Examining the ethics of media personalities, predictions and punditry during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election

The surprise electoral college defeat of Hillary Clinton that allowed Donald Trump to claim the presidency was unexpected by many. I would include myself also in with the rest of the “liberal bubble” America, in that I did not think Trump was really going to pull out the win. Yet, from the beginning of his campaign when he gave his infamous first speech as a presidential candidate in front of his escalators at Trump tower, I did believe Trump was going to win the Republican nomination.

In Oct. 2015, I tweeted this:

Friends and I were making jokes about Trump’s seemingly insane ideas at the time, such as claiming that Mexico will build a wall at our border, for example. After his mass amounts of ignorant statements though, I personally saw a huge problem, explaining why I used the word disturbed. Maybe at the time I was disturbed by some outrageous or bigoted statement he had made, I’m not sure.

But I think I was more disturbed at the fact that he was leading in the polls at the time. I hadn’t realized exactly what Trump had captured at the time but I had bought it. Many journalists, pundits and political experts alike were dismissing the polls at the time, including current candidate for Trump’s cabinet as Secretary of State, Mitt Romney, who said Trump wasn’t going to win.

Nevertheless, to me, I had seen enough. I knew Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, and as a liberal, I for one thought it was great. Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton was going to have the easiest path to the White House in the history of this country.

Then, I noticed how reality around me was shaping. I don’t believe I was caught in a bubble. I may be living in bubbles, being from the ultra-liberal Washington, DC which had the highest percentage of voters for Clinton by county and attending school in Boston, but I don’t believe I’ve ever been caught in a bubble. In fact, in May of this year on Twitter, I halfheartedly made another bold Trump prediction:

A friend replied to my tweet and asked me why, to which I said, “cause the vast majority of the country doesn’t trust Hillary and I think Trump will be able to use that really easily.” I didn’t blame the media necessarily, which has become a go-to reason for many people, both on the left and right, to explain the election results. I took more aim at his voters, calling them “idiots” in another reply to my friend.

“Idiot” is a harsh word though and honestly violates the golden rule because I wouldn’t want someone to insult me based off of a political preference. So if I’m holding myself to my journalism ethical standards as a media member, I should probably choose my words more carefully, even on Twitter. Following the election, my toned changed from “idiots” to “ignorant” or “woefully uninformed.” Those are still harsh descriptions, but they are accurate in my opinion for the majority of Trump voters, particularly the “forgotten men and women,” who made their voices heard loud, only to elect someone who arranges his cabinet full of as, Sen. Claire McCaskill said, “Goldman, Generals and Gazillionaires.”

There is plenty of irony to go around for the never-ending post-election discussions, including a personal favorite of mine from Edward Snowden, who weighed in with this tweet:

Now Trump is planning to install multiple people with Goldman Sachs backgrounds in his cabinet and other positions on his staff. But Snowden is neither an expert on politics nor is he a journalist nor a media member. I question the role of the media in the election every day. Twitter is a strong news platform but in terms of a broad reach, it still falls short to Facebook which has more users. Both faced backlash over spread of fake news, particularly Facebook and that also no doubt contributed to the election.

Even close to home I’ve seen first-hand, not to be cliché, how fake news can have a real impact, with the story of #pizzagate, a gun-man who believed an online conspiracy theory based off of perceived codes in the Kremlin/Wikileaks hack of the John Podesta’s emails about a child sex ring being run out of the bottom of a pizza restaurant. I live two blocks away from the Comet, the restaurant that had to deal with this mess, I don’t like the food there, but I highly doubt it’s a child sex ring, and the gunman apparently came to the same conclusion as me when couldn’t find anything before he chose to surrender.

Still, many Americans, particularly older ones, rely on cable news to provide their news for them. In the case of conservatives, according to Pew research, 47 percent of conservatives say Fox News is still their main news source. Liberals also rely on cable news still with 27 percent citing either CNN or MSNBC as their main news source, NPR had 13 percent and the New York Times had 10.

Since conservatives and liberals both rely on the filter of cable news and the “mainstream media” as a whole, it is important to examine how this year differed from past years. There has never been a major party candidate, and now President-elect, similar to Trump, so in some senses, it’s easy to understand why the media may have stumbled in their coverage and choice of personalities to put on the air.

I spoke with David Karol, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, about a wide scope of different topics relating to the media coverage of the election. To start the conversation, I asked him about the media ethics of installing surrogates from a campaign into roles as “pundits.”

At one point Karol mentioned Kayleigh McEnany, who at only 28, has rose from relative obscurity, besides her college degrees and a brief period where she worked with Mike Huckabee. He made the point that people like her and Jeffrey Lord were installed by CNN to level out the balance of anti-Trump voices, which CNN has plenty of, to pro-Trump ones as Lord and McEnany enthusiastically filled.

A deontological argument could be made that by getting Trump “pundits” as regular commentators on their shows, CNN is valuing fairness and weighing both sides. While there may be some sort of case to be made there, there were big media executives like Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, who sounded off with their true thoughts about Trump, saying in February that Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Karol and I discussed that statement along with the media’s fascination with Trump from the get go.

“Trump has been famous for 30 years and he works very hard to be famous. There were so many other Republican candidates and they weren’t getting the attention and he was drowning them all out, and even when the coverage was negative,” said Karol. “In the primary, you only need a minority of the overall electorate and even Republicans. As long as some people were liking him, that was what was important.”

Trump shocking the establishment through the Republican primaries was met with angst from establishment mainstream media, but they still fell into his attention-seeking traps. But as Karol pointed out, Trump is not new to the media and attention:

“Trump has this unique relationship with the media, even though he has no political experience,” Karol said. “But he has a ton of media experience, much more than anyone else. It’s not as though he was good at everything. Hillary won all the debates, but it is subjective, people see what they want. He always provides new content for the media. He would say something outrageous, sometimes by design, knowing that it would be red meat. And when most people say something false, they resist for a while then apologize, but that’s not what he does. He doubles down almost always and doesn’t admit when he’s lying and doesn’t apologize. And for the media, there’s no attention span.”

The lack of attention span in the media is shown in the coverage on the cable news networks, again, for both liberal and conservative alike. Issues are rarely discussed and political and ideological dissent is usually sensationalized almost to the point of satire, with both sides name-calling in some way, shape or form. Even with pundits like Van Jones, a liberal who appears also regularly on CNN with Lord and McEnany and has also made many notable efforts to speak with people outside of his political bubble, fits a narrative that CNN wants him to play just like his pro-Trump counterparts.

The ethical burden does not fall on any of the pundits, no matter how extreme. The role of pundits and interviews with surrogates like Kellyanne Conway for example, on an almost daily basis, falls at the feet of executives like Moonves. There will always be pundits, qualified or not, ready for hire, as evidenced by CNN’s rapid pro-Trump hires, not to mention his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski who became a surrogate while still receiving Trump severance checks throughout his time at CNN.

While pundits, like journalists, should be held to ethical codes when speaking, at the same time, they are being paid to give their point of view. The network always has an idea of what the pundits point of view is, just like the networks have an idea of what Trump’s point of views were when they were airing his speeches in full from the beginning.

It wasn’t until just a few weeks before the election, CNN president Jeff Zucker admitted it might not have been such a hot idea to air everything Trump had to say unfiltered, as almost free advertising (or even propagandizing).

“If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run,” Zucker said while speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Listen, because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”

The attraction to put Trump’s speeches on the air does not outweigh ethical obligations as a media institution. Ultimately, if the heads of major news networks are more concerned with profiting than informing the public, the ethics of the individuals making up these networks, may not even matter.

While it is refreshing in some senses to hear such transparency from people like Zucker and Moonves about how good Trump was for their ratings, they also revealed in both of their quotes that truth-telling and minimizing harm are not among their top ethical concerns.

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Advancing a story: the Huffington Post strikes again

Ever since President-Elect Trump (that’s still so strange and horrifying to type), the media, particularly the left-wing media, has been reevaluating their own campaign coverage and, moving forward, how they will cover the 45th President of the United States.

Yet, the Huffington Post continues to push through with its own brand of righteousness that only seems to come from this amalgamation of random bloggers and array of seasoned journalists. I’m not exactly sure what possessed the Huffington Post to put together a post of minor media blunders entitled, “Media Helps Boost Donald Trump’s False Claim That ‘Millions’ Voted Illegally,”  but they went ahead and published it nevertheless.

For context, on Sunday, the reality star, President-in-waiting, himself went on one of his patented Twitter rants, in which he made these statements:

Now, these are clearly egregiously false statements but that didn’t stop Trump in his campaign and it doesn’t appear fact or fiction will matter in his presidency, as well.

Somehow, the Huffington Post though, chose to rail fellow media outlets for failing to call his claims “false” in their headlines… On the surface, I see where the Huffington Post is coming from, but when I think about the Huffington Post’s coverage and skewing of details, I don’t believe it is the outlet that has any right to the moral high ground or even a place at the media criticism conversation.

Remember when days before the election when Ryan Grim called out Nate Silver for causing panic among liberals that Trump had a 35 percent chance? Well, look who’s the President-elect, citizens and media members alike proceeded in the days after the election to rip pollsters, including Silver, still who had the closest race of all major polls.

Did the Huffington Post acknowledge that the article was poor? No.

Did they acknowledge that it failed to even get Silver’s input? No, Silver ripped Grim on Twitter but it never changed the story, or even led to a follow up.

So when I see the Huffington Post put out an article criticizing other media outlets for not covering these Trump’s tweets correctly, it makes me roll my eyes, to say the least.

Furthermore, the whole point of the piece about how the media miss-covered Trump’s latest Tweets stems from the fact that when these certain outlets including the Washington Post and CBS News for example, they neglected to put “falsely” in with Trump’s claims. The Huffington Post claims that this “boosted” Trump’s false claim. Maybe so, but the Huffington Post may be better to look internally like the New York Times, as opposed to worrying about a couple headlines from their competitors.

While there is a case to be made for the Huffington Post’s idea that neglecting to put the word “false” into headline about an obviously untrue claim, it’s not as though these stories were saying Trump’s claims were true in any way, shape or form.

Maybe the Huffington Post, in retrospect, should think about explaining why they felt it was smart to put out an obviously flawed poll that gave Hillary Clinton a 98 percent chance of winning… Didn’t that help “boost” Trump’s claims that the polls were rigged? Yet, Ryan Grim never addressed the Nate Silver story again and the Huffington Post continues to act as moral authorities with this latest piece.

 

Media coverage of Donald Trump moving forward

After having nearly a week to process the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, I think back to many of the discussions we had in class with Dan Kennedy. Was the media fair to both candidates? Did the media give Trump too much airtime? What effect did Comey re-opening the investigation on Clinton have? And many more questions similar to those.

I have no interest on focusing on whether or not the media missed the story on Donald Trump. The polls were wrong, and he is now the President-elect. The 45th U.S. President will be the first President with absolutely zero experience in office or the military. I have seen numerous articles in recent days about the idea of not “normalizing” Donald Trump. I think it will be pretty hard to normalize him, either way.

I would though, moving forward, want to see the media, on both sides, start living in reality again.

When Trump fails to back up many of his egregious campaign promises, the media on both sides need to hold him accountable. When he states obvious lies, or tweets them for that matter, the media needs to hold him accountable. He’s not in competition with any other candidate any more, now he has to deliver. There’s nobody to call “little” or “crooked” anymore, there’s just Trump, who, in my opinion, appears to be in way over his head after watching his post-election demeanor.

I’ll end this post with some thoughts I gave Prof. Mitchell over email on the election, (sorry this blog post was a little late), about what I see happening next:

I think under a Trump America, there’s going to be constant questions if the press is being independent, considering all the complaints he makes about the media (he’s still lying about the NYT on Twitter). I think the goal now is that we have to start living in a world of facts again, because if this campaign showed me anything, it’s that facts don’t really matter to a lot of people on both sides.

Once the jobs don’t come back to the coal miners for instance, and middle-America is wondering why Washington is even swampier than ever, Trump will have some sort of excuse. The job of the media is going to be to not let him off the hook and then, although somewhat irrelevant to the media I suppose, the job of the Democrats is to explain to these Trump voters what their future is in America.
Honestly though, I think the media moving forward just needs to cover our President-elect, and he will dig his own grave since he clearly has no clue what he’s doing. He has no intentions to “drain the swamp,” based off these first few days. I’ve also found that that phrase so stupid and meaningless for years… A drained swamped is still a swamp and with Trump, it’s going to be worse than ever.

 

Matthew Dowd Event Ethics Angle

It was enlightening to listen to Matthew Dowd, an ABC political correspondent, speak on campus, here at Northeastern, a week ago. I’m not exactly sure if I find it enlightening because of anything he said in particular but more because I didn’t know much about him before the event. He refers to himself now as completely “independent” when it comes to voting, as most of his work in the media is centered around the presidential election and politics in general.

He spent most of the hour long talk giving his thoughts on the election. And, he spent most of his time speaking under the presumption that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. I can’t really blame him for saying that, as the poll numbers are overwhelmingly in her favor.

He also spent much time talking about Trump and “Trumpism.” He referred to his time on the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2004, and used it as an example of what’s different from the Republican party between then and now.

Definitely much is different. Though, I think Republicans, or even former Republicans in the case of Dowd, do not acknowledge what led to Trump. Bush’s approval ratings were abysmal by the time he left office, and he destroyed the economy.

Yet, Dowd, in my opinion, acted as though Trumpism is about both parties. He said it’s about big chunks of America feeling left out and that the system doesn’t work for them. I agree the Democratic party has tons of work to do, as I, like Dowd, am a proud independent, I have no problem criticizing both parties.

But, Dowd is a former Republican, and I do give him credit for saying that this is probably going to be the end of the Republican party as we know it, I think it’s been one of the great farces of this election to act like Republicans didn’t empower Trump. It started with groups like the Tea Party and nominations like Sarah Palin for vice president. The far right extremism allowed and empowered by some in the Republican party is what created Trump. Acting like Obama was a delegitimate president, it’s not as extreme as saying Obama wasn’t born here like the Republican nominee only recently backed down on.

Extremism made Trump. The Democrats are not a far-left party right now by any stretch of the imagination. The Republicans are shifting far-right, even though Trump himself appears to purely be a populist.

So although it was interesting to hear Dowd talk about independence both in voting, and in reporting. I think it’s also important to recognize where you stand. I respect Dowd for trying to become independent. I think we need more people like that who can step back from their party and just look at things as reasonably as possible. We might not all see the same things, but hopefully it’ll lead to more reasonable debate between opposing viewpoints.

EDIT (11/1): Here is why Dowd’s idea of “independence” bothers me in one, disturbing tweet:

This is a terrible way to approach things in not just journalism, but life, in general. To say “you care about this so you MUST care about that” or “you CAN’T care about that and not care about this,” is the one of the most flawed, childish ways of thinking imaginable. One can still care about Clinton’s emails while still being much more vocal in their denouncement of Trump’s sexual predator tendencies. He frames this tweet as if it’s related to being independent, but in fact, it just makes him look ignorant.

My former professor, Sebastian Stockman has another option for Dowd (which is how I saw tweet in the first place):

Ethics Guideline: The Tismaneanu Edition

-Assessing the situation: When analyzing how to approach a story, figure out your own, personal, thoughts on the situation first. Identify your own possible biases and then keep that in mind while reporting and writing. Every ethical decision is specific to the situation that is presented so it is important to first know your own mindset on the story. Without having a grasp on your own thoughts, independence is impossible.

-Aside from assessing the situation, accuracy is probably the most important aspect of journalism. When reporting and then writing, facts are facts, so everything little or small should be correct. Obviously minor mistakes happen, but it’s always best to fact check, even things you may think you are sure of.

-Independence and transparency go hand-in-hand, in my opinion. Independence may not be possible sometimes. That doesn’t mean that the journalism is corrupt. If independence is in question before publishing a story, then transparency is even more important. Display what needs to be displayed.

-Do what you believe will be best for society as a whole. This could also be described as minimizing harm, but usually harm is unavoidable, particularly of stories that are ethically tricky.

-Finally, fairness. This is a difficult one for me because I value fairness but I also recognize that being “fair” is a largely unachievable goal, similar to the idea of “objectivity.” So I think this ties into your duties as a professional journalist. I will tie this back to “assessing the situation,” because if you have assessed yourself in relation to the story, you should know what you may be unfair about. As a journalist delivering news, it is important to be hyper-self-aware. So, know your situation before you publish anything and then figure out how to be fair before the story is released.

From Trump to the New York Times to Buzzfeed

Back in late February a story came out on Buzzfeed entitled “Donald Trump Secretly Told The New York Times What He Really Thinks About Immigration,” which  caused a little bit of a stir for the eventual GOP candidate. The article, written straight by the Buzzfeed editor-in-chief, himself, Ben Smith, attempts to detail an off-the-record conversation Trump had with the New York Times editorial board.

Allegedly, Trump spoke to the New York Times’ editorial board of 18 members on January 5, both on and off the record. Smith notes in his piece that the Times did release a bit of the audio about tariffs on Chinese goods but then uses another piece from columnist, Gail Collins, to make implications about what was said during the off-the-record portions of the interview:
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This is it

Maybe I’ll continue blogging on here. Maybe not. I don’t really know yet.

After sending a long email to Carlene this morning that almost made me cry (#sadboys), I’m moving on to the blog.

I’m not going to single out any names but you know who you are.

There were story ideas given to me when I was always one of the last people to get my shit together and pitch a story. There was help from roommates with writing and photography. There were the times where I would’ve been completely screwed if classmates and translators didn’t more or less conduct interviews for me. There were editing sessions that I hated at first and then learned to love. There was reporting. There was additional reporting. There were hilarious nights from Bracafe to Francoise’s home to Dubliners to Cuatro Cuatro to Kapital.

This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I don’t think a blog post can do it justice and I want to reach out to people individually but maybe now isn’t the time. I want to write more. I just don’t know what to say about this trip and the people I met and befriended.

As much as work was complained about, I think the reporting and writing were my favorite parts of the trip. Far more fun than any night could be. Never thought I’d be talking about how much I like working. So thanks to the people who made this trip… Valé (hope the spelling is right this time, but that could be the wrong accent).

Just playing. I can’t verbalize with a single or even a few words about how dope this was. I used to always compare points in my life to other moments. I never did that on this trip. And I hope I won’t do that in the future because few five week experiences are going to top this one and that’s… Valé.

It’s late but here’s a blog post

Yesterday was our last night, and now it’s early in the morning on Tuesday. We had a great last dinner filled with laughter and then that was followed by karaoke.

I’m going to miss all the people that came on this dialogue. Also, this is completely off topic, but read my last article with Dylan here. I haven’t really given a description but I’m really happy with the way it came out so give it a click and read it.

But back to it being my last night here. We had a wonderful last meal in Madrid/Spain. With delectable appetizers and drinks and then a main course of of beef sirloin with truffle sauce. I cannot complain.

Currently, I’m listening “I Don’t Mind” by Usher with the men of Cuatro Cuatro. Although this apartment had a ton of exposed brick and unfinished floors, this group and place has been hilarious to live in with these guys.

As sappy as this is, being on this dialogue has been everything I wanted and I don’t think I could’ve enjoyed this experience more.

My first blog post before I left was all about how I had no idea what to say and now that this is over I still have no idea what to say.

So I lied

Not going to talk about my next story on here yet but instead, I’d rather reflect on the one I just wrote with Dylan that just got published on the site along with Chloe’s magnificent article.

This was one of the most rewarding pieces I think I’ve ever written. Dylan and I struggled to find an idea for a while and when I randomly stumbled on a piece about San Anton online, I personally really wanted to write about it. I’ve always had an interest in people’s ideologies on religion(s). In fact, I wrote my final for Journalism II on millennials and religion. Both have been rewarding experiences because I personally have skeptical views on organized religion and although neither experience has really changed my opinions, it’s always been a joy reporting for and then writing the pieces.

Something about this one felt unique though, even compared to that 10-pager I wrote at the end of J-2 for Carlene. Our first day of reporting for this article couldn’t have gone better as I mentioned a few blogs ago and then from there finding and then talking to sources, usually an intimidating activity, felt great.

When Dylan and I wrote our article, we even thought about leaving a note for Carlene at the top of the paper before editing saying that if she’s going to make us do extra reporting, let us look through our notes first because we probably have the quote she wants somewhere. We both were astounded with how much material we had and what we should and shouldn’t include in the piece. It was hard.

So after we get our edits back that same day, Carlene and Dylan have a back-and-forth, essentially using Google Docs as AIM (Dylan and I were sitting and discussing our responses in the living room of the Thunderdome while Carlene was either at school or *God* knows where).

I will now oversimplify how it went: Carlene: “Do more reporting.” Dylan and I discuss how to respond because we have so many unused quotes. “You need to have young people in here,” Carlene adds. Fuck.

So the one thing we don’t have in our abundance of quotes, is young people. Annoyed, we were. Understand, we did. I just wrote that really lamely but whatever. We went back to the church that night with another member of the Men’s Department, Marco. We failed as not a single young person was to be found in San Anton. Shiiiiiiii.

The next day we came into class with still no young people, but Alvaro, our translator came with us back to San Anton. That man was fearless in stopping any person we told him to. After standing out for about an hour, we talked to about six people in front of San Anton about their thoughts on the church. Boom.

Then came some editing and tweaks before the article came out and I am very happy with it. We got a lot of help along the way so I’ll end this post with specific #shoutouts that really won’t do these people justice, as Dylan did before and many others have and will do. So, in no particular order, #shoutout Monica, for translating and helping us so much along the way. #Shoutout Dylan. #Shoutout Danny, “the new church” is a good title even though I said it wasn’t. #Shoutout Carlene for the edits, advice and the future package pitch. #Shoutout Alvaro, you probably will never read this but you the man. #Shoutout Chloe for letting me and Dylan get in on the package. #Shoutout Joe, the photo of the director of San Anton is divine. If I forgot someone, I’ll add this: #shoutout everyone (but if you actually helped out a lot and I managed to have a brain fart, let me know, I’ll add some random reason/your name since this is the pinnacle of #shoutouts).

#Shoutout my mom too.