You probably know the story. It happened to -- or, more accurately, was perpetrated by --Bob Greene, Chicago’s most famous living newspaper columnist and the author of several best-selling books.
Greene admitted to "inappropriate sexual contact" with a teenage girl about whom he wrote in the Chicago Tribune a decade or so ago. Inappropriate because the paper’s code of ethics forbids a journalist to engage in that kind of relationship, however brief, with the subject of a story. But the contact was apparently not illegal; the girl is said to have been "of age" when Greene, a married man at the time and still, committed adultery with her.
Under pressure, Greene offered his resignation. It was accepted. He is out of a job, out of an income, out of the life he had made for himself and his family.
Ron Yates used to work with Greene at the Tribune and is now the head of the journalism department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He says this: "As journalists, we’re not priests, but there is a kind of service that we perform.Our relationship with some people can be a catharsis for them.We have the responsibility not to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position. I think that’s about the worst thing you can do as a journalist."
Well, let’s call it one of the worst. A journalist can also write slanted, inaccurate stories that mislead thousands of people about significant issues -- and that’s pretty bad, too. But it’s beside the present point.
The point, my point, the reason for this column, is to say that I do not think Bob Greene should have been forced to resign. Yes, what he did was abominable; he did, as Yates says, take advantage of someone who, because of her age if nothing else, was in a vulnerable position. And yes, Greene has a reputation for ogling the lassies, and perhaps going even further. And again yes, as his several journalistic enemies in Chicago like to point out, he wears the worst toupee this side of Jim Traficant and his prose is usually as inelegant as the hairpiece.
But the Tribune makes a mistake in assuming, as it does, that the relationship between a journalist and his subject is more special than the relationship between, say, an auto mechanic and a person whose car has broken down on a deserted stretch of highway, or a debt counselor and a person in desperate financial straits, or a physician and a person in pain.
The person with the stalled car or the big debts or the throbbing pain is in a vulnerable position, too; the mechanic or counselor or doctor who takes advantage of such a person is as reprehensible in his actions as was Greene.
But if I am correct that virtually all occupations provide the opportunity for a breach of trust, why should journalism be the only one that fires the miscreant without a warning, without a second chance?
That, you see, is my objection to the Greene case. For all I know, the man’s character is no more exemplary than his wig and his prose. But, as a principle, I do not think a man’s professional life and personal equilibrium should be shattered so quickly by employer’s fiat. If that becomes the principle, then a lot of motorists are going to be stranded on the road; a lot of thoughtless spenders are going to lose even more money; a lot of needy patients are going to go without the care they so desperately need.
Perhaps Greene did receive a previous warning. I don’t know. No one at the Chicago Tribune is talking about the case. If he did, I apologize for my specific charges.
But I hold fast to the theme of this column. A person whose offense is neither illegal nor repeated should not be fired. He should be warned. Like all other lines of work, journalism must find a middle ground between condoning improper behavior and imposing a sanctimoniously draconian penalty on those whose behavior is not proper.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .