Monday, August 31, 2009

What Ever Happened to the Great Wall?

I don't mean the one in China, of course; I mean the one that used to exist between advertising and editorial in newspapers.

I've been thinking about this for several weeks, ever since the news broke last month that long-time Hartford Courant columnist George Gombossy had been fired. The former consumer watchdog alleged that he was fired for writing a negative story about a major advertiser (he subsequently published the story himself, on his Connecticut Watchdog blog; the post is available here). The Courant's management called Mr. Gombossy's complaints those of a "disgruntled employee" and said that they were replacing Mr. Gombossy's position with one that would "go to more helpful news, and less gotcha news", and that Mr. Gombossy had not been interested in the new position (see Stephanie Clifford's New York Times article on the disagreement, here).

Which picture is the true one? Not having been a fly on the wall in the Courant meeting rooms, I can't say for sure. But at a time when every newspaper seems to be in a fight for financial survival, and when fewer and fewer newspapers are owned by individuals or families who care about being publishers more than about making a huge profit, I know which side I lean toward believing (the Courant, which began publishing before the Revolutionary War, was purchased by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. in 2000).

I don't want to minimize the problems that newspapers face. I love newspapers -- my first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter and photographer for a regional daily, and I still get a rush from printer's ink. I get upset every time I hear of a great paper folding.

But it's not as though advertisers haven't been pushing against that "Great Wall" since the wall first went up. No one likes hearing bad stuff about themselves, and advertisers are, not surprisingly, inclined to resent finding negative news articles in the same venue where they are paying for their presence. "For this I paid #XX?" they think. That's understandable.

It's also wrong.

As Gombossy states on his blog (full text of his post is here): "Advertisers don’t take out ads because they like the columnists or reporters. They take out ads based on a newspaper’s circulation, which is based on its credibility. The less credibility a newspaper has, the less readers it should have."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Transparency Builds Trust

I've been thinking a lot lately about anonymity, full disclosure, and trust -- largely sparked by a celebrity squabble of the type I don't usually follow carefully. Last week, a judge ordered Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who had called model Liskula Cohen a "skank" and "an old hag", among other elegant epithets (some background on the original suit can be found in a New York Daily News article from January, here, and a New York Post article on the judge's decision can be found here).

The case generated a great deal of press ink, perhaps because Ms. Cohen is so beautiful and apparently a regular in gossip columns as well as fashion magazines, perhaps because the epithets seemed so junior-high-ish, and perhaps because many were surprised that Google was ordered to reveal the blogger's identity (who turned out to be a 20-something acquaintance of Ms. Cohen).

Among the commentators was Randy Cohen, the New York Times columnist who writes the weekly "Ethicist" column in the paper's Sunday magazine, and who also writes an online blog for the Times, "The Moral of the Story". In his Tuesday 24 August blog post on the Liskula Cohen (apparently no relation) case, Randy Cohen argued that anonymous posting has become "so toxic" that "it should be discouraged".

At one point, he quoted feminist writer Katha Politt, who said that anonymous posting "has nothing to do with the brisk and vigorous exchange of ideas often said to be the reason for anonymity. Because there are no ideas and no exchange."

His post now carries a parenthesis noting that Katha Politt is Randy Cohen's ex-wife. It did not, originally, as caught by the "NYTpicker", a blog that bills itself as "a daily look inside the newspaper of record". To quote: "Ironic, isn't it? One paragraph after insisting that it 'deepens a reader's understanding to know who is speaking,' Cohen keeps that very understanding about Pollitt to himself -- as though to call her 'the writer' is an adequate credential to be promoted as an expert by Cohen in the NYT.'" (Full post is here; I am indebted to one of my nieces for bringing the post to my attention; a second post that day notes that Randy Cohen, in a later discussion of the issue with NYTPicker, had discussed his relationship with Katha Politt with his editor and that they had not considered it germane, but that he was indeed modifying his post to reflect their former relationship).

Who is "The NYTPicker"? According to the site, it is devoted "exclusively to the goings-on inside the New York Times -- the newspaper and the institution itself. Written by a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, The NYTPicker reports daily on the internal workings of the nation's top newspaper, and comments on its content."

I find it ironic that the NYTPicker believes in the importance of its own anonymity, when it calls Randy Cohen for not fulfilling his obligation to full transparency.

It is true that there is a long and important tradition of anonymity in political reporting -- including among the Founding Fathers, perhaps most famously in Ben Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanack" and most importantly in the Federalist Papers (these examples are among those cited by Randy Cohen in his original blog post; New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd also mentions the importance of anonymity in political reportage -- where the risks to life and limb are real and severe -- in her column in today's paper on the Liskula Cohen case. She quotes the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black saying, in 1960, "It is plain that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most constructive purposes." Ms. Dowd then adds, "But on the Internet, it’s often less about being constructive and more about being cowardly.").

