Monday, February 23, 2015

HKS PolicyCast on Brian Williams and NBC

HKS PolicyCast describes itself as a "weekly podcast on public policy, politics and global issues hosted by Matt Cadwallader and featuring leading voices from Harvard Kennedy School and beyond." In this episode, Cadwallader writes that "HKS Lecturer Jeffrey Seglin of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy discusses the ethical hot water Brian Williams has recently found himself in. He breaks down the reputational harm that has been done to both Williams and NBC, the steps NBC needs to take to restore its viewers’ faith and the growing similarity between journalists and politicians in the ways they seek to connect with audiences through celebrity."

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Don't go on a guilt trip over free-trial offer

D.H., a reader in Sacramento, Calif.,writes that he prefers a good portion of his leisure reading in printed form. To accommodate his preference, he subscribes to several magazines, his local newspaper and the Sunday edition of a well-known national newspaper.

While D.H. enjoys reading these publications and would like to see all of them continue to thrive in printed form, a decision he made recently leaves him wondering if he did the right thing.

A few times a year, the national newspaper he reads offers to send him the daily newspaper as well at no cost for a specific period of time. His only obligation to keep from being charged for both daily and Sunday subscriptions is to contact the newspaper at the end of the trial to cancel any additional days.

D.H. has taken advantage of these offers several times, keeping careful track of when he needs to cancel the daily newspaper to avoid being charged for it.

"The extra days are a nice treat," he writes, "but I have no intention of keeping that daily part of the subscription going."

Even though the offer is presented without strings, D.H. writes that "knowing that the newspaper industry is in dire straits makes me wonder whether it's ethical to continue taking the (free) offer."

D.H. does have a point that newspaper revenues have declined precipitously over the past decade. In its annual "The State of the News Media" report, The Pew Research Center's findings suggest that while newspaper circulation has remained stable over the past several years, the revenue from advertising has dropped dramatically. As classified and display ads have migrated to other venues -- especially the digital media platforms D.H. doesn't care to read -- newspapers are challenged to match the profits they once achieved.

However, it's not readers like D.H. choosing to convert their free daily trials into paid subscriptions that will dramatically turn the newspaper industry around, although newspaper companies always love having a new paid subscriber in the fold. (Selfishly, as someone who writes for newspapers, I would like to see readers pay for both print and online subscriptions as often as possible.)

In any case, is it right for D.H. to sign on for a free trial of the daily edition of his newspaper when there's no chance he'll pay for it after the trial? He should feel no guilt.

The newspaper made the offer with no strings attached. If D.H. wants to avail himself of the free papers, that's up to him. He might view it as a reward for being a loyal Sunday customer, even if that's not the newspaper's intention.

The right thing for the newspaper to do is make the terms of the free trial clear, and for D.H. to act in good faith if he signs on. Each of them has done so, so D.H. can read on with a clear conscience. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hotels should make clear if pocketing food, tissues is OK

A well-traveled reader claims that his spouse is one of the world's great hoarders when they're on the road.

"If we're eating breakfast at a hotel and they serve us three rolls," he explains, his spouse will eat one roll and slip the other two into the backpack for later. If there's an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, his spouse will take a few extra packaged cheeses for lunch.

"It's saved us many a meal," the reader writes.

But the spouse doesn't stop at the dining table. In hotel rooms, the spouse will walk out with the Kleenex box or toiletries.

"We don't take towels or such, but food or toiletries?" His spouse, he writes, is a master.

"So here's my ethical question: Where should a traveler draw the line? If you paid for the room, can you take the Kleenex? If you've paid for breakfast, but don't eat that much, can you save food for lunch? What are the limits?"

In the past, readers have asked similar questions. One admitted deliberately going to a local all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant while they were still serving breakfast -- but just as they began setting out lunch -- so he could partake of each. He wanted to know if this was a kosher practice (straddling meals, not the meal itself). As long as the restaurant hadn't posted any notice that patrons were only paying for breakfast or lunch, I said he'd done nothing wrong.

Several other readers have asked about taking home the toiletries set out for their use in hotel/motel rooms. As long as these items were intended for their personal consumption, there's no harm in keeping them. In fact, I pointed out, some hotels have formed relationships with not-for-profit organizations such as Clean the World and the Global Soap Project to send unused shampoos and soaps to developing nations. Travelers can contribute themselves if they wish.

But what of the world-class hoarding spouse? If the couple is served three rolls and eats only one, there's nothing wrong with saving the other two for later. It seems akin to asking for a doggie bag. Taking a handful of Kleenex to use while out traveling and away from the hotel seems a fair practice, as well.

But taking packaged food from a buffet table with no intention of eating it during that meal, and removing a full-size box of Kleenex from a hotel room goes beyond the intention of the provider. Granted, my reader's spouse is certainly not the only person to do such things; the hotel where the couple stayed probably anticipates the cost of such activities.

If so, the right thing would be for the hotel to make clear to patrons that they're welcome to take a piece of cheese or fruit with them for the day, or pack the Kleenex. Or guests can simply ask at the front desk or in the dining area if it's OK to take extra. They shouldn't have to wonder if it's OK or not -- even if they believe everyone else is doing it. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

If the euro falls, can the price of French wine be far behind?

Do businesses have an ethical responsibility to pass on savings to the people buying their products?

That's what, G.L, a reader in the Northeast U.S., wants to know. G.L. and his wife spent four months traveling in Europe this past spring. When they left Europe to return to the U.S. in July, the euro was worth around $1.36. Now, eight months later, the euro's value has dropped significantly, to roughly $1.13.

"That's a drop of 17 percent in six months," writes G.L. "And yet the cost in the United States of a French bottle of wine hasn't dropped at all." To G.L., this doesn't sit right. Shouldn't his local wine store drop prices to reflect the weakening of the euro, he wonders.

From a business standpoint, even if a wine shop did decide to lower its prices because its inventory presumably cost less to stock, it would take some time for those lower prices to register. The bottles on the shelf presumably were purchased when the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the euro was higher.

Granted, if G.L. and his wife wanted to, they could hop a plane, return to France and get a better deal on their wine than they did when they were there six months ago. But the added cost of the airfare would obviously outweigh any cost savings, and 3,400 miles would strike many as a long way to go to save a few dollars on a bottle of Languedoc-Roussillon wine.

Certainly, once G.L.'s local wine shop starts stocking French wine it purchased at the better exchange rate, it might be able to pass on some cost savings to customers. It would be a nice thing to do.

But is it unethical not to do so? No.

The wine shop is free to charge whatever price it wants on the products it stocks. If customers are willing to pay the same price they've been paying over the past year -- even though their dollars might go further in Europe this month than six months ago -- then the wine shop owner stands to earn a bigger profit than before. This would not be unethical.

If G.L. and other customers are unhappy about the local wine shop's failure to drop prices reflecting the stronger dollar (or weaker euro), he and others are free to shop around to see if other stores offer French wines at better prices. Eventually, if every other store drops its French wine prices slightly and G.L.'s local wine shop does not, it stands to lose business and profit.

This principle holds true for most any business selling products that can also be purchased elsewhere. There's nothing wrong with a business making money, just as there's nothing wrong with customers shopping around for the best price.

As for G.L.'s question about the weakened euro, the right thing for the wine shop owner to do is to stock wine customers want at a price they're willing to pay. And the right thing for G.L. to do is to decide how much he's willing to pay for the wine he likes to drink. Tchin-tchin. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, February 01, 2015

Passenger under no obligation to help pay for cabbie's mistake

C.N. was traveling in the United Arab Emirates when she hailed a cab. Unprompted by C.N., the driver chose to go through a light that was turning red to get C.N. to her destination faster. C.N. figures that had the driver waited for the green light, it would have taken them several more minutes -- and several more Euros on the meter -- to reach her destination.

Police saw the cab driver run the light, pulled him over and issued a fine.

"The cost of the cab fare was much, much smaller than the cost of the fine," writes C.N. Of course, it also took much longer to reach her destination than it would have if the driver had waited for the light to change.

"What's the right thing to do?" asks C.N. "Should I have given him money to help defray the cost of the fine?"

When C.N. arrived at her destination and the driver told her the fare, he didn't ask for money to cover the fine. However, C.N. decided to give him half the cost of the fine. She's still wondering if this was the right thing to do.

C.N. might have acted out of kindness by giving the cabbie the extra money. She sensed that he was only trying to help her, and in the process incurred the fine. But it was the cabbie who chose to violate the law, not C.N. She didn't cajole him to get her where she wanted to go swiftly at any cost. Even if she'd done so, the driver would have been wrong to run the light. The end result could have been far more serious than a fine if the cab had been hit by another driver.

The right thing would have been for the cab driver to obey the traffic signal. Given that he was fined, he was right not to ask the passenger to help cover the cost. Paying a fine is not akin to paying a toll, for example, which the driver would have been expected to cover.

Once C.N. arrived at her destination, the right thing would have been to pay the fare only. If she wanted to show kindness, she could have added an appropriate gratuity. (The custom for tipping taxi drivers in Dubai seems to be to round up to the next full Euro amount if the ride was good. Given that the driver in question violated the law, C.N. would have had to determine if she received a "good" ride.) But she was under no obligation -- nor should she have felt compelled -- to split the cost of the fine. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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