Brian Williams and the Gaffe Heard ‘Round the World
On February 4, 2015, Brian Williams went on NBC Nightly News in order to apologize for falsely claiming that he was in a helicopter in Iraq in 2004 which took RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fire.
Williams’s apology focused on not just the gaffe, but also on his motivations. He claimed that he was telling the story (incorrectly) in order to somehow honor a veteran. I hear a lot of flag-waving and appeals to patriotism. Williams says he misremembered an event from twelve years previously. While it may be difficult to recall events from more than a decade ago, the important and frightening ones tend to stand out. I would think that an incident of nearly being shot down, almost a near-death experience would be one of them. And so it is – except it never happened.
The very idea behind a news anchor is trustworthiness. The news, particularly here in America, is all about telling the truth to the public and the public’s right to know. The freedom of the press is of supreme importance. In the Society of Professional Journalists, Code of Ethics, it says, “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
Further, in the Poynter Institute, The New Ethics of Journalism, it states, “Truth remains our most important goal.” To my mind, the ethical arguments being made are of the categorical imperative. Immanuel Kant says that duty is to be observed in all situations and circumstances. Williams had an obligation to tell the truth every time he was on the air either delivering the news or talking about events related to delivering the news.
Instead, he lied. And instead of initially apologizing, correcting the record, and perhaps checking his ego and his mouth before speaking about the matter again, he compounded the issue. The lie was repeated, almost taking on a ‘fish story’ quality. Or it was like how a story is repeated at a local bar, where the stakes get higher and the storyline slants ever more favorably for the storyteller. I feel his career is irreparably tarnished. I can’t see him recovering from this.
In 1998, Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman and other iconic comic book characters, contracted with his own company, Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. (the predecessor company to Stan Lee Media, Inc., also known as SLMI). Lee assigned to the company the rights to all of the characters he had worked on while working for Marvel. In 2001, Lee pulled back his intellectual property rights, alleging material breach against SLMI. This was while Marvel was making movies from Lee’s characters, including the X-Men and Iron Man. In 2007, SLMI began asserting ownership rights. A series of lawsuits followed, with the fundamental question: Who Owns Spiderman?
And Iron Man, and the X-Men, etc.
According to the January 2015 IP Update, SLMI filed numerous lawsuits. In 2009, when Disney acquired Marvel, Disney became the object of these cases.
On its face, the case looks a bit like a contract/employment dispute. Who was Stan Lee working for? It seems as if Lee created a company but did not really work for it, at least not in the beginning. Instead, he was working for Marvel. I doubt that SLMI was turning a profit at the time.
By 2001, Lee disassociated himself from a company named after him. But it wasn’t until six years later that SLMI got on the stick and started asserting rights in the characters and trying for a share of the profits.
The issue of ownership is the crucial one. That includes the assertion (or not) of copyright. While the corporate relationships are a little hard to follow, one thing is clear. SLMI had a chance to assert copyright any time it witnessed Marvel, and then successor corporation Disney, prepare and sell any sort of media with the disputed characters. Yet they didn’t do so until six years had elapsed.
The court applied what was essentially a utilitarian theory. The maximization of benefits was to allow the original content creator, Stan Lee, to sell his intellectual property as he saw fit. And, when he pulled back his rights, while SLMI had had ample opportunity to object then, the company did not. Furthering the utilitarian maximization of benefits theory is the fact that SLMI never created or sold anything with the characters in dispute. Copyright doesn’t exist to just bring suit; it exists to protect an intellectual property owner who is sharing with and presenting to the public.
” the theory [is] that copyrights have a special place in the law and are to be used for informational and entertainment purposes, not just for lawsuits.”
It would seem that the only way that SLMI wanted to utilize Spiderman and the other copyrights was as a lawsuit battering ram against Lee and Marvel (and, later, Disney). That’s hardly in line with the maximized benefit theory of utilitarianism.
Presumably, the matter is now resolved, but SLMI has gone jurisdiction shopping before. It’s possible that this lawsuit, or its near-twin, will show up in another circuit soon. But if that happens, I predict another dismissal, based on both precedent and utilitarianism. The webslinger will finally catch a break.
Like many people, I am a member of LinkedIn. I use the service even when I am employed. It is a decent means of building and maintaining a connection. However, much like Facebook, it can turn into a bit of a popularity contest. You can also end up connected to people you don’t really know. That is not necessarily a huge problem, however. After all, when you build a network offline, you are encouraged to meet friends of friends and expand your circle. Job seekers in all sorts of fields are urged to mention their searches to anyone who will listen (and, perhaps, to those who couldn’t care less). You’re told to tell your hairdresser, even if you don’t work in that field. And on and on.
And LinkedIn’s got a premium service. For $29.99/month, you can get your resume tossed onto the top of the pile. You get a sweet little badge on your profile page, telling all and sundry that you’ve gone premium.
Of course everyone else who goes premium gets identical treatment. If you are vying for a position where there are 100 applicants, and five of them are premium, then all five of you are at the top of the heap. Furthermore, there are no gradations of quality. LinkedIn neither knows (nor cares) whether you or any of the other premium members are better qualified than the other 95 applicants. You’re still up at the top of the stack, although of course the impact of being premium is diminished when others are, as well.
Does the premium service pass ethical muster? Why or why not?
Using the SAD (Situation, Analysis, Decision) method, the situation is, I feel, somewhat exploitative. The job seeker (often an increasingly desperate individual) is tempted to spend their limited capital on the service. The moral agent, I feel, is LinkedIn itself. While the job seeker might be the one deciding on whether to go ahead and go premium or not, it is LinkedIn itself that has decided on pricing and on providing the service in the first place.
The service is a dubious one at best, I feel. The job seeker is pushed to get his or her resume to the top of the stack, but the reason for promoting the candidate is a financial one and is not based upon merit at all. Such a practice preys upon a job seeker’s insecurities and desire to get something, anything to pay the bills.
Does the employer have an ethical responsibility to prioritize LinkedIn’s premium service subscribers above other candidates? Why or why not?
The Employer’s Side
The employer has no ethical responsibility to prioritize premium service subscribers over other candidates. For the employer, if he or she knows how candidates pay for placement, then the intelligent thing to do would be to ignore stack placement in favor of other criteria, such as whether a candidate has experience in an area, or is a veteran or a disabled person that the company is looking to court (such a practice may or may not be legal or ethical, either).
Practically speaking, though, piles of candidate resumes, much like slush piles at publishing houses, are glanced at unless the employee is really looking for something or for a certain type of someone. The fact that certain candidates are at the top might mean that they are the only candidates seen by a rushed Hiring Manager. LinkedIn is counting on this behavior by Hiring Managers, as are job seekers who avail themselves of the service.
What ethical arguments could job seekers use against this LinkedIn’s practice?
Beyond the question of whether it works at all (e. g. charging for a service that does not seem as if it would work at all), a job seeker can also present an argument about exploitation. Job seekers are on fixed and unreliable incomes at best. To push for nearly $30/month for a service of dubious efficacy means that a job seeker might go without any number of necessities. It may not seem like much, but that’s grocery money. $360/year is the cost of a decent new suit and accessories.
Does this situation fall under contractarian ethical theory (based upon mutual agreement)? Not exactly. The mutual agreement is skewed heavily in favor of LinkedIn, which created the ‘service’ in the first place and does not allow for negotiations on price or features. LinkedIn isn’t acting from an altruistic standpoint, either. For LinkedIn, the situation seems to fall under utilitarianism. E. g. for them, it is a maximizing of benefits and a minimizing of downsides.
For the job seeker, it seems like just another way to prey on their circumstances without providing much of a benefit at all. Under a deontology theory in particular (act morally under all circumstances), the LinkedIn premium feature fails particularly miserably.
For the benefit of those who have been living under rocks, it’s time to talk about Charlie Hebdo and Ethics.
Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine. It is a place where controversial cartoons and commentary are unleashed. The magazine prides itself on being irresponsible.
In 2006, a lawsuit was brought against Charlie Hebdo for its works. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a letter to the court, championing France’s tradition of satire.
But then in 2011, the offices of the magazine were firebombed, and their servers were hacked.
And now, in January of 2015, a dozen people were shot to death.
Tragedy and Free Speech
Wrapped up in this obvious tragedy are considerations of free speech. People around the world were outraged, and they took to the streets to protest, yelling, Je Suis Charlie! Or they would hold up signs that said the same. The three-word sentence simply says, “I am Charlie.”
Free speech means that all speech is free, and that includes satiric and uncomfortable speech. Racist screeds are protected, as are cartoons showing world or religious leaders doing God only knows what. And Charlie Hebdo and its cartooning staff certainly seemed to take pride in that as well, at showing the famous and the powerful and the well-known and the worshiped at their worst.
I have to say, though, that the magazine’s actions were more than a little irresponsible. They had seen a history of escalation, and things had already gotten violent. Four years ago. Hence I have to wonder, what were the preparations? And where were the precautions?
Abortion doctors who have seen their colleagues shot sometimes stop performing abortions. Or they will also take sensible precautions and wear bulletproof vests when they go to work in the morning. While living in fear is unpleasant (there’s an understatement), the precaution is an intelligent one. I am not saying that unprotected abortion doctors are shouting out to the world, “Come on and take your best shot!” But a smart precaution isn’t caving. If anything, it’s just being practical. And it is respecting one’s family, too. Yet I don’t see the dozen victims as having done that. Why not? It sure as hell would have made some sense.
This is not me blaming the victims. This is more like – couldn’t something have been done? Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. These people cannot be retroactively saved. But maybe others can.
The thing that gets to me is that Charlie Hebdo isn’t Mad Magazine. Hell, it isn’t even Cracked. It feels a lot more like adolescents drawing crude figures and taunting each other. It does not feel clever enough to be satire. Yet people will go out and buy it now, anyway. It’s chic to do so, as seven million copies of the latest issue are sold, for a magazine that normally has a circulation of some 60,000.
Free speech? Hell yeah. Condemn the killer or killers? Of course. Try to ignore the fact that the reactive cartoons in solidarity were considerably more clever than anything Charlie Hebdo ever published.
The video is my class presentation on the subject.