"Making Good" and "The Cheating Culture"

Researchers say we're breeding a nation of cheats, scammers, egotists and buck passers. But when they interviewed a group of young actors, scientists and journalists, guess who came out looking best?

By Laura Miller
Published February 24, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)
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These kids today -- are they really less honest and ethical than previous generations, or is that just the perennial gloominess of the middle-aged talking? It depends on whom you ask, and which young people you're talking about. It also depends on who wants to know -- or, in some cases, who doesn't want to know. The data presented in the new book "Making Good: How Young People Cope With Moral Dilemmas at Work," compiled by three researchers and a professor at the Harvard School of Education, got written up in the New York Times last spring, but the paper of record didn't mention how close the authors came to its own wayward Jayson Blair.

Blair, whose plagiarism and multiple fabrications eventually brought down the paper's two top editors, was scheduled to be interviewed by the Harvard researchers before the scandal broke. He never showed up. "He was not alone," they write. "Young journalists proved to be the least reliable of our subjects."


The authors of "Making Good" interviewed more than 100 students and young professionals in three fields -- journalism, genetics and theater -- asking "where do ... flawed workers come from? Where do they get their ethical sense, or lack thereof?" Their book is the sober, judicious companion to David Callahan's hair-raising study, "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead," a text packed with alarming anecdotes: High schools where 80 percent of the students cheat academically, unrepentant stock-market analysts who enjoy bank accounts fattened by the dot-com bubble, Sears auto mechanics bullied by commission systems into padding estimates, and lawyers who bill 50-hour days.

If Callahan is correct -- and some, but not all, of the stats he quotes suggest that he is -- today's most competitive high schools are training grounds for plagiarists and scam-meisters of every variety. These get funneled into top colleges, which in turn feed junior employees into the law, the media and the financial industry, among other society-shaping professions, where the fudging and finagling continue unabated. So it's no wonder that we seem to have Jayson Blairs and Andrew Fastows (the former CFO of Enron) everywhere we turn.

It's hard to recognize this swamp of iniquity in the workplaces described by authors of "Making Good." The ethical dilemmas they articulate are far more delicate. Instead of perpetrating outright fraud, one teenage science student decides to carefully word a paper she submits to an important competition: Knowing that the judges are biased against contestants who work directly with animals, she implies that she merely observed such experiments on video. (The authors don't explain the judges' prejudice, which gives you an idea of how poorly cued the book is to a general audience.) An African-American actor takes a role in a play written by a white friend, even though some of her black colleagues object to it on principle. Young journalists lie to their editors about being unable to get interviews with mourning families, because they don't want to intrude on private suffering.


Much of what the authors of "Making Good" present as ethical dilemmas involves clashes between two opposing ideas of the good. Most people would consider the humane instinct to be gentle with the grief-stricken a higher value than the need to be scrupulously truthful and obedient to a supervisor. Almost as many would consider the argument that white people shouldn't write about black people to be specious; since the actor thought the play had merit, her participation despite peer pressure seems laudable. As for the high school biologist, if the judges' dislike of hands-on animal experimentation is irrational, then skirting that aspect of her research, while less than fully honest, is certainly not on a par with stealing or fabricating data, the mortal sins of science.

Compared with Callahan's stories of young people enlisting tutors to do their homework, concealing test answers inside high-tech pens, and lying outright on college applications and résumés, these moral questions lie in a gray area. It's hard to fault a cub reporter for spending less time on a story he considered important than he did on the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. when he was ordered to do so by his boss. (Especially when the story he preferred to work on, about the funeral of a high school athlete, doesn't sound particularly compelling or significant.) He and his editor disagreed about what was newsworthy, and the fact that his editor was almost certainly right about what would most interest readers makes this a larger debate about the mission of journalism, not a personal moral test. The editor might also have suspected that the green reporter couldn't pull off a sentimental human-interest piece. Sometimes it can be hard to separate a novice's idealism from his naiveté and inexperience.

But what both "Making Good" and "The Cheating Culture" single out for blame is a widespread tendency to pass the buck. "Everybody's doing it" is the mantra of the cheaters Callahan writes about. They all say it's impossible to get by without bending the official rules because too many of their rivals are working every unscrupulous angle. Wendy Fischman and her "Making Good" coauthors are less focused on flagrant lying and fraud, but they worry that young workers aren't sufficiently willing to challenge the ethical disintegration of their fields.


Sometimes a young journalist or scientist resists the pressure to publish work before it's ready, but why don't more of them openly quarrel with the reckless emphasis on speed over quality? One young geneticist described in "Making Good" gets burned when he shares data with an older scientist only to see it published by that scientist without mention of the source. Rather than alienate a potentially useful ally, the young scientist doesn't press his case, but he thereby misses an opportunity to stand up for one of the major principles of his profession: giving credit where credit is due.

Like Callahan, the authors of "Making Good" attribute this attitude of expediency to "market pressures." Newspapers and broadcast news programs are increasingly run by conglomerates that care only for profits, and genetics has become a discipline where much money can be made if you play your cards right. Callahan points to statistics showing the growth of an affluent upper-middle class in the past 30 years, coinciding with the evaporation of a comfortable middle. You either make it pretty big or you can barely get by.


Furthermore, the bar for "making it" keeps getting higher. Once a family of modest means was proud just to put its kids through college: Now, everyone's shooting for the Ivy League. The rampant cheating in the elite high schools Callahan investigated is often tacitly endorsed by parents (some of whom also try to get a trumped-up learning-disability diagnosis for their kids to gain them more time to complete the SAT). Anything to get their child a branded degree and the extra million or two in lifetime income that supposedly comes with it.

This is a vision of meritocracy run amok, and it leads to a perverse form of nostalgia. One of the lawyers Callahan quotes laments "the transformation of corporate law firms in America from small, dignified, prosperous, conservative, white male professional partnerships dedicated to serving their clients and communities into large, aggressive, wealthy, self-promoting, diverse business organizations where money is often valued more highly than service to clients and communities." Of course, the competition in the old-style firms was muted because it was a select preserve; only a very limited number of people -- male WASPs -- could get in the door. The implication is that as the profession has become more equitable, it has also become less trustworthy.

Although the interview subjects in "Making Good" aren't as blatantly dishonest as the overbilling legal associates quoted in "The Cheating Culture," both journalists and geneticists have a tendency to defer moral judgments about their field. According to the authors, "it is noteworthy that over half of the young professional journalists said that other persons, rather than they themselves, were responsible for the well-being" of the profession. Likewise, young geneticists, and even quite a few of the older geneticists the authors interviewed -- people who work in a field rife with moral implications -- tend to "impute responsibility to others."


But while young journalists understandably considered editors and publishers -- the people giving them orders -- to be their profession's moral guardians, the geneticists mostly "placed the burden on society at large," even though most scientists complain that citizens outside their profession don't understand it well. "Across all age groups, rarely if ever did the scientists raise the question -- one that is integral to most religious and ethical traditions -- of whether the responsibility should fall on them if no one else is willing to assume it."

Given that young professionals (and students) believe that they're struggling for survival in an intensely competitive, winner-take-all world where everyone else cuts ethical corners or cheats, is it too much to expect them to value integrity over expedience? Maybe. Another way to look at the question is suggested by a recent article by Alexandra Wolfe in the New York Observer about a phenomenon dubbed "too much positive reinforcement." It blames indiscriminate ego-fluffing on the part of ambitious, indulgent parents for the overblown sense of entitlement shown by a certain segment of America's youth.

"Kids will come in wanting to be a staff writer at Esquire right out of college," marvels the editorial talent director for Hearst Magazines. A Manhattan educational therapist complains that students "are being managed like young CEOs ... every kid's got a tutor, every kid's packaged for school." A publisher says, "There's a whole generation of young people who think they can make top dollar when they walk in the door -- and they don't want to do certain things ... In areas where there is a reality of having to work your way up the ladder, being willing to put in your time isn't there anymore." Another educator talks about "the child who has a fit when she doesn't get an A, and the parents go to school and raise hell about the teacher's unfairness and the grade gets changed."


"Unfairness" is the operative word. One of the students Callahan quotes says, "The world isn't fair and sometimes to get where you want you have to sacrifice some integrity." But if the definition of "unfair" is not getting where or what you want (as opposed to what you deserve), it's no wonder integrity seems like an endangered species. If you're raised with an exaggerated notion of your own capabilities, of course you're going to think that the system is rigged when you don't qualify for the upper echelons. People of mediocre talents trying for the highest honors are always going to find the competition unbearably ferocious.

It's one of the frustrating realities of human nature that we usually want explanations from people who behave badly and they can rarely come up with ones that satisfy us. In his first interview (also for the Observer) after his dismissal from the Times, Jayson Blair offered a bizarre farrago of reasons for his actions. Although there was every sign that he got preferential treatment as a protégé of executive editor Howell Raines, Blair claimed to have been the victim of racism. Colleagues who (rightly) questioned the accuracy of his work were, he insisted, out to get him. The possibility that he just didn't have what it took never really comes up. "Was I too young?" he asked. "For a newspaper reporter's job at a great newspaper, maybe not. Was I too young for a snake pit like that? Maybe."

People who deliberately do wrong always have these sorts of excuses: They had to cheat because they never got a fair chance, their behavior was no worse than anyone else's, the need to "survive" trumps the nicer considerations of professional ethics, and so on. But such excuses don't mean those pressures don't exist at all. It's easy to ding a corporate lawyer for doing anything to make partner; it's a lot harder to condemn a Sears auto mechanic for overbilling to meet new quotas so he can keep the job that's supported his family for decades.

Nevertheless, the third group studied in "Making Good," the theater actors, suggest that unrealistic expectations may do as much damage to the conscience of young white-collar workers as harsh workplaces do. Actors have a reputation for immaturity, but the subjects interviewed in "Making Good" put the journalists and geneticists in the shade. They seem more committed, more optimistic, more willing to accept that they have much to learn, and more able to recognize their own mistakes.


Yet acting, especially in live theater, is a risky profession that, with a handful of famous exceptions, pays poorly, has no job security, is rooted in an inherently unfair distribution of talent, and brutalizes the ego. The most lucrative jobs, especially for young performers, are often the most demeaning. So why should these workers be so much less bitter and doubtful than their peers in journalism and science, who haven't got it nearly as bad? Partly because they love their work, but mostly because they knew the reality of the market when they went into the field.

The journalists, by contrast, were "the least likely to show up for an interview on time, least likely to inform us they had to cancel, least likely to be apologetic for a mistake on their part." Most of them are disillusioned and contemplating career changes. As Callahan points out, in recent years it has become possible for a visible handful of journalists -- comparable to that handful of star actors -- to make a lot of money even as the vast majority merely gets by.

That plays havoc with morale by making it harder to accept that, for most, journalism is a middle- to lower-middle-class career. Meanwhile, even the most successful practitioners lament the field's descent into commercialism. These unpalatable realities are as important to impart to apprentice journalists as the highest ethical codes of the profession. Sometimes the best you're going to get is the reward of the work itself, and if you do anything to "make it," you're likely to wind up with nothing at all.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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