Sunday, October 30, 2011

Whose past is it, anyway?

How much should our pasts haunt us?

Not long ago, a publication hired the college classmate of a reader to author a regular column on a range of topics.

When the reader saw the announcement about the column, he was "bowled over." Could this be the same person, he wondered, who had been accused of plagiarism back at school and whose friends rallied to his defense until it became clear he was most likely guilty? The same person who admitted to filling out surveys himself to avoid going door-to-door to get answers from the respondents he was supposed to be interviewing for his summer job? The same guy my reader bailed out of jail one summer after he had been arrested for shoplifting?

My reader acknowledges that because these incidents happened decades ago, his memory could be inexact.

He also acknowledges that people's pasts should not haunt them forever. "Youthful indiscretions and even crimes and misdemeanors for the most part should not be held against someone," he says. "On the other hand, does not the type of behavior I've described disqualify him from being a columnist?"

He wants to know if the public deserves to know the past of such an adviser. "Does the publication deserve to have the opportunity to at least review these recollections? Or, since I cannot prove the details, and I fully recognize the faultiness of memory, should I let them all rest?"

In cases like this, it was the responsibility of the prospective columnist to inform his editors about anything - past or present - that could affect the work he is to do for the publication. If the columnist classmate of my reader didn't do this, he should have.

The public does haves a right to know about anything that might create the impression of a bias or conflict in a writer's work. From what my reader has revealed, it's hard to know whether the classmate has such a bias. But I would think that disclosing to his readers the type of experiences my reader relates would make for rich material. If he tackles it honestly, he may very well build trust with his audience.

If the publication doesn't know about its columnist's past, I believe it has the right to know about anything that might affect the credibility of his work.

The right thing? The publication should have adequately done its due diligence and the columnist should have disclosed any information in his past that could call his work into question.

If my reader is truly flummoxed over how such a person landed this job and can't rest without learning the details, the right thing would be for him to call his classmate and ask.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


As a general rule, misdeeds of the long past should probably be left in the past. To that end, most employers only ask about convictions in the last ten years. And don't even get me started about how plagiarism is more if an academic faux paus than it is a crime... but journalism appears to be one arena where this history matters.

All three "youthful discretions": the plagiarism, the falsification of work product and the shoplifting reflect on the honesty (or lack thereof) of the person. Since a publication rises and falls on the honesty of its writers and several major publications have suffered large scandals when their writers have turned out to be less than honest (See Zachery Kouwe and the New York Times) then yes, I would say that, if your reader values having a truthful publication, he should inform the editors of these facts and let them make the determination on what and how to inform the readers.

The decision on whether to inform the editors or cover for a former friend speaks volumes as to the reader's character.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

As I read this example, I had just finished watching a feature on The Military Channel about the life of Adolf Hitler and the feature was about how Hitler and the Nazis with practically no protest by the German people nearly erased an entire group (Jews) from the face of the earth simply because they were Jews. And, in today's example, we have a person who knows something about an associate which is not exactly nice and in fact is simply about some very bad things, yet happened in the long ago past and yet this person is worrying over whether he should report this person because he thinks it is necessary and by so doing, might be the cause of this person losing his job. Have we come to the place where knowledge about something like this burns such a hole in the conscience of the would-be squealer that he considers ruining this man's livihood? What a monster! Isn't there a saying, "are we not our brother's keeper?"

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC