Was The New York Times' Ethicist Unethical?

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BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 12, 2012

Was The New York Times' Ethicist Unethical?

Dear [name withheld],

I have a problem. I guess you could call it an ethical dilemma. There’s a friend of mine (not me) who recently resigned his high-level government executive position because it had been revealed that this respected gentleman had an affair with his doting and obsessively fit biographer.

Although the details of the affair have made headlines for the past several days, there’s another important issue related to the story that’s been overlooked.

See, there’s this well respected publication, and buried beneath all its great work is a long-running column that’s really just Dear Abby in highbrow penned by [name withheld], who used to write edgy and exciting profiles. After the respected gentleman’s scandal broke, it was discovered that, on July 13, the aforementioned columnist respond to a question that seemed, in retrospect, to be from the cuckolded husband of the doting biographer.

The idea that the once-personal family scandal might have been hinted at publicly was a speculative and titillating side story. It was all fun and guestimations until an editor of the publication Tweeted out that the column “is NOT about the [respected gentleman’s] affair, based on our factchecking.”

I guess my question is this: Was that ethical?

Advice columns have always been sanctuaries, spaces for people who -- for whatever reason -- find momentary relief in having their problems addressed in public by a person who ostensibly cares. It’s a lot like confessional. Advice columnists have traditionally allowed the authors of reader-submitted questions complete anonymity or to use clever nicknames and/or acronyms. This is particularly true of sex and relationship advice columnists. The first reason for this anonymity is simple -- without a deluge of fairly unguarded submissions, the advice columnist would be forced do something else, like write horoscopes.

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The second, more important reason is trust. While there’s certainly no real expectation of privacy when a person writes an advice columnist, there is at least a tacit understanding that the hack won’t, in any way, reveal details about the submitter-reader that that person hasn’t already said himself. It’s a strange relationship, yes, but one where the burden of responsibility lies with the advice columnist. That’s why I’m wondering if what the editor tweeted was ethical, or more to the point, unethical.

Did the editor reveal exactly who the person in the July 13 column was? No. But he did reveal who it wasn’t. That seems like a dealbreaker of the trust that reader-submitters have when writing to advice columnists. Unless the advisee expressly offers details about their life, it seems the advisor should have no comment on any such matters. Even if the detail is a non-revelation, it’s still a revelation. And, without putting too fine a point on it, the non-announcement sets a terrible precedent. Should a similar situation involving the anonymity of advice column patients happen again, people will demand confirmation of identity—and assume that the editor’s silence means they are on the right track.

Advice columnists, particularly in our day and age, practice tough love -- Savage, Dear Prudence, etc. [Name withheld], of course, is no different. To the cuckold lover, he wrote:

Part of me wonders why you’re even posing this question, particularly in a column that is printed in [name of publication withheld]. … I halfway suspect you’re writing this letter because you want specific people to read this column and deduce who is involved and what’s really going on behind closed doors (without actually addressing the conflict in person). That’s not ethical, either.

[Name withheld] might be correct in his straight-talk assessment, but his/her responsibility lies first with the people submitting questions. That trust, above the hard-facts and stern advice, comes first. 

Perhaps the jilted husband from the column eventually regretted -- for whatever reason -- his words once he saw them in print. Who knows? It happens to Tweeters and professional writers all the time. But the jilted husband could at least sleep better knowing his anonymity, as presented, would be honored. What the editor should have said publicly to all curious onlookers was … nothing. Or, at least, a definitive nothing statement. What the editor should have said was, “While we understand the curiosity of the public, we have a responsibility to maintain the trust of those who submit questions. Because we respect the privacy between the two parties, we cannot, and will not, comment on this specific matter. Sorry!”

Considering the ethical implications of the editor's statement and how it violates the most basic ethical tenet of advice columns, it may be worth (or just fun), submitting this reader question: Has the publication compromised the integrity of the sanctimoniously named column?

Jeff Winkler has written for a variety of publications. Contact him  here.

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