Friday, March 18, 2011

Deception overload

One piece of advice that I used to give my students at GW when considering whether an action or statement was right or wrong was to think about whether they would be comfortable with it being reported in the Washington Post. This would have been great advice for Richard Schiller, the former fundraising director for NPR, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and others who have recently been ambushed by impostors.

Michael Gerson has a column today on the morality of these ruses. The ruses are ethically dicey because they start with lies. The perpetrators' hope is that one wrong will cause another which will make the whole scheme right. Gerson concludes that these types of deceptions are rarely justified. He also points out that that the deceptive editing of the NPR "gotcha" video is unethical (the initial lie of the scheme is compounded by other lies in the presentation of the evidence) and that there was no good in the underlying objective (to cause embarrassment).

However, in a column that's thoughtful and balanced in most respects, Gerson slips in these digs against Schiller and NPR.
The interviewers posed as representatives of a Muslim organization that wanted to donate $5 million to NPR. The stingers bought access to NPR executives with fake money.

...There is no ethical imperative to provide a prostitute to a weak man and then videotape the scandal, or to provide drugs to a recovering addict and then report the result — or to promise $5 million to a radio executive to get him nodding to leading questions.
The implication is that meeting with the impostors itself was immoral and wrong and a sign of succumbing to temptation.

Although he is aware of it and mentions it earlier in the column, Gerson's later statements conveniently ignore that the executive in question was NPR's director of fundraising--the person responsible for developing relationships with potential donors. Thus, the only "access" that was "bought" was contact with the employees responsible for donor contacts (the director of fundraising and his assistant for institutional giving). Moreover, Schiller had an obligation and responsibility to meet with and encourage possible donors.

The deception put Schiller in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. If he meets with the imposters, he gets accused of providing "access" to a Muslim organization. However, if Schiller doesn't meet with the impostors, he's open to an accusation of discrimination against Muslims and more generally of not doing his job.

To be clear, none of this justifies or excuses Schiller's comments regarding the Tea Party, which were dumb, thoughtless and biased. He was wrong to have said them and embarrassed himself and NPR. Several other comments that he made were also embarrassing and ill-advised.

However, Schiller was obligated to follow up on the contact with the impostors. The deception didn't trade on Schiller's weakness but rather on his responsible and obligated behavior, which makes the deception even more under-handed.