Too Few Endorsements for Ethics in Politics

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, November 4, 1986

The press all too frequently maintains double standards in deciding what to cover and how to cover it. Locally, for example, we scrutinize virtually everybody and everything with more boldness and energy than we scrutinize ourselves. Simply put, the mainstream press usually puts its head in the sand on the subject of covering itself.

Such timidity in an indulgence that an honest press, one that wants to be regarded as principled and credible, cannot award itself.

What brings this to mind is not a particular instance of the press’s failure to examine itself but, rather, a series of recent editorials in this city’s newspapers that move me to criticism. The editorials endorsed Sen. Alfonse D’Amato for re-election while turning a half-blind eye on his blatant ethical lapses. I confess that my path of criticism is made easier by the fact that the editorials were written by the three other major dailies — The New York Times, the Daily News and the New York Post — and that my own newspaper, New York Newsday, chose the opposite course, by dis-endorsing D’Amato because he left “the impression that his vote might be for sale, or at least for barter; that the government’s role is to comfort the comfortable; that to be principled is to be dumb.” But I hope I would not have been deterred even if New York Newsday had joined the other’s parade.

What is troubling about the other editorials is not the support they give specifically to D’Amato but the support they give to the notion that ethics are not important in public life. Some people have doubts about whether endorsement editorials have a significant impact on voters, but regardless, the supposed purpose of such commentaries is to set ethical and performance standards for elected officials.

None of the editorials had anything negative to say about D’Amato’s Democratic opponent, Mark Green — except that “Green is inexperienced in the practicalities of government” (News) and that he occupies “a position resolutely in the leftmost segment of the national political spectrum” (News) and “represents the left-wing of the Democratic party” (Post).

Again, none of the editorials cited a single position of Green’s that they found wanting. On the contrary, the Post called him “an able, thoughtful and articulate candidate,” and the News said he was “a bright, energetic former Nader’s Raider — maybe the best of them…a public-interest lawyer who has written…on U.S. government systems and failings for most of his adult life. He is a decent, sensitive, intelligent man.”

His fatal sin, then, was that he was left of center. Did they mean by that that he was too liberal? Too socially conscious? Too opposed to taking campaign money from questionable sources? Omigod. I didn’t realize how evil these things were.

Rupert Murdoch’s politically shameless Post, to no one’s surprise, made no mention at all of D’Amato’s missing ethical genes — his unbelievable denials before a grand jury about his role in shaking down Nassau County employees for salary kickbacks to the country Republican Party, his testimony as a character witness for a crook from his hometown who had been a regular campaign donor and his virtually open performance of legislative favors in the Senate for big-business contributors to his treasury.

The News mentioned D’Amato’s unfamiliarity with integrity — but it did so very mildly and only in passing. The paper said “it is to be hoped” that that this 49-year-old man will learn and grow in the future. We can also hope that pigs will soon fly.

The Times’ editorial was by far the most important because, for better or worse, The Times is the country’s foremost newspaper and as such sets much of the national journalistic agenda. And so, when The Times took note of D’Amato’s shabby ethical behavior but then wrote that to criticize him for this “produces a D’Amato stereotype” that overlooks his larger contribution of delivering federal funds to New York, a message was being sent that character and integrity are not really that important after all.

The Times, too, expressed the wish that down the road somewhere, D’Amato will undergo a reformation and “will turn his shrewdness and tenacity to larger ends.” But what a sorry message.

One is left to wonder what The Times’ editorial comment would be if it learned that a major university was teaching, in its humanities or political science courses, that it’s acceptable to tell lies under oath and cut other ethical corners for the sole purposes of enhancing one’s personal power or saving one’s personal skin. For that’s what Sen. D’Amato did — and The Times called it acceptable.

Three days after the D’Amato endorsement, The Times wrote an editorial taking the Republicans to task for blocking passage in the Legislature of stronger ethics laws to govern the conduct of state legislators. Why not strong ethics standards for a United States senator?

Is The Times offering us, as a model, a system of ever-adjustable values — values that can be shifted and altered as convenience dictates? How sad. Maybe we are naive, but we expect more of our newspapers, particularly our better newspapers.

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