Long ago, a philosopher named Diogenes took a lighted lantern through the streets of Athens in broad daylight. He said he was looking for an honest man.
Twenty-three centuries later, we’re still looking.
It’s not that honest men or women can’t be found — after all, you’re one of them, right? It just seems that in recent weeks, one institution after another — from religion to teachers to baseball, from The New York Times to Martha Stewart — has been tainted by scandal.
Can anybody be trusted these days? And what can bring a greater measure of trustworthiness to institutions nationally and here in the East Valley?
The shocks have been many. Consider:
• Thomas J. O’Brien, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix signed a confession made public last week that he transferred priests who were suspected child molesters without telling their new parishes of the allegations. They included priests in Scottsdale, Chandler and Mesa. Then he went on TV to, in effect, repudiate his own confession.
• Baseball legend Sammy Sosa — a popular star who draws legions of fans during the East Valley’s Cactus League season — was caught using an illegal corked bat. He claimed it was an accident.
•Jayson Blair, a former reporter for The New York Times — not just any newspaper, mind you, but the nation’s premier and supposedly most trusted newspaper — has boasted about how he fooled his editors as he filled stories with fabrications and plagiarism. In a long-delayed reaction, the paper’s two top editors resigned last week.
• Martha Stewart, whose open face and engaging smile helped transform her mastery of the domestic arts into a billion-dollar business empire, was indicted on charges related to alleged insider stock trading — the latest in a cascade of high-profile business scandals.
• The 2002-03 school year brought an unprecedented wave of sex abuse cases to public schools in the East Valley. On Friday, former Paradise Valley elementary school teacher David Renaud was sentenced to 46 1 /2 years in prison for molesting students.
HOW DEEP DOES IT GO?
"I think there is a fairly prevalent sense of distrust," said Joan McGregor, an associate professor of philosophy at Arizona State University. At the same time, she said society is better off now, because wrongdoing is more likely than in the past to be exposed and publicly criticized.
But Rabbi Bonnie Koppell of Temple Beth Shalom in Chandler thinks society’s moral flaws are deep and pervasive. "I wouldn’t describe it as a crisis in trust," she said. "I think it’s a reflection of human nature, a crisis of personal integrity. I think we live in a society where the 11 th commandment is, ‘Thou shalt not get caught.’ "
Indeed, there is evidence that a lack of trustworthiness has percolated throughout society. For example:
• An annual survey this year of 700,000 highachieving high school students found that 80 percent admitted to cheating, according to Congressional Quarterly Researcher. That’s the highest level in the 29-year history of the survey.
• Chandler High School students debating academic honesty agreed in May that highstakes testing and new technologies have made cheating both easy and rampant. "There are kids in my brother’s dorm at ASU who haven’t written a paper all year," one student said.
• A Roper poll reported this year that the number of Americans who think it’s OK to cheat on taxes has risen sharply since 1999.
• HireRight, a Southern California company that conducts background checks, estimated last year that 34 percent of job application forms contain outright lies about applicants’ key qualifications.
CALL FOR CHURCH REFORM
Mary Jayne Benton’s late brother was a Catholic priest, but that hasn’t been enough to keep her from losing trust in a church whose sex scandals continue to grow.
The 77-year-old Scottsdale resident said she’s never seen trust in the church as low as now because of the way it has struggled to deal with priests who molest. The church’s reaction has been too slow and too little, said Benton, a member of Catholic reform group Call to Action Arizona.
"You can’t build a big building and think it’s going to restore trust," Benton said.
A growing number of Americans share her skepticism. A December ABC News/ Washington Post poll found 52 percent of Americans — and 30 percent of Catholics — had an unfavorable view of the nation’s largest church.
The scandal isn’t large enough to destroy trust in the church, said Linell Cady, an Arizona State University professor who directs the school’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. But followers are less trusting in an organization that is supposed to set a moral standard above the rest of civil society, Cady said.
"There certainly is an erosion," she said.
The Catholic church will have to reform to regain trust, said Cady, who is Catholic. It also must remind followers of its role as an agent of helping believers connect with God.