When there is no risk of political repercussions, anonymity does seem to be more about cowardice than about principles -- it lets the anonymous writer whisper (or shout) things that he or she would probably not say in public, for attribution.

Moreover, transparency builds trust. Trust is the glue that holds not only personal relationships together, but also professional / business ones. I trust my fish market to carry fresh fish, and to tell me honestly whether the Pacific salmon they carry is farmed or wild. I trust my friend to tell me whether the suit I'm considering buying is really flattering or not. Trust is not always easily earned, and once lost, it is never easily regained (one of my senators -- Joe Lieberman -- is out of luck as far as I'm concerned on the trust issue.).

As Randy Cohen says in his blog post, "To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tax Evasion Isn't a Game; It's Fraud

I know that there are lots of people who considering filing their tax returns to be a kind of game -- what can I get away with? Back at the dawn of time, when I was in business school, our tax professor said that the only advice he wanted us to remember was, "Be aggressive, not stupid."

Then he added, "If you have to ask yourself whether it's agressive or stupid, it's probably stupid."

Speaking of stupid....

UBS, one of the world's biggest banks, agreed yesterday to disclose to Justice and the IRS the names and account information of more than 4,000 Americans suspected of tax evasion, according to an article in the New York Times and elsewhere (for example, here from the Tribune de Geneve).

As reported by the Times' Lynnley Browning, the "landmark settlement peels back layers of Swiss banking secrecy, and is expected to provide a road map for the authorities as they try to crack down on tax evasion by Americans who, through private banks and other Swiss-based financial intermediaries, use offshore accounts that go undeclared to the IRS."

Back in February, Justice had sued for information on more than 50,000 American clients of UBS. The bank -- and a majority of Swiss citizens -- argued that such a broad sweep would violate Swiss banking secrecy laws (a number of Swiss are angry about the current agreement, saying that the US demands international respect of its laws, but doesn't respect those of other countries, and that, moreover, it is poor US regulation of the subprime market etc that is responsible for the current global recession. Yes, I know, that's another issue entirely.).

Also in February, UBS paid $780 million to settle charges that it had helped its American clients evade billions of dollars owed to the IRS, as well as the names of about 250 Americans suspected of tax evasion, with more to be released in the future.

I know that the IRS is the government agency Americans most love to hate. The late Leona Helmsley famously claimed that "only the little people pay taxes" (this, of course, shortly before she went to jail for tax fraud). And tax evasion is hardly just an American pastime.

But I just don't get it. I'm with Oliver Wendell Holmes on this (good company, no?): "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society." If you've been so blessed by intelligence, hard work, luck, and social opportunity (the last of which is a government construct), that you have been financially successful, why wouldn't you want to pay your taxes?

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Cheating's Not Cheating If There Aren't Any Consequences." Oh, Yeah?

Not, perhaps, my most thoughtful riposte.

I'm not a regular reader of Michelle Slatalla's "Wife / Mother / Worker / Spy" column in the New York Times, and I missed yesterday's column until my husband brought it to my attention. In it, Slatalla "confesses" to cheating, regularly, when playing the online game Lexulous (derived from Scrabble).

But, she insists, she is scrupulously ethical in the real world, so why would she cheat online? To find the answer, she consults Mia Consalvo, an MIT researcher in cheating and the motivation to cheat.

According to Prof. Consalvo, "Cheating is not necessarily a bad thing in situations where there are no consequences and you're not hurting anyone. You can explore the boundaries of acceptable behavior."

I disagree. Slatalla herself worries that her "virtual cheating" might someday spread, "like a mutating virus", to her offline ethics. Prof. Consalvo assures her that she needn't worry: "It's much easier to cheat when people don't really know who you are."

I disagree with that too. I believe that online cheating, unexamined, makes one comfortable with the very concept of cheating. And once you're comfortable with it online, it will inevitably spread to your offline behavior. It may be easier to cheat in an environment where "people don't really know who you are", but that just means that you have a "safe" environment in which to practice your cheating skills. Even when playing games, the "just about everyone cheats online" excuse is invalid (remember your Mom: "If 'everyone else' jumps off a bridge, does that mean you should too?"). Even when you're playing Solitaire, it's not right to cheat (not to mention, no fun).

Slatalla gives an example of her offline ethics: Playing doubles tennis with friends, an opponent's shot grazes the line "with one of its tiny tennis-ball hairs" and Slatalla called, "That was good!" Her husband is apparently "shocked at the charity of the call." So her online cheating has not affected her "real life" behavior.

Or has it: Is this anecdote a reflection of Slatalla's ethics or of her desire to appear ethical? They're not exactly the same....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Is It OK to Pay for the Privilege of Being Unpaid?

Yesterday's New York Times carried an article by Gerry Shih about a new trend in summer internships: paying a headhunter to find you that dream job. In what is sometimes known as the "real world", it has long been considered unethical for a recruiter to charge applicants to be presented as candidates for an open position: it's up to the hiring companies to pay recruiters for bringing talent to their attention.

But in the not-quite-so-real world of summer internships, there are a number of for-profit players who charge thousands of dollars to help students find the perfect summer "job".

I have found the existing trend for internships -- rather than paying summer jobs -- troubling enough. Proponents of internships argue that it's better for students exploring future career opportunities to have actual experience in, say, an advertising agency, rather than shoveling popcorn in a movie theater or working as a camp counselor (two of my college-era summer jobs, and neither of which had much of anything to do with my post-college careers). If you learn that you hate advertising, well, it's only been for the summer, and if you love it, well, it's given your "employer" an opportunity to see what you can really do, and he or she will be more enthusiastic about offering you a full-time position. What's the problem?

There are two problems with internships, in my view. First -- last time I checked -- servitude, even voluntary servitude, is illegal. Yes, I know that internships aren't considered slavery, but what else do you call work that, in any other circumstances, would be paid, but isn't in this one?

But I have a second, and more important, ethical concern. We like to think of this country as a meritocracy: study hard, work hard, and you too can become a plutocrat (should that be your dream). But working-class students don't have the luxury of taking internships: they need to earn money during the summer (and during the school year, too) to help defray the costs of their educations.

So an internship is really another leg up for middle- and upper-middle class kids. Who already have a bunch of those. And paying for an internship just ratchets this disparity up to yet an more unequal level.

I sympathize with parents who just want the best for their kids, parents who worry that in this new global economy maybe their kids won't be able to compete. I understand that perspective. But that doesn't make it right.

And it might even backfire: as the article notes, some "cautioned that while the desire to help is understandable, parents who pay for an internship program are depriving their children of the chance to develop job-seeking skills or to take rejection before they have to fend for themselves."

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Are Ethics Rules Setting Back Medical Research?

Maybe. But I have my doubts, at least after reading Sally Satel's op-ed piece in today's New York Times.

Dr. Satel, a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, claims that "the oversight system has fallen short of the ethical standard it purports to uphold: that the benefits of medical research exceed the costs."

That's the final sentence of her essay, although it doesn't have much to do with the rest of the article, which argues only that federal ethics regulations (oh, no!) and "overbearing federal boards" are impeding research.

She appears not to have completely forgotten why strict ethics regulations were put in place -- "No one denies the need to shield human subjects from undue risk."

But that statement isn't strictly correct: the reason we need strict ethics regulations for medical research is not that human subjects might be subject to excessive risk, but that they would be uninformed about the risks (as a prospective participant, if I'm fully informed at the project, I might choose to take on risks that seem "excessive" to others).

And Dr. Satel's final sentence is really just an economics-happy cost-benefit analysis. Strict regulations are needed not because research costs might otherwise exceed the benefits, but because it isn't about the costs and benefits.

Ethics regulations are about treating human beings as ends in themselves, and not as means to an end. For all I know -- this is not my area of research expertise -- the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments might have been "successful" by Dr. Satel's standard, with research benefits exceeding costs. Instead, those experiments are rightly vilified today because the study, which ran for 40 years, deliberately kept nearly 400 black men uninformed and untreated. (In 2002, Alex Chadwick produced a brief but excellent summary for National Public Radio website, here.)

Satel's essay is awash in similar sloppy thinking and slippery writing. Another example: "Stanford University researchers have estimated that it cost them about $56,000 in administrative wages, 18 months of delay and 10,000 pages of paper to make a small change to an already-approved research program..." Define "small change" for me, please. (She doesn't.)

Another: "Before a 43-center study of hypertension could begin at Veterans Affairs medical centers, ...a year and a half was spent getting all 43 boards to approve the same protocol. Each time a single board required a change to the protocol, the others had to review it and agree as well." Um... don't you think that's the way a multi-center study should be run? If the protocols aren't identical, how will you know which variables have affected any differences in results?

Enough! I expect better thinking on the op-ed page of the Times. But not necessarily from the increasingly-rabid conservative sector.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What Makes You the Kind of Ethicist You Are?

Most people seem to fall naturally into the two great ethical categories -- rules-based, or consequence-based. In other words, should you not lie because "you shall not lie"? Or should you not lie because of the negative consequences of your lie?

Both schools have powerful spokespersons: Immanuel Kant for the "categorical imperative" school and John Stuart Mill for the "greatest good" school.

I had never really thought about why someone would internalize one ethical school rather than the other, but new research seems to suggest that one's access (or lack thereof) to power is a crucial component.

A new post by Tom Jacobs on the Miller-McCune website reports that researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands found that "those who were pre-programmed to think in terms of having power 'had a stronger preference for the rule-based moral considerations, compared to participants in the low-power condition, who had a stronger preference for the outcome-based moral considerations.'" (An abstract of Joris Lammers and Diederik Stapel's article for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology can be found here.)

Lammers and Stapel note that "rule-based thinking is attractive to the powerful because stability is in their interest, and therefore, cognitively appealing." Jacobs reports that previous reseach suggests that powerful people "tend to focus on the big picture rather than small details." That big-picture focus may help them attain power, but it also means that they may lose sight of the effects their decisions have on people who don't have the power to change those decisions.

The research won't change the kind of ethicist I am (full disclosure: I admire rules-based ethics for its logical rigor, but I'll always be an "it depends" person), but it does make me think about what made me an outcome-based ethicist.

Sweeping generalization: women are more likely to be outcome-based ethicists, and men are more likely to be rules-based ethicists. Traditional ethics has been accused of favoring "'male' ways of moral reasoning that emphasize rules, rights, universality, and impartiality over 'female' ways of moral reasoning that emphasize relationships, responsibilities, particularity, and partiality." (from "Feminist Ethics" in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) Lammers and Stapel's research could support "status-oriented" feminist approaches to ethics, which suggest that women's "second-sex" status is a primary reason for their "different" ethical approaches.

Whether you buy the very concept of feminist ethics or not, this research should make us all think more deeply about why we value the ethical truths we hold dear.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It's Not ABOUT You; It's UP TO You

The current issue of New York Magazine has an excellent article by Beth Shapouri and Christine Whitney on "eating ethically".

It's a great tool for helping those of us who want to "do the right thing", but aren't always sure what the right thing is -- seafood is good for me, but which one(s) should I buy? I love tuna, but I've heard I shouldn't buy it. Is that true? The article lays out, in great detail, what should be bought, what shouldn't, and why. Where you shouldn't (e.g., Chilean sea bass), it explains not only why (they are long-lived, but grow slowly and reproduce even more slowly, making them vulnerable to overfishing), but also what's a good alternative for those who love the taste (locally-caught wild striped bass), and where in the New York area you can buy that alternative.

The article also got me thinking about the "tragedy of the commons", a phenomenon first observed in the 19th century by William Lloyd, and more recently the subject of an influential article in Science by the late Prof. Garrett Hardin (text of the 1968 article can be found here, and Hardin's contribution to the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics on the subject can be found here). The short definition of the "tragedy" or "problem" is that if it belongs to everybody, it belongs to nobody.

In other words, if I can put my cows out to graze only on my own land, then I have an economic incentive to protect the land, to make sure that there aren't too many cows grazing, so that the land can always recover and keep supporting them (and me). But if I can graze my cows on common land, and so can all my friends and neighbors, then I have no such incentive; in fact, it's in my best interest to put as many cows as possible on the land, because my neighbors will too. And so the land becomes overused, and everyone's cows get thin and weak.

The world's oceans look a lot like those English commons -- they're so big, and the fish stocks they sustain so enormous, that it's easy to say "why should I bother?" If I don't buy Chilean sea bass, no doubt somebody else will, so I might as well enjoy what I enjoy, as long as there are Patagonian toothfish (the earlier, pre-marketing genius, name for Chilean sea bass) to be eaten. Right?

Um, no.

If I were the world's benevolent dictator, I could close the Chilean sea bass market long enough for those stocks to recover, and I probably would do just that (while trying to find another source of income for those people whose livelihoods depended on it). But -- fortunately! -- I'm not the world's benevolent dictator, so I don't have that power.

The fact that the tragedy of the commons is an economic problem doesn't mean that the solution is necessarily economic. The real solution is ethical.

All we can do is control our own behavior. You have the power to resist buying Chilean sea bass for your family, and that's the place to start. Feel free to mention your decision to friends and neighbors, and the movement will spread. If someone says, "But I love Chilean sea bass; I don't want to give it up," mention the reasons and the alternative(s), and then move on. Even if they aren't convinced right away, they will be eventually -- most people really do want to do the right thing. And pretty soon those toothfish will be left alone to do what comes naturally, and build up their numbers again.

It's up to me. It's up to you. It's up to each of us, individually.