Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Five Enduring Ethical Rules

By Jerry Ceppos

I'm so old that I can remember when the U.S. government didn't bribe journalists and companies didn't illicitly scrutinize telephone records of reporters, let alone their own board members.

Those two remarkable stories remind me of five enduring ethical rules appropriate for everyone involved. But first, some background on the stories that brought the rules to mind, two apparently unrelated stories that in fact bear some similarities:

  • Hewlett-Packard hired private eyes to determine who was leaking news to reporters. Those detectives, or someone working for them, apparently used a practice called "pretexting" to obtain phone records of H-P board members and of reporters. As I understand it, the definition of pretexting is pretty simple: lying about who you are so that you can obtain someone else's personal information. Funny. I thought that directors were the bosses at the company, not enemies whose phone records you obtained through Nixon-esque tactics.

  • In addition, until a few years ago, I had thought of Hewlett-Packard as the best company to work for in Silicon Valley, and maybe the country, in part because of its ethical standards. I found it interesting that the San Jose Mercury News on Friday described H-P as "iconic." By Sunday, the newspaper referred to the "once iconic" company.

  • The U.S. government paid reporters for Spanish-language media in Miami. The reporters didn't disclose the government payments, but the Miami Herald broke the story on Friday. Maybe the reporters thought the payments were normal because, after all, they've happened before. Just a few years ago, a syndicated columnist secretly was on the payroll of the U.S. Department of Education. More recently, the U.S. government paid to "place" stories in Iraqi newspapers.

At the risk of being obvious-although maybe these stories prove that you can't be too obvious these days-the following rules come to mind to avoid these sorts of scandals:

  1. For corporations, government and journalists: If something is called "pretexting," just don't do it.

  2. For corporations and government: The cure, for leaks or anything else, can be worse than the original problem. That's clear in the H-P case, where the solution to plugging leaks triggered a scandal. (Bureaucrats would be amazed to learn where leaks come from. I knew a CEO who loved talking to reporters and giving the good ones tidbits.) In the Miami case, paying reporters to generate anti-Castro feelings caused more harm than good.

  3. For government: Your job is to talk to reporters, not to bribe them. Bill Lockyer, California's attorney general, rightly described stealing reporters' phone records as "stupid cubed." I'm not good enough at math to top that great quote to describe the payments to journalists, but consider this: The U.S. government paid for anti-Castro propaganda in Miami. I want a refund on my taxes.

  4. For bosses everywhere: Leave no doubt that you have zero tolerance for ethical lapses. OK, the rule may not have helped at H-P, where the big bosses appear to have been the problem. And if you have to tell reporters not to take government bribes, well….. Nonetheless, when the ethical lapses happen, it's best if employees aren't surprised at your reaction.

  5. For everyone, everywhere: Ethical lapses will happen. Prepare for them.

Jerry Ceppos is a member of the advisory board of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. He is a former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and former vice president for news of Knight Ridder, which owned the Mercury News and the Miami Herald. For the record, he once worked at the Herald and has had numerous connections with the paper through the years.

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