THE BLOG
11/14/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

I Confess!

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A photo I took of the Dutch Reformed Church in Woodstock, NY

It was bound to happen.

In our age of oversharing, we shouldn't be surprised that someone has used social media to make a confession about a crime he committed. Matthew Cordle, a young man from Ohio, posted an online video in which he admits that he got drunk, went driving, and killed a man. The video, which has the high production values of an expensive commercial, went viral and led some to question Cordle's motives. Did he make the video to discourage others from driving while intoxicated? To help him get a lighter sentence? To become famous?

You can watch a CNN report about the story here. (You'll spot your humble correspondent toward the end of the piece.)

After Cordle was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, a lifetime suspension of driving privileges and a $1,075 fine, he went on NBC's Today Show to claim that his intentions in making the video were pure and that he doesn't want to be considered a "hero," as apparently some have called him.

Life Imitates Art?
I'm reminded here of two Martin Scorsese films, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. (SPOILER ALERT: I'm about to reveal key plot points of both films, so if you haven't seen them yet and want to be surprised when you do, please skip the next two paragraphs.) The lead characters, both masterfully portrayed by Robert De Niro, become famous for committing crimes. Travis Bickle drives aimlessly through the gritty New York of the early 1970s and eventually kills several people so that he can rescue a girl from prostitution. He becomes a national hero and receives a letter of heartfelt thanks from the girl's parents.

Rupert Pupkin kidnaps a TV talk-show host (modeled on Johnny Carson) so that he can deliver a comic monologue in the host's place. After serving time in prison, Pupkin writes a book and eventually gets his own talk show. Although these anti-heroes have different objectives -- Bickle's is to help a girl in peril; Pupkin's is to become a famous comedian -- each character becomes a celebrity by harming someone.

Motives, Pure & Impure
It would be a fool's game to guess what motivated Matthew Cordle to make a Hollywood-style video about what he did and post it online. I don't believe that anyone's motives are pure, even -- I confess! -- my own. I'd like to think that my work as The Ethics Guy is solely about enlightening and inspiring others to think deeply about ethics and to make the right decisions in their professional and personal lives. Some of my work involves appearing on national TV and giving speeches around the world to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. I'll admit that getting booked on CNN or having a large audience laugh at one of my jokes is a great feeling, so I'd never claim that the only motivation I do what I do is to serve others. It's the main one, but I can't deny that it's also nice to be seen and appreciated by a lot of folks.

The High Road
Instead of wondering why Cordle used the tools of Hollywood to make a public confession, we're better off urging him to use his experience to make a positive difference in the lives of others when he is released from prison. That's what my fellow ethics speaker Chuck Gallagher has done. Chuck served time in prison for some poor decisions he made earlier in his career in the financial industry. Now he gives talks about what he did so that he can help others understand the kind of behavior we read about every week and to discourage others from doing what he did. He gives part of his earnings to a foundation he created and is thus using his troubled past to be a force for good.

Matthew Cordle might seize a Rupert-Pupkin-like opportunity to cash in on his notoriety when he leaves prison, or he can follow Chuck Gallagher's example and take the high road. Let's hope he makes the right choice.

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