Benton and other Catholics said the church must create leadership roles for lay people, boost accountability and become more open.
Bill Mandell of Scottsdale thinks most of what he sees on TV is fiction.
"I believe the news about as much as I believe the characters on ‘Friends’ are real people," the 44-year-old said. "The news uses sound bites to make the story say whatever they want it to say."
Mandell isn’t alone. Only 36 percent of Americans think newspapers and TV stations get the facts straight, according to a May USA TODAY/ CNN/Gallup poll. A string of scandals — from Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke admitting that her 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a young heroin addict was made up, to New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s resignation in May after editors discovered that he fabricated stories — has eroded trust in the media.
"More and more, I see newspapers put their own spin on stories," said 28-yearold Steve Cushman of Chandler, who reads the East Valley Tribune and The Arizona Republic every weekday. "I read stories about the war that really took a left-wing approach. It surprised me because I expect a news story to be a factual-based story, not a particular writer’s thoughts on the issue."
Cushman said he still takes most of what he reads in newspapers as fact. But experts say the media have a long road ahead to win back the general public’s confidence.
"Building trust is a longterm operation," said Mary-Lou Galician, head of media analysis and criticism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "What’s sad is that trust that has been built up — whether it’s in a personal relationship or with the media — can easily be broken by one rotten incident.
"The loss of trust stems from sensationalism. While that serves the media momentarily in terms of ratings and circulation, in the long run it is a disservice to the public and to the media institutions themselves because it backfires on them and puts them in the same category as the National Enquirer and ‘Inside Edition.’ "
It’s not all the media’s fault, Galician said. They’re just giving people what they want — but that doesn’t mean media don’t have a duty to try to take a higher road.
"Freedom of the press was not given to them to print money or write garbage," she stressed. "Freedom was given to them to provide us with the essential information we need in a democracy."
Consumers and media both need to stop feeding the frenzy of sensationalism, she said.
"The media needs to practice a more objective form of journalism that attempts to return to the sacred tenets of journalism that afford the press so much freedom," Galician said. "Likewise, there comes responsibility to the consumers of mass media. If people complain and are critical and specific in their complaints, the powers that be in the media will respond."
GIVING US THE BUSINESS
Last week’s indictment of Martha Stewart again cast unfavorable light on a chief executive of an American company.
Starting with Enron, such high-profile cases have resulted in public cynicism toward businesses and elicited cries for change. Congress responded last year by passing corporate reform legislation, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
East Valley business leaders and experts said the latest example of Stewart, while unfortunate, can have the positive result of encouraging investors to be active and informed.
Amy Hillman, an associate professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU, called the Stewart case "one more highly visible example in a string of Enrons and Global Crossing that have eroded the public trust."
The scandals have raised concerns and made people more careful about companies they are investing in, she said. But Hillman added, "These are — while very sexy and highly visible examples — very few of thousands and thousands of companies that are being run in an ethical and morally acceptable way."
Douglas Parker, chairman and chief executive of America West Holdings Corp., parent company of Tempe-based America West Airlines, said that while the high-profile cases do not represent the business community as a whole, they underscore the importance for CEOs to communicate their values and those of their companies to create trust.
"Otherwise you run the risk of getting cast in the same (bad) light," he said.
Herb Baum, chairman, president and chief executive of Scottsdale-based Dial Corp., said cases of corporate misdeeds have in some ways made CEOs’ jobs more difficult.
"People are suspicious of the numbers that companies are issuing, and CEOs have a more difficult job of communicating information because everybody is skeptical," he said.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which includes a requirement that outside members of boards be free of financial ties to the corporation, is a way to ensure that all corporations are "on the same page" in terms of self-regulation. Corporations have brought the increased regulations on themselves, Baum said.
One of the greatest demonstrations of trust occurs when parents entrust someone else with the health, safety and education of their children, said Steven Neuberg, a psychology professor at ASU. Thousands of parents do this every day when they send their children to school.
This year, several East Valley parents had their trust shattered by at least seven cases of teachers who were accused of sexual misconduct.
