Sunday, January 29, 2006

OPRAH'S SORRY; BOOK SALES SOAR

Eric Deggans, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, has had an uncanny knack of predicting what the next developments will be in the James Frey/Oprah Winfrey incident. You can read his columns at http://www.sptimes.com/columns/deggans.shtml.

Today, his column looks at Oprah's apology for defending Frey. It's at http://www.sptimes.com/2006/01/29/Worldandnation/Need_to_say__I_m_sorr.shtml.
In it, he cites me:

"Jeffrey Seglin, a professor at Emerson College who also writes a column on ethics for the New York Times Syndicate, noted that Winfrey had little to lose by admitting her mistake. Other celebrities in hot water, such as Clinton and Enron founder Kenneth Lay, faced everything from impeachment to prison time.

"'Oprah had everything to gain because it's in keeping with her image as someone in touch with her feelings who can show she's human,' he said. 'She was able to gather together all the people involved and say I was wrong and here's the guy who made me wrong. So, of course, one of the other lessons, is that you don't (mess) with Oprah.'"

He also continues the discussion on his blog at http://www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/, where he features "Other Voices Talking About Frey and Oprah." There, I say: "This guy Frey is very smart and (the show) oddly puts him in the position of being a victim, again. Basically, it was Oprah and...everybody else just piling on. And he just sat there and took it as smartly as you can do it. And meanwhile, his books keep selling...But, on a positive note, 20 years ago, nobody probably would have called his book into question. So one of the questions left is: Are the lies worse than ever before, or are we just catching people more now?''

Meanwhile, Frey's books continue to sell very, very well.

WHO'S STEALING MY TRASH?

Early on Friday mornings in my neighborhood, I can hear the rickety wheels of an old supermarket shopping cart making their way up the street. The guy pushing it stops to check the recycling bins in our yards for cans and bottles that have refundable deposits and, as he finds them, adds them to his cart.

If I were more industrious, I suppose, I would take the returnables to the redemption center myself. But as long as I separate them out, I know that they will either be recycled by the city or be collected by this fellow. It's an arrangement with which I've grown to live very happily.

I have never seen anything wrong with the neighborhood collector taking the cans that were meant for the city's recycling program. But a recent letter from a reader in Columbus, Ohio, has made me wonder whether it matters where actions such as those of my neighborhood collector take place.

The reader writes that his local Home Depot has recycling bins outside the store for public use. He's noticed that, whenever he brings stuff to deposit in the bins, an older man climbs into the bins to collect aluminum cans.

"He does not speak English," the reader says, "but he checks the stuff you are tossing into the bins to see if he can use any of it. He has amassed about 15 30-gallon bags, and keeps them piled next to a runoff pond."

My reader figures that the guy probably needs the money, but wants to know if he should call the company number listed on the side of the bin and report the man, or whether he should let it go. If he lets it go, he wants to know if he should "offer to help by collecting the bags and take them to a venue that pays for the cans."

It's no more wrong for this guy to be collecting returnable cans from these recycling bins than it is for my neighborhood collector to take them from the bin in my yard. In both cases, the key is where the bins sit.

On Home Depot property, the store managers have a perfect right to ask the collector not to go through the bins, the same way it would be fine for me to ask my neighborhood guy not to mess with the empties on my property. But Home Depot doesn't seem to mind, any more than I do, so there's no ethical reason to turn in the guy to the authorities.

So long as they don't leave trash strewn about, the same thing goes for collectors who cull public waste baskets to collect empty cans -- possibly more so, in fact, because the cans they retrieve would otherwise go unrecycled.

If I were planning to turn in those cans for the deposits, or if Home Depot were planning to do so, then the collectors would be cheating us of that money. But since neither of us plans to collect the deposits, there's no reason not to let the collectors claim them. Either way, the cans and bottles will get recycled. If collectors are willing to go to such an effort to supplement their income, I see no harm in it.

Since my reader sees recycling as a worthy effort -- I agree -- the right thing would be for him to continue to bring his goods to drop off in the recycling bins at Home Depot. As for helping the older gentleman by offering to drive him and his garbage bags full of cans to someplace where he can redeem them, that would be going the extra mile. There's no ethical obligation for him to offer such help, but there's certainly nothing to stop him from doing so.

SOUND OFF: O, CHRISTMAS TREE

Without exception, readers who responded to the question of whether it is appropriate to use the word "Christmas" as the official description of the trees and other decorations that adorn public places agreed with Elinor Stein of Cypress, Calif., who called the whole argument "rather silly."

"A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree," writes Veronica Ross of Garden Grove, Calif. "In order to please everyone, the government would have to remove every holiday from the calendars, tell the unions that they would have to renegotiate all contracts to remove all holidays and, in effect, tell the nation that they can't celebrate anything that can't be celebrated with everyone. Pish posh!"

As for the possibility of offending those of other religions, Adam Karp of Irvine, Calif., doesn't see a problem there. "As a Jewish person, I do not have a problem with the term `Christmas tree' being used," Karp writes. "If the capitol put up a `Holiday menorah, 'the Jews would be livid -- it's a `Hannukah menorah' -- and it's aChristmas tree."

Stephanie White of Fountain Valley, Calif., doesn't see the Christmas tree as offensive to anybody. "It is a universal sign of goodness and sharing to everyone," she writes, "except those Scrooges of the world."


Remarkable response given all the brouhaha this past holiday season. Surely, some of you come down squarely on the de-Christmas-ing side of the argument. Post your thoughts here -- whether you disagree with these folks or echo their sentiments.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

SOUND OFF: SHOULD NEW KIDS GET ALL THE CANDY?

It's not unusual for companies seeking new customers to offer special deals to prospective customers without extending similar offers to existing customers.

Magazine publishers, for example, may offer cheaper rates to first-time subscribers than they do to existing customers. High-speed Internet services may offer several months free to new customers if they sign on for multiple-month contracts.

While commonplace and perfectly legal, such offers strike some long-term customers as overlooking the loyalty they have shown to a company, leaving them paying full freight for goods and services that others get much more cheaply.

Is a company being unfair to existing customers when it offers discount prices that are limited to prospective new customers? Or is this simply a smart way to attract new business? If it's an unfair practice, would it be wrong for long-term customers to cancel their service -- if they can do so without incurring penalties -- and then re-up to take advantage of offers made to newcomers?

Post your thoughts here. Or send them to rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

THIS EXCITING FREE OFFER FOR - SOMEONE ELSE

When Pat Johnson of Tustin, Calif., got a notice in the mail offering a free companion airline ticket if she put $250 on her Bank of America credit card, it sounded like a great opportunity. She was about to pay a $300 veterinary bill with her Discover card, but decided to use her Bank of America card instead.

Then she read the form more closely and realized that the offer was intended not for her but for her granddaughter, who is living with her while attending a nearby university. She called Bank of America to see if she could get the same offer with her own card, but was told that she wasn't eligible for it.

"Could I have my granddaughter pay the veterinarian's bill with her card to get the free airfare," she wondered, "and then I would pay her back?"

Her granddaughter agreed to pay the veterinarian's bill with her card, but Johnson was still stewing over the rights and wrongs of the situation. Eventually, though she thought that getting a free airline ticket "would bevery nice," she decided not to do it.

For Johnson, the whole decision boiled down to one question: Would it be unethical to take advantage of an offer intended for her granddaughter and not for her? She wasn't sure, so she passed up the offer.

It's not uncommon for people to be exposed to attractive offers or opportunities that weren't intended for them. Often it's inappropriate for them to take advantage of those opportunities.

If, for example, a local newspaper's theater reviewer is invited to a preshow gathering for an upcoming play, it would be inappropriate for her to send her teenage son in her place, even if the son happens to be an enormous fan of one of the actors who will be at the gathering.

The reviewer might reasonably transfer the invitation to a newspaper colleague who also covers theater, however. The invitation was extended because of her professional standing, and someone of equivalent standing would be a reasonable substitute. Transferring the offer to a family member who lacked such standing would clearly be inappropriate, however.

In this particular instance, the offer to Johnson's granddaughter was conditioned only on the granddaughter's spending $250 with her credit card.There was no stipulation about what she should spend it on or who would pay for the charge when the bill came due. Credit-card companies generally don't care who pays the bills, as long as they get paid.

Therefore, assuming that the airline placed no restriction on who could be issued the purchased ticket or free companion ticket, there is nothing wrong with Johnson taking advantage of a creative way to cut down on her travel expenses.

Johnson went the extra mile by calling the credit-card issuer to see if she could get the same offer for using her own card. Even if she hadn't, though, and had gone ahead and worked out an arrangement to put the vet's charge on her granddaughter's credit card so as to get the free ticket, no ethical lapse would have occurred.

When contemplating whether to take advantage of an offer originally intended for someone else, the right thing to do is to weigh whether doing so would violate the intention of the offer and result inmisrepresentation. Johnson should have had no reservation in seizing this opportunity.


Post your reactions here or send your thoughts to: rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and your hometown.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Friday, January 20, 2006

SOUND OFF: BLOG ON

In the past many young people wrote in personal diaries, but nowadays they are increasingly turning to personal Web logs, or "blogs," to chronicle their innermost feelings. Services such as livejournal.com make it easy for anyone to create a personal space on the Internet in which they can effuse and to which other readers can post comments. Most of these blogs are readable by outsiders, and new search engines such as feedster.com and technorati.com make it easy to seek out particular sites.

Since these blogs are publicly available, is it acceptable for a parent to dip in and read her child's latest entry without letting the blogger know she'll be doing this? How about a teacher? Is it reasonable for him to read up on what his students might be saying?

What do you think? Where does a child's right for privacy end and a parent's or teacher's rightful concern about a child's safety -- or simple curiosity about a child's actions and feelings -- begin?

Send your thoughts to:
rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and your hometown . Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

WHEN FINDERS AREN'T KEEPERS

Sue Maghy of Fountain Valley, Calif., wants to feel proud of her son for doing the right thing. This past fall, during his first semester at the University of California in San Diego, he found an Ipod nano player and decided to turn it in to the campus police department.

"I'm proud of him," Maghy says, "and feel good that, when he was faced with this decision, he made the right choice."

The problem arose when her son asked whether, if no one claimed the Ipod, he could have it.

"The person in the department made him feel like some criminal for asking," she reports.

Feeling that her efforts to raise her son to make good ethical choices were being called into question, Maghy called the campus police. She was told that, according to departmental policy, if the item wasn't claimed in 90 days it would be sold at auction.

When she asked whether her son could claim the Ipod if the owner didn't come forward, she adds, the department representative made her feel as if this was "all about my financial gain."

"Now," she concludes, "I feel like an unethical, greedy person."

She's neither, of course, and she and her son were both perfectly reasonable in asking about what happens to found goods that aren't claimed.

As it turns out, if her son had found cash, UC/San Diego policy would have been to return it to him if went unclaimed for 90 days. All other found property, however, is sold at auction after 90 days, with the university keeping the proceeds.

This may seem inconsistent, and there are other colleges, including some in the UC system, that return both cash and other found property to their finders after a set amount of time has passed. But that's not the current policy at UC/San Diego, and there's nothing unethical about not returning found objects -- though, of course, there's also nothing unethical about Maghy's questioning that policy.

As is often the case, however, the problem here is not with the policy itself as much as with the university's failure to make the policy clear and available to anyone who has a question. On a quick check of UC/San Diego's Web site, I found only the simply instruction that lost-and-found items should be turned over to the campus police department. It was only after talking with Mary Garcia, who is in charge of records for the university's police department, that I was able to find a Web address where I could read the university's official policy on disposition of those items.

Making a rule transparent and easy to find helps to manage situations such as the one faced by Maghy's son, who ended up feeling bad for having been a good campus citizen. How hard would it have been for the university's "Police Services: Lost and Found" Web page to provide a link to the more detailed campus policy? It would make it simpler for the campus police to field any questions and would have saved Maghy and her son from feeling that their questions were unwelcome and in some way reprehensible.

Garcia tells me that UC/San Diego is now reevaluating its policy to determine whether found property should be treated the same as found cash. Whether or not the policy changes, however, the right thing would be to make the found-object policy clear and easily available to everyone on campus. A policy that people don't know or don't understand is a recipe for misunderstandings and resentment.

Post your thoughts on the column below. Or Send your thoughts to:
rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast