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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

This spring, three times a week I have walked through the lobby of Otto Miller Hall, going to and from my course in Communication Ethics — usually consumed in thought about class and oblivious to the presence of those students who serve as safety monitors.

Today, that space is a crime scene.

And today my emotions are this peculiar mix of sorrow and relief — sorrow for the loss of life, sorrow for those injured, sorrow for the way violence has displayed its relentless force here at SPU. But I also feel relief because of the quick action of a student monitor and others, who stopped a terrible situation from becoming much, much worse. And as I look back at these past two sentences, I am acutely aware of how inadequate any words are right now.

For that reason, the most powerful moment in Thursday night’s prayer service started with notes of music. During a period of silent prayer, musicians began playing Gungor’s song “Beautiful Things.” As the musicians began the chorus, without any cue or direction, students began to sing. Their voices were soft, starting like a murmur and gaining strength as more joined in. Once the prayer ended, the lyrics appeared on the screen and the mix of music and voice swelled into a crescendo that was at once mournful and gorgeous.

“Beautiful Things” was a good choice because it sways back and forth between lament and hope. Earlier in the service, my colleague Frank Spina touched on the importance of lament — that we cannot skip or bypass it; we must reckon with it, express it. To do otherwise, to rush forward to the usual words of hope, he said, is to reduce that hope to a cliché.

Before the hope of Psalm 23, he reminded us, is Psalm 22, an expression of desolate lament. After Spina finished his comments, we listened to both of those Psalms and heard them in a way that was not possible before.

In my ethics course, I devote the final weeks to examining the concept of reconciliation. I use the book “Reconciling All Things,” which also stresses the importance of lament: It is a crying out toward God, the authors say, a practice that is necessary in order to find genuine hope. And in recent weeks, the students have explored lament through various stories, ranging from those of 9/11 widows to Jesmyn Ward’s memoir “Men We Reaped” to the documentary “The Interrupters,” which examines efforts to combat gun violence in Chicago.

By using stories, it is my hope that students can see how abstract concepts are lived out in concrete, real-life situations. While these stories are intense, we still examine them at a safe distance, in a classroom.

On Thursday, that distance collapsed. Please pray that we have the courage to lament honestly, so that we may hope fully.

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Joe Nocera of The New York Times says yes:

We like to tell ourselves that we believe in the power of redemption. People can make mistakes — even big mistakes — and, in time, recover from them. Stephen Glass is someone who made a big mistake. The infamy of his misdeeds will follow him forever. But if anyone can be said to have redeemed himself by his subsequent actions, it is Glass.

However, to characterize Glass’s actions as a “big mistake” seems a bit too generous for acts of deliberate and repeated deception in which Glass fabricated, in whole or in part, dozens of articles during the mid-1990’s — mostly for the New Republic. Glass’s fraud was first exposed in 1998 by Forbes journalist Adam Penenberg; explored in more detail by Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair; chronicled in “Shattered Glass,” a nice little film (see trailer at top of this post); and re-examined this week by The San Francisco Chronicle in a front-page story.

Glass, who received a law degree from Georgetown University in 2000, is now the object for renewed media attention because he is in a court battle over admission to the California bar. Though he passed the state bar exam years ago, he has been denied entry because of his past. Glass has challenged this ruling, and both the State Bar Court of California and the California Court of Appeals have ruled in his favor. Now, the state bar has appealed to the California Supreme Court, which recently accepted the case.

Media critic Jack Shafer has examined the recently unsealed court files from the Glass case, and he is far more skeptical about Glass’s rehabilitation than Nocera. On one side you have the testimony of more than 20 people regarding Glass’s exemplary post-scandal behavior. On the other side the California State Committee of Bar Examiners asserts that Glass has dissembled about the scope of his fabrication even as he sought to join the legal guild, first unsuccessfully in New York and now in California. Shafer writes:

Insisting that Glass has never rehabilitated himself in a manner that would make him fit to practice law, the Committee of Bar Examiners dissects his behavior since 1998 in the pleadings. It accuses Glass of misleading the New York Bar in 2003 during the admittance process.

Glass stated to the New York Bar that he “worked with all three magazines and other publications … to identify which facts were true and which were false in all of [his] stories, so they could publish clarifications.” This statement was false, the committee wrote, because Glass didn’t work with all the magazines. Glass later testified that he should have said that he “offered” to work with the publications, and “by ‘offered’ to work, he meant through counsel.” The committee found this Glass explanation “disingenuous.”

The California bar also notes that Glass low-balled the number of fabricated articles in his New York bar application and then offered a larger estimate in his California application. It also noted that Glass profited from the scandal through the publication of the novel “The Fabulist,” for which he received a $190,000 advance. (As Shafer notes, the novel bombed; fewer than 5,000 out of 75,000 copies were sold.) Shafer quotes the bar committee:

The concept of Applicant profiting from his wrongdoing appears inconsistent with the notion of moral rehabilitation. Applicant could have, and the Committee believes should have, used the money to correct his wrongs, to pay back the victims of his lies, or to fund charitable programs benefiting the journalism profession, which he damaged so greatly.

But what really rankles Shafer is the effort by Glass to blame overly demanding parents for the pattern of deception in his early life, something first noted in Bissinger’s Vanity Fair profile and a more recent story posted at CNN. Shafer concludes:

Even if you’re supportive of Glass’s legal quest—as you might have guessed, I’m not—the unsealed documents sketch a cringeworthy picture of him. How many people would make the sort of confessions and excuses that Glass does in this case, just to gain admittance to the bar?

The key word in Shafer’s critique is “excuse”; he does not see in Glass a clear acceptance of responsibility. Yet Nocera says of Shafer’s conclusion: “To my mind, that’s a serious misreading of the testimony, in which Glass seems to go out of his way to not make excuses for what he did.” However, if you read the 160-plus comments to Nocera’s column, his readers overwhelmingly side with Shafer’s skepticism.

In Nocera’s column and the CNN profile, there’s no doubt about the sincerity of supporters for Glass; many have extended grace to him in remarkable and commendable ways. But the California bar’s concerns over how Glass has hedged about his past raise reasonable doubts because they echo his past tendency to cover one half-truth with another, and to do so in such a convincing manner that he could persuade even his greatest doubters.

The testimonials on behalf of Glass also echo another key observation by Bissinger, that Glass’s “nonstop yearning to please” others appeared to be “indisputably genuine.” It is difficult not to see suggestions of this trait in examples offered by those who support Glass. As Nocera notes:

People who know him tell me that he is “relentlessly honest.” Having once been a pathological liar, he now won’t tell even the tiniest of white lies.

This kind of comment sets off an alarm because, as Bissinger observed, Glass’s “eager-to-please” sincerity was central to his ability to cover his real conduct and true identity. The depth of his calculation was staggering, and this is why Nocera errs in characterizing Glass’s conduct as a mistake. We all makes mistakes, often in the form of innocent errors; this cannot be said of Glass. 

So we are left with this question: Is it ever possible for anyone to know who Stephen Glass really is? That’s exactly the question raised by the California bar.

Glass’s case raises perpetual questions about the nature of forgiveness. It is one thing to forgive Stephen Glass; it is another to give him the trust that comes with a license to practice law. One does not automatically lead to the other, as much as we love stories of redemption. In this case, I find myself torn. I do not wish ill upon Stephen Glass — and I want to avoid the cheap contempt of scorn offered from afar. But I cannot yet join Nocera in shaking off the doubts about Stephen Glass — though I’d love to be proved wrong.

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