“She’s a Monster”: A Media Generated Controversy

This is a historical post.

One thing that has weighed on my mind a lot is that I believe the existing ethics of journalism are bad. I feel very differently about, say, the ethics of lawyers. People make fun of lawyers because their ethics are at odds with the idea of seeking the truth. (Lawyers are paid to not seek the truth but seek the very best biased arguments they can. The truth is to be found in the tension of sides.) Journalism seems to favor some very over all bad / unethical ideas. This post was trying to document that problem via a real example.

The headline read:

‘HILLARY CLINTON’S A MONSTER’: OBAMA AIDE BLURTS OUT ATTACK IN SCOTSMAN INTERVIEW

As the article explained:

In an unguarded moment during an interview with The Scotsman in London, Samantha Power, Mr Obama’s key foreign policy aide, let slip the camp’s true feelings about the former first lady.”

And thus ended Samantha Power’s advisory role for Barack Obama. But what is the real story here? If the news media was being candid with us, wouldn’t the headline have read:

OBAMA CAMPAIGN DOES NOT LIKE THEIR COMPETITORS BECAUSE THEY, UM, COMPETE WITH THEM

But of course there is no news worthy story in that headline at all. But isn’t this the real story? Perhaps one could argue that the real story is that someone from the Obama campaign publicly stated their private feelings – that we all knew they already had. I admit that would be newsworthy, so let’s redo the headline to read:

OBAMA CAMPAIGN STATES PUBLICLY THE PRIVATE FEELINGS THAT WE ALL KNOW ALL COMPETING CANDIDATES HAVE FOR THEIR COMPETITORS

But this isn’t really right either. In reality Samantha Powers was just talking to the media about her book on Sergio Vieira de Mello. So this wasn’t the Obama campaign talking to the media, it was just Powers speaking for herself. The idea that she spoke for the campaign was something the media just made up (i.e. lied about) because I’m fairly certain Samantha Powers didn’t tell them “I speak as an Obama aide with this next comment!” So let’s change the headline to the more truthful:

SAMANTHA POWERS, INCIDENTALLY A MEMBER OF OBAMA CAMPAIGN, STATES PUBLICLY THE PRIVATE FEELINGS THAT WE ALL KNOW ALL COMPETING CAMPAIGNS HAVE FOR THEIR COMPETITORS

But you know what? This really isn’t the truth either. Powers in fact stated that her comment was off the record, so this was actually — in her mind at least — just a private conversation not meant for the public. The only reason it was published at all was because she made the mistake of stating it was off the record after the comment instead of before. As the news story explains:

WHEN is off the record actually off the record? When the rules are established in advance. … If a conversation is to be off the record, that agreement is usually thrashed out before the interview begins.

So if the media is to be honest and non-manipulative with us, the real headline should read:

MEDIA USES LOOPHOLE TO ALLOW THEM TO PUBLISH A PRIVATE COMMENT THAT EXPLAINED THE PRIVATE FEELINGS THAT WE ALL KNOW ALL COMPETING CAMPAIGNS HAVE FOR THEIR COMPETITORS: AIDE LOSES JOB

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