Bad Apples or Rotten Culture?
Media Discourse on the Corporate Scandals of 2001 and 2002
For presentation in AEJMC Media Ethics Division
July 30, 2003
By David A. Craig
Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Oklahoma
860 Van Vleet Oval, Room 120-B
Norman, OK 73019-2051
Phone: (405) 325-5206
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Kristina K. Turner
Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Oklahoma
Bad Apples or Rotten Culture?
Media Discourse on the Corporate Scandals of 2001 and 2002
This paper evaluates 263 print media pieces and broadcast segments to
assess how the discourse of 18 major news organizations addressed the
ethical dimension of the scandals involving Enron and other companies.
Ethical discussion emerged at several levels individual, organizational,
professional, and social in a variety of formats including in-depth
analytical reporting, commentary, and question and answer. Though much of
the discourse was not in depth, the best examples point to ways that news
organizations can effectively address business ethics.
BAD APPLES OR ROTTEN CULTURE?
MEDIA DISCOURSE ON THE CORPORATE SCANDALS OF 2001 AND 2002
The year before corporate scandals became front-page and top-of-broadcast
news, Diana B. Henriques, a financial writer for the New York Times, sized
up the pervasive influence of business in American life:
Business now dominates every corner of the world we cover to a degree that
would have been unthinkable two generations ago. Whether a journalist today
covers sports, health care, prisons and criminal justice, the performing
arts, science, city hall, or public schools, business is there, making
deals and making money, setting the agenda, writing the rules, shaping the
values by which the game of American life will be played. (Henriques, 2000,
The broad role of business in society makes it an appropriate topic for
thoughtful news coverage and public debate, and for critical analysis of
the quality of this discourse. This study qualitatively examines the
discourse on one widely covered series of business-related events: the
corporate scandals of 2001 and 2002 involving Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and
other companies. It focuses on how journalists and others who appeared in
the media portrayed the ethical dimension of these scandals in several
major newspapers and magazines, on commercial network television, and on
public television and radio. It also addresses distinctive strengths of the
portrayals in different media.
These scandals were one of the biggest stories in business ethics in recent
years. They resulted in harm to employees, companies, and broader
confidence in the economy, and they prompted soul-searching about the state
of ethics in the corporate world and society at large.
This study is important for media scholars because relatively little
systematic research has been done on ethics coverage, and even less on
coverage of ethics in business. In addition, as the literature review for
this paper will show, the studies that examined ethics coverage in depth
have focused on issues where there has been substantial ethical debate, not
situations of agreed-on ethical wrongdoing. This study, grounded in the
assumption that good ethics coverage is a also matter of good media ethics
(Craig, 1999), explores how thoughtful ethical discussion can follow from
clear cases of wrongdoing.
These examples of thoughtful discussion are also potentially useful for
journalists trying to ask good questions and write effectively about
business ethics. Though it is unlikely that all news outlets will go deeply
enough into business stories to address the ethical dimension, business
news as a whole is receiving broad attention from editors. Lewis Simons
wrote that, "in recent years business news has been, far and away, the
fastest-growing editorial segment in the nation's newspapers, if not in all
media" (1999, p. 56).
Media scholars including Barkin (1982), Greenwald (1990), Mayo and Pasadeos
(1991), and McShane (1995) have studied business coverage during the past
few decades. A few studies have touched on ethics coverage at least by
implication, but these have not squarely focused on ethics or addressed
this dimension in depth. Hynds (1980), who surveyed daily newspapers about
business news, found that most newspapers of 50,000 or more circulation had
published business exposes (likely a matter of individual or corporate
ethics) during the previous year, and that half had done stories on how
corporations wield power (a matter of corporate ethics with broader
implications for society). Percentages were substantially lower for smaller
newspapers. Dominick (1984) found that, among business topics, network TV
newscasts devoted the second-largest number of minutes to kickbacks, fraud,
and related topics with an ethical dimension. In neither study, though, was
the stated focus on the coverage of ethics.
Tumber (1993) also tiptoed into the ethical realm in a study of British
coverage of business. He found that white-collar crime and tales of sex and
scandal were big news in the 1980s and early 1990s. He said it was
"interesting to note how mixed up many of the items and features became in
the companies' activities and in the ethics of business practice" (1993, p.
351), but he did not spell out the details of how business ethics was
explicitly addressed, if it was. He also argued, more broadly, that scandal
stories may serve to help the public question institutions a role that
fits with the aim of broadly addressing the ethics of business through
journalism. Fursich (2002), studying U.S. newspaper coverage of the merger
of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler, also pointed indirectly to a broader critical
role for media in ethics coverage by noting that the coverage failed to
point out "the international implications of global capitalism" and focused
instead on a "narrow 'tit-for-tat' comparison" (p. 367), while also
portraying American-style business practices as superior. Thus, although
neither of these studies focused on ethics, both implied concern with
ethics coverage including social-level concerns.
Discussion in the journalism professional press in recent years has also
pointed to concerns about business ethics coverage but again without
substantial, explicit focus. Before the fall of Enron, Columbia Journalism
Review's November/December 2000 issue focused on "News in the Age of
Money." In it, Henriques (2000) explored the rise of business journalism
while calling for a return to writing for readers as "citizens" rather than
"investors." Poole (2000) questioned whether journalists "over-celebrate
the New Wealth" a prescient statement given what would soon come to light
and Goozner (2000) criticized the press for failing to cover economic
problems. After the fall of Enron, Nieman Reports presented 10 articles in
a section titled "Reporting on Business: Enron and Beyond." Among other
things, these pieces assailed uncritical reporting by financial media
during the 1990s (Madrick, 2002), offered advice for more critical
reporting post-Enron (Behr, 2002; Solomon, 2002), and traced Wall Street
Journal reporting on Enron that helped bring down the company (Steiger,
2002). The issues these professional publications explored imply a need for
reporting that raises ethical questions about corporations and the economy.
Outside the explicit realm of business coverage, one other study addressed
ethics in a way that connects with concerns about business. Craig (2000),
in a study of major news organizations' coverage of the ethics of genetic
testing, found ethical issues of autonomy and justice implied in relation
to concerns that insurance companies or employers might misuse results of
tests that indicate a person might later develop a genetically linked disease.
Craig (2000) and other studies on coverage of bioethical topics abortion
(Patterson and Hall, 1998), physician-assisted suicide (Craig, 2002),
cloning (Hopkins, 1998; Craig, 2001), and genetic screening (Chadwick and
Levitt, 1997) have used ethical theory to discuss aspects of media
discourse. In all of these cases, however, the topics have been matters in
which there has been ethical debate, whereas in the case of the coverage of
the corporate scandals, the focus was on ethical wrongdoing, its causes,
and its aftermath.
Addressing ethics coverage more broadly, Craig (1999) proposed an
analytical framework aimed "at assessing coverage of a variety of topics
that have a strong ethical dimension involving public and professionals --
in medicine, science, business, law and public policy, or other areas" (pp.
24-25). The analysis in the present study is grounded in this framework, in
particular in its use of four levels of analysis: individual,
organizational/institutional, professional, and social.
In this framework, stories are to be evaluated "based on how thoroughly
they portray the ethical issues relevant to a topic, the parties connected
with those issues, the levels at which the ethical issues play out
[individual, organizational/institutional, professional, and social], and
the legal backdrop for those issues" (p. 17). Stories on topics with
significant ethical implications are themselves evaluated as ethical if
they pay more than passing attention to ethics, use several relevant
parties as sources, give some attention to any relevant legal issues, and
examine the topic at more than one level for example, addressing the
responsibility of a corporation that reduces its work force as well as
looking at the impact on individual workers.
Normatively, this framework's assumptions about journalism are grounded in
the social responsibility (Commission on Freedom of the Press, 1947;
Siebert et al., 1956; Schramm, 1957; Rivers, Schramm & Christians, 1980)
and communitarian (Christians et al., 1993) perspectives, which emphasize
the role of journalists in serving society. On this basis, some attention
to the ethical dimension of news is viewed as an affirmative obligation of
journalists. This normative grounding is open to criticism both from a
libertarian perspective (Merrill, 1974; Merrill, Gade, & Blevens, 2001)
that would question calling ethics coverage an obligation of individual
journalists and from postmodernist viewpoints (for example, Rorty, 1989)
that would question the validity of all normative foundations. The authors
would argue that the framework reflects a view of the nature of humans that
more fully accounts for them as persons in relation to others than
libertarianism (Christians et al., 1993), and can be justified with or
without reference to moral universals. This perspective also is faithful to
a longstanding strand of journalistic practice that has placed priority on
addressing social problems.
The assumption within the framework that good ethics coverage should
address multiple levels of analysis the focus of attention in this paper
-- is based on the concerns that professional ethics literature (for
example, Bayles, 1989, and Kultgen, 1989; see Craig, 1999) raises about the
need to discuss ethics at each of these levels. Kultgen argued that "The
analysis of professional ethics, as a set of principles for individual
acts, must be worked out in correlation with a social philosophy, with both
descriptive and normative elements, for professions as institutions" (1989,
p. 7). Though Kultgen's argument defines institutions more broadly than
this framework does, he makes clear that full attention to professional
ethics means addressing it at multiple levels from the individual to the
social. However, it is important to note that the framework does not set
the bar at comprehensive coverage of all levels in all stories on ethics
an impossible ideal. Rather, it calls for addressing more than one level of
analysis in a body of coverage and in individual in-depth stories.
This framework, which represents the only model that scholars have
developed for ethics coverage, thus incorporates issues raised by ethicists
as a lens for critiquing coverage. Although the framework allows for
evaluation of coverage on several dimensions such as portrayal of breadth
of sourcing in addition to levels of analysis -- each of the components
encompasses a broad enough area for evaluation that it also enables
in-depth critique in each of these areas. In the present study, though the
authors did not set out with a focus on levels of analysis, it became
evident during the reading of the discourse that this dimension represented
a major area for evaluation in the pieces studied.
The study examined 263 print pieces and broadcast segments from 18 news
organizations with substantial and, in most cases, national audiences:
three newspapers of national interest (the New York Times, Washington Post,
and USA Today), the key newspaper from Enron's hometown (the Houston
Chronicle), three newsmagazines (Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World
Report), three major business magazines (Business Week, Fortune, and
Money), six commercial television networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, CNBC, CNN, and
Fox), public television (PBS), and public radio (NPR). The print pieces
and broadcast segments appeared from late 2001 after problems at Enron came
to light, to the end of 2002, through the time of year-end pieces
reflecting on the scandals. They include a wide variety of discourse: news
reports and analyses, commentaries by both journalists and others, a few
letters to the editor, and question-and-answer and news talk-show
segments. This variety was included because of the potential for the
public to hear ethical discourse from all of these sources and out of an
interest in exploring how this discourse appeared in different formats and
The discourse examined was obtained through Lexis-Nexis. Transcripts were
used for the broadcast segments because the focus was on the language of
ethical discourse. The focus on verbal narrative is justifiable because
this language is a primary carrier of ethical content in all media since
nuances of ethics emerge through distinctive language and language is a
central element across media, regardless of what a piece does with photos,
audio, or video. Examining the content and format of verbal messages allows
comparison across media about how the ethical angle was presented.
A preliminary search for coverage found thousands of stories about Enron
and other corporate scandals. The larger preliminary set of pieces was
narrowed for examination based on whether the pieces paid significant
attention to ethics stating or implying ethics in the opening or
addressing it for the equivalent of at least a few paragraphs later in the
piece. Pauly, in discussing sampling in qualitative research, wrote: "In
examining newspaper coverage of a controversial issue, for instance, the
researcher might first skim the coverage to discern the moments of most
intense debate, then go back and read in depth the coverage at those key
moments" (1991, p. 12). The pieces examined in this study reflect the
moments of most intense (though not always lengthy) media discourse on the
ethical dimension of the corporate scandals.
During the reading of the chosen pieces, a preliminary list of ethical
themes was developed inductively based on topical focuses that recurred
across pieces. One overarching theme emerged as dominant: the question of
whether a few individuals or companies ("bad apples"), or broader
corruption in business life or society, was responsible for the scandals.
(In some cases, blame was spread among these.) This theme appeared in
nearly all of the print pieces and broadcast segments.
Strong examples pieces where this theme was addressed directly or in an
extended way, especially at the opening were examined with attention to
the details of their ethical language and the format in which they were
presented. The format of the pieces was deemed potentially important
because of previous research that has pointed to the power of commentary in
covering ethics (Craig, 2002) and because of an interest in exploring what
formats offer the greatest opportunity for ethical depth. Because the bad
apples versus corrupt culture theme connects with the concerns of Craig's
(1999) four levels of analysis for ethics coverage -- individual,
organizational/institutional, professional, and social the elements of
the theme in these stories were placed under one or more of the four levels.
This section will address how the theme surfaced at different levels and in
different formats in the discourse, especially in some of the ethically
strongest segments. Because of the differences in presentation across
media, the segments will be discussed by medium: magazines, newspapers,
commercial television, and public TV and radio. (Public TV and radio were
separated because of the distinctives of the long-form, non-commercial
formats versus stories on commercial television.)
The 38 magazine pieces, perhaps not surprisingly, include some of the most
powerful examples of extended articles addressing ethical issues. Some of
the strongest portrayals of ethical concern came in cover stories or other
investigative pieces that were based on significant reporting but also
included strong commentary that helps to frame the ethical issues for
readers. The focus in these reported pieces is beyond the individual level
to the organizational, professional, and to some extent the social level.
