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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pay no attention to the man behind the podium.


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

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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.

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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.


Pulitzer Prize winner Ken Herman encourages Tsinghua journalism students to ‘try different things’

Ken Herman (center) talks to Global Business Journalism Program students, flanked by Rick Dunham (left) and Sharon Jayson (right).

Ken Herman (center) talks to Global Business Journalism Program students, flanked by Rick Dunham (left) and Sharon Jayson (right).

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ken Herman encouraged students in Tsinghua University’s Global Business Journalism Program to experiment with the many new technological tools available to today’s reporters.

“Try different things,” Herman, a columnist at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas, said in a lecture on May 12. “Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep trying and you’ll get better.”

Herman and his wife Sharon Jayson, a longtime reporter for USA Today, spoke to Professor Rick Dunham’s Data Journalism and Multimedia Business Reporting classes at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. They told the stories of their award-winning journalism careers and advised students to master traditional news writing, audio, video and social media.

Jayson’s three-decade career has included stints as a television news reporter and anchor, a radio station reporter, a radio network Austin bureau chief and a newspaper journalist in Washington and Austin.

“I love journalism,” she said. “I’m glad to go to work every single day.”

Herman, who covered George W. Bush both during his days as governor of Texas and president of the United States, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1977 for a series of stories in the Lufkin (Texas) News investigating the death of a young recruit in the U.S. military. The series led to congressional hearings and changes in American military recruiting practices. For the past six years, he has written a newspaper column that sometimes covers serious policy topics and often uses humor to make his points.

“I feel it is important to tell people what is going on in their government – or just entertain them,” he said.

Herman was one of the first print reporters to supplement his reports with multimedia elements such as video and audio. He said that some of his early efforts at video journalism were “pretty bad.”

“Make mistakes,” he said. “I certainly did. But you’ll learn how to do it and you’ll get better.”

Jayson, who specialized in coverage of younger Americans and human relationships during her decade at USA Today, said she knew she wanted to be a reporter from the age of 12, when she worked on a newspaper at her school. She encouraged the students to follow their passion in life, like she did, even if it does not lead to material wealth.

“Don’t just accept something because you think you’re going to get rich,” she said.

Ken and Sharon in Tian'anmen Square, with the Forbidden City in the background.

Ken and Sharon in Tian’anmen Square, with the Forbidden City in the background.


Rick’s Rules: Ten basic reporting errors

With this post, I am introducing a regular feature to RickDunhamBlog: Rick’s Rules.

Rick’s Rules will highlight best and worst practices in modern multimedia journalism and offer tips to improve your skills — whether you are one of my graduate journalism students at Tsinghua University, a veteran journalist in Washington, D.C., or a normal everyday “civilian.”

I also will try to experiment with innovative storytelling techniques. Today’s “Rick’s Rules” uses infogr.am.

TEN BASIC REPORTING ERRORS

| Create infographics

UPDATE: Due to technical difficulties on the WordPress site, I am forced to link to the graphic on infogr.am. Please follow this link to the graphic.