Trump, Putin and journalism in the post-truth world: A philosophical dialogue

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 12.48.33 PM

My conversation with Matti Virtanen, as it appeared online in Finnish.

During my latest speaking tour of Finland, I’ve been discussing the policy implications of the Trump presidency with business leaders, university students and business school alumni. But I’ve also had the chance to talk to some of the top editors in Finland about the ethical and journalistic challenges facing American reporters trying to cover a very different kind of president.Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 1.20.05 PM

Here is my conversation with Matti Virtanen, a veteran journalist with Talouselämä. Click here to read his article in Finnish.

Q: If you look at Trump’s communications as a whole, what do you think is the main difference between his and a professional politician’s rhetoric?

A: Trump’s rhetoric is more colorful and less “politically correct” than an average politician. He seems to enjoy being incendiary and provocative. He never fears the consequences of his own words.

Q: Much of political discourse is full of exaggerations and embellishments, and statements that are meaningless or “not even wrong.” Where do you draw the line that differentiates all this from lying?

A: Lying is intentionally or knowingly saying something that is untrue. It is the same as the distinction between a killing and a murder. Murder is killing with malicious intent. Lying is telling falsehoods or untruths with malicious intent. Saying that 3 million “illegal aliens” voted — and all voted for Hillary Clinton — is untrue. Once you are told it’s not true and you keep saying it, it’s a lie. (Or if you knew it was untrue when you first said it, it’s a lie.) The difference between Trump and typical politicians is that Trump’s supporters do not hold him accountable for not telling the truth. Average supporters and his advisers will lecture the press, saying you are “taking him too literally.” It’s dangerous territory for the media and for politicians when the truth is a philosophical concept and not an objective reality.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 12.31.15 AM

Talking Trump in Finland.

Q: What are the most obvious lies that Trump has expressed in office? (Three examples will do, let’s forget the campaign lies for now.)

He falsely stated, over and over, that he had the biggest Electoral College landslide with Ronald Reagan, when, in reality, Barack Obama (twice), Bill Clinton (twice) and George H.W. Bush all had more. He stated without evidence that Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower, something flatly denied by the FBI and the former Director of National Intelligence. He claimed, without offering evidence, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because 3 million illegal immigrants voted for her. He said she won New Hampshire because of “massive” voter fraud. Elections officials in the states he mentioned all denied his claims, which he has repeated over and over since then. Also, he said more than 100 former Guantanamo Bay prisoners were released by Obama and have returned to the battlefield. (All but nine were released by Bush.)

Q: How is the system equipped to counter lies from the White House?

A: The media ecosystem is not set up to deal with serial lies from public officials, or, as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called them, “alternative facts.” Trump’s strange relationship with the truth has left reporters in an uncomfortable position: report his claims factually, as you would with most public officials, and become part of a disinformation or propaganda campaign — or state that the president of the United States did not tell the truth, which makes many Americans believe that you are taking political sides and are part of “the opposition” to Trump, as Trump aide Steve Bannon puts it.

Q: Why is he getting away with lies better than his predecessors, who were also not quite immune to the syndrome?

A: Many of Trump’s supporters say it is just “Trump being Trump.” They think it is refreshing to have a “politically incorrect” president. Some find it entertaining to see the establishment ridiculed. Thus far, none of the falsehoods seem to have harmed Trump’s public standing. His approval rate has changed relatively little since it dipped during his first week in office, despite a barrage of reporting on false statements from the president.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 12.31.57 AM

Speaking at an AmCham Finland “Brief on the Go” in Helsinki.

Q: What is the threshold that would trigger a formal, legal investigation of the president’s lying?

A: Either a Democratic-controlled Congress (in two years at the earliest) or a lie on a sensitive national security subject, such as his relationship with the Kremlin or possible blackmailing of him by Vladimir Putin or Russian intelligence.

Q: How long can the Republican Party remain united in defense of presidential lying?

A: Party leaders are following their followers. As long as Trump’s support among rank-and-file Republicans remains above 80 percent, as it has been since he assumed office, Republican elected officials will be cautious in they criticism. Some Republican elected officials have dismissed some of Trump’s statements as incorrect (such as his allegations of voter fraud or his claims about wiretapping), but they have not broken with Trump politically. As long as Republican voters do not abandon Trump, he will maintain a base of power in Congress.

Q: How likely is it that we are going to see an impeachment process against Trump?

