Along with apple pie and patriotism, loyalty to a cause, loved one, family, party, group, or country seems like it should always be a good thing.But doesn’t it depend on what someone is loyal to?

In the recent exchanges between Michael Moore and Sanjay Gupta, it’s Moore who is portrayed as somehow disloyal to the gentlemanly code of journalism — when it turns out that it’s actually the hyphenate doctor-journalist who got the facts wrong.

But it’s not just about Gupta’s wrong numbers — it’s about why he got them wrong.

During the initial exchange between Michael Moore and Blitzer on the Situation Room, Blitzer kept asserting the veracity of Gupta’s reporting by repeating: He’s a journalist and a surgeon. He’s a journalist and a surgeon.

Well, if this were the “macher” awards, Gupta would win hands down. But it isn’t. Gupta’s very credentials as a hyphenate hint that (to use medical diagnostic terms) he’s at increased risk for — a bad case of divided loyalties. Can he serve both the medical establishment and the fourth estate? His Sicko coverage answers that question.

Acknowledging that dilemma might have led him to recuse himself from covering Sicko but of course, he didn’t. Instead he used his journalistic calling card to serve his higher loyalty.

CNN’s self-declared occupation of the journalistic high ground to “keep them honest” has now been ceded to Moore who kept CNN honest. But is CNN honest enough to admit that and retract Gupta’s biased reporting? Or will the network and all of its hosts, like some other executives we know, batten down the hatches in loyalty to one of their own even in the face of the cold, hard numbers they claim to respect?

What is this thing called loyalty?

The eighty-two year old German psychologist and philosopher, Bert Hellinger probed into loyalty to understand the psychosocial mechanisms underlying the Nazi experience and its aftermath. Hellinger points out that loyalty to one group automatically excludes anyone outside of that circle of loyalty, dividing people and creating in-groups and out groups.

When people stand at the margins between two groups they have to decide: whom do they serve? Tough call.

Divided loyalty can drive public servants (or the press) to abdicate (or substantively compromise) their responsibility to the greater good, instead acting in a narrow loyalty to special interests.

Misguided loyalty can drive struggling people to act and vote against their own self-interest.

When Michael Moore first appeared on the Larry King show, a sixty-year old man without health insurance called in. Totally unconcerned about whatever illness or financial loss might ensue from his lack of coverage, this man’s one preoccupation was:

Did proposing a shift in health options somehow imply a criticism of our country?

Because if it did, he dare not consider it.

Obviously, though many regard discourse and debate as essential to democracy, it’s much simpler to skirt these head scratching considerations and act on a misguided sense of loyalty. Particularly when you have repeatedly been urged to do that by leaders who play the loyalty card.

One of Sicko’s most telling sequences captures the lobbying campaign mounted for the Medicare Prescription Drug bill. Though promoted as a boon to seniors it raised drug prices to benefit drug companies, according to Public Citizen. In one telling moment, Moore showed multiple clips of the Congressional spearhead, one time Congressman (R-LA) W.J. “Billy” Tauzin who aggressively promoted the bill, by shifting the discussion away from the real merits and beneficiaries of the bill to, of all people, his mother.

At countless gatherings, Moore shows Tauzin selling the bill because “I love my mother.” In an act of marketing genius, playing the loyalty card totally obscured the relevant issues.

But as Moore wryly observes, the real question wasn’t whether or not Tauzin and his camp cared for their own mothers, but whether as legislators they were loyal to their obligation to serve our mothers, fathers, grandparents, elderly relatives and senior selves.

No doubt Tauzin’s Mom felt proud that her son got a hefty paycheck when he left Congress to head up to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which the L.A. Times called “one of the biggest beneficiaries of the bill Tauzin helped write.”

But we and our mothers can now recognize that under the guise of mother love, Tauzin and other legislators’ highest loyalty was to the lobbyists, financial backers, and future employers, not to us.

The fundamental question is whether anyone (government officials, legislators, health care systems, or media) can act in the public interest when they are beholden and loyal to their paymasters, their industry, their advertisers, or dancing back and forth between government and corporate bosses?

Serving a more inclusive higher good, which is a public official’s mandated duty, may require sacrificing personal loyalty to immediate family, inner circle, friends in industry, key staff people, advertisers or political party, not to mention passing on financial opportunities. Yet in both action and ethic, this requirement is honored in the breach.

Can we afford this? Which arenas are so essential to human life, to democracy, and to the earth that we cannot permit them to be subverted by people with divided loyalties to special interests?

“Those who accept and love the earth as it is can’t remain with the confines of a single group,” points out Bert Hellinger. “They go beyond the limits of their particular group and embrace the wholeness of the world… (This has a different quality) from the belief that fears and hates and divides.”
UPDATE:

As a television producer, writer and editor, who at one time worked in network news, I know that the CNN producers and show editors were the ones who likely crafted that piece, while Gupta gave some direction and leads. But he approved and probably gave input to the script and it was most likely his team that produced it. So it was not my purpose to scapegoat one individual, but to look at the ethical issues present in the larger system of news reporting (and government). To CNN’s credit, they at least featured Moore, as opposed to the deafening silence elsewhere. But if you are going to deploy a catch phrase like “keeping em honest,” (or indeed work in journalism at all), there’s an inherent obligation to make consistent efforts to live up to that standard yourself– or at least apologize and admit it when you don’t. And that is why I am writing now. It’s not about a pile-on on Gupta, but about becoming more transparent and accountable about divided loyalties

Copyright, 2007, Alison Rose Levy. All rights reserved.

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