Ethical Conundrums Puzzle Journalists: Columnist Bob Greene Resignation Raises Ethics Questions

By Kirsten Murphy, Silha Fellow

Bob Greene, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, tendered his resignation after allegations of past "sexual misconduct" with a 17-year old girl who was also a source. On Sept. 14, 2002, the newspaper accepted Greene's resignation. He had been with the newspaper for 24 years.

The 55-year-old Greene made his career writing a popular column that presented readers with a nostalgic look at America, mourning the loss of innocence in the United States and celebrating the World War II generation of Americans. He was particularly known for his vehement columns in defense of abused and neglected children. Greene also wrote more than a dozen books, including "Good Morning Merry Sunshine" and "Once Upon a Time: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

In 1988, a 17-year-old Catholic high school student interviewed him. The girl came to the Tribune with her parents, seeking Greene's help with a school project. Greene wrote a column about the girl and then asked her to dinner and to a hotel room, where the sexual activity took place.

The woman, now in her 30s, contacted Greene twice within the last year. Greene reportedly contacted the FBI, who in turn contacted the woman and warned her that she might be threatening the columnist. In September, the Tribune received an anonymous e-mail describing the affair, without mentioning Greene's name. The Tribune management contacted the woman and then approached Greene with her allegations. He confessed and offered his resignation.

The Tribune published a tersely worded announcement of the columnist's resignation, stating that Greene's conduct was a "serious violation of Tribune ethics and standards for its journalists." Greene's resignation has raised a flurry of ethics questions. Many wonder if he deserved to lose his position with the Tribune over the scandal. Still others wonder exactly what ethical violation Greene committed. Was it that he wrote a column about the girl? Was it her age? Was it that he misused his position for personal advantage?

The Tribune seems to believe that Greene's ethical lapse was that he took advantage of his position with the newspaper. Editor Ann Marie Lipinski stated in an interview with Tribune reporters published on September 16, 2002 that: "Journalists have a special obligation to avoid personal conflicts that undermine their professional standing and their trust with readers, sources or news subjects. We concluded that trust had been violated."

Bob Steele, Ethics Group Leader with the Poynter Institute, wrote in a Sept. 19, 2002 column, "Talk About Ethics," that journalists' professional lives and personal lives are inseparable and that journalists have a responsibility to the public and to their employers. Steele contended that: "Greene also seriously undermined his employer by compromising the trust placed in him. His unprofessional behavior damaged the Tribune's credibility."
The column is available at http://www.poynter.org/talkaboutethics/091902.htm.

Others criticized the Tribune's actions. Lewis Z. Koch, a Chicago-based reporter and columnist, argued in an email sent to the Society of Professional Journalists ethics listserve: "This Greene debacle has all the makings of journalists having to hew to some kind of politically correct behavior. [N]o one in journalism takes a vow of chastity."

Greene has not made a public comment, except for a short e-mail he wrote to the Associated Press expressing regret.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 9, 2009 3:17 PM.

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