Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2004 / 5 Shevat 5764
Ethics Department: George Will, a case study
The first thing that needs to be said about the intriguing case of George Will is that it's no Maureen Dowd Affair.
Mr. Will writes a syndicated column that appears in any number of newspapers, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette here in Little Rock. Ms. Dowd no longer appears in our paper. Here's why:
What Maureen Dowd did was unconscionable. She used a strategically placed ellipsis to make nonsense of something George W. Bush had said, and then criticized him for speaking nonsense. Neat. And sleazy.
Worse, when caught out, Ms. Dowd inserted the full, unexpurgated quote in a later column - without explanation or apology or even much relevance. So she could claim that she had indeed printed the president's remarks in full. Devious. And damning, for it indicated she knew she'd done wrong and was out to cover her tracks.
As a case study in ethics, Mr. Will's omission was minor compared to Maureen Dowd's. And yet, as with manners, there is much to be learned from a discussion of the finer points.
What Mr. Will did was to write a column praising the views of Conrad Black, the media mogul. They were pretty sound views, too. But the columnist identified Lord Black only as "a British citizen and member of the House of Lords who is a proprietor of many newspapers, including the Telegraph of London and the Sun-Times of Chicago."
Mr. Will felt no need to go into detail, namely that he'd received something like $25,000 a year to attend one - I repeat, one - annual meeting of a board of advisers to Hollinger International, one of Lord Black's holdings.
Hey, I'd be happy if somebody offered me 25 large ones to attend a board meeting every year, but I do think that, if I were then to write about my patron, and quote him favorably, I'd make it clear he was my patron, not just a British subject and big-time publisher. The reader deserves to know. And so do the papers that carry the column. It's called full disclosure.
As with Maureen Dowd, it's not the initial mistake that may do most damage, but the refusal to acknowledge that it was a mistake. When Mr. Will was asked if he wishes he'd mentioned his financial tie with the British publisher, he said he's not sure yet. What's not to be sure about?
Well, says Mr. Will, neither the standards of the syndicate that distributes his column nor common sense require him to make such a disclosure.
But isn't going beyond what is required the essence of ethics? And doesn't common sense tell him that his readers should have been told about his connection with the man whose views he was plugging at the time?
If a similar case should arise in the future, wouldn't he add an explanatory line and save himself a lot of embarrassment? "That might be a good idea," he concedes. Might be?
Why not write a column giving his side of this story or, better yet, acknowledging his mistake? It would clear the air. And I wouldn't be writing a column like this. Also, it would be one of his better read columns - a prospect that ought to entice any opinionator.
But Mr. Will declines. "I'm anti-hullabaloo," he explains. Which is a strange comment from someone whose business it is to comment on one political/social/ethical hullabaloo after another.
Mr. Will sees no need to tell his readers about all this because, he says, "99.9 percent of our readers haven't heard about this." But isn't that just why he should point it out? Don't his readers deserve to know?
Discussing this subject in his column, says Mr. Will, would be like providing oxygen to pyromaniacs. (Nice phrase, by the way.) Yes, there will always be folks out there who are out to get a columnist - who don't care how well he writes or thinks or hews to ethical standards, but only if he's on their side. It comes with the territory. But why keep giving them this kind of tinder? Why not admit a mistake, say you're sorry and be done with it?
In the meantime, what's a paper like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to do? We carry his column and owe our readers an explanation. And something more, like some appropriate action. Which is why we're suspending his column for the next 30 days.
I doubt the suspension will make much difference to George Will, who's in the big leagues of political commentary. But we're doing this not so much for his sake as for ours. We've got our own standards to uphold - and readers to report to.
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