Archive for the ‘media’ Category

The Occupy ‘Movement,’ 2 Years Later

Tuesday (2 days ago) was the nominal anniversary of the Occupy Movement. Or maybe that should be the Occupy ‘Movement,’ with scare-quotes softening any suggestion that an actual social movement of any scope has arisen and persisted.

September 17 of 2011, protestors flowed into New York’s Zuccotti Park, a small private park just two blocks from Wall Street in the city’s financial district. Months of periodic mayhem in isolated pockets ensued, with Occupy sit-ins and marches happening in cities all over the US and to a lesser extent around the world. In theory, Occupy was a protest against economic inequality, a reaction not just to the gap between “the 1%” and “the 99%,” but to the widening of that gap in the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

In practice, Occupy became a rallying cry for complaints of all kinds. One Occupy rally I stumbled across here in Toronto featured speakers from a big trade union, members of which enjoy jobs that pay relatively well, and a representative of one of Canada’s aboriginal groups, whose complaints are legitimate but have little to do with having been left behind by capitalism. This dilution of the main Occupy message was unfortunate, since it virtually guaranteed that the movement would suffer additional criticism while at the same time raising the probability that such criticism would be avoid the real issue.

Two years later, it’s hard to see Occupy as having achieved much of anything, other than a lot of overtime for police and a few weeks’ fodder for the nightly news. Certainly its economic impact has been negligible. A year ago, on the 1-year anniversary, I suggested that the main lasting effect of Occupy was more cultural than economic, and that’s still true. Politicians now must now acknowledge income inequality in speeches, for example, but action has been scarce.

So inequality is now ‘on the table,’ but it’s not clear yet that putting it on the table means much in practice. I wrote two years ago that “Wall Street needs to be fixed, not occupied. Even a die-hard capitalist has to admit that there are problems with the way Wall Street runs, but those problems won’t be fixed by sit-ins. They need to come from an understanding, on the part of Wall Street and its supporters, that there are changes that should be made because those changes stand to make capitalism work better. Any changes that can’t be made on that basis — changes for example that simply redistribute money — will have to be made through legislation, if and when there is political will to do so.

Of course, Occupy doesn’t necessarily need to have brought lasting change in order to have been significant. It may be enough for that word to mark a moment in time. It reminds us that there was a day when people rose up in peaceful opposition to fight for an ideal. Even those who think the movement misguided should in principle be happy about its idealism. But then, it’s much harder to inspire idealism about the painfully slow, methodical route to institutional change, even when the slow and methodical route is the more plausible one.

The Ethics of Shrinking Newspaper Distribution

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s highest-distribution national newspaper and often regarded as the country’s “newspaper of record,” has announced that it will cease daily delivery to the entire province of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as to a handful of isolated towns in British Columbia. Shipping costs have apparently meant that the paper has been losing money for years on its distribution to those places, and so the publisher has finally decided that enough is enough.

This is, of course, a bad thing for the small number of dedicated readers that the G&M has in Newfoundland and Labrador. And questions will surely arise about whether the paper is being fair to them. Shouldn’t the “paper of record” be available to all Canadians, “from sea to shining sea?”

On the other hand, it’s not like those parts of the country are being abandoned entirely. The Globe and Mail website is of course still available to anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection. And, the paper suggests, more and more people are enjoying their content on iPads and other tablets anyway. Of course, that’s great for people who can afford tablets and reliable internet connections. Pointing to electronic options still has a classist ring to it. A huge majority of Canadians do have home internet, but not everyone. We are still subject to that notorious ‘digital divide.’ But then again, it’s not like Newfoundland and Labrador is being cut off from communications — or even just print media — entirely; there will still be other sources of news.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a loss, here. Citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador may have access to other sources of news, but in a world of concentrated media, having access to a range of options is no small matter. And the Globe and Mail is a high-quality publication that offers a particular editorial voice, a voice that — whatever your political views — we ought not to dismiss lightly.

So this shrinkage in the G&M’s distribution is a sad thing; but is there anything blameworthy in it?

In the end, access to news, and to a diversity of editorial views, is a social matter, a question of the public good. Indeed, it is a question of access more important than, say, the question of access to a diversity of coffee shop options or footwear options. But do companies like The Globe and Mail Inc. (the private, for-profit company that owns the paper) have any obligation to contribute to solving such problems?

While we want private, for-profit firms to be “good corporate citizens,” it’s not clear that they have an obligation to lose money in pursuit of social aims. Newspapers are often thought of as being in a special category, here, as many of them have aims — missions, if you will — other than profit seeking. But even newspapers with a commitment to the public interest have to keep an eye on the bottom line.

Ethics, Ethics Everywhere: A Day in the Life of a Business Magazine

As a professor, I always make a point of emphasizing to my students that ethics, far from being a niche topic, is actually pervasive in business. Ethics is what differentiates commerce from crime, but commerce also raises lots of interesting and complex ethical controversies. Really, most of the interesting stuff about business has an ethical element.

One way to illustrate that point is to look at the contents of business magazines. More specifically, let’s look at a recent issue of Canadian Business. As I’ve noted before, Canadian Business does more than most biz magazines to feature ethical issues on its website. But what I’m interested in today is the stories covered in the print version of the magazine. So here’s a quick look at the ethical issues — not necessarily labelled as such — in a single issue (the September 26, 2011 issue) of Canadian Business.

In the magazine’s 78 pages, you’ll find the following ethics-related stories:

On p.4, interim Editor-in-Chief, James Cowan, has an editorial responding to criticism of the cover of the magazine’s Sept. 12 issue, which featured an attractive woman in a tight red dress. Was this particular way of portraying a successful business woman exploitative, as one letter-writer suggested?

On pp. 12-13, there’s a piece by my colleague Richard Leblanc on governance standards and the recent scandal at Canadian company Sino-Forest. (And as I’ve argued before, corporate governance just is about ethics.)

On p. 14, there’s a short piece by Marina Adshade on adultery among executives. (For why that’s a business-ethics issue, see what I wrote about Eliot Spitzer three years ago.)

Then on pp. 14-15, there’s a piece by yours truly on a South African winery’s attempt to come to grips with its slave-holding past. The key question I contemplate is whether owning up to that past is a matter of basic ethics, or a more complex issue of social responsibility.

On pp. 19-21, Michael McCullough has an article on Warren Buffett’s argument for why wealthy Americans like him should pay more taxes — which raises fundamental questions about not distributive justice, freedom, and property rights.

On pp. 22-26, there’s a lengthy article by Robert Thompson on a Canadian drug company’s attempt to develop a sexual-dysfunction drug for women. The obvious comparison is with Viagra, a drug nominally intended to treat real dysfunction, but widely recognized, and criticized, as being more commonly used as a so-called “lifestyle drug.”

On pp. 28-31, you’ll find an article, by Jasmine Budak, on how companies deal with — and why some of the resent having to deal with — maternity leave. That topic raises all sorts of questions about fair treatment of employees, and about what sorts of employee benefits are just too burdensome to be fair to businesses and co-workers.

Finally, Angelina Chapin’s article (pp.50-52) about lingerie sales in conservative Islamic countries isn’t exactly about ethics, but it certainly raises questions about conflicts, and perceived conflicts, between various value sets.

All in all, I have to conclude, with some modesty, that if you’re a magazine reader interested in ethical issues in business, you certainly don’t have to head straight to the article by the ethics professor to scratch that itch.

And there really is a deep point about business, here. Ethical standards are inherent to the very idea of doing business. Those standards apply, contextually, to a thousand tiny details about how business gets done, to a thousand questions that need to be answered in the course of doing business. Different people will have different ideas about what those standards should be, not least because different people will have different stakes in the outcome. One result is that “ethics stories” are actually all over the place, in the business press, and they’re relatively seldom labeled that way.

Chasing Madoff (movie review)

Chasing Madoff (movie)The documentary Chasing Madoff opens this week. I had a chance to attend a preview of the movie last night (courtesy of eOne Films).

The film is really the story of fraud investigator Harry Markopolos, the guy who, while working as an options trader at Rampart Investment Management, discovered Madoff’s scheme and worked valiantly to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to take notice.

It’s kind of a fun film, but not a great film. The film lacks a narrator, opting instead to tell the entire story through the first-hand accounts of a handful of people (primarily Markopolos and a couple of colleagues, along with a few of Madoff’s victims) and snippets from newscasts. The focus on first-person accounts gives the film a personal feel, but it also inevitably means a perspective that is slanted, though perhaps not fatally so.

There are a few laughs in the film. Markopolos is a bit of a strange cat. He’s a likeable guy, and apparently a man of integrity, but also a bit paranoid-sounding. On-screen, he tells us that he feared Madoff so much that he was ready to pre-emptively shoot the guy, if Madoff had discovered his investigation. He also describes what his strategy would be in the event of an armed standoff with the SEC, should they ever come to his home to get his files — files that included damning evidence of SEC complacency. Just for emphasis, one scene shows him leaning against his desk, brandishing a pump-action shotgun. These humourous parts are, I think, intentional, or at least surely the director (Jeff Prosserman) must have known they would spark laughter. And humour is fine, but it tends to undercut the filmmakers’ stated intention of generating outrage in their audience.

What’s most striking, perhaps, about Chasing Madoff is what it doesn’t tell us about the Madoff scandal. For example, it points fingers at the SEC, but tells us nothing about the agency’s funding levels, and whether it had the capacity to keep up with complaints like Markopolos’s as they flowed in. There are also allegations that “someone higher up” at the Wall Street Journal tried to stifle the story before it broke, but little evidence to back that up. And there are intriguing hints about the large number of individuals and organizations that must have been complicit in Madoff’s crimes, and hints at why they had no economic incentive not to keep putting faith in his results. There’s even a claim that Madoff “paid top dollar” to those that would bring him “new victims.” But the relevant parties are not named and the film makes little effort to explain the connections.

Bottom line: I’m a university professor — would I show this movie in my Business Ethics classroom? Probably not. It’s a fine portrayal of man of integrity fighting the good fight, but it teaches relatively little about how the financial crime of the century happened, or what if anything would prevent it from happening again.

Ethics on Business Magazine Websites

I’ll start by highlighting the obvious conflict of interest, here: my blog is carried on the website of Canadian Business magazine. In this blog entry, I effectively congratulate CB for highlighting ethics. So this is not an unbiased blog entry, but hopefully the facts I present here speak for themselves and stand on their own.

Ethics in business is clearly a hot topic these days, whether discussed using the word “ethics” itself or one of the mushier terms like “CSR” or “sustainability” or “corporate citizenship.” Even those who are cynical about the topic cannot deny that it is an important topic.

But here’s an interesting fact. At time of writing, only two major business magazines (Canadian Business and Fast Company) feature ethics and/or CSR on the front page of their websites. The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week do not.

Here’s slightly more detail:

  • Canadian Business has both Ethics and CSR listed on the front page.
  • Fast Company has a link called Ethonomics on its front page (right at the top), which leads to a section featuring a pretty steady stream of social responsibility blog postings.
  • Forbes has a CSR blog but it is very hard to find if you start from the site’s main page. You need to click on “Leadership” (not at all obvious) and then you’ll see the link in the lower-right of the Leadership page.
  • The Economist has nothing ethics- or CSR-related on its main page, though to its credit The Economist does tackle relevant topics pretty frequently. (For an older example, see The Good Company.)
  • Fortune likewise has nothing on their main page (though if you click on the “Leadership” link, you get taken — oddly — to their Management page, which currently features a piece on philanthropy.)
  • Business Week likewise does nothing to feature CSR or ethics.

So, what do you think? Why are business magazines, and in particular their websites, so slow on the uptake? Is it lack of interest, lack of access to good content, or both, or something else?

Gas Prices, Criticism, and Ethics

There’s more than a little unseemly about the pervasiveness of complaints about the high price of gas. Of course, you can’t really expect anybody really to like high gas prices, at least from a consumer perspective. But disliking something is not the same thing as getting irate and pointing fingers.

Here in Toronto, gasoline prices hit an all-time high this past week. Talk radio jocks and editorialists were all over it. In the US, politicians are railing against oil companies. Of course, this is not the first time that high gas prices have spurred a populist pile-on. It’s a predictable phenomenon in response to perceived price-gouging. (And lets not forget the not-unrelated but misguided calls to boycott BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout last year.)

But whining about the price of gas just might be unethical — or at least unseemly — in a couple of circumstances.

