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Are Ethics in Journalism Being Overlooked?

Former CBS News producer Robert “Joe” Halderman has another gig behind the scenes in the news industry, a welcome change for Halderman who was a subject of the news after blackmailing late-night TV host David Letterman in 2009. Halderman's new role is as a producer for On the Case with Paula Zahn, a newsmagazine show similar to CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery, the show that Halderman worked for when his unethical journalistic practices led to the start of his legal troubles — and should have marked the end of his journalism career.

Looking beyond how one can find employment so quickly after being sentenced to six months in prison in 2010 (four of which Halderman ultimately served), the producer’s ability to procure another job in journalism after pleading guilty to grand larceny and potentially ruining the career of one of the figureheads at his major TV network is staggering.   

The executives that hired Halderman to his new position were apparently unfazed by his checkered past and did not address his extortion. In a statement regarding the hire and printed by the Daily Mail: “With the network’s prior approval, the team has brought Halderman on as a producer for ‘On The Case,’” fellow producer Scott Weinberger said. “We are confident that Halderman will make significant contributions to the success of our award-winning investigative newsmagazine.”

Oh, and in other preposterous news, disgraced journalists Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, and Jack Kelly will all be gainfully employed as journalists again, starting tomorrow.

Granted, comparing the infamous individuals above to Halderman is not exactly the same. Blair, Cooke, and Kelly fabricated stories, a terrible offense for journalists, but not a criminal offense in the way extorting your live-in girlfriend’s lover/TV personality for millions of dollars is. Yet the essence of their wrongdoings is the same: Unethical behavior led to their downfall — and has prevented Blair, Cooke, and Kelly from resuming a journalism career, but why not Halderman? Simply because his crime did not pertain to his work projects, but rather, his personal life?

Journalists are not required to take an oath of ethics the same way doctors do, and cannot be disbarred like attorneys. However, with the power of the pen in a business that revolves around revealing the shortcomings of others comes an inherent responsibility to act honestly and ethically. This responsibility should not be underestimated, particularly at a time when the public’s relationship with the media teeters on icy on good days.

Journalists walk a fine line. It’s why several ethical guidelines, such as the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, exist to steer journalists in the proper direction in the workplace. Had Halderman divulged the information regarding Letterman’s extramarital affairs in a legal manner and for reasons other than personal motivation, he might have been lauded for his keen sense of tracking down the news (“might” is the operative word because whether or not Letterman’s affairs are newsworthy is an entirely different debate). Instead, Halderman forced Letterman into revealing his own story in an unethical and, most importantly, illegal manner for personal gain.

Halderman performs his job at an Emmy Award-winning level. But what would stop him from reverting to old behaviors in the future when he needs to squeeze a source for a juicy scoop? The hope would be that Halderman’s professional and personal lives are distinct entities, but ethics are generally something that one does not leave reserved for the office cubicle.  

Perhaps the New Year has reinvigorated everyone’s desire to grant a wrongdoer a chance at redemption and Halderman’s hiring should not be given a second thought.

Then again, maybe 2012 is shaping up to be the year of fortuitousness for those on journalism’s should-be blacklist.

Photo Credit: Toban Black 

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