Such an analytical story appeared in Business Week (Byrne, 2002). The fifth
paragraph said many academics who had held up Enron as a model in the late
are now scurrying to distill the cultural and leadership lessons from the
debacle. Their conclusion so far: Enron didn't fail just because of
improper accounting or alleged corruption at the top. It also failed
because of its entrepreneurial culture -- the very reason Enron attracted
so much attention and acclaim. The unrelenting emphasis on earnings growth
and individual initiative, coupled with a shocking absence of the usual
corporate checks and balances, tipped the culture from one that rewarded
aggressive strategy to one that increasingly relied on unethical
corner-cutting. (Byrne, 2002)
The frame of Enron's problem as one of its corporate culture an issue at
the organizational level is developed through a variety of sources in the
Another analytical piece, under the headline "How a Titan Came Undone," ran
in U.S. News & World Report and again targeted the ethical health of the
organization. The second paragraph of the story put it this way:
To most people, Enron's implosion late last year was sudden and startling,
accompanied by revelations that executives used secret partnerships to hide
huge debt, wildly inflate profits, and line their pockets. But a closer
look shows that the collapse of the nation's seventh-largest company was
virtually preordained. Over the years, Enron made a steady series of
moves--financial, ethical, and cultural--toward what would become its
abyss, so that when failure finally came, the last few strides weren't long
ones. Before there were partnerships like Raptor and Chewco, there were
warnings about cooking the books. Before that, an "old economy" pipeline
psychology had yielded to a best-and-brightest "new economy" ethic, where
the fact of doing deals came to rival whatever the deal itself might be. At
the start, just as at the end, was an all-consuming obsession with debt.
Enron didn't lurch into crisis. It began a march there in 1985, on the very
day it was born. (Barnes et al., 2002)
This analysis, developed through detailed reporting, places the collapse of
Enron in a long-term context rather than providing a surface condemnation.
Two cover stories, both in Fortune, address corporate ethics at the broader
level of the profession. One of them (Gimein, 2002), after noting the
"ever-lengthening parade of corporate villains," ethically indicts the
These people and a handful of others are the poster children for the
"infectious greed" that Fed chairman Alan Greenspan described recently to
Congress. But by now, with the feverish flush of the new economy
recognizable as a symptom not of a passion but of an illness, it has also
become clear that the mores and practices that characterize this greed
suffused the business world far beyond Enron and Tyco, Adelphia and
WorldCom. (Gimein, 2002)
The story develops this statement based on a study of stock sales by
executives and directors at more than 1,035 money-losing companies. The
study found that "a total haul of $23 billion went to 466 insiders at the
25 corporations where the executives cashed out the most" (Gimein, 2002).
Because the story is based on in-depth reporting and not merely biting
rhetoric, it more powerfully underlines for readers the ethically
questionable activity of many people who occupied high positions in the
A World@Large column by "The Editors" of U.S. News & World Report went
beyond the business world to set the Enron scandal in the broader context
of society (The Editors, 2002). The column pointed to -- among other
situations in addition to Enron sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic
Church, reports of plagiarism by historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and
Stephen Ambrose, and the falsified resume of football coach George O'Leary.
Then it asked:
What's going on here? Doesn't anyone play by the rules? On Wall Street, the
one-two punch of greed and competition is to blame, says journalist James
Stewart. His coverage of the 1987 stock crash and insider-trading scandals
earned him a Pulitzer and became the foundation of his bestseller Den of
Thieves. All that money sloshing around, he says, "can drive people into a
frenzy. . . . You're thrown in that competitive situation at a very early
age and exhorted to win at all costs." And that win-at-all-costs ethic,
critics say, is the foundation of the cheating culture. ("Our Cheating
After making its case for this thesis, the column ends with an appeal to
readers to offer their thoughts. Thus, the column not only brings to
readers a question of social ethics, but also invites them directly to
think about it and react.
As with the magazine stories, the 108 newspaper pieces that deal best with
ethics include reported news pieces. But many of the strongest pieces were
commentaries editorials or columns, both by staff members and by outside
commentators. Some of these commentaries place ethical problems with
individuals or categories of individuals, but a number address ethics at
the organizational and professional levels, and beyond.
The New York Times, which accounted for many of the commentaries (as well
as the largest number of ethics-related pieces total), ran an op-ed piece
by Warren Buffett, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., in which he
broadly criticized "the legal, but improper, accounting methods used by
chief executives to inflate reported earnings" in particular,
stock-option accounting and the assumptions made about returns in pension
funds. "The aggregate misrepresentation in these two areas dwarfs the lies
of Enron and WorldCom," he said (Buffett, 2002). Referring to the "bad
apples" metaphor, he closed the column by directly challenging CEOs to
change their behavior:
C.E.O.'s want to be respected and believed. They will be -- and should be
-- only when they deserve to be. They should quit talking about some bad
apples and reflect instead on their own behavior.
Recently, a few C.E.O.'s have stepped forward to adopt honest accounting.
But most continue to spend their shareholders' money, directly or through
trade associations, to lobby against real reform. They talk principle, but,
for most, their motive is pocketbook.
For their shareholders' interest, and for the country's, C.E.O.'s should
tell their accounting departments today to quit recording illusory
pension-fund income and start recording all compensation costs. They don't
need studies or new rules to do that. They just need to act. (Buffett, 2002)
Buffett addressed CEOs as individuals, but he also drew a much broader
conclusion about the state of professional practice at the level of top
executives, particularly in relation to accounting. By using language that
directly confronted CEOs, he brought the ethical challenge home powerfully
to those who might be able to change the ethical climate.
A Week in Review column in the Times also raised questions at the
professional level and implied a broad concern about the health of
capitalist society, based on the threat to investors' confidence in capital
To those inured to corporate wrongdoing -- perhaps by the insider trading
scandals or the savings and loan debacle of recent decades -- the latest
scourge of white-collar malfeasance might seem like more of the same, with
greedy executives cutting corners to make a profit. But in truth, the
corporate calamities of the new millennium are of a different ilk, one that
challenges the credibility of the financial reporting system, and in turn
the faith of investors in the capital markets -- the very engine that has
driven capitalism to its success. (Eichenwald, 2002)
Eichenwald (who also referred to "bad apples" in relation to dishonest
corporations) said it was not important that many other corporations are
probably honest because the actions of a few have called into question the
broader reliability of data and of checks and balances on the accuracy of
data. By raising broad questions at the root of the success of capitalism,
Eichenwald widens the view for readers from individual corporations or
professional practice to the impact of corrupt practices on a society
driven in large part by profit.
An editorial in USA Today also makes an eloquent argument that the problems
in the business world are broader than a few individuals. It opens this way:
The ever-expanding Enron scandal seems to expose a new villain or two
daily. Just Tuesday, for example, auditor Arthur Andersen fired an employee
who worked on the faulty Enron audits.
But the problems exposed by Enron's collapse won't be solved by firing a
few scapegoats -- or even by punishing CEO Kenneth Lay and a band of
self-serving executives who got rich while bankrupting the company, much as
they deserve it. Culpability spreads much further, and with impact far
beyond Enron. So far, in fact, that there's reason to ask whether every
agency and instrument designed to prevent flagrant corporate abuse hasn't
The auditors certainly failed, probably willfully. But so did securities
analysts, bond-rating agencies and the company's board of directors.
Each had an ethical or legal obligation to flag Enron's problems. Each had
reason to suspect something was amiss. And each stood to gain financially
by looking away. ("Who Will Protect Public?" 2002)
This editorial serves readers well because it points to an array of
professionals and institutions analysts, bond-rating agencies, the
corporate boards whose failure puts the actions of individuals in Enron
in broader context. It carries the point forward by asking direct questions
at several points -- "Where was Enron's board of directors?" "Where were
the auditors?" "Where were the analysts?" and pointing to implications of
each that reach beyond the specifics of Enron.
It is worth noting that the Houston Chronicle offered relatively little in
the way of analysis or opinion about the ethics of Enron (especially in
relation to the New York Times) despite the newspaper's place in a large
metropolitan area and its proximity to Enron. One of the most engaging
pieces in the Chronicle noted in its opening that Enron had become a symbol
of many evils:
To liberals, it is a glorious example of the evils of unfettered
capitalism. To conservatives, it represents a betrayal of the moral
responsibility intrinsic in corporate leadership.
Labor unions see a poster child for abuse of workers and their retirement
funds. Advocates for tougher campaign finance laws see an unparalleled
purchaser of political power. Wall Street pundits point to an emperor with
no clothes and a parade of docile subjects in their own community who never
dared to state the obvious. And former employees think they have a textbook
case of elitist greed run amok. Everybody, it seems, has a special use for
Enron, once a semi-obscure energy trader that has overnight become the sort
of all-purpose villain not seen since the heyday of the robber barons.
Although in tone this piece pokes holes in overblown rhetoric, the author
here presents a broad array of ethical vantage points on the wrongdoing at
The six commercial networks whose 92 stories were analyzed all dealt with
ethics at levels beyond the individual. However, the traditional Big Three
ABC, CBS, and NBC focused more on individuals (for example, unethical
behavior by Enron's chief executive, a good CEO, people who were hurt by
the scandals, whistleblowers) than the cable networks studied CNBC, CNN,
and Fox. In contrast, the cable networks paid more attention to politics
(for example, questions about President Bush's business ethics and fallout
of administration connections with Enron) than the broadcast networks. Some
of the most significant discussion of ethics came through talk-show or
question-and-answer formats. However, ethics emerged in a variety of
formats and across levels of analysis.
