Analysis: Confrontation inevitable as Republicans test a ‘weak’ Obama

Live on CCTV as a Beijing-based expert on U.S. politics.

Live on CCTV as a Beijing-based expert on U.S. politics.

A day after Republicans swept to a broad, deep victory in the 2014 midterm elections, I appeared on CCTV’s Dialogue program to discuss the impact of the elections on American politics. Here is a transcript of the interview by host Yang Rui, edited for clarity and slightly tightened.

Yang Rui: How do these midterm elections damage what President Obama wants to do in the remaining two years?

Rick Dunham: Well, I think right now we’re in for a period of tension, we’re in for a period of confrontation between Congress and the President. The Republicans in Congress think President Obama is weak and they’re going to push very hard for their agenda. They’re going to see how far they can push him. I think the White House will want to reach out a bit more, but I think it’s going to be much harder for the White House to reach out because Republicans think he is weak.

Yang Rui: I believe you must have followed the midterm elections very closely. Anything that surprised you despite the results themselves that are not so surprising?

Rick Dunham: No, I actually was not surprised at the Republicans’ sweep of the Senate. Historically, you look back at almost every big wave election year and you have one party winning almost all the close elections, and Republicans only lost one of them –in New Hampshire. What I was surprised at in this election was the incompetent campaign run by the Democratic National Committee and the White House. There were never on the offensive and they let the Republicans attack President Obama. They almost had no positive message during the campaign. That really surprised me. I haven’t seen a campaign this bad since 1980.

Yang Rui: Exactly 20 years ago, President Clinton was facing the majority that Republicans enjoyed in the two chambers of the Congress. What happened was the shutdown of the federal government and the standoff between Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, and the president himself. Now, last year we saw the partial shut down of the federal government, do you think we are likely to see it another repeat of the shutdown?

Rick Dunham: I think it’s highly likely. We saw a short shutdown last year but I think the Republicans are going to push the president to the brink and see if he capitulates. I think it’s almost certain that we’re going to see a shutdown. President Obama is going to have to veto Republican legislation and then force a compromise.

Yang Rui: What are the major obstacles or issues that may be a test of the bipartisan wrangling?

Rick Dunham: I think that number one will be government spending. The Republicans will try to cut the amount of government spending and particularly programs the president likes. The second big one is health care — the president’s health reform law of 2010. House Republicans voted 40 times already to repeal it. I think that the Senate Republicans will try now to push the president and force him to veto.

A government shutdown is likely.

A government shutdown is likely.

Yang Rui: Well that’s very bad. Now I start thinking about what I read from Francis Fukuyama, the guy who is the author of The End of History. Now, ironically he wrote in another book, it’s about political decay in U.S. domestic politics, meaning the architect of American constitution was able to restrict powers but they have not been able to create powers, and that has delivered a lot of friction and frustrations between the two parties. And the efficiency of the government, all at different levels, has been seriously compromised.

Rick Dunham: Well, I agree with the conclusion, but not necessarily his reasoning to get to the conclusion. I think that we see this kind of gridlock in the United States and dysfunctional democracy largely for two reasons. One is the amount out of money in politics that is making it difficult to pass anything. And the second issue is that you have partisan media in the United States. You have a fracture of the traditional media and you have people who get information that’s based on their own preconceived notions. So the country is deeply divided now and it’s very hard to have commonality because you have people on one side going to Fox News and on the other side going to CNN or National Public Radio, and you don’t really have a common area where they can reach agreement.

Yang Rui: And there are very serious disagreements between couples under the same roof.

Rick Dunham: Huge gender gap. Men overwhelmingly voted for Republican this election, women voted just about evenly, Democrat and Republican.

Yang Rui: Then there is the situation with the low turnout.

Rick Dunham: There has been a problem with turnout in America starting in 1990s. There was a spike up when Barack Obama ran in 2008. Turnout was the highest in 20 years but it has gone back down to its pre-2008 levels, and the biggest drop of was minority voters, black Americans and Hispanic voters, both of them heavily Democratic.

Black voters voted nine to one for Democrats but the turnout was far down from where it was, which cost the Democrats the governorship of Florida, it cost them the Senate seat in North Carolina. Those very narrow losses in those states were result of very low minority turnout.

A durable Democratic majority after 2008? Nope.

A durable Democratic majority after 2008? Nope.


Yang Rui: What do you think of the impact of the midterm upheavals on the presidential election two years from now?

Rick Dunham: Well, I think it’s a mixed blessing for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Now there’s no guarantee that she will be the nominee but if she is, the good news for her is that now people are going to be looking at the Republicans, and probably if there’s a backlash in two years it could be against the Republican Congress as opposed to focusing all about President Obama.

The bad news for Democrats is that this election proves that the Democratic electoral majority that elected Barak Obama twice is not strong and is not permanent. The Democrats have to go back and convince minority voters to turn out and they have to go back and convince more women to vote Democratic.

Yang Rui: Thank you very much for joining us.

Here’s a link to the video of the full interview: http://english.cntv.cn/2014/11/06/VIDE1415219400635230.shtml

Thanks to Jade Ladal for her work on the transcript.


Professor Dunham’s Ten Commandments for journalism ethics in a multimedia world

In the classroom at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

In the classroom at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

Journalism ethics are universal. But some ethical issues take on an added dimension on multimedia platforms.

After spending nearly two decades in digital journalism — writing an online column for BusinessWeek, creating two blogs and teