A time for scandal figures to reflect

November 27, 1998|By Crispin Sartwell

AS THE mind-numbing Lewinsky scandal winds finally to its anticlimax, it is getting to be time for an ethical debriefing. Everyone involved needs to engage in some serious self-reflection, and I have some suggestions as to the shape that self-reflection should take for each of the major players.

President Clinton needs to do some soul searching, if he has not already. He needs to ask himself what things are really most important to him. He needs to ask himself whether he is an addict, and if so whether he wants to get some treatment.

Independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the Republicans in Congress are guilty of by far the most serious ethical lapses of anyone involved. Mr. Starr needs to ask himself why he decided to become the nation's sex police.

Also, he needs to ask himself whether he thinks public officials should have any zone of privacy. He needs to ask himself whether his rigid self-righteousness justifies putting this country through hell.

Starr's prescription

He needs to ask himself whether he's obsessed, and what his obsession has cost all of us. He needs to deepen his understanding of the ethics of public figures, so that it encompasses not only such things as sexual continence, but also the minimally decent treatment of other human beings that he failed to extend to the Clintons. He needs to consider carefully the meaning of the phrase "abuse of power."

The Republicans need to ask themselves the same questions, )) and a few more. What could possibly justify their public release of the Starr Report with its peering, leering "narrative"?

What could possibly justify continuing impeachment proceedings when the public is clearly against doing so, and when it is clear that no articles of impeachment will be voted out of the House. Even if they were, Mr. Clinton could not be convicted in the Senate.

They need to look themselves very closely in the mirror and ask themselves whether they have ever committed adultery and lied about it. In general, they need to ask themselves whether they want to be the party of the religious right. They need to ask whether they want to try to institute an inquisition that involves a deep abandonment of the American ideal of freedom.

The media needs to have a serious identity crisis. We need to ask who we are, what we're doing, and why we're doing it. For example, the cable network MSNBC became, in the last year, the 24-hour oral sex network. Much of their programming consisted of a stack of four rabid Chihuahuas, yapping simultaneously about presidential semen. Keith Olbermann, the wonderful anchor of "The Big Show" has quit MSNBC in disgust over its approach to the scandal: The only case of conscience that seems to have emerged from the media world this year. Newspapers have been almost as guilty as television of saturation coverage of the scandal.

The assessment of the media -- that the scandal was by far the most important story of the year -- does not seem to be shared by the American public.

Nevertheless, the basic justification for the saturation is that people buy newspapers and people watch. MSNBC has had a good year in the ratings. So the questions for media professionals run like this. Are we willing to sell our souls for screen time or ratings points?

Media's role

Did we pause at all this year to ask ourselves whether we wanted to be the kind of people or the kind of organizations that focused obsessively day after day, month after month on the president's sex life? How do we view our mission and the ethical status of our profession?

Who the hell are we anyway?

The public in general needs to ask themselves what they expect from their leaders and what they expect from their media providers. And if they don't like what they're getting, they need to vote their leaders out and change the channel.

Crispin Sartwell teaches ethics at Penn State University in Harrisburg, Pa. His most recent book is "Act Like You Know." His e-mail address: mindstoripeline.com.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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