The young woman came to my faculty office door and asked if she could speak with me. I smiled and welcomed her in.
She closed the door (a somewhat unusual gesture) and sat down.
“I’ve never done this before,” she said.
She reported that another student was cheating. It offended her both because it was a violation of the standards set for our classroom and because it was an attempt to secure a good grade without the kind of hard work that she, herself, put in to earn one. She wanted me to know it was happening.
But she had mixed feelings. She was “ratting out” a classmate. Wasn’t there some “code,” however implicit, that bound students to silence even when they knew an ugly truth?
Her story is no different than the stories we can tell of our own struggles. Sometimes we are the ones tempted to ethical failure, sometimes the ones challenged to report failure, sometimes the ones with the authority to sanction that failure. When we report, or sanction, those failures in others, we know what kind of response we are likely to encounter: hostile.
None of us like to be called to account for our lapses. Many of us will seek, when our failings are revealed, to shift the blame: to the circumstances at that moment of failure; to others who share (or are imagined to share) in the blame; or, most peculiarly, to the person who “ratted us out.”
That strange shift is, sadly, not uncommon among public figures, whether candidates, elected officials or celebrities. And I get it. It’s one thing to be caught doing something of questionable merit. It’s another to have it be publicized on the front page, the lead story, or a bombardment of hashtag comments. The mortification is multiplied and, with it, the desire to deflect the blame.
One of the most popular targets of blame-shifting is the news media. Donald Trump did it (again) this week when challenged about the million-dollar personal donation he said he’d make to veterans as part of a fundraising effort he staged in lieu of participating in a debate months ago. As it turned out, he hadn’t written that personal check (though he certainly benefitted politically from making the pledge to do so). Only when investigative reporting creating considerable pressure through social media did he make good on his promise.
Then Mr. Trump held a press conference blaming the press for making an issue of his previously unkept promise, calling some reporters names and describing them, as a group, as “not good people.”
This is not a uniquely Republican tactic, of course. For example, many months ago Bill Clinton attacked some in the press for their stories about Secretary Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Reporters and the media outlets that are their canvas don’t exist for the convenience of those who have or would like to have power. Indeed, a free and aggressive press is most inconvenient for those of us who would prefer to exercise our slice of the power pie in peace. They can be nearly as inconvenient for the noble-minded as for the debased . . . nearly.
But we need the press, imperfect as reporters may be, personal as some journalistic agendas may become, inaccurate as some stories end up being.
Without them, we won’t have a democracy. We won’t have independent sources of information challenging the exercise of power by those with power. We won’t have a way to hold our leaders accountable . . . nor a way to ensure that we who hold power are truly accountable.
Voters cannot intelligently choose between candidates without information from independent voices who are not themselves candidates or committed to backing candidates for office. Individual reporters and news operations may not be truly unbiased (that’s a tough standard for anyone to meet), but taken as a whole, news is how we have a hope of knowing what our leaders are up to. I believe it also is that little added pressure that helps many of us in office not to give in to temptation.
Don’t blame the messenger for telling the story we don’t like. Blame ourselves for creating the potential for the story to be told. Hold reporters accountable for being accurate, but don’t expect them to turn a blind eye to our faults.
Telling the stories of our failures is a necessary part of the public vetting of those who would serve the public. Not to tell those stories . . . that really would be a betrayal.