A: It won’t happen as long as the Republicans control Congress — unless there is evidence that he sold out the United States to Russia for business purposes or under threat of blackmail. There is no evidence of that now. Short of that, it won’t happen in the next two years. I think it would be a mistake for Democrats, should they take control of Congress in 2019, to immediately initiate impeachment proceedings. It would look like crass politics. It would be smarter to have oversight hearings and see where the evidence leads.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 12.34.13 AM

Q&A in Helsinki

Q: What if the Department of Justice refuses to appoint a special prosecutor? Does the Congress have any way around that?

A: Excellent question. Congress can’t appoint a special prosecutor, but it can create a bipartisan investigating committee or empower an independent, bipartisan commission. I think the commission approach is the most likely. It will be less inflammatory and more likely to get at the truth, quietly and over a longer period of time.

Q: How would you rate Trump’s lying if you compare it with the untruths from Russian and Chinese governments?

A: Trump’s relationship to the truth is similar to Putin’s. They both say things that are demonstrably untrue. With the Chinese government, there is a lot of “partisan spin,” but rarely does the government say things that can be easily contradicted. One way or another, an American president doesn’t want to be compared to Putin or other authoritarian regimes when it comes to credibility.

Q: What about the personal level: how do you feel about the situation?

A: I feel that it’s a tough time to be a reporter. You must have a thick skin and be willing to be bullied and threatened. Thus far, no harm has come to an American reporter, but many of my former colleagues have been subjected to online harassment and even phone calls at their homes. The old rules of fairness apply to our reporting, even if the norms of truthfulness are shifting. Reporters have to adjust if they want to maintain their integrity and shed light on the words and deeds of public officials.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 12.29.05 AM

Pay no attention to the man behind the podium.


A Pulitzer-winning couple tells GBJ students what it’s like to cover a mass shooting in real time

20170301_potts-tsinghuagbj5

Mark Potts speaks about the L.A. Times’ video editing process for coverage of the San Bernardino shootings at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

By Alexis See Tho

“It was an organized chaos,” recalled Mark Potts, a video editor at the Los Angeles Times, describing the scene in the newsroom when photographs, videos and Twitter posts poured in from the San Bernardino shootings two years ago.

Potts and his wife Hailey Branson-Potts, who is also a journalist for the L.A. Times shared the drama of covering a breaking news story of global significance with Tsinghua University’s multimedia reporting class. Branson-Potts and Potts were part of the Times team that received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, the top award in American journalism, for breaking news reporting.

“In the back of your head, you’re thinking, this is what I went to school for. You train and work your whole life so when you get into these situations, you don’t mess it up,” Potts added.

The prize-winning young journalists spoke to Global Business Journalism Program students in Professor Rick Dunham’s Multimedia Business Reporting course on March 1. Branson-Potts worked for Professor Dunham as an intern in the Washington bureau of the Houston Chronicle, where she covered the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, among other national stories.

20170301_potts-tsinghuagbj1

Professor Dunham uses the coverage of the San Bernardino shootings as a “best practices” case study for using social media in reporting. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

The December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, made international headlines when 14 people were killed an American man and his Pakistan-born wife. U.S. President Donald Trump has cited the shooting as a reason why he is seeking to restrict immigration to the United States.

Branson-Potts did live reporting on Twitter from the shooting scene, talking to the police and interviewing victims’ family members. And for days she stayed put in San Bernardino to get more information on the ground. It’s important to always be ready for moments like that she said.

“I have a ‘go-bag’ in my car,” Branson-Potts added, where she keeps a pair of jeans, comfortable shoes, make-up and supplies for at least a day.

But there are some areas that cannot be prepared ahead of time and only real-life experiences can be the teacher. Branson-Potts was answering a student’s questions whether news organizations train journalists on how to face situations such as the shooting.

“There’s no psychological training in newsrooms,” said Branson-Potts, who have worked and interned at news organizations such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and the
Houston Chronicle.

20170301_potts-tsinghuagbj3

Hailey Branson-Potts explains to the class her first few live tweets from the scene of the San Bernardino shootings. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

She added that although her editor did ask how she was coping when she was on the ground in San Bernardino for days, the answer would always be “I’m fine.”

“You don’t want to be pulled out of the story,” Branson-Potts said.

Although she has worked for big names in America’s newspaper industry, Branson-Potts’ first taste of the world of journalism came when she was 15 when she worked on the printing press for her hometown newspaper, the Perry Daily Journal, one of Oklahoma’s smallest daily newspapers.

“They only printed 2,000 copies everyday, but it was real experience (for me),” Branson-Potts said. She advised students to find as many opportunities as they could to work in newsrooms.

“When we hire young people at our paper, we don’t care what grades they made at school, we don’t care what classes they took. We care about their resumés and the stories they produced as an intern,” she said.

For shooting and editing videos, Mark Potts’ greatest education came from watching bad movies during his student days while working at a movie theatre.

He added that a journalist’s work attitude is of utmost importance. “I approach things like there’s nothing below me,” he said, “I’ve done videos for subjects that secretly…I don’t want to cover. But I go in there and say, ‘I’m going to make a really good video. I’m going to cover this like I’ve covered the inauguration and a protest.’”

For both of them, they repeat the mantra: There’s no story that you’re too good for.

20170301_potts-tsinghuagbj4

The Hailey and Mark Show (Photo by Alexis See Tho)


Major shifts in U.S. trade policy make it vitally important to study global business and China’s role in it

Rickgrad6

Some of the top international students from the 2016 graduating class.

The global economic order is rapidly changing, and China, with the world’s second-largest economy, is becoming an increasingly important player. As U.S. international and trade policies shift dramatically under a new administration, China is aggressively seeking to bolster its leadership role in the world’s interconnected global economy on trade and other business issues.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in business journalism, now is a great time to study global business in China in the Global Business Journalism Master’s Program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. (Of course, your blog author has a personal stake in this program: I’m co-director.) The extended deadline to apply for admission to the GBJ program is March 20, 2017.

Tsinghua University is the most prestigious university in China, providing a genuine international environment to students from around the world. The Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua, founded in 2007, has won international acclaim for teaching global best practices in business journalism and the technical skills needed to succeed in today’s digital news environment.

The program, a partnership between Tsinghua, the International Center for Journalists and Bloomberg News, trains future journalists who can help the public understand the complexities of global business and the economy. Students in the program benefit from a faculty that includes award-winning journalists from prominent media organizations such as Bloomberg News, the National Press Club of Washington and Business Week, as well as renowned Chinese scholars with degrees from prestigious international institutions.

The two-year program is fully taught in English. Enrollment in the courses is about half international, half Chinese. The program provides internship opportunities at major media organizations and offers summer reporting programs in New York and Washington.

Scholarships are available to top applicants. The deadline to apply for scholarships, as well as admission, is February 28.

Graduates of the intensive program emerge with a network of valuable connections that can enrich their careers. You can contact GBJ or ICFJ with any questions.

To share the mini-documentary on GBJ, send your friends this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQ6kr_rUeI8&feature=youtu.be

To apply, please visit the application site:
http://gbj.tsjc.tsinghua.edu.cn/publish/jcgbj/370/index.html

For more of the program, please visit the program’s official website:
http://gbj.tsjc.tsinghua.edu.cn/publish/jcgbj/index.html

grad17

2016 GBJ grads Jordyn Dahl and Jade Ladal

Contact at Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication:
Ms. Ma Chengcheng (Sarah)
The GBJ Office
Room 302, Omnicom Building,
School of Journalism and Communication
Tsinghua University,
Beijing 100084, P. R. China
Tel: +86 10 6279 6842
Fax: +86 10 6277 1410
E-mail: tsjcws@mail.tsinghua.edu.cn


Video: Why the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua is a great choice for graduate school

The Global Business Journalism Program is the subject of a documentary film that highlights the program’s unique role in teaching advanced economics reporting skills to Chinese and international graduate students.

The GBJ program, the first graduate business journalism program taught in English on the Chinese mainland, features a rigorous curriculum taught by leading Chinese academics and prominent international journalists.

The five-minute mini-documentary was produced and directed by second-year GBJ student Simone Martin of Italy. It was based on a project he completed for a documentary news course. First-year GBJ student Sarah Taylor Talaat of the United States was the film’s narrator.

grad94

2016 GBJ grads Anish Pandey and Jade Ladal

“In its first decade, the GBJ program has been recognized as one of the top international programs in China — and now, students from around the world, together with Chinese students, are learning advanced business writing, corporate strategies, economics, accounting, data mining, multimedia storytelling and other skills,” Talaat says in the documentary.

The film features interviews with current students and GBJ faculty. GBJ student Tendekai Finos from Zimbabwe called the program “an interesting opportunity to learn in China, as well to study in China, where the economy is growing rapidly.” Viktoria Fricova, a second-year student from Slovakia, said she first discovered the program when searching for a high-quality international graduate journalism program. “When I found it on the internet, I knew this was the option for me,” she told the documentarian.

rickgrad12

Professor Dunham and GBJ grads celebrate, June 2016

The Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication will use the documentary to reach out to potential students internationally, to further enhance its reputation in China, and to attract partners and supporters to the program, said GBJ Co-Director Rick Dunham.

“We’d like continue to expand, so that we can be the leaders in training Chinese journalists of the next generation, and become a destination spot for global journalism,” Professor Dunham says in the film.

Launched in 2007 in partnership with the International Center for Journalists and Bloomberg News, the GBJ program has trained more than 400 graduates, many of whom have become journalists at prominent news outlets from Bloomberg to People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency.

“We wish to welcome the world to join us,” GBJ Co-Director Dr. Hang Min says in the documentary. “We are setting the standard for business journalism education.”

>>> You can also watch the video on YouTube

>> For more information on the application process

>>> Here’s the GBJ website

>>> Here’s how you can begin the application process

grad19

2016 graduation festivities


Global Business Journalism Program: Leading the next generation of journalism around the world

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It has been a honor to serve as international co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University for the past three years. Here is a transcript of my remarks at the 2016 commencement on June 30:

This is a very special day for all of us. To you, the graduating class of 2016, it is the culmination of a multicultural, global experience that is certain to benefit you personally and professionally. For me, this day is very special, too.

This is the first group of Chinese students I taught at Tsinghua, and you have made this veteran journalist into a better professor and a better person. Jiao Jie, Cynthia, Jarchine. I could go on and on. I have such respect and affection for you. I am so proud of all of you.

This is the first group of international students I interviewed, taught and mentored from beginning to end. Jade: you may not remember it, but I recall asking you in your interview: Who was your favorite character from En Attendant Godot? (I bet you didn’t prepare for that question.)

From the beginning, I can remember being supremely impressed by the qualifications and enthusiasm of Lauren and Gaelle, who have been leaders and high achievers since the day they arrived.

And I can remember recruiting Jordyn as if she were a star athlete in the United States and I were an eager coach. I knew she would be an invaluable addition to our program. Even while she’s still in school, she’s published superb articles in Forbes and Beijing Review, respected global news outlets.

I am honored, on behalf of the faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program and the International Center for Journalists, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of graduate studies at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication.

You are entering an uncertain world of journalism … of business and economics … of geopolitics and global conflict. I guess any commencement speaker could have said that at any time. But the pace of technological change, the immediacy brought by social media and 24/7 news, and the interconnectedness of the world, have made it easier for human beings to create positive things — or sow destruction anywhere, anytime.

The disruption created by the digital communications revolution has affected businesses from Dallas to Da Tong. In our world of journalism and communication, traditional forms of communication are collapsing – rapidly in America and Europe, more slowly in China. But make no mistake about it, the old world is gone and will never be revived, despite the antediluvian longings of ultranationalists and isolationists and technophobes.

The good news is that there are so many opportunities for people who embrace change and embrace the latest technologies. You are among the fortunate few. You have been trained in the latest technologies, but you also understand the enduring basics of journalism: accuracy, fairness, accountability, ethics and compelling storytelling. The Global Business Journalism program is a combination of a rigorous academic education taught by some of the finest professors in China, and a real-world journalism newsroom where students learn from distinguished journalists from around the world and create professional multimedia projects and data journalism reports.

With the skills you have learned, and the intelligence and drive you bring to your work, I have no doubt some of you are going to be journalism industry leaders and innovators, in China and around the world.

The Global Business Journalism Program is about to begin its tenth academic year this fall. In its first decade — with the support of Bloomberg News, ICFJ, the Knight Foundation and Merrill Lynch/Bank of America — it has brought together students from about 60 countries to experience a diversity of cultures and ideas.

The GBJ program has been indispensable in creating a new generation of business journalists who are reshaping and improving journalism in China. Not only does Chinese journalism benefit from our superbly trained alumni, but international journalism benefits because the next generation of reporters from Cameroon to California have a more accurate and sophisticated view of the Chinese economy and its role in global growth – and an understanding of the highest standards in global reporting.

What’s more, GBJ has created de facto goodwill ambassadors for China in dozens of countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. It could not come at a more important time.

The journalism industry is facing an era of limits. In the United States and Europe, those limits are mostly economic: the profit imperative at a time of declining revenues, the mistaken choice of click bait journalism over quality. In China, those limits are mostly political.

But neither the journalism establishments of China nor the rest of the world can afford to be reactive. Traditional news outlets, whether in Beijing or Great Britain, are at risk of losing the next generation of information consumers to social media or alternative sources of information. We must – and we will –adapt, to create innovative new ways to share news.

IMG_9289

Barrows Dunham, 1947

I would like to close by quoting from my favorite philosopher, who happens to be my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. Seventy years ago, as the world emerged from the destruction wrought by fascists, he wrote in his book Man Against Myth that the peoples of our planet faced “ambiguous gloom, which may perhaps be twilight and may perhaps be dawn.”

Sounds like today. Looking at the pace of change, he wrote in 1947:

“In our day, indeed, events have attained so formidable a tempo that a single lifetime … will seem to contain more than there once appeared to be in history itself.”

Sounds like today.

Every generation sees an unprecedented pace of social change. That is the reality of human accomplishment, and human nature. There are always those who see the dawn and those who see the sunset. In the dawn of our new era, many in our chosen line of work will resist the changes that are needed.

This challenge reminds me of the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones – specifically, the reaction of the receptionist at the Citadel, who, in response to a message delivered by Samwell Tarly, told our hero: “This is highly irregular.”

“Well,” Samwell responded, “I suppose that life is irregular.”

Indeed, life is irregular. But we can’t respond to occasional irregularities by retreating or taking the safe path. We must pursue the ambitious vision we learned in GBJ.

As all of you know, I am an optimist. I choose to see the dawn. I don’t fear the future, and you should not, either. You are uniquely prepared to be the change – to lead the change – as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.

To quote Dr. Dunham one last time: “Even now, we ourselves are determining the future, not by knowing what it will be, but by conceiving what it can be.”

Congratulations to the GBJ graduating class. Good luck to all of you. Thank you.


Photo gallery: A new semester begins for Global Business Journalism students

A new beginning. There’s nothing like the first day of class each semester. Meeting smart young students who are eager to learn. My 35 years as a reporter were exciting and eventful, but my time in the classroom is personally rewarding in a very different way.

My Global Business Journalism Program has trained students from China and 58 other nations of the world, from the U.S. to Vietnam, Russia to Ukraine, Zimbabwe to Great Britain, Israel to Iran, South Africa to South Korea. It is an exciting incubator for the next generation of journalism leaders around the globe.

Tuesday was the first class in my spring semester course, “Multimedia Business Reporting.” Thanks to Weiyue Cynthia Chen, one of the best students I’ve ever taught, for creating this photo gallery of the Global Business Journalism Program in action. (And congrats to Cynthia for getting accepted to Michigan State for her Ph.D. studies!)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For more information, check out the International Center for Journalists’ web link. The deadline for 2016-2017 applications has been extended until March 20. Scholarship deadline is March 10. You can contact me directly if you have any questions.


How cropping photos can change the editorial content of a photograph

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47

Marital bliss: This photograph from Donald Trump’s latest wedding is fraught with political overtones.

Photography captures reality.

Or does it?

Yes, a high-quality photograph that follows my 25 rules of photo composition can be a major asset for your multimedia journalism report.

But a photograph is not necessarily objective reality. Why?

Cropping.

As you edit the photograph, you are making editorial decisions: What part of the photo is most important or newsworthy? (That is different than editing decisions based on attractiveness.)

Here are two examples: One benign, one politically charged.

I took the first photo in my final day on the White House beat, Sept. 2, 2013. It shows House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a group of reporters outside the West Wing entrance (also known as “the Stakeout”). The second photo is a wedding snapshot featuring Bill and Hillary Clinton at Donald Trump’s most recent wedding.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.35.54

Nancy Pelosi at the Stakeout. The viewer’s eye focuses on the media scrum.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.36.14

The edited photo focuses on Nancy Pelosi.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47

The original image: The Trumps and Clintons are all smiles at Donald Trump’s latest wedding.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47 - Version 2

Edited photo #1: That was then, this is war: Hillary and Donald look happy together. That’s not the way they’re acting in the heat of the presidential race.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47 - Version 3

Edited photo #2: Editing out the Trumps, this could be any of the tens of thousands of Clinton family photos taken over the decades.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 10.09.47 - Version 4

Edited photo #3: Editing out the spouses, this version looks like Bill Clinton is enjoying his time with Mrs. Trump. It emphasizes their left hands meeting along her waist.

The Trump-Clinton wedding photo is fraught with political overtones. Some of Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign rivals would like to remind voters of his bipartisan past and his longtime coziness with the Clintons. The unedited photo is incontrovertible evidence that the two families were close enough that they were all smiles together in the not-so-distant past.

By focusing on Donald and Hillary, the photo editor chooses to highlight the 2016 rivalry, without the spouses. It’s Hillary vs. Donald. All smiles then. All insults now.

By editing out the Trumps, this is an unexceptional photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton smiling for the cameras. Little news value.

By editing out Donald and Hillary, the photo focuses on Bill Clinton with his arm around an attractive woman. Her left hand touches his, prompting the viewer to reach her/his own conclusion about the body chemistry.

The takeaway lesson: When you are editing photos for content, think about how your cropping decisions change the meaning of the image in the eyes of your audience. Are you sending the message you want to send? Are you fairly reflecting reality? Are you being fair to the subjects in the photo?

If you are a professional photo editor, the answer to all of the questions should be yes.