Work at Its Best

Moral excellence in the professions

For many years the Los Angeles Times, published by the Chandler family, had a reputation as one of the nation's leading newspapers. But the ownership changed, and by the mid 1990s, publisher Mark Willes, who came from the cereal business, was vowing to "knock down the wall" between the editorial and business sides of the paper, even "to use a bazooka if necessary." His successor as publisher, Kathryn Downing, continued Willes's aggressive moves to attract readership and advertisers.

Then, on October 10, 1999, the paper's Sunday magazine published a special 168-page edition dedicated entirely to the Staples Center, a new downtown sports and convention facility. The section was loaded with advertising, but readers (and even editor Michael Parks) did not know that the Times and the Staples Center were sharing the profits from those ad sales.

That revelation triggered a national barrage of criticism. Downing met with the staff and confessed to a "fundamental misunderstanding of basic journalistic principles" regarding the incident. On December 19, the paper published an apology, and the next day ran a lengthy, biting analysis and commentary on the incident by its Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic David Shaw, who asked why the newspaper's readers should henceforth trust anything the Times reported about the Staples Center or its attractions, "if the Times and Staples Center were business partners?" He also questioned how many other similar deals might exist. The fallout was such that the following spring, the Chicago Tribune acquired the Times; Willes, Downing, and Parks are no longer associated with the newspaper. Sum-ming up the episode, Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner '65, Ph.D. '71, quotes Harold Evans, former editor of the Times of London: "For American publishers, the problem isn't staying in business, it's staying in journalism."

The Los Angeles Times saga is a journalistic parable about the conflicts between a highly commercialized information economy and "good work"--work that preserves classic, traditionally established principles of ethics and excellence. For several years, dilemmas of this kind have been a focus of research by Gardner and his colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) and William Damon (coauthor of Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment). The trio recently finished a book-length manuscript titled simply "Good Work," which seeks to identify personal and social factors that enable people to produce work that is not only of excellent quality, but reflects humaneness, responsibility, and a consistent set of moral or ethical principles--exemplary efforts that are also "good works." Their initial findings, focusing on journalism and genetics, build on interviews with about 100 professionals in each field, plus analysis of ancillary information. (They hope eventually to investigate 12 work "domains" in all, including healthcare and the arts.)

According to the authors, three contemporary forces make good work problematic: the rapid pace of change; the pervasive, powerful, and largely unopposed juggernaut of the marketplace; and deep shifts, produced by technological innovations like the Internet, in our sense of time and place. One stimulus for the research was the so-called Gingrich revolution of 1994, which suggested, Gardner says, "that government was a problem, and it was best to let everything be regulated by the marketplace. But in areas like health, education, the arts, and journalism, it's extremely risky to be governed solely by the market."

There is nothing wrong with profit, he notes, but it is a question of proportion. "What's striking is how many of the best newspapers are family-owned. While not saints, the families might be content with a 10 percent annual profit, rather than insisting on 22 percent. They want to be the best papers, not the most profitable ones, and won't prostitute themselves to make more money." In contrast, a newspaper chain like the one owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation blithely bulldozes long-established journalistic standards in pursuit of financial returns. "Murdoch is a classic example of a bad worker," says Gardner. "For example, his papers fail to cover, or give minimal coverage to, stories unfavorable to News Corp." Furthermore, says Gardner, the "wisdom" of the marketplace does not even out all excesses. "The market will always create competition to something that goes too far in one direction, but there's no necessary offset in terms of values," he points out. "Television can easily replace pro wrestling with Survivor."

The researchers are seeking out those who succeed in "bucking trends that seem to undermine their sense of calling in a profession," says Gardner. They're on the lookout for the kind of physician, for example, who manages to deliver high-quality care even after a profit-hungry HMO buys the clinic.

What fosters good work? Frequently, good workers have a strong religious or moral sense, though the specific doctrinal basis is immaterial. Second, Gardner says, "The professional cohort at your first job, or wherever you got your training, is important. It's like an inoculation. If you don't have examples of good workers, it's difficult to know what good work is." Third, "lineages" of senior practitioners frequently transmit the ethos. "[National Public Radio commentator] Daniel Schorr often refers to the example of his mentor, Edward R. Murrow. And people who were trained by Bill Moyers will probably not fall far from the tree," Gardner explains. "In contrast, it's hard to imagine a top journalist facing a tough decision and asking himself, 'What would Rupert Murdoch do?'"

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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