The Ethicist: Fictional Favoritism, Indeed!

What happens when gods start sinning and angels fall? That's the question raised in today's issue of the Times Magazine, in which Randy Cohen, the once infallible man better known as The Ethicist, admits to accidentally Robert Novak-ing a creative writing professor in the Feb. 25th edition of his column. Apparently Wendy Rawlings, who teaches scribble skills at the University of Alabama, didn't want her name disclosed when she asked Cohen whether her colleague had been wrong to submit a student's short story to a fiction anthology without receiving the student's permission. It's the first correction Cohen's had to run in eight long years of Ethicizing, and as it happens, it's a double whammy.

Turns out Rawlings had her story crooked in a most crucial way, as the student had given consent after all. Cohen conflates his apology with an acknowledgment of this second mistake, making it seem like the two are somehow related. The strange rhetorical move he uses to link them leaves room for some rather unflattering speculation about what really happened at the University of Alabama.

Had Rawlings requested anonymity to cover up a lie, only to be inadvertently exposed by Cohen and his hapless fact-checkers?

When we reached him at home this afternoon, Cohen flatly, valiantly denied that Rawlings might have fed him the error on purpose. "My impression was that everyone's motives were entirely benign," he said. "I think she valued the truth and she made a mistake." Fair enough, but read his note:

After a flurry of responses from those involved, we investigated further and determined that the ethical question was moot: the student had in fact agreed to let the story be submitted.

Rawlings asked that her name be withheld from publication—which we would have done in this case—but I failed to see that request in her e-mail message. Fact-checking would have caught my mistake had a case of crossed wires not bollixed our usually reliable process. Our system of verifying all that runs in the column is a good one, but it is not perfect: this time, misinformation slipped through.

If Rawlings is off the hook, then which mistake is Cohen talking about in that second paragraph—the part about the student or the part about anonymity? How exactly did the wires cross, and what does it mean, "bollixed"?

Cohen told Gawker that his fact-checker simply couldn't get a hold of Rawlings on the phone, and didn't realize that she wanted anonymity when he green-lit the column because she'd only told him so at the end of a voicemail. That said, considering Rawlings' letter was the only source of information in the piece, the fact-checker probably would not have caught the error even if he had spoken to her, since it's likely she would have just confirmed the facts that she provided in her original query. (On account of it being spring break over at UA, Rawlings could not be reached for comment.)

So why did Cohen make it sound like the two errors were related? Quite simply, he told us, he didn't mean to: when we told him we'd found the note confusing, he said he was mortified. But, prodded a little further, Cohen revealed something kind of important w/r/t The Ethicist and how it functions as an advice column: "Had the question run without any identifiers," he said, "we would not have known who the colleague was, and it would have then allowed us to discuss the question in a more theoretical way. No one would have been accused of anything."

He quickly followed up by saying that it's "absolutely our obligation to check every fact in the column," but the takeaway is obvious: if Rawlings' name hadn't shown up in the piece, the colleague she was talking about would have never have gotten in touch with Cohen to tell him the story was wrong, and the error would have gone by unnoticed.

All of which makes us wonder: can we trust The Ethicist? And do we want to live in a world where we have to ask?