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How Vigilant Should Cable News Be About Political Messages?

CASE STUDY: CNN’s Rejection of Trump’s Political Advertisements

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bidenad

Youtube.com / modified

In October 2019, CNN declined to air two 30-second paid advertisements from President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The two advertisements, titled “Biden Corruption” and “Coup,” came in the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, announcing the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.

The inquiry was the result of revelations of a reported phone call President Donald Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 in which Trump insinuated the Ukranian government should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden worked for a Ukranian energy company whose owner was being investigated by Ukranian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin (Vogel, 2019). In 2016, Shokin was ousted as prosecutor general in light of accusations of corruption (Kramer, 2016). Trump and his supporters argue that Biden used his power as vice president to protect his son’s employer and influence the dismissal of Shokin. The New York Times reports, however, that “no evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor’s dismissal” (Vogel, 2019).

It was revealed that days before Trump and Zelensky’s July 2019 phone call that Trump directed his chief of staff “to place a hold on about $400 million in military aid for Ukraine,” (Pryzbyla & Edelman, 2019), leading some to believe the president issued a quid pro quo in order to tarnish a political rival. The pro-Trump advertisements that CNN refused to air attack network journalists such as Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo, calling them “media lapdogs,” label the House impeachment inquiry as a “coup,” and accuse Joe Biden of promising $1 billion to the Ukraine if Shokin was ousted (Grynbaum, 2019). CNN rejected the advertisements on the grounds they “contained inaccuracies and unfairly attacked the network’s journalists” and stated one ad in particular made “assertions that have been proven demonstrably false” (Grynbaum & Hsu, 2019).

Despite partisan pushback, the network’s move is not an unusual one. Unlike broadcast channels such as NBC, CBS, and ABC, cable networks are not obliged to follow regulations from the Federal Communications Commission pertaining to political advertisements. Because cable networks do not broadcast over “public” airwaves (Tompkins, 2019), they have more power to choose what political advertisements they showcase. Alternatively, broadcast channels are required “to air ads that come from legally qualified political candidates, according to the FCC” (Vranica & Horwitz, 2019), even if they may be laden with what the channel might consider spin, inaccuracies, and fabrications.

CNN wasn’t the only network that decided not to air the two Trump advertisements. NBCUniversal made the decision to pull the “Biden Corruption” ad after it aired once on the company’s cable network channels MSNBC and Bravo (Vranica & Horwitz, 2019). The controversy over these advertisements leads many to ask the question: Should national cable news networks have the power to pick and choose the political advertisements their viewers are exposed to? For those who agree that news networks should have the capability to reject political ads, an argument could be that rejecting ads with false information protects voters from believing and spreading misinformation. Despite the rise of social media, television has remained the main source of election news for a majority of people in the United States. A Pew Research survey found that during the 2016 presidential election, 24% of respondents said they learned information about the presidential election through cable news, followed by 14% receiving information from social media and local television (Gottfired et al., 2019). CNN’s decision could be seen as a way to protect the public from an ad that entangles political persuasion and unconfirmed accusations.

Those opposing CNN’s decision boiled down to two points: partisanship and free speech. Trump has been known to denounce CNN on multiple occasions labeling them as the “fake news media,” and accusing them of partisan bias in favor of Democrats (Samuels, 2019). Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, argued that the campaign’s “Biden corruption” ad was “entirely accurate and was reviewed by counsel” and that CNN was “protecting Joe Biden in their programming” (Grynbaum & Hsu, 2019). The notion that CNN’s rejection is a partisan ploy also connects to the fear of a suppression of political speech. Facebook’s decision to allow the “Biden Corruption” ad on its social media platform was based on a “fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is” (Lima, 2019). Those supporting enabling access to this advertisement seem concerned that when political advertisements are censored and viewers are not equitably presented with arguments across multiple media platforms, democracy consequently suffers.

As the 2020 presidential election increasingly dominates news media, more controversial advertisements are likely to be released to the public for mass consumption on radio, print, social media, and television. Some might perceive an advertisement as well-argued and appropriately passionate, whereas others might accuse the same message of containing spin, emotional manipulation, or downright falsehoods. Outlets like CNN will continue to be faced with a choice: should they allow any kind of political advertisements on their channel —and leave conclusions and judgments of their veracity to viewers— or should they reject advertisements they believe contain some amount of misinformation in an effort to shield viewers’ political opinions from what they judge as abuse? How much power should a cable network wield in influencing, directly or indirectly, their audience’s exposure to a candidate’s message?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical implications of CNN rejecting to air Trump’s two advertisements on its network? What values are in conflict?
  2. How could CNN have alternatively handled the situation other than rejecting to air the advertisements?
  3. Facebook said its decision to keep Trump’s two advertisements on its platform was based on the “belief in free expression” and “respect for the democratic process.” In what ways, if any, did CNN’s decision corroborate or contradict these beliefs?
  4. How does partisanship play a role in this scenario? Does partisanship affect the ways audience members consume media?
  5. Should news outlets be in the habit of fact-checking advertisements before they accept them? What is workable or problematic about this proposal?

 Further Information:

Gottfried, J., Barthel, M., Shearer, E., and Mitchell, A. “The 2016 Presidential Campaign – a News Event That’s Hard to Miss.” Pew Research Center, February 4, 2016. Available at: https://www.journalism.org/2016/02/04/the-2016-presidential-campaign-a-news-event-thats-hard-to-miss/

Grynbaum, M. & Hsu, T. “CNN Rejects 2 Trump Campaign Ads, Citing Inaccuracies.” The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/03/business/media/cnn-trump-campaign-ad.html

Kramer, A. “Ukraine Ousts Viktor Shokin, Top Prosecutor, and Political Stability Hangs in the Balance.” The New York Times, March, 29, 2016. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/30/world/europe/political-stability-in-the-balance-as-ukraine-ousts-top-prosecutor.html

Lima, C. “How Trump is winning the fight on ‘baseless’ ads.” POLITICO, Oct. 11, 2019. Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2019/10/11/trump-joe-biden-ad-social-media-misinformation-044267

Przybyla, H. & Edelman, A. “Nancy Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry of Trump.” NBC News, September 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/pelosi-announce-formal-impeachment-inquiry-trump-n1058251

Samuels, B. “Trump campaign threatens to sue CNN, citing Project Veritas videos.” The Hill, October 18, 2019. Available at: https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/466473-trump-campaign-threatens-to-sue-cnn-citing-project-veritas-videos

Tompkins, A. “Do the networks have to give equal time? In a word, no.” Poynter, January 8, 2019. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2019/do-the-networks-have-to-give-equal-time-in-a-word-no/

Vogel, K. “Trump, Biden and Ukraine: Sorting Out the Accusations.” The New York Times, September 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/22/us/politics/biden-ukraine-trump.html

Vranica, S. & Horwitz, J. “NBCU Cable Networks Refuse to Air Trump Campaign Ad Aimed at Joe Biden.” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 10, 2019. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/nbcu-refuses-to-air-trump-campaign-ad-aimed-at-joe-biden-11570746377

Authors:

Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 3, 2020


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

 

Overdoing Democracy

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Overdoing Democracy: The Problem of Political Polarization

Dr. Robert B. Talisse
W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy
Vanderbilt University

April 7, 2020 (Tuesday) ¦ 3:30PM-5:00PM ¦ BMC 5.208


9780190924195Partisan polarization is tearing the country apart. Although common analyses recommend that the way to address polarization is to encourage citizens and politicians to “reach across the aisle,” data show that this strategy frequently backfires, escalating rather than easing partisan hostility.  Offering an alternative prescription, Talisse argues that polarization is a result of the near total infiltration of political allegiances and identities into our social lives.  Today, our everyday activities are increasingly fused with our political profiles: commercial  spaces, workplaces, professions, schools, churches, sports teams, and even public parks now tend to embody a particular political valence.  When politics is permitted to saturate our social environments, we impair the capacities we need in order to enact democracy well.  In a slogan, when we overdo democracy in this way, we undermine it.  The solution is to build venues and activities where people can engage in cooperative activities together in which their political identities are neither bolstered nor suppressed, but simply beside the point.  If we want to do democracy well, we need to put politics in its right place.

talisseDr. Robert B. Talisse is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. An internationally recognized theorist of democracy, Talisse has lectured throughout the world about democracy, moral disagreement, political polarization, and the ethics of citizenship. Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place is his tenth book. Among the books he has authored are Why We Argue (And How We  Should) (with Scott Aikin), Democracy and Moral Conflict, A Pragmatist Philosophy of Democracy, and Democracy After Liberalism.