One such circumstance is if you really, really ought to know better. And lots of people, including most people editorializing for major newspapers, ought to know better. In fact, most of us ought to know better. We all ought to understand, as citizens, voters, and consumers, the basic interrelationship between supply and demand, and the factors that make price-gouging likely or unlikely, as well as something about how hard it is to anticipate the effects of the price controls some people favour. But I realize that that’s asking for a quantum leap in economic and financial literacy. (Ever notice that no one ever compliments gas companies or stations when their prices happen to be relatively low? This suggests that people think the low price is the right price, a the notion of a “right” price for a commodity is utterly at odds with any reasonably sophisticated view of economics.)

Another problem is when the gas-price complaints are aimed at gas stations themselves. Most of those are actually independently-owned small businesses, with precious little control over the price of gas. And as James Cowan recently wrote for Canadian Business, high gas prices don’t mean big profits for station owners. Picking on small businesses to express displeasure at the effects of fluctuations in worldwide commodity prices is thoroughly shameful.

Finally, I’ve heard surprisingly few people, in all this, bother to challenge the notion that high gas prices are a bad thing in the first place. What happened to everyone’s zeal for going green? Economics 101 says that when prices go up, demand goes down. And we all want demand for gas (i.e., consumption of gas) to go down, right? Now demand for gas, in particular, doesn’t change much when prices go up, but it does go down a bit. So if we want gas consumption to go down (as most of us agree would generally be a good thing) then we should be happy, in our less-selfish moments, to see gas prices going up. Now, admittedly, high gas prices don’t affect everyone equally. But nor do the high price of anything else. One of the few sane voices in all this is The Economist. A recent editorial there pointed out that the most effective thing that governments can do to take the sting out of high gas prices isn’t to do anything directly about those prices, but rather to insist on higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars. This suggests that the bad guys in this story, if you need to point fingers, are more likely to be found among the big auto makers than among the big oil companies. But even that is pretty lame. Car companies only make the cars that people show a preference for buying. Like it or not, not every unhappy story has a villain.

Charlie Sheen as Toxic Asset

While actor Charlie Sheen may not be a ‘toxic asset’ in the technical sense, he’s clearly become too much of a liability for the companies who have thus far been profiting richly from his services.

In case you don’t already know all the gory details, here’s one version of the story, by Bill Carter, writing in the Business section the NY Times: Sheen Tantrum Likely to Cost in the Millions

Charlie Sheen’s latest antics may leave CBS and Warner Brothers with a quarter-billion-dollar headache.

The two companies decided on Thursday to halt production of the hit CBS comedy “Two and a Half Men” after Mr. Sheen, the star of the show, unleashed a barrage of vituperative comments about the sitcom’s creator, Chuck Lorre.

The loss of next season’s episodes would mean forgoing about $250 million in revenue between Warner Brothers, which produces the show, and CBS….

Sheen, of course, was already a famously problematic ‘talent’ long before his decision to publicly and viciously bite the hand that feeds him. Sheen has a long history of handing the tabloids easy headlines through his penchant for drugs and booze and prostitutes and property damage and domestic violence.

Several writers have already suggested that all of that should have been enough to make Sheen persona non grata, but it wasn’t. As the LA Times’ Mary McNamara put it,

If you are the star of a hit comedy on CBS, you can keep your job in spite of accusations of: threatening your pregnant second wife; holding a knife to your third wife’s throat on Christmas Day; and indulging in cocaine-fueled weekends during which your bizarre behavior causes your female companion to fear for her life.

I think from a Business Ethics point of view, we can look at this in two ways.

1) Employment. From an employment point of view, this is a question of CBS and Warner Brothers having an employee with serious behavioural problems, most of which have been after-hours problems rather than on-the-job problems. As McNamara reports, Sheen’s bosses referred to his domestic abuse troubles as “very personal and very private.” Of course, any employer needs to recognize that it will always be the case that at least some of their employees will have personal troubles, and it’s not entirely clear that such problems are grounds for dismissal. But what employers cannot ignore is insubordination, and that’s basically what Sheen’s recent outburst amounts to.

2) Production methods. In an age of conscious consumerism, people are paying a lot more attention to the way in which the products they enjoy are produced. The average consumer is more likely than ever to want to know whether their clothes were made in third-world sweatshops or whether coffee was made with beans that were traded fairly. For the bizarrely popular product that is “Two and a Half Men”, Charlie Sheen is a major part of the means of production. And all available evidence suggests that consumers of that product just don’t care that, in order to produce it, CBS and Warner Brothers had to turn a blind eye to behaviour that was by turns childish, unethical, and criminal.

MTV’s “Skins”: The Ethics of Profiting from Teen Sexuality

There’s been a lot of chatter in the last few days about MTV’s teensploitation show, “Skins.” Of course, one theory says that that’s just what MTV has been hoping for — a lot of free advertizing.

I’m quoted giving a business-ethics perspective on the show in this story, by the NYT’s David Carr: “A Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.

And you’d be right.

Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Since I’m quoted in that story, I’ll just cut to my own conclusion:

“Even if you decide that this show is not out-and-out evil and that the show is legal from a technical perspective, that doesn’t really eliminate the significant social and ethical issues it raises,” said Chris MacDonald, a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto’s Clarkson Center for Business Ethics and author of the Business Ethics Blog. “Teenagers are both sexual beings and highly impressionable, and because of that, they’re vulnerable to just these kinds of messages. You have to wonder if there isn’t a better way to make a living.”

I wouldn’t bet one way or the other on how this will turn out — in particular on whether pressure from advocacy groups and advertisers will convince MTV to can the show. If it does, then this controversy turns into a nice example of how just the wrong kind of corporate culture can produce bad results. Consider: there are an awful lot of people involved in conceiving and producing, and airing a TV drama. In order for Skins to make it to air, a lot of people had to spend months and months going with the flow, basically saying to themselves and each other “Yes, it is a really good idea to show teens this way, to use teen actors this way, and to market this kind of show to teens.” Hundreds of people involved in the production must have either thought it was a good idea, or thought otherwise but decided they couldn’t speak up. If this turns out badly, MTV will have provided yet another example of how things can go badly when employees aren’t encouraged and empowered to speak up and to voice dissent.

Corporate Citizenship, Apple, and WikiLeaks

What kinds of political obligations do corporations have? In particular, do they have obligations, like governments do, not to interfere with things like people’s ability to express themselves?

See this short blog entry by Leander Kahney, at Cult of Mac: Apple Pulled Wikileaks App Because It “Violated Dev Guidelines”

Apple has joined the shameful list of companies that have denied support for Wikileaks.

Apple confirmed that it removed a Wikileaks App from the online App Store, as reported earlier, and did so because it “violated our developer guidelines.”

“Apps must comply with all local laws and may not put an individual or group in harm’s way,” Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller told the New York Times.

However, exactly how or why the app doesn’t comply with the law — or puts individuals or groups in harm’s way, Muler didn’t explain. She also didn’t discuss the First Amendment or the freedom of the press….

(I’ve already blogged on the more general question of whether companies are justified in ceasing to do business with WikiLeaks. See: Should Companies Judge the Ethics of Those With Whom they Do Business?)

But what’s particularly interesting in the bit quoted above is that Kahney mentions the First Amendment, implying that Apple ought to support WikiLeaks because it has a First-Amendment obligation to do so.

On the face of it, from a legal point of view, that’s surely false. The First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

Now, on the face of it, that’s a restriction on what the US Congress may do; it implies nothing at all about what private organizations (including corporations like Apple) may or may not do. (If there are experts on US Constitutional Law out there, please feel free to correct me!) But it may well be that the precepts enunciated in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (or in other nations’ constitutional documents) should be thought of as having not just legal force, but also moral force, and that that moral force should be thought of as extending to all kinds of institutions, not just government. If that’s the case, then you could argue that, even though corporations are not legally bound by such principles, they ought ethically to be guided by them.

The whole issue of whether corporations have specifically political obligations to citizens (and not just more general ethical obligations to consumers) is a difficult one. Are we gaining something, or losing something, by thinking of corporations that way? Does thinking about corporations as playing a quasi-governmental role illuminate their moral obligations, or obscure them? In this regard, if you’re academically inclined it’s worth taking a look at this masterful article by my friend Pierre-Yves Néron: “Business and the Polis: What Does it Mean to See Corporations as Political Actors?”

%d bloggers like this: