by Robyn Brown, UST-Law Class of 2012
On February 8th, Pulitzer Prize winning author James Stewart, Bloomberg Professor of Business and Economic Journalism, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, gave a Fredrikson & Byron Lecture, in honor of John Byron, and a Medtronic Business and Law Roundtable event, co-sponsored by the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership and the Center for Ethical Business Cultures. The following summarizes Mr. Stewart’s remarks which he made to an audience of lawyers, members of the business community, as well as faculty, staff, and students of the University of St Thomas School of Law and Opus College of business.
Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Bernie Madoff, and Barry Bonds – once prominent figures at the peak of their careers, and now, names forever associated with their respective scandals. Each of their wrongdoings commanded the attention of the media for months, and our country was appalled by their intriguing tales of deception, power, and secrecy. Why were we as a nation so fixated on these stories, and what do they tell us about the morality of America? Perhaps they are an indication of our society’s struggle to discern morality in a world where the media, politicians, Wall Street, athletes, and other role models increasingly place worldly success over character and personal gain over principle.The mentality of victory at any cost, an emphasis on loyalty to the client above all else, and a lack of accountability to society are common themes that emerged in each of these famous scandals involving perjury. James Stewart, Pulitzer Prize winner and Bloomberg Professor of Business and Economic Journalism at Columbia University, elaborated on the details of these famous cases before an audience of 280 on Tuesday, February 8, in his lecture “The Epidemic of Lying in America.” He described how the frequency of lying and tolerance of deception are at a critical point where changes must be made, or else we will see further corrosion of democracy.In addition to using these prominent cases as examples, Stewart described how easy it is for each of us to fall into deception. He told a tale of lying about a dollar bill when he was in second grade, and the humiliation he felt when he was caught. His experience is a common one for humankind. But what happens when we as a society are no longer ashamed of our lies and instead we begin to justify, even applaud, dishonesty as an important component of loyalty to clients and friends? Stewart described this trend as “reverting to the law of the jungle” – it is a powerful code, but society will reap disastrous results.The consequences society will face if the epidemic of lying continues, said Stewart, are paralysis of the legal system and breakdown of democracy. When the norms of society condone lying to reach a goal or advance the cause of a client, and when overburdened prosecutors fail to address the staggering number of perjury crimes facing them, we shouldn’t be surprised that individuals fearlessly risk their reputation and careers by acting dishonestly. Furthermore, said Stewart, when our leaders condone falsehood, they send “a heartbreaking message” to society that lying will be tolerated.What can be done to strengthen our nation’s integrity? Stewart pointed out that America has been a world leader in policing fraud and bribery, but we must work harder to continue tackling these issues. We need to first admit we have an epidemic of lying, and take steps to actively pursue accountability for those who commit dishonest acts, whether in our homes, businesses, sports arenas, or courts. Each of us has a responsibility to address falsehood wherever we find it, and by doing so we can begin building a future where honesty, not winning at any cost, is celebrated as true victory.