Co-sponsored by the UT Austin Ethics Project. The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.

Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.

 


 

Greta Thunberg and Her Harsh Critics

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Criticizing Children in the Public Sphere

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ddtweet

  Screen capture: Twitter.com

Young people are increasingly active politically at a time when we are entering a new era of heated political discourse: one where not even children are immune to vitriolic verbal abuse (Natanson, 2019). At age 16, Greta Thunberg took the world by storm with her passionate words against climate change, accusing world politicians of complacency regarding the environment. In her Swedish hometown of Stockholm, Thunberg started “Fridays for Future,” a movement of students skipping school and demanding political action regarding climate change (Woodward 2019). Former President Barack Obama called her “one of our planet’s greatest advocates,” but the teenager has not been immune to attacks from conservative commentators, far-right politicians and “online haters” who also target her family (Weise 2019). In response to Thunberg’s blunt criticisms during a speech to the United Nations, President Donald Trump sarcastically tweeted that Thunberg is “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future” (Rupar, 2019). Meanwhile, a Fox News commentator called her a “mentally ill Swedish child” (Gabbatt 2019).

According to political discourse scholar Lawrence Prelli, “There used to be a constraint upon criticizing children, generally” (Natanson, 2019). Others argue that when teenagers like Thunberg come into the public eye, they sacrifice their privacy and, in a sense, their childhood. “If she wants to participate as an adult citizen, she should be criticized as one,” claims Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic. But it’s not just verbal criticism. In a tweet by Dinesh D’Souza, Thunberg is likened to a Nazi child, using a vintage Nazi image of a Nordic child and comparing it to a picture of Thunberg. And in response to Thunberg’s surprise appearance at an Iowa school, a teacher posted “don’t have my sniper rifle” on Facebook, a possibly threatening message that built upon fake internet memes supposedly showing Thunberg shooting a rifle (Opsahl 2019). Facebook posts originating in Brazil claim Thunberg’s mother is a satanic lesbian who teaches abortion classes; others assert that her father lives in Germany with his boyfriend and that Thunberg collaborates with members of the Islamic State (Weise 2019).

As a teenager who is publically active in political movements for climate change, Thunberg is making strides in environmental action. But some might ask: are these gains worth the cost to her personal privacy and the well-being of her family? On the other hand, from the climate activist perspective, Thunberg has sparked a young generation’s climate action and mobilized millions of people to lead climate strikes in 150 countries. The September 20, 2019, Global Climate strike—organized and inspired by Thunberg—was the largest environmental protest in history. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Woodward et al. 2019).

In the face of intense public admiration and criticism from various quarters, Thunberg has apparently shrugged off the personal attacks and even clapped back at some, changing her Twitter bio to read “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” This case raises questions about the role of youth in political activism as well as the limits of criticism from others. Is Thunberg too old to expect to be free of harsh criticism, or too young to quarrel with those currently in positions of power? Or should the supposed adults listen to this passionate but relatively inexperienced newcomer in the rough and tumble world of climate policy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it a good thing that a teenager is taking such a prominent role in the complex politics of climate change?
  2. How free should adults be to speak critically of children in public? Does being a public figure change how a child should be treated?
  3. Should children be entitled to the same rights to free speech that adults have? Would you argue differently between the cases of a 16-year-old and a 10-year-old? Why?
  4. When hate speech or threats of violence are involved, should adults moderate or restrict children’s speech for their own protection?
  5. Should critics treat young activists like Thunberg differently than they might treat adult activists?

 Further Information:

Gabbatt, A. (2019, September 24). Fox News apologises to Greta Thunberg for pundit’s ‘disgraceful’ remark. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/sep/24/fox-news-greta-thunberg-michael-knowles

Natanson, H. (2019, September 24). Politicians and pundits used to refrain from publicly attacking kids. Not anymore. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/24/politicians-pundits-used-refrain-publicly-attacking-kids-not-anymore/

Novak, J. (2019, September 24). How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s rise could backfire on environmentalists. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/24/how-greta-thunbergs-rise-could-backfire-on-environmentalists.html

Opsahl, R. (2019, October 7). Iowa teacher on leave after ‘sniper rifle’ comment about Greta Thunberg visit. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/06/teacher-leave-sniper-rifle-comment-greta-thunberg/3893160002/

Rupar, A. (2019, September 24). Trump’s tweet about Greta Thunberg is one of his ugliest yet. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/9/24/20881541/trump-greta-thumberg-tweet-un

Weise, E. (2019, October 2). Online haters are targeting Greta Thunberg with conspiracy theories and fake photos. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/02/climate-change-activist-greta-thunberg-targeted-online-trolls/3843196002/

Woodward, A. (2019, September 24). How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg became the face of climate-change activism. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/greta-thunberg-bio-climate-change-activist-2019-9

Authors:

Michaela Urban, Justin Pehoski, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 30, 2020


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

 

Beer Cans and Cancel Culture

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of the Carson King Case

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


On ESPN’s “College GameDay” program, a 24-year-old’s sign requesting beer money went viral and raised more than a million dollars from amused fans. The football fan and beer-lover, Carson King, purchased just one case of beer with the funds and donated the rest to the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Anheuser-Busch and Venmo matched the final sum, tripling the total donation (Ta, 2019). Initially, King was hailed as an “Iowa Legend” for his philanthropy. However, Des Moises Register reporter Aaron Calvin eventually uncovered and published two racist tweets that King wrote as a high school student, quickly sparking controversy. Calvin’s article ultimately led Anheuser-Busch to withdraw their public support for King, and although he retained some of his supporters, his previously glowing reputation was tarnished.

King’s story is an exemplary case of a rising phenomenon of public shaming known as cancel culture. After an accusation of problematic speech or action, an individual is “cancelled” from a social group by being boycotted and ostracized.  John Hirschauer argued that Calvin intended to cancel King by publishing his tweets. Hirschauer declared that Calvin’s “decision to highlight two obscure, inflammatory tweets from a man’s adolescence of a sentiment that Calvin admits are ‘not representative artifacts of’ the man being profiled, is the sort of spiteful ‘gotcha’ thinking devoid of proportion that fuels ‘cancel culture’ writ large” (Hirschauer, 2019). In Hirschauer’s opinion, publishing the tweets was a malicious choice that disregarded King’s good deeds and personal growth.

The Des Moines Register’s executive editor, Carol Hunter, disagrees. She believes that Calvin acted ethically by providing comprehensive information about a public figure of interest. She explains that “The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated money to King’s cause or were planning to do so?” (Andrew and Zdanowicz, 2019). Hunter argues that donors have the right to know about the man asking for their money. After all, if donors know that their donations could be associated with racism, they might choose to give their money to other charities that share their values. She maintains that Calvin’s choice informed and empowered donors to make a better moral decision.

Calvin’s decision to publish King’s tweets could also be viewed as an effort to morally educate the public. A virtue of cancel culture is that it effectively signals that speech or behavior like King’s is unacceptable. It draws attention to problematic speech and punishes it, demonstrating to observers that they too should avoid such speech. On the other hand, the immediate “cancellation” of those who have made mistakes may not be the best way to educate them. By being shamed and isolated, they are cut off from informed and moderating influences. As a result, cancel culture may play a role in radicalizing individuals with problematic views and may actually discourage ethical growth.

Former President Barack Obama takes the latter view, explaining that cancel culture isn’t a way to effect change in others’ behavior. Shortly after King’s rise to fame and fall from glory, Obama argued that, “if all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). In essence, merely shaming people for their moral errors isn’t enough to get someone to do better or to participate in the community in acceptable ways. According to Obama, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). By this view, Calvin’s publication of King’s tweets was not a noble act. Rather, it distracted attention from meaningful action—the hospital fundraising—to a more petty controversy about past mistakes.

Cancel culture—for better or worse—is changing how people engage with one another. In fact, shortly after Calvin released his profile on King, readers dug up a few of Calvin’s own old, offensive tweets (Shepherd, 2019). The Des Moines Register fired Calvin and he found himself cancelled along with King. This ironic twist of events leaves many to wonder: is this how the story should have played out?

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Is there an ethical problem with cancel culture? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  2. Is cancel culture socially just? Can an apology or remorse by the wrongdoer suffice to excuse them from being “cancelled”?
  3. Communicating true information is an important goal of journalism. Even so, would it have been morally permissible for Calvin to leave the racist tweets out of his profile on King if additional donation opportunities for sick children could have followed?
  4. How is cancel culture and its punishments like or unlike the judgments and punishments prevalent in the court system?

 Further Information:

Andrew, Scottie, and Zdanowicz, Christina, “He raised a million dollars for a hospital through beer money. Then his old racist tweets surfaced.” CNN, September 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/26/us/carson-king-busch-cuts-ties-beer-posts-trnd/index.html

Hirschauer, John, “On the Firing of Aaron Calvin.” National Review, October 2019. Available at: https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/on-the-firing-of-aaron-calvin/

Reinstein, Julia, “The Reporter Fired In The ‘Busch Light Guy’ Scandal Said He Feels ‘Abandoned’ By The Des Moines Register.” BuzzFeed News, September 2019. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/juliareinstein/des-moines-register-iowa-reporter-fired-aaron-calvin-carson

Reub, Emily S., and Taylor, Derrick Bryson, “Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism.’” The New York Times, October 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/us/politics/obama-woke-cancel-culture.html

Shepherd, Katie, “Iowa reporter who found a viral star’s racist tweets slammed when critics find his own offensive posts.” Washington Post, September 2019. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/09/25/carson-king-viral-busch-light-star-old-iowa-reporter-tweets/

Ta, Linh, “Carson King reflects on new fame, the future after fundraiser for Iowa children’s hospital hits nearly $3M.” USA Today, October 2019. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2019/10/02/carson-king-fundraiser-ends-iowa-childrens-hospital/3840146002/

Authors:

Grace Leake, Alicia Armijo, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
The UT Ethics Project/Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2019


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

 

The Ethics of Anonymous Criticism in Political Journalism

CASE STUDY: The New York Times and the Unknown Trump Official

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


anonymouscover

  Photo: Twelve Books

In September 2018 The New York Times made the decision to publish an anonymous op-ed from a senior official from President Donald Trump’s administration. The official, who ideologically identifies as conservative, wrote about the struggle to uphold and further Republican legislation and ideals while “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” A blatant critique of Trump’s leadership style, the piece serves as a warning to the American public as it also attempts to comfort them: “Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t” (“I Am Part of the Resistance,” 2018).

The op-ed was immediately met with criticism. President Trump called the unsigned op-ed “gutless,” news reporters from The Times expressed bewilderment at the editorial department’s decision to release an anonymous opinion piece, and social media bustled with chatter trying to decipher the writer’s identity. In the past, The Times op-ed department has granted anonymity to writers. However, these instances were when the writers were an undocumented immigrant or a Syrian refugee — people whose identity needed to be protected for their own safety (Calderon & Schwartz, 2018).

Criticism of the author reappeared when it was announced that the same senior Trump official would be releasing a 259-page book, titled A Warning. The book’s author is listed as “anonymous,” and the work is described as “an unprecedented behind-the-scenes portrait of the Trump presidency” (Rucker, 2019a). The Washington Post obtained the book ahead of its release, detailing revealing excerpts. In the book the anonymous author writes, “I have decided to publish this anonymously because this debate is not about me. It is about us. It is about how we want the presidency to reflect our country, and that is where the discussion should center. Some will call this ‘cowardice.’ My feelings are not hurt by the accusation. Nor am I unprepared to attach my name to criticism of President Trump. I may do so, in due course.” The Post also revealed the book does not go into detail about specific events within the administration, in an effort to protect the author’s identity. The book preview also reveals that the author does not hold back on his transparent criticisms of Trump, arguing “that Trump is incapable of leading the United States through a monumental international crisis” and “foreign adversaries see him as ‘a simplistic pushover’ who is susceptible to flattery and easily manipulated” (Rucker, 2019b).

After the announcement of the book’s release, arguments against the anonymous official again arose: journalists and media professionals questioned the ethics of granting a government official anonymity — not only for an op-ed piece but for a highly publicized book— and worried about how readers can judge the trustworthiness and veracity of the author if their identity is unknown. In response to the 2018 op-ed Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted the following: “It’s impossible to evaluate how important it is without knowing how high up the author is. There are hundreds of people at the [White House] who think they’re ‘senior’ officials” (McBride, 2018). The suppression of specific details to protect the author’s identity also render such political criticisms difficult to confirm or argue against. There is also uncertainty over the status of information that the anonymous author could or should reveal. The United States Department of Justice sent a letter to the author’s publishing house, asking if the author had signed “any nondisclosure agreements while working for the government” (Stelter, 2019). The publishing house, however, said the Justice Department’s request was merely an attempt to out the identity of the author.

Journalists granting anonymity to protect a source’s identity within a news article is not a novel concept. However, news departments and opinion departments operate separately in their functions and goals. Op-ed pages of newspapers are where writers are allowed to employ their personal opinion complemented with heavy analysis of a topic and usually the weight of anonymity there doesn’t carry over the same as it would in a news story. Kelly McBride, a media ethics commentator who writes for the Poynter Institute, said about the anonymous op-ed, “If this had been a news story, we would have insisted on more details” (McBride, 2018).

Some see the senior Trump official’s anonymity as justified. When answering readers’ questions as to why The Times decided to publish the piece, op-ed editor James Dao said it was to give readers a unique perspective on the Trump presidency “of a conservative explaining why they felt that even if working for the Trump administration meant compromising some principles, it ultimately served the country if they could achieve some of the president’s policy objectives while helping resist some of his worst impulses” (“How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be,” 2018). Representatives involved in the author’s book project have remained protective of the author’s identity (Rucker, 2019a). Matt Latimer, co-founder of the literary agency publishing the anonymous author’s book, said the book “was not written by the author lightly, or for the purpose of financial enrichment. It has been written as an act of conscience and duty” (Tapper, 2019).

Some have even made remarks that the op-ed author’s newest work will do more to help confirm unsubstantiated revelations from the Trump White House. Jack Shafer, senior media writer at POLITICO, gave the example of how the author’s op-ed spoke about the possibility of a group within the Trump cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment to invoke removal of the President. A couple of weeks later, reporters with The Times confirmed the formation of the group (Shafer, 2019). Shafer said, “This steady confirmation of the op-ed’s key points by the best journalists covering the Trump administration makes it easy to award A Warning a four-star, prepublication review and predict that it will serve as a revelatory text” (Shafer, 2019).

Despite such lauding of A Warning and explanations in defense of the author’s anonymity, ethical questions still remain: is it ethical for a person unwilling to share their identity to solicit attention from the public, and should media and literary gatekeepers grant anonymity to a senior Trump official about their function within the administration?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How might this situation have been different if The New York Times decided to do a news story on this Trump official, granting them anonymity, rather than letting the official write an op-ed?
  2. What are the pros and cons of the author remaining anonymous? Does their anonymity take away from or add more to their validity? Why or why not?
  3. What ethical role does The New York Times and the literary agency Javelin, representing the anonymous author, in this situation? In other words, what are their ethical responsibilities?
  4. If the author were to reveal their identity, how might the impact of their words change or stay the same?
  5. How might this situation further affect how the general public consumes political communication?

Further Information:

Alter, A. “Anonymous Trump Official Behind Times Op-Ed Is Writing a Book.” The New York Times, October 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/books/anonymous-op-ed-trump-book.html

Calderon, M. & Schwartz, J. “With anonymous op-ed, it’s Times vs. Times.” POLITICO, September 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/09/05/trump-anonymous-new-york-times-oped-809111

“How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be.” The New York Times, September 8, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/08/reader-center/anonymous-op-ed-trump.html

“I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The New York Times, September 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/trump-white-house-anonymous-resistance.html

McBride, K. “How the NYTimes’ anonymous op-ed may change journalism.” Poynter Institute, September 6, 2018. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/newsletters/2018/how-the-nytimes-anonymous-op-ed-may-change-journalism/

Rucker, P. “Anonymous author of Trump ‘resistance’ op-ed to publish a tell-all book.” The Washington Post, October 22, 2019a. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/anonymous-author-of-trump-resistance-op-ed-to-publish-a-tell-all-book/2019/10/22/b9ea2f42-f45a-11e9-ad8b-85e2aa00b5ce_story.html

Rucker, P. “Book by ‘Anonymous’ describes Trump as cruel, inept and a danger to the nation.” The Washington Post, November 7, 2019b. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/book-by-anonymous-describes-trump-as-cruel-inept-and-a-danger-to-the-nation/2019/11/07/b6b6c6f2-0150-11ea-8bab-0fc209e065a8_story.html

Shafer, J. “Why You’re Wrong to Hate the ‘Anonymous’ Book.” POLITICO, October 23, 2019. Available at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/10/23/anonymous-book-trump-official-read-229878

Stelter, B. “Anonymous anti-Trump book is already a hit and it’s not on shelves until next week.” CNN, November 12, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/12/media/a-warning-anti-trump-preorder-sales/index.html

Tapper, J. “Anonymous Trump official who wrote New York Times op-ed has a book coming out.” CNN, October 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/22/politics/anonymous-trump-official-book/index.html

Authors:

Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2019

Image: Twelve Books


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

 

Secret Facebook Groups and the Ethics of Democracy

CASE STUDY: Are Secret Facebook Groups Good for Democracy?

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


In an era where increased partisanship is easily palpable through society’s inundated media landscape, social media users are taking advantage of a corner of the internet where they can cultivate a like-minded community— secret Facebook groups. Unlike a “closed” Facebook group, a user can only gain access to a secret or privately hidden group by invitation. The invitation-only caveat for secret groups means these groups are not easy to find through simple searches. Some groups are small in size, composed of only a handful of members, while other groups have accumulated millions of members. Examination of secret groups seemed to take off leading up to and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

In October 2016, Maine voter Libby Chamberlain founded “Pantsuit Nation,” a secret Facebook group created to celebrate presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. According to The New York Times, the page reached over two million members in just three short weeks. Chamberlain described to the Times the make-up of the Facebook group: “We have lifelong Republicans who are voting for Hillary, lefty liberals and everything in between. People are chiming in from around the world” (Correal, 2016). Users of the group see it as a way for people to escape the possibility of pushback and rush of judgement for their political and social opinions. Unification also plays an important role. According to the Times, the group received a plethora of posts from members posed in pantsuits on Election Day 2016 while casting their vote for who would have been the first woman president.

David Weinberger, a researcher at Harvard University, said private corners of the internet such as secret Facebook groups may have a positive side: “Our ideas, our feelings, our values, develop primarily in the company of people who we trust, where we can speak frankly, where we don’t have to make explicit our assumptions and our values, where we have the freedom to talk in small and big ways about things that really matter,” (Dreyfuss, 2017).

Although these secret groups provide a virtual safe space, in the context of politics critics see them as also raising some red flags. Some may be concerned that these groups go against the democratic ideal of community among individuals who hold diverse views, and that they further contribute to community fragmentation through a retreat to echo chambers. For example, when reporting on the repercussions of secret political Facebook groups, Wired reporter Emily Dreyfuss was added to a secret group formed by pro-Clinton voters during the 2016 Democratic primaries. Clinton supporters formed the group to air their grievances about Bernie Sanders’ supporters. However, even after the 2016 election, when it wasn’t clear if Sanders would run again in 2020, the page continued to direct its ire at Sanders: “The people in the group get each other fired up, egg each other on to disown friends who support Sanders’ initiatives in congress, and largely ignore posts that try to move the conversation away from this now tangential political figure” (Dreyfuss, 2017). One might worry that these secret Facebook groups, foster a sense of community only by shutting out conflicting opinions.

Another side effect of these secret groups is the potential of enabling misinformation. According to The Washington Post, “Misinformation experts have repeatedly pointed out that people in like-minded groups are less likely to flag one another’s content as problematic” (Dwoskin, 2019). Because these groups are hard for the outside world to detect, they are not vulnerable to the same monitoring access as public groups, and they are not readily accessible to the everyday person who could provide facts and counterarguments to negate misinformation.  These concerns are not hypothetical. In August 2019, Facebook announced an update to group privacy settings in conjunction with its Safe Communities Initiative to combat misinformation and secret groups that become “gathering places for racist, offensive activity” (Lee, 2019).

The outward benefits of social media are evident in the fact that they help to generate a sense of connectedness with often-distant others. However, in the context of secret Facebook groups, the question arises: should we find ways to interact with those who share our deepest political commitments, or should we seek out those with whom we strongly disagree?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are some of the benefits of secret, or hidden, Facebook groups?
  2. What are the ethical issues that arise from participating in a secret Facebook group?
  3. How might a secret Facebook group be different from a physical in-person organization or club created to support like-minded individuals? Would the same ethical issues arise? Why or why not?
  4. Would Facebook getting rid of the secret Facebook function be good for democracy? Why or why not?

Further Information:

Correal, Annie. “Pantsuit Nation, a ‘Secret’ Facebook Hub, Celebrates Clinton.” The New York Times, November 8, 2016. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/us/politics/facebook-pantsuit-nation-clinton.html

Dreyfuss, Emily. “Secret Facebook Groups Are the Trump Era’s Worst, Best Echo Chamber.” Wired, January 20, 2017. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2017/01/secret-facebook-groups-trump-eras-worst-best-echo-chamber/

Dwoskin, Elizabeth. “‘Facebook says private groups are its future. Some are hubs for misinformation and hate.” The Washington Post, July 5, 2019. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/07/05/facebook-says-private-groups-are-its-future-some-are-hubs-misinformation-hate/

Engel, Pamela. “‘People want it to be true’: Inside the growing influence of a mysterious anti-Trump website.” Business Inisider, May 16, 2017. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/the-palmer-report-bill-louise-mensch-2017-5

Lee, Dami. “Facebook is simplifying group privacy settings and adding admin tools for safety.” The Verge, August 14, 2019. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/14/20805928/facebook-closed-secret-public-private-group-settings

Silverman, C., Lytvynenko, J., & Thuy Vo, L. “How Facebook Groups Are Being Exploited To Spread Misinformation, Plan Harassment, And Radicalize People.” Buzzfeed News, March 19, 2018. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/how-facebook-groups-are-being-exploited-to-spread

Authors:

Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 18, 2019

www.mediaengagement.org

Image: Glen Carrie / Unsplash


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

 

#MeToo and Journalism Leadership

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Ethical Leadership in Newsrooms in the #MeToo Era:

A Panel Discussion

October 29, 2019 (Tuesday) ¦ 2:00PM-3:00PM  ¦ BMC 5.208


How did sexual harassment persist for so long in journalism, and what difference has the #MeToo movement made for those that run the media? What does ethical and effective leadership look like in newsrooms during the #MeToo era? This panel discussion features scholars from various fields in communication and media reflecting on the extent of the #MeToo movement in journalism, as well as its intersections with leadership in the modern media environment. Confirmed participants include:

Kathleen McElroy (Journalism, UT Austin)
Meme Drumwright (Advertising, UT Austin)
Kate West (Journalism, UT Austin)
Scott R. Stroud (Communication Studies, UT Austin)

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.

Co-Sponsored by the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin, and the UT Ethics Project


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