Randy Cohen received the news that The New York Times Magazine would continue the Ethicist without him from Hugo Lindgren himself. Mr. Cohen had been edited by Mr. Lindgren and called it “one of the best writer-editor relationships” he’d ever experienced, so it came as a shock that Mr. Lindgren would fire him. The only hints he’d had about any changes to the column were Mr. Lindgren’s public statements about wanting to shake up the front of the book.
“What I never anticipated was that he’d keep the column and kill the writer,” Mr. Cohen said, over a beer at Dublin House on the Upper West Side. “Well, he didn’t kill me, but,” he tapped his chest, “inside he did. He hurt me very badly.
“He said, ‘Well, we thought we’d try it with a woman’s voice, and we’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities and we’re going to decide this weekend,’” Mr. Cohen said. “And my first thought was, ‘Lawsuit.’”
After meeting with a workplace lawyer he’d consulted a few times for the Ethicist, he found out that gender discrimination doesn’t cover freelance secular morality columns, even those that have had the same author for 12 years. He would have given any money from the suit to charity. Mainly, he wanted his job back.
“I’m disappointed this happened,” he said. “I would have rather kept writing the column. But I don’t think I was treated unjustly in any way.”
Then isn’t a lawsuit, you know, unethical?
“Well, come on,” Mr. Cohen said. “I’m not a saint.”
It’s heartening to know that even professional ethicists have their lapses in judgment–Mr. Cohen’s only crime was loving morality too much–and he began his quest for redemption last month with a pitch for a new public radio show. It’s not a matter of fame or, Lord knows, money. The rail-thin ex-Letterman writer, who wears those glasses that darken in bright sunlight, simply wants to offer the world his years of ethical training.
The demo for A Question of Ethics is available online. The current format calls for a mix of call-in questions and segments discussing the ethical implications of the likes of Julian Assange and Emma Bovary.
“The way he phrased it was, he didn’t just want to be a fancy-pants ‘Dear Abby,’ where it was just all caller-driven,” said Paul Woodhull, president of the company that made the demo, Media Syndication Services.
Mr. Cohen had already started work on the demo when he received news of his replacement, but it became something of a safety net in the wake of his departure. Shortly after the news broke, Jack Hitt, a contributor to both The Times Magazine and This American Life, put Mr. Cohen in touch with Ira Glass for a pep talk. (“Mostly I ranted at Randy about the details of how to market a public-radio show to the public-radio system,” Mr. Glass wrote to The Observer in an email.) Mr. Woodhull said it was a setback to lose the show’s association with The New York Times. But there was also a tantalizing upside.
“People who want their weekly fix of Randy Cohen are going to be able to get it through our public-radio program and our podcast, and they’re not going to get it anywhere else,” Mr. Woodhull said. “And to me that’s a very strong business proposition.”
Mr. Lindgren welcomes the competition and says this town is big enough for two ethicists, this particular town being the way we should live our lives day to day.
“I think the more debate there is about this stuff, the better for everybody,” Mr. Lindgren said. “It’s not like people are going to go get their ethical dilemmas solved in one place.”
If the concept of an ethics column departs from a usual advice column in any way, it’s that it may be of even less use to the reader. In the radio show demo, Mr. Cohen chastises a caller for not being entirely honest about noisy neighbors when showing his apartment, and the caller protests that he’d never be able to sublet the apartment if he followed Mr. Cohen’s instructions. The dilemma Mr. Cohen has been asked to parse most often over the years is whether the questioner, upon witnessing evidence of adultery, should pass this information on to the guilty party’s spouse.
“I thought we never came up with a good solution to that,” Mr. Cohen said.
But isn’t that the way New Yorkers like their problems? Even putting aside neurosis indulgence, a mundane question takes on new levels when posed to an ethicist. This isn’t just a question of whether I should bribe someone to get my toddler into the best preschool; this is a dilemma Aristotle himself couldn’t solve!
Tied up in this is the question of who is qualified to speak on the matter of morality. (“Again, Mr. Cohen is not a doctor and cannot tell you if this looks infected, no matter where you place the receiver,” says the cheeky British announcer in the demo.) Before Mr. Cohen was selected for the column, several candidates with doctorates in philosophy were considered for the job, but their writing was just too dry. Ariel Kaminer, who now writes the column, said that in her weeks at the helm, she’s tried to emphasize the reader-discussion element of the feature, delivering more of a “Well, what do you think?” answer rather than handing down a decision as an “all-knowing oracle.” That goal is hindered somewhat by the dint of being the capital-E Ethicist for The New York Times.
“You can feel a little discomfort with just how authoritative that title is,” Ms. Kaminer said. “But I try not to think about it in those terms, that [it] is just the title I inherited.”
But consumers on the ethics market generally do want to be told what to do, and their demand knows no bounds. Even Bernie Madoff claims he’s developing a business-ethics course from prison.
“When I talk about my column now, it’s much more situational ethics than just ‘Woo-hoo! Felching!’ which is kind of what it was for the first 10 years,” said Dan Savage, author of the sex column Savage Love.
For Mr. Savage, who started a popular podcast in 2006, the transition to ethics happened naturally. With fetish how-tos readily available online, these days, he’s more likely to offer advice on whether it’s right to, say, cheat on a spouse whose sex drive has vanished after years of marriage, which is a purely ethical question if nobody’s ever going to catch you.
“The only qualification you need to give your opinion is to be asked for it,” Mr. Savage said. “Anybody who writes to an advice columnist reads that advice columnist. I’m not hijacking Abigail van Buren’s daughter’s mail.”
“I would like to think that my advice is moral and rational,” countered Jeanne Phillips, the daughter in question, who now writes the Dear Abby column. “You have to discuss things as they are and deal with them as they are, because otherwise you’re in la-la land.”
So the idea of an ethics call-in show isn’t that crazy. The Observer even pitched the show, without mentioning Mr. Cohen’s name, to Heidi Schultz at Public Radio International. Ms. Schultz frequently screens new programs for their viability and called the idea “fine,” or at least good enough not to pass on outright.
“This could work.” Ms. Schultz said. “It depends upon how it’s all put together and who’s involved and how it flows. It could, sure.” She added that the personality of the host is a major element.
“Like, who’d have thought Car Talk [would work]?” she said.
Now it’s just a matter of whether public-radio listeners will jump to the dial for that Randy Cohen fix. On Monday he sold a collection of columns to Chronicle Books under the name A Question of Ethics, but can he attract the listeners?
“When the universal press syndicate carried the column, I said, ‘Why don’t we translate the thing into Spanish?’” Mr. Cohen said. “And the Latin America guy was very amused by this. He said, ‘Believe me, no one in Uruguay cares what you think. They’ll go, ‘Who is this guy? Some North American telling us what the right way to behave is.’”
“And I go O.K., but,” Mr. Cohen said, laughing. “They’ll love me once they get to know me! They’ll be wearing ‘What Would Randy Do’ wristbands!”
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