After ex-Trump aide Nunberg’s cable odyssey, some sober assessments

March 6, 2018
Category: Ethics & Trust

Sam Nunberg, a former aide in the Trump campaign who was fired in 2015, touched off a media maelstrom Monday when he suddenly began calling up reporters and broadcasters to tell them he was going to ignore a subpoena from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller in the Russia probe.

After talking with the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Nunberg started making the rounds on cable news shows, appearing on MSNBC and CNN. Each interview featured one revelation after another.

Trump “may have done something during the election, but I don't know that for sure,” he told MSNBC’s Katy Tur. Then he told CNN that Trump “may very well have done something during the election with the Russians.”

As the day wore on, story after story popped up chronicling his extraordinary cable drive-bys, each one more outrageous than the next. And then came the speculation:  Was he drinking or using recreational drugs? Was he taking too many or too few prescription medications?

The media spotlight was so intense that Axios weighed in today with a scathing post in its morning newsletter. “This is one of the reasons America hates the media,” Axios co-founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote. “Our entire industry lit itself on fire because a troubled Trump hanger-on made an ass of himself — live.”

Let’s pause here and turn to a couple of the issues that were raised:

  • Is Nunberg a significant enough figure to give all of that air time and ink to?

  • If he was drinking or somehow impaired, how should his interviewers have handled that?

Indira Lakshmanan, Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute, was traveling, but emailed these thoughts:

If a former senior aide to a presidential campaign reaches out to news organizations to say he's been subpoenaed in a federal probe into election interference and is not going to cooperate, an interview with that person is an entirely legitimate news story.

Sam Nunberg is a political operative experienced with the press, and unlike a child or a random person off the street, he is well aware of the potential consequences of putting himself in the public eye.

But as in any story, we journalists must ask ourselves first: Is the information accurate and true, and does it add to our audience's understanding of the subject? If a source is erratic, or seems to be drugged or drunk (which Nunberg denied when asked directly by CNN’s Erin Burnett), journalists should think hard about the value to our audience of airing a live interview with someone who may not be in their right mind.

Are we simply doing this on auto-pilot, putting junk into a blender of endless news churn? Is this for for ratings and voyeurism in the vein of reality TV that exploits its subjects, or are we actually advancing the public's knowledge of news with relevant facts?

It's easy to see how this happened — we're in an intensely competitive news cycle with jaw-dropping turns of events about a serious subject: Russian interference and potential collusion. Nunberg is a person with direct knowledge of the case deemed important enough by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to be subpoenaed.

But an interview should stick to the facts of what he personally knows, and his ad hominem attacks on the White House press secretary aren’t news. A better approach would be a measured one: Tape an interview if you have reason to believe that a subject may be impaired, and review it before airing, first weighing its accuracy and news value, leaving out questionable elements, and adding context and disclaimers as appropriate.

Al Tompkins, Poynter's resident broadcasting expert, also added his thoughts:

When a person who has been repeatedly hired and fired by Donald Trump and now is called to testify by the special investigator and openly defies the subpoena, that is news.

The fact that the special prosecutor finds him to be important enough to question elevates his importance beyond a former campaign staffer.

The main problem with the interviews is that they were live. He personally attacks some individuals, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the interviews. The interviewer should have strongly challenged such statements.

It is fair to ask Nunberg what he personally knows, what he experienced, what he would tell the special prosecutor. Stick to first-hand knowledge.

When he strays from what he knows first-hand, the interviewer has a responsibility to reel him back in, and if he persists in attacking others on issues that are not at the center of the investigation, the network should end the interview and explain why.

This is a person with significant media experience who doesn’t need to be told the gravity of what he is saying or doing. We do not know if he was impaired; he said he was not.

The Trump administration often downplays the level of access or influence that individuals who have become critics once played in the administration and campaign.  

Tompkins added this checklist:

At Poynter we often teach these guidelines for when to go LIVE on the air:

  • Why is this information urgent enough to be aired live without editing or fact-checking? To what extent is your motivation purely promotional, competitive, driven by production limitations  or “just to fill time?"

  • What level of misinformation or even disinformation are you willing to risk when airing an interview live?  How will you correct misinformation disinformation that you discover after the interview?

  • What is the worst that could happen by “going live” and is the information important enough to risk that worst-case outcome?