The individual level surfaced in a short news story on ABCs "World News
Tonight." Anchor Peter Jennings opened this way:
As we have seen following the Enron affair and with some of the other
companies, the ones who suffer the most are the employees who get
blind-sided in events like this. Seventeen thousand WorldCom workers will
soon be looking for new jobs. Their executives don't need to. Here's ABC's
Erin Hayes. (Hayes, 2002)
The opening bluntly points to the impact on workers by using the words
"suffer" and "blindsided," and by juxtaposing WorldCom employees' impending
search for work with the fact that executives do not have to look for jobs.
The impact on employees comes home more fully later in the story when an
unidentified worker says: "The morale is shot right now. Everyone's just
sort of on eggshells, wondering who's going to be next and who's gone"
(Hayes, 2002). The ethical consequences of wrongdoing at the company are clear.
Ethics is also evident at the individual level in a much longer piece, a
CBS "60 Minutes" profile of a good apple, Aaron Feuerstein, owner of Malden
Mills, a textile company. Morley Safer opens the piece this way:
When it comes to doing business, there are two extremes: There's the Enron
way, and there's the Malden Mills way. Both companies have filed for
bankruptcy protection, but that's the only thing they have in common. Enron
appears to have gone out of its waythere's no other word for itto screw
many of its employees out of their retirement money, while a number of
executives cashed in big time. On the other hand, Malden Mills, the textile
company in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that invented the fabric Polartec, went
out of its way to help its employees, even when the company suffered a
shattering setback. (Safer, 2002)
The opening thus juxtaposes the ethical exemplar of Malden Mills (though
not a business success at this point) against the ethically failed company.
But much of the power of the piece comes because it portrays the heart of
Feuerstein, who, as Safer put it, became "a national hero" for treatment of
his workers. The story shows the benefit of focusing on an individual, even
though the ethical lens should not be kept in that focus all of the time.
Ethical discussion surfaced at a number of points in talk-show programs
such as NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "Crossfire." One edition of "Meet
the Press" featured Sen. Jon Corzine, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs; John
Castellani, from The Business Roundtable; John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO; and
Walter Wriston, former CEO of Citicorp. The length of the program and its
focus this day on issues touching on business ethics enabled ethical
matters to surface in a number of places though not in great depth in any
one place. For example, Andrea Mitchell questioned Wriston this way:
Let me turn to Walter Wriston. For 17 years, you were the CEO of Citicorp.
Are business executives greedier than they used to be? Or is this what
always happens after a boom cycle?
MR. WALTER WRISTON: I think in any boom cycle, you get excesses. And that's
what is coming out in the papers today. I suppose two things, I would say
is, one, there are a lot of programmatic things that you can do. And a lot
of it has been done with the bills. There are over 300 bills300 laws, now,
on corporate fraud. We have one more today. But what really counts is the
integrity and the character of the people who run the organizations. And
you cannot legislate character, and you cannot legislate high integrity. So
. . . the people of The Roundtable, for example, who are not involved in
these kinds of things have to come forward and step up and restore to the
American people the concept that people who are running these corporations
do, in fact, have integrity. ("Meet the Press," 2002)
The extended answer shows the potential benefit of the question-and-answer
format on talk shows (at least when those present are polite). Wriston had
the chance to comment in detail, and he at least pointed to the central
place of character and integrity at the individual level of the executive.
One other example of the talk-show format, from "Crossfire," provides a
more blunt example of ethical comment. Again, the format allows an extended
reply, but here the interviewee is social critic Michael Moore. He replies
to a long lead-in from host Robert Novak that ends with:
All Americans live better than they do anywhere in the world, and you don't
like it because there are people who succeed more than others. Isn't that
MOORE: That is correct, Bob. I agree with Pope John Paul II when he said
that capitalism is a sin. This is an evil system, Bob. We believe in
democracy, most of us Americans. We have democracy in our political system,
but we don't have democracy in the economy. The average American does not
have an equal say in what goes on with the money and how it operates in our
And until we have a true democracy with our economic system, we're going to
have a system where the top 10 percent are going to make off like bandits
and everybody else is going to be scrambling for the crumbs, and that's the
system we have. And it's an unfair system. It's unjust and it's immoral.
("CNN Crossfire," 2002)
Moore's bluntness would be evident in other formats, but the nature of the
question-and-answer approach on a lengthy program enables him to spell out
his thinking in more detail. In doing so, he raises ethical questions at
the social level.
Public TV and Radio
The TV segments on Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour" on PBS and the radio segments on
NPR (a total of 25) addressed all levels of ethical consideration, as a
group, but especially above the level of the individual. The broad issue of
corporate culture got significant attention. The strongest examples from
these news outlets point to the value of a long-form interview show with
calls from the audience, question-and-answer with an ethicist as the
source, and a long-form reported piece.
One edition of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" call-in show dealt with corporate
culture and ethics. Tom, a caller, had this to say:
I have to tell you, I was in graduate school in business, and the
accounting professor made the comment, to maximize your profit, you have to
accelerate your receivables--it means what people owe you--and delay your
payables, which is what you owe other people. I made the comment that that
was immoral, and this is an exact quote from this professor. He says,
"Morality has nothing to do with business." The younger people in the class
said, 'Right on, bottom line, we agree.' And some of us--I'm a '60s
child--who were older and coming back to college were horrified. I think
what you ended up with was a amoral culture of bottom line mentality, and I
don't think ethics was even on the radar screen. I think this entire
generation of people just looked at the bottom line, how to maximize
profit, what's the next quarter look like, and it allowed for this kind of
highbinded dishonesty to fester. (Neary, 2002)
Tom's comments point to a professional mentality that divorces ethics from
business, and he implies an unethical mindset at the social level. Because
the show allows the time to hear from callers at this length, his comments
come through in more than a sound bite.
An interview with an ethicist on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" (2002)
points both to the value of the interview format, which allows extended
comment (even though the segment is relatively short). Host Brian Naylor
and Kirk Hanson of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara
University had this exchange (another direct use of "bad apples") that
points to the professional and social levels:
NAYLOR: Some attribute the recent corporate scandals to a widespread
culture of greed, and others say it's just the misbehavior of a few bad
apples. What do you think?
Mr. HANSON: Well, I think that is the core question, to continue the
metaphor. Is this just an issue of a few individuals like we've had over
time, or is there something more systemic at stake? And I personally think
there's something more systemic at stake, that we've just been through a
very extraordinary period of what Alan Greenspan this week called
'infectious greed.' And I think that we have to put some substantial
measures in place to deal with that. (Naylor, 2002)
Though the comments are relatively general at this point, the discussion
moves soon into specific changes that Hanson feels are needed especially
in the perspective of CEOs. These comments point to concerns at the
professional level beyond individual corporations and officers:
CEOs have seen themselves as somehow winners in a great lottery, that once
you become a CEO, you are entitled to substantial, excessive pay packages,
that even if you fail you are entitled to some kind of substantial
parachute as you depart. That's got to change. CEOs have got to see
themselves more as people who are serving the employees and the
shareholders and the other stakeholders, not enjoying winning the lottery.
The opening exchange thus enables Hanson to point to issues beyond the
behavior of individuals and to lead into the more detailed discussion of
the broad ethical problem.
A segment on the PBS "NewsHour" by business correspondent Paul Solman of
WGBH in Boston shows the value of a long-form reported television piece.
Lehrer introduces it broadly by saying that Solman has been examining "the
growing problem of ethics and corporate America and Wall Street" (Solman,
2002). This segment, like the NPR interview, uses an ethicist as a source
(Barbara Toffler, a business ethics professor). With her help, he presents
historical background on business ethics. The piece also includes a visit
to a business ethics class at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts,
as well as comments from the class instructor and from a leader in a group
for corporate ethics officers. The report provides time to shed light on
ethics from a number of vantage points.
The articles and segments analyzed in this paper, as a group, meet what
Craig (1999) called a "moral obligation" to address the ethical dimension
at more than one level of analysis: individual,
organizational/institutional, professional, and social. Or, to put it in
terms of the overarching theme that emerged in the coverage, they addressed
"bad apples" both individuals and individual corporations as well as
concerns about corruption in the "orchard" (to borrow from "Lou Dobbs'
Moneyline," 2002) of the business world, or in broader society. Though much
of the discourse was not in depth, the strongest pieces paid more than
passing attention to one or more of these levels.
Although the issues surfaced in a variety of formats, some of the best
magazine pieces used a combination of strong commentary that put ethical
problems directly before readers and significant reporting that fleshed out
the rhetorical claims. Newspaper discourse was notable for its use of
commentaries by both news organization staffers and outside contributors
with business expertise to bluntly put the scandals in a context that
extended beyond the individual companies or their executives to
institutions that failed, the broad professional climate, and the impact on
society. Commercial television pieces brought home the stories of
individuals through both short and longer pieces, and showed the value (not
always fully realized) of talk-show formats that allow extended and
wide-ranging discussion. Public TV and radio shed light on corporate
culture and showed the value of long-form reporting and interviewing,
including listener call-ins, and the value of using ethicists as sources.
This study adds substantially to previous scholarly understanding of
business ethics coverage. Hynds (1980) had noted widespread publication of
business exposes and stories on how corporations wield power, but the study
did not address in detail what these stories looked like. The articles in
the current study such as the magazine cover stories on the inner
workings of Enron show the anatomy of detailed exposes by major news
organizations. The commentaries that put corporate wrongdoing in broader
context show the factors at work that enabled these companies to exert
their power in the marketplace. Dominick (1984) found that fraud and other
business wrongdoing received attention on network TV; the current study
shows how television can portray the impact of that wrongdoing and analyze
its roots. In addition, this study fleshes out some of the ways in which,
as Tumber (1993) put it, stories about scandal may help the public question
institutions for example, through blunt commentary that places wrongdoing
in the broader context of corporate culture.
The current study also complements previous research focused on coverage of
bioethical debates (e.g., Craig, 2000). While the bioethics coverage
sometimes gave significant attention to arguments about ethical right or
wrong, the business ethics discourse assumed the right or wrong on the part
of the central actors and companies in the scandals. Much of the ethical
discussion focused on reasons behind the wrongdoing whether those were
connected with individual executives and corporations or broader cultural
factors. Like much of the bioethics coverage, the discourse did address
consequences in this case, impact on employees, the companies, the
business world at large, consumer confidence, and the economy.
In underlining the value of analysis and commentary in covering the ethical
angle, this study supports the findings of Craig's (2002) study of
analytical and commentary pieces on physician-assisted suicide. As with
that coverage, by bringing home a value-laden topic bluntly, commentaries
in print media on business clearly lay out important ethical issues for
readers to consider. However, the strength of the magazine stories that
used both commentary and in-depth reporting highlights the fact that a
strong reporting base here, a detailed anatomy of wrongdoing may do
more to spur in-depth critical discussion than powerful rhetoric alone. The
reporting may help foster this critical discussion by showing that the
ethical breaches were real and not just based on claims of the commentator.
In the case of clear wrongdoing, the potential for discussion (and
therefore the most fruitful direction for questioning of interviewees) lies
in the direction of ways that future wrongdoing can be prevented. If the
commentary highlights possible root causes and the reporting backs up these
assertions, readers can develop knowledgeable opinions or perhaps even
change practices in their own organizations.
As for broadcast media, this study shows the potential value of talk-show
and question-and-answer formats for enabling some depth of ethical comment
combined with contributions from a variety of sources. However, serious
ethical discussion, particularly on commercial television, must vie with
the pressure to entertain audiences. The commercial nature of the medium,
then, may undermine deeper probing of the ethics of commercial practices in
other fields or, for that matter, in the media business itself. The tenor
of discourse on public radio and TV including thoughtful call-in
commentary and use of ethicists as sources underlines the value of public
broadcasting as a complement to commercial TV in discussion of ethics.
In commercial media, it will probably remain difficult to carry on
sustained or in-depth discussion partly because of the limitations of
formats, but also because ethics itself is often treated as a secondary,
not a primary, angle. In sifting through stories on Enron and the other
scandals to narrow the field for this study, it became clear that the
coverage as a whole dealt little with ethics, and most stories that did
deal with ethics went into little depth. The discourse on the events at
Enron and the other companies, and related issues, tended to lack
bigger-picture reflection apart from the specifics of behavior and events.
Often, there was a tight focus descriptively on what was unethical without
assessment or evaluation of the ethics of the activity.
It is important for readers and viewers to get information about events
such as specific disclosures of wrongdoing or discussion of changes in law
or policy. But in the long run, it is also important for them to get the
broader ethical context for these details in a case where ethical
implications are so evident and the stakes for individuals, companies, and
the economy are so high. If more reporters and editors are to address the
ethical context, there must be a change in priorities at news
organizations. This change in priorities will be difficult to achieve in
light of the constraints on journalistic resources because of media
companies' own push for higher profit. Future research should address news
media discourse about other cases of corporate wrongdoing, but also assess
how well journalists are portraying the corporate practices of media
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The Wall Street Journal was not available on Lexis-Nexis and was not used
in this study.
 Totals of pieces examined from each news organization were: New York
Times, 54; Washington Post, 23; USA Today, 13; Houston Chronicle, 18;
Newsweek, 4; Time, 7; U.S. News & World Report, 2; Business Week, 9;
Fortune, 15; Money, 1; CBS, 22; ABC, 19; NBC, 10; CNBC, 13; CNN, 17; Fox,
11; PBS, 13; and NPR, 12.
 The language mentioned ethics or related terms directly or pointed to
wrongdoing, other matters of right or wrong, responsibility, or harmful or