Friday, October 31, 2014

Tabloid Values in the Administration and the Classroom


Why would we think that someone who sees nothing wrong with violating peoples’ privacy and prying into their sex lives would not violate faculty members' rights when they entered the university? My Dean has read and distributed copies of personal emails I have written, read and commented on emails I have sent to students, attempted to control what I say to my students, and punished me—financially, bureaucratically, and pedagogically—over a period of many years for writing about ethical issues like the ones below. —R.C.

My in-box been overflowing with responses to a previous posting: “Raising Ethical Issues and Being Punished for It” (see the first blog entry for this month) where I discuss Matt Bai’s recently published All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, and the lies, deceits, and ethical violations on the part of a current Boston University administrator and faculty member it documents. Hundreds of readers wrote me expressing shock at the absence of ethical standards in administrative and faculty appointments at Boston University. Many of them asked for more information about Boston University Dean Thomas Fiedler’s professional misconduct, his views about journalistic ethics, and the issues his appointment as Dean and Professor of Journalism at Boston University raises. Rather than write individual replies, I have decided to make a posting that offers a few general responses to the most frequent questions and observations.

I thank everyone who wrote me, many at great length, and apologize for my inability to respond more personally and individually to each of my correspondents. I simply don’t have the time (all the more given the treatment I have been and am still being subjected to for raising ethical issues in a university that does everything in its power to prevent faculty from expressing such concerns—and that punishes those who do). —Ray Carney

Question: Many site readers asked for more detail about the violations of privacy Professor and Dean Fielder was provably guilty of as a journalist.

Answer: To keep this short, I’ll limit myself to the specific set of events covered in Matt Bai’s book involving Fiedler’s stalking of Gary Hart and his girlfriend and his spying on and prying into their sex life at home. The indisputable facts are that Fiedler, three other Miami-Herald journalists, and a photographer engaged in a range of spying and surveillance activities and violations of both Gary Hart’s and his girlfriend’s privacy: They interviewed people about his sexual behavior, located his girlfriend, and followed her movements as she travelled from city to city—all done without his or her knowledge or permission, secretly, covertly, and surreptitiously. They also secretly and surreptiously staked-out Hart’s home, hiding in the bushes and in parked cars, wearing disguises to conceal their identities, looking in the windows and watching the doors around the clock, tracking and recording who entered and left the house and anything else they could see from the yard and street.

Question: Readers asked me to clarify my statement that what Fielder and his friends did was a more personally invasive violation of privacy than what the National Security Agency does to emails or telephone calls or Google does by data-mining your web-surfing and buying behavior.

Answer: Which would you rather have—someone skimming the metadata out of your telephone calls and emails, or someone spying on your sex life? Which would you rather have—a webbot monitoring your shopping preferences or someone following your girlfriend, watching, listening, and recording everything she does? Which would you rather have—the right to voluntarily disclose personal information about yourself on Facebook, or a group of men hiding in your yard, looking in your windows and watching your doors, taking notes about who comes and goes, and interviewing people about your sex life? Which would you rather have happen—Google or Amazon accumulate a database of your shopping behavior, or a group of men pouncing on you when you emerge from your house, asking you a series of deliberately embarrassing questions about who you have had sex with, and publishing anything you say on the front page of the newspaper? I’m sure not a fan of Google, Facebook, or the N.S.A., but I’ll take them any day of the week to strangers staking-out my house, following my girlfriend, prying into my private life, and trying to dig up dirt about my sex life.

Question: Several readers asked what I meant by calling Fiedler’s justification for what he did a “Nuremberg defense?”

Answer: Fiedler defended his actions then (and continues to defend them today) by saying he and his friends had “permission” from Hart to do what they did and that that made it OK to do what he did. This is so obviously false that it hardly deserves a reply. To start with, Hart denied giving Fiedler and the others any such “permission,” and Matt Bai has documented how Fiedler lied about it. But even if we didn’t have Hart’s and Bai’s rebuttals, the idea of Hart giving Fielder permission to do what he did is preposterous on the face of it. If Fielder or the other reporters had permission, why did they need to hide? Why did they need to wear disguises? Why did they need to surreptitiously follow Hart’s girlfriend? (And when did Hart’s girlfriend give her permission to be secretly followed and watched in this way?) In short, why did they need to act like the sneaky scums they were? Why not just ring the doorbell, or call Hart on the telephone, and ask for an interview?

But a moment’s thought will reveal that the whole notion that having some kind of unspecified “permission” makes everything alright is a red herring. Fiedler obviously didn’t have permission to do what he did, but it wouldn’t matter if he had, because no one can give you permission to behave unethically, immorally, or unscrupulously. That’s why I compared Fiedler’s excuse to the kinds of excuses made during the Nuremberg trials. German officers gave similar excuses for their immorality. They blamed it on someone else. They said someone had given them “permission” to behave immorally and unethically. You don’t have to be a philosophy major to see that that logic is fallacious. It was then, is now, and always will be. Someone can’t give you “permission” to do bad things. It doesn’t matter who you are, who they are, or what the circumstances are. You and you alone are responsible for any and everything you say and do. That’s the bedrock foundation of all ethical conduct. You can’t shift the blame.

Want to hear a story? Years ago at Boston University I was asked to sit in on another professor’s classes by a university administrator so that he could “build a case” to get the professor fired, even though he was tenured. The administrator asked me to submit a negative report about the professor’s teaching and research and told me that that would be enough to force the professor out. He told me what he wanted me to do and how to do it—the conclusion I was supposed to come to and the information I was supposed to cite to justify terminating the professor. (This kind of event provides a little insight into Boston University’s treatment of its faculty, by the way; but that’s a subject for another time.) I refused to do it because it was unethical. It was unfair. It was slanted. I could have made the administrator very happy if I had done what he wanted, what he not only gave me “permission” to do, but more or less ordered me to do. But that’s not the way ethics works. I am responsible for anything I do. You are responsible for anything you do. Fiedler is responsible for what he does. I, you, and he can’t blame it on someone else. It doesn’t matter who gives you permission to do something; what you do is on your own soul.

Fiedler acted immorally and unethically, in violation of fundamental assumptions about basic rights to privacy and confidentiality in someone’s personal life and sex life. It wouldn’t change anything if the Pope gave him “permission.” Unethical behavior is unethical behavior.

Question: A handful of readers pointed out that Fiedler’s conduct was not unique. Over the past three decades, a number of tabloid journalists have indulged in similar violations of privacy, similar surveillance operations, similar attempts to dig up dirt about peoples’ sex lives.

Answer: Yes. Exactly. As Matt Bai argues in his book, Fiedler helped to pioneer the “tabloidization” of American journalism. That’s what Bai’s book is about. At least in part, we have Fiedler to thank for the world we now live in. What a legacy.

But when unethical journalists do this we at least have the good sense to label them tabloid journalists. They are sleaze-bags and disgraces to their profession. Professional journalists conduct interviews; professional journalists read documents; professional journalists attend public meetings. It’s hard and time-consuming work. Of course there are always a few scummy people who do the kind of things Fiedler and his buddies did—who try to dredge up embarrassing information about peoples’ sex lives; who hide in the bushes and try to trap and surprise their prey with embarrassing personal questions. They are tabloid journalists. But we don’t appoint them as Professors of Journalism or Deans. We don’t put them in a position to mentor and teach students their scummy methods, we don’t set them up as an example for students to emulate. 

Question: Some of these events date back in time. Are they still relevant?

Answer: Fiedler’s appointment to these major administrative and academic posts took place in the recent past, and he was promoted to Professor of Journalism only a couple years ago. This isn’t ancient history.

Question: How do you know Fiedler hasn’t changed his views of journalistic conduct and ethics?

Answer: That’s easy. He has said that he hasn’t. He has said it many times to many different people. He told Matt Bai and has repeated to any and everyone who has asked him about any of these or other similar events, right up to the present moment, that he sees absolutely nothing wrong with anything he or his buddies did. He sees nothing wrong with these ethical violations, this trampling on peoples’ rights, this prying into their lives. He sees nothing wrong with trailing a young woman or secretly lurking in the bushes on the lawn where someone lives. He sees nothing wrong with digging up information about someone’s sex life to destroy them.

Question: Faculty members at several different universities asked, in several different ways: How did Fiedler keep these or similar acts of professional misconduct from the knowledge of the Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure committee that hired him as Dean and subsequently promoted him to Professor of Journalism?

Answer: He didn’t. These events (and similar ones) are blazoned on his resume. They are a matter of public record. A long account of them, detailing them in all of their moral and professional shabbiness, is posted and still available for consultation on the Miami-Herald web site. The ethics of Fiedler’s actions were strenuously objected to, in public and in private, by both print and broadcast journalists, including Ted Koppel in an episode of ABC’s Nightline broadcast shortly after the events were revealed. What he did was not a secret; it was a scandal.

Question: As a follow-up to the preceding, why, then, did Boston University appoint him as a Professor of Journalism and Dean of its College of Communication?

Answer: Short answer: It’s Boston University, for gosh sake. Appointments at Boston University are not about ethics or professional expertise; they are about celebrity and name-value. Fiedler became known because of the scandal connected with these events. That’s what qualified him— with no previous academic experience—to be a Dean and Professor at Boston University. Personal ethics and professional values had nothing to with it. He is not the first BU Professor or Dean with a shady ethical past and I doubt that he will be the last. In fact, even in the short time I have been teaching in the College of Communication, the College has had two previous Deans who were both found guilty of other kinds of serious unethical behavior—one was a proven plagiarist and the other was guilty both of plagiarism and of massively falsifying his resume. And, get this, when the facts came out, neither of them was fired! The events were hushed up, just as this set of events undoubtedly will be. There have been a host of individuals with shady ethical pasts appointed to senior administrative and academic positions at Boston University under Robert Brown and John Silber.

If there is any question about the degree of commitment to ethical values in the most senior levels of the current administration, read a few other pages of this blog. Look at the responses of President Robert Brown and Provost Jean Morrison to my reports of ethical violations. Or the non-responses I should say. What responses have I received? Silence and stone-walling, having my pay docked, having my teaching schedule changed without my permission, having my research support cancelled. That was after administrators made a series of blackmail threats to destroy me with internet postings and to bankrupt me with legal actions if I didn’t shut up and take down my faculty web site. Does that sound like an administration that takes ethics seriously?

Question: What evidence do I have that the financial, bureaucratic, pedagogical, and personal punishments that have been inflicted on me in the past ten years have been for filing ethics reports raising questions about things like this?

Answer: That’s an easy question to answer. My Chairman told me! In direct answer to a question I asked about why I was being punished financially and bureaucratically, he said it was, among other reasons, because I had criticized the Dean of the College of Communication’s ethics. He actually quoted something I had written raising questions about Fiedler’s stalking of Gary Hart and prying into his and his girlfriend’s sex life. [See "Frightening Advice--The Need for Ethical Speech," available in the right-hand menu under March 2014.]

Question: How can a faculty member be punished for raising ethical issues?

Answer: It’s Boston University. Read the first two entries on this blog. Read the “Summary” of the treatment I have received for filing ethics reports that I posted in June 2014. Read the letters I wrote to Provost Morrison and President Brown. Google the name of the man who ran the university for more than thirty years before them: John Silber. This is the way Boston University has been for a long time and the way it continues to be. The treatment that has been dished out to me and dozens of other faculty members is proof of it. In fact, I’m sure I’ll be punished some more in my evaluations and pay for raising these questions and posting these answers. It’s the BU way. Shoot the messenger. But I can’t let that stop me from telling the truth.