"Trust is the glue that holds society together," Neuberg said, adding that research shows trustworthiness is the character trait people most want to see in another person. "Trust matters for everything, so when people violate trust, it has severe ramifications.
"One of the hardest perceptions to change is one of not being trustworthy. Regardless of the good things you do, if you do something that is labeled untrustworthy, it is very hard to get your good reputation back."
Arizona educators say that while that may be true of teachers who were abusive, most teachers are people with integrity who have earned the trust of parents and children.
"I think people recognize that it’s a small minority of teachers who have not lived up to their commitment," said John Wright, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
Wright believes the quick action taken to remove abusive teachers from the classroom actually helps to build trust.
"But trust works both ways," Wright said. "It’s just as important not to make false accusations."
Debra Duvall, superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District, said she doesn’t think the recent cases of teacher misconduct have eroded public trust in teachers and schools, "but I do think it’s shaken it up a bit."
"We need to increase efforts to provide appropriate information to parents and communities about how we handle situations," Duvall said.
JUST CALL HIM ‘CORKY’
Several years ago during a major league baseball game, TV cameras spotted a pitcher slyly doctoring a baseball, a practice designed to give him an advantage over the hitter by increasing the ball’s movement.
Seeing this, the opposing team’s owner immediately called his team’s dugout and spoke to the manager. The owner ordered the manager to seek out the home-plate umpire, who then would perhaps eject the pitcher for cheating.
The manager replied, "Uh, I wouldn’t do that."
"Why not?" the owner demanded.
"Because I think our pitcher is doing it, too."
The cheating issue rose to public consciousness last week when Sammy Sosa broke his bat in a game against Tampa Bay and it was discovered that part of the bat had been hollowed out and filled with cork. That is a rules violation and a practice many believe gives the hitter an advantage. On Friday, Sosa was suspended for eight games; he immediately appealed the decision. Meanwhile, the public was left to ponder whether Sosa’s recent 60-plus homerun seasons were the result of cheating.
Coming down hard on Sosa was Arizona Diamondbacks fan Jeanetta Lennie of Mesa, who said, "I think it was a stupid thing to do.
"He makes millions of bucks. Why can’t he make them legitimately?
"Kids look up to these guys. That’s not the kind of guy I want my kids looking up to."
D-Backs fan Cliff Coen of Gilbert figures Sosa, who had been mired in a deep slump, knew exactly what he was doing. And yet, unlike Pete Rose — the superstar who was banished from baseball, but who still denies betting on the game — Sosa more or less admitted he fouled up, Coen said.
Coen’s brother, Mike, pointed out the publicity surrounding the Sosa matter has crowded out other scandals.
Noting one such affair, he said, "I’ll bet Martha Stewart is happy."
WHO SLEEPS BEST?
In many ways, ASU’s McGregor said, society’s ethical flaws may be self-correcting. And she doesn’t think there’s much new about the recent raft of headlines.
"Are we worse people than we used to be? I’m always inclined to think no," she said. "I don’t think business people in the 19 th century were morally upstanding. They did some awful things. It wasn’t that they were better people, but now we have more people investigating things."
While acknowledging that many Americans find it easy to cheat "faceless, nameless" entities like insurance companies, she said the reporting of high-profile cases such as Stewart’s may give everyday cheaters pause.
"We may actually get to a place where people do less and less of this stuff because they’re so worried about the consequences," McGregor said. "In some ways I think they go after high-profile people like that because they say, ‘Look how embarrassed you’ll be if people find out.’ "
Rabbi Koppell, however, thinks the solution must go deeper, involving a personal moral compass that impels people to do right even if doing wrong seems to pay more immediate dividends.
"Maybe part of the crisis is a lack of values education," she said.
A religious values system that teaches long-term — perhaps eternal — consequences is the best way of combatting that mentality, she said. Some might see irony there, however, since public scandals have swept up the pious and the impious alike.
Nevertheless, Koppell summed up her thoughts by quoting a saying — being careful, by the way, to acknowledge she borrowed it from somewhere — about the benefits of being a straight shooter.
"There are two kinds of people in the world, the givers and the takers," she said.
"The takers eat well. But the givers sleep well."