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Press: Ethical dilemmas abound for US papers

21 June 2024


ONE difference between the British and American press is that The New York Times can afford to hire a Reith lecturer as an upmarket agony aunt: the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, last seen in this column advising a New Yorker what you owe when your dog impregnates another in a public park and the other dog’s owner wants you to pay for a canine abortion (27 October 2023). If this makes the paper’s readers sound shallow and transactional, hold on to your hats, or your mitres. This week’s dilemma is a woman who wants to leave her husband.

“I strongly suspect that my husband is developing dementia,” writes Name Withheld. “His doctors have found nothing wrong with him. . . My insistence that he engage with me in maintaining a quality relationship has led to endless fighting and brought me to the brink of divorce.

“Since I’ve come to understand that early-stage dementia is at the root of our problems, I’ve quit trying to ‘fix’ our relationship. Our fighting has stopped, but it’s a lonely place to be. I’m not thrilled about spending my retirement years as a caregiver. It’s a huge sacrifice that will narrow my own life significantly. . . Can I leave now (and let his family deal with this)? Or am I obligated to stay and care for him?”

What follows is an extraordinary illumination of a world in which there is no appeal to an ethical standard other than (hopefully enlightened) selfishness. Appiah sets out the problem at once: “The traditional Christian marriage vow was to stay together ‘in sickness and in health.’ The possibility of divorce shifts the meaning of that promise — it becomes more of an ethical commitment than a contractual obligation.”

Two things about that sentence: the first is that “contract” is the only form of obligation recognised, with the implication that, if you didn’t agree to it, you can’t be bound by it. The second is that “an ethical agreement” is weaker than a contractual obligation. “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others”, as Groucho Marx said.

Appiah is explicit about this later on: “The special obligations we have to our loved ones are rooted in the value we place on our relationships with them, with all the resilience, and fragility, of those relationships.”

Obligations, in other words, are only what we feel like being obliged by. This has always been a realistic, or French, way of looking at the world. But in The New York Times it is presented as the summit of human ethical achievement.

SO, WE have reached a state where human beings are expected to behave as sociopathically as corporations, whose only duty is to their shareholders — but some corporations are expected to live up to really stringent moral codes.

The Washington Post is presently convulsed by a row over the question whether it is morally permissible to hire successful British journalists. Last year, Jeff Bezos, who owns the paper, hired Sir Will Lewis, a former Murdoch executive who had been editor of The Daily Telegraph when it broke the scandal of MPs expenses in 2009.

That scandal was made possible by Mr Lewis’s decision to pay £150,000 for the records that showed what MPs had claimed for. Paying public servants for information is one of the great ethical divides between British and US journalism. In the US, it’s seen as corrupting public servants; in old Fleet Street, it was seen as the exploitation of people already corrupt to serve the wider public interest.

No such ambiguity attended the practice of “phone-hacking” — which was almost always simply a matter of listening to other people’s voicemails. Everyone agrees now that it was disgusting and unethical, something done only by competitors, and, if we did it ourselves, it was only because we had to compete. After Mr Lewis was squeezed out of the Telegraph, he went to work for Rupert Murdoch and oversaw the operation to blame everyone but Murdoch’s favourites among the senior executives for what had been done there.

Mr Lewis went on to become the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, before Mr Bezos poached him to run The Washington Post. He wants to bring over another British hack, Rob Winnett, to edit the paper (which lost $77 million last year). The staff at the Post retaliated with a story about Mr Lewis’s involvement in the phone- hacking scandals in Britain. Mr Lewis pushed out the executive editor who had wanted to run it. The New York Times then ran a very thorough 3000-word story on the Fleet Street pasts of Lewis and Winnett. Three thousand words on a story that could only possibly be newsworthy to an American in the journalism business. It illustrated the commendable thoroughness of an American newsroom, and its breathtaking lack of interest in what readers not in the trade might possibly want.

IF IT’S any consolation to Lewis and Winnett, the other man accused of phone- hacking this week was Pope Francis, who is the subject of a complaint to the UN by lawyers for the businessman jailed for five-and-a-half years by the Vatican for defrauding it in a deal on the London property market.

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