In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine The Ethicists column, a moral quandary with national implications.
Seeking ethical advice, the anonymous writer tells The Ethicists panel that while working for a “major” political campaign seven years ago, a young intern and colleague confessed in confidence that she’d been raped by another staffer, and that “higher ups” made the crime go away without involving the police. The writer continues,
To my knowledge, this young woman told me and one other colleague. I kept the secret to myself for the last seven years until the other night. I let slip to a journalist friend the very basics of what happened, and now I’m being asked for contacts who can confirm that it happened. The candidate I worked for is running again. I still support the candidate, and I do not want the opponent in office. On the other hand, I am aghast that the organization would cover up such a heinous crime. I’m ashamed of myself for not saying anything at the time. Thinking about it makes me feel physically ill. Do I have any obligation to disclose information to this journalist friend? Would I be doing right for the country? For the victim? I signed a nondisclosure agreement when I went to work for the campaign — would leaking information about this to the press put me in any potential legal trouble?
Of course, the same moral questions posed by the writer could also apply to the writer submitting his or her question to the New York Times Magazine, a publication attached to the newspaper with the second largest circulation in the country. Was it ethical for the writer to tell both this journalist friend, plus a panel of ethicists, about an anonymous woman’s alleged rape? Was it ethical for the newspaper to publish the panel’s response, in effect telling its millions of readers that it’s morally wrong to tell a journalist details of a sexual assault that happened seven years ago? Does the Times Magazine have the same moral obligation to a sexual assault victim that the former colleague does? (Panelist Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that, “It would be wrong for the journalist not to pursue something that may turn out to be of genuine public interest and significance, so there’s nothing wrong with your friend’s feeling, as a journalist, that he or she has to get on with this.”) Regardless of the answers to those tricky questions, the information—rendered into a particularly salacious political blind item via the inclusion of several identifying details—is now out there.
And, as such, the issue of what political campaign covered up an alleged sexual assault has now ballooned beyond a confidential disclosure between a woman and one former colleague. If the incident in question really happened, it’s more than one friend sharing personal information about another friend; it’s a matter of public concern, and should be a matter of public discussion: What “major candidate” was running for office seven years ago and is now running again? The list is pretty short. And very major. If you have any information about this alleged cover-up, email us.
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