldly view of what should be done about them. But these are his views, and he has made no attempt to hide them.

So Starr comes to Taylor and says: Please work for me. And Taylor thinks: If I really believe what I've been writing, don't I have a patriotic duty to do whatever I can to prevent this tragedy? In other words, he feels an ethical obligation to live according to his publicly expressed beliefs. But in the topsy-turvy world of "conflict of interest," it seems there is an ethical obligation not to act on your publicly expressed beliefs. To act on your beliefs discredits your expression of them and taints any beliefs you might express in the future.

But how? Was the job offer, in effect, a bribe? Hardly. Even before Taylor--not a rich man--proposed working at no charge for six months, he would have made far less than he makes now. It would have meant quitting a brand-new, prestigious journalism job, giving up all those TV appearances, and the prospect, in just half a year, of unemployment lethally combined with extreme unpopularity. No doubt the frisson of history was a plus in Taylor's calculations, but only the call of duty--however unwelcome and however misheard--can really explain why he would even consider giving up what he had for what Starr was offering. If you're trying to corrupt Stu Taylor, it's hard to think of anything less promising than this particular job offer.

So does the fact that Taylor paused to consider these questions (rather than--what?--immediately declaring, "No, no, a thousand times no!" and running Starr through with his scimitar?) reveal a disqualifying lack of "independence and objectivity"? It certainly suggests Taylor is generally sympathetic to Starr's mission--but that is clear enough from his writings. There's nothing wrong with having an opinion--especially if your job, like Taylor's, allows you to express it. Anyone who can study and write about controversial topics without ever developing an opinion is an idiot, not an independent thinker. An independent thinker is someone whose views are based on an honest assessment of the facts and arguments. The fact that Taylor considered a job offer totally consistent with his expressed views casts no light at all on the question of his "independence." (Click for.)

The fallback ethics argument against Taylor is that he should at least have disclosed the approach from Starr to his readers. Taylor has a complicated defense of this one, too, but on balance and in general, sure: Disclosure is a good idea. How can a journalist be against disclosure? Keep in mind a couple of things, though. First, if there is no actual conflict of interest involved, all you are protecting with disclosure is your readers' right to reach the wrong conclusion. That's his or her right, all right, but it's surely one of the lesser rights around. Second, a journalist like Taylor is not like, say, a stock picker, the value of whose words depends heavily on whether he can be trusted. Taylor makes arguments based largely on public facts. These arguments stand or fall on their own, and readers don't need to trust the author in order to evaluate them. Original reporting can't be evaluated by the lay reader sitting in his or her armchair. But even here, an ethical evaluation of the author isn't crucial. Especially on a big, competitive story like this one, no one need be imprisoned in some biased reporter's web of falsehoods unless the reporter's biases are comfortably compatible with one's own.

Taylor says the job discussions provided valuable information and insights that helped him as a journalist. That's easy to believe. Suppose, then, that when Starr approached him, Taylor had strung the prosecutor along, not overtly lying, but milking him for information while only pretending to be interested in the job. And then he published a triumphal scoop. Would the ethics cops have complained? Unlikely. He'd be a hero of the profession. It's only the sincere consideration of a job doing something you truly believe in that can wreck your career in journalism.

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