In the 1950’s the Quakers coined the phrase “speaking truth to power” in the context of the extreme right at the time. It was meant to unnerve the far right McCarthy era trends that were dominating politics at the time. The phrase still rings true today – especially in relation to journalism. The three films The Insider, Good Night and Good Luck, and All the President’s Men describe different occurrences in American journalism and how the journalists involved “spoke truth to power” to uncover injustices in the political system. This essay will summarize each film and the corresponding political scandal it covers in turn, and will relate various ethical theories to each circumstance. It will argue that in each case the journalists may have engaged in unethical behavior, however it was for the greater good.
All the President’s Men takes place in the early 1970’s and covers the Watergate Scandal involving Richard Nixon and his campaign team. A break-in was reported at the Watergate office complex, where the Democratic National Committee was housed – and two journalists from the Washington Post – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – were assigned to the case. Eventually they uncover that President Nixon had been taping conversations at the DNC, and took illegal action to cover his involvement after the break-in. The Watergate scandal had a huge impact on investigative journalism – the public began to demand a greater degree of investigation into public figures. Bernstein and Woodward regularly lied, badgered sources, relied heavily on an anonymous source, and even broke the law during their investigation. These actions could be considered unethical, but ultimately it led to the admission of guilt from Nixon and his resignation.
In Media Ethics Goes to the Movies the authors write “[h]ad the Watergate stories failed to link President Nixon to political corruption, the events depicted…might have provided the raw material for a very different kind of narrative about the press.” Indeed, Bernstein and Woodward may have acted unethically, however John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian model of ethics states that it may be ethical to harm one group of people for the benefit of the larger group. The emphasis lies on the outcome of the situation. As the Watergate scandal played out – the greater good was with the American people and the American political system. The larger group (America as a whole) gained from Woodward and Bernstein’s unethical behavior. Had the outcome been different (if Nixon was not found guilty, for instance) then the unethical behavior of the journalists may have been detrimental to American journalism has a whole. Two other ethical theories that may apply to this situation include the Pluralistic Theory of Value and Communitarianism. The Pluralistic Theory of Value is based on the idea that often there are several ethical values competing with each other in ethical decision making, and the decision is often made by distinguishing between “right” and “good”. It was “right” for Woodward and Bernstein to unveil a political scandal, however their actions to do so may not have been “good”. Communitarianism is similar to Utilitarianism in that it focuses on the larger audience. It takes focus away from individual rights and focuses on the ‘community’ as a whole (ie: America). The focus lies with the outcome of individual ethical decisions related to their impact on society.
In Good Night and Good Luck, Edward R Murrow goes against corporate pressure to discredit the way Joseph McCarthy was trying to root out communists in American government and public life. On air, Murrow used excerpts of McCarthy’s own speeches to publicly admonish him and point out instances where he had contradicted himself. This was a new trend in American broadcast journalism, which historically had been to report the news, rather than to investigate and comment. Murrow made an ethical stance – deciding that the way McCarthy was persecuting innocent people was unfair. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is an ethical theory that can be applied to this situation. Aristotle felt that people acting virtuous are the moral basis for the ethical system as a whole. It focuses on the nature of the act and the moral character of the actor. Morrow – in putting his own job and reputation on the line – was acting courageous and ethical in his decision to publicly admonish McCarthy. In Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies, the author writes “[p]hilosopher Jeremy Bentham exhorted people to choose that action which brings the greatest happiness to the greater number. Similarly, John Stuart Mill sets as the goal of his utilitarian ethics the maximization of good and the minimization of harm. In both conceptions, it is assumed that a minority of people will end up unhappy and harmed. If ethics demanded that all decisions benefit all people equally, it would be a quixotic and futile pursuit indeed.”
In each of these circumstances, the journalists faced ethical decisions where they had to make a decision between what is “right” and what is “good”. In most cases, journalists will made a decision based on the greater good. Unethical behavior, in moderation, is an acceptable course of action if there is no alternative. In each of these cases, without taking the decision to act unethically, the story the journalists were seeking to unveil would not have come to light. Therefore, when speaking truth to power, a degree of unethical behavior is acceptable if it is for the greater good.
- GOOD, H., & DILLON, M. (2002). Media ethics goes to the movies. Westport, Conn, Praeger.
- GOOD, H. (2008). Journalism ethics goes to the movies. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield.