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:
For corporations, government and journalists: If something
is called "pretexting," just don't do it.
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.
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.
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
For everyone, everywhere: Ethical lapses will happen. Prepare
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.