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George F. Will: His Unethical Behavior in 1980 Made Him the Role Model For a Pundit Generation

Nov 30, 2006 | Updated May 25, 2011

Smart people are talking about the dishonesty in yesterday's column by George F. Will. Although I was shocked by it, too, it was a minor lapse by Will's standards. This is a good time to remember his enormous breach of ethics in 1980 - one which made him the role model for a generation of cynical, dishonest, and self-serving journalists and pundits.

Yesterday, Will altered quotes from his own paper's reporting in order to make Sen-elect Jim Webb look ruder (and the President more polite) during their encounter. In fact, Webb was direct and Bush was - I can't put this more politely - a dick.

The press has tried to cover up W's nasty streak for six years, but it does slip out from time to time - often with the people whose children are fighting his war. But whether you agree with my assessment of the President and Webb or not, quote-doctoring is a journalistic lie.

Yesterday's mendacity was nothing for George F. Will, however. He has been a disgrace to his once-honorable profession for a long time. His sleazy behavior in years past helped pave the way for the debased media of today.

The Carter/Reagan debate, and Will's role in it, changed journalism forever. Will went on national television that year to comment live and "objectively" on Ronald Reagan's debate performance - without disclosing that he was working for the Reagan campaign and had helped Reagan prepare for that very debate - using stolen property.

This unethical behavior set a new low for journalistic ethics. What was equally ground-breaking was the fact that, once his behavior was made public, he paid absolutely no professional price for it. No censure, no widespread criticism, no loss of employment.

Here's what's known, and not in question, about Will's behavior in 1980: 

  • He was an advisor to the Reagan campaign, and specifically coached Reagan on how to handle the one debate he held with Jimmy Carter.
  • He appeared on Nightline as part of  a panel to review the debate the night after he coached Reagan.
  • Ted Koppel noted that Will "met with Reagan" the previous day, and said that Will was known to have "affection" for Reagan - but did not disclose he was working for the campaign in a professional capacity.  (That's an enormous omission - and Koppel appears to have helped "spin" the "disclosure" in Will's favor.)
  • Will, Reagan, and the rest of the team used a Carter debate briefing book which was clearly stolen property.  The result?  Reagan's effective "there you go again, Mr. President" routine.
  • Will praised Reagan highly on Nightline, saying "his game plan worked well."  (Viewers didn't know at the time that this "game plan" was Will's own creation.)

The consensus today is that Reagan won that debate overwhelmingly.  But, as often happens, it wasn't all that clear at the time.  Yes, Carter was weaker than expected and Reagan beat expectations (which, as with W, were deliberately pre-set at a low level by spin doctors.)  But the overwhelming Reagan victory pundits recall today was partially the product of contemporary chatter that turned into consensus.

Will's self-serving praise for his candidate (and himself) contributed to the perception that Reagan won - and that, despite popular perceptions, he was actually "Presidential." 

What were the repercussions for this shocking breach of journalistic ethics, which included lying by omission, misrepresentation, breach of the public trust, and use of stolen property?   How did the journalistic community punish its own?

Will won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary the following year! 

With that award, the editorial community made it clear that issues like disclosure, conflict of interest, and lying by omission no longer mattered. Ethical breaches were no impediment to either honor or success in American journalism. ((And they wonder why the profession has lost public respect.)

Washington insiders like to say that Will, unlike many other conservative commentators, is a "decent" guy. I don't think so. Decent human beings don't lie, and they don't behave unethically. It's true that Will is sometimes willing to deviate from conservative orthodoxy, and that's a good thing.

I suspect it's also possible to meet him at a cocktail party and have a very pleasant talk about baseball or other side topics. (Well, probably not possible for me, after today - but that wasn't too likely to happen anyway.) Beltway pundits notwithstanding, however, one cannot be a decent human being while behaving in this manner.

Honesty, morality, and fair play are the true marks of decency. In those areas Mr. Will - and those journalists and pundits who follow in his footsteps - are sadly lacking.