The High Price of Ethics
March 2008

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Glen Mabie is still looking for work.

Six weeks ago, he quit his job as news director at WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wis. He drew a line and refused to step over it.

His story is one of conflicting loyalties, personal costs, and winners and losers.

The trouble began in late November when Mabie learned from the station's management that the news was for sale.

He says he was told that the station was cutting a deal with Sacred Heart Hospital.

The hospital would pay the station to do two stories a week, chosen from a list supplied by the hospital. The hospital would also provide the interviews. Under the arrangement, the hospital would also have the first right to do interviews for any other medical stories that the newsroom might want to cover.

Mabie objected and so did the news staff when they learned about it in the middle of December. They asked for a meeting with management to express their views. After they did so, Mabie said that he hoped that management would "see the light."

But the station manager approached Mabie after Christmas, telling him that the deal was 99 percent done and that he should "sell" it to his staff. He says he was told to tell the news team to "wipe the capital J's off their sweaters because that's not the way we do things anymore."

Mabie was caught in a nasty instance of conflicting loyalties.

All professionals have at least four loyalties. First, we have a loyalty to ourselves as human beings and as moral agents. We have personal needs as well as a moral compass that tells us what are the right things and the wrong things to do as human beings.

Second, we have a loyalty to our employers. In return for a paycheck, employers have the right to expect us to be loyal to their business practices.

Third, journalists have a loyalty to other journalists. When one journalist violates professional standards and practices, other journalists are painted with the same brush.

Finally, we have an obligation to society to act in ways that promote the common good.

In this particular case, Mabie's loyalties to himself, his profession and to society outweighed his loyalty to his employer.

When he learned of his station's decision shortly before the New Year, he didn't have the stomach to walk into the newsroom and tell his staff what the station expected of them. "I couldn't do it," Mabie said.

Mabie said he went home and after two sleepless nights, with his wife's blessing, he sat his three children down and explained that journalism involves "integrity, honesty and objectivity." He told them that because he could no longer practice his profession ethically, he was going to be leaving his job. According to Mabie, his oldest child responded, "You know, dad, that's cool." The kid gets it.

When asked if he had any regrets about the decision he made six weeks ago, Mabie said that he wishes that he had fought harder in the early stages and not relied so much on the hope that an appeal to ethics would carry the day. But he said he doesn't think it really would have made much difference.

Other news media picked up the story of Mabie's resignation. The negative publicity led the station to rethink its position and back off plans to get cozy with the hospital.

Obviously, there are winners and losers in this story. The station manager – who was behind the hospital scheme – lost his credibility. One can only wonder what stunt he'll pull next, and why the station keeps him around.

The news staff of WEAU-TV, which had rallied behind Mabie, won a reprieve from an exercise in bad judgment, but they lost a news director with a moral compass.

The public and the profession of journalism gained. The profession because Mabie set a good example – he upheld the norms of objectivity and impartiality. The public won because, hopefully, they will get the medical news that they deserve, untainted by any back-door relationship between their station and a powerful institution in their community.

And, finally, the biggest winner of all is Glen Mabie. In the short term, he has to pay an enormous economic cost for his decision.

In the long run, he gets to keep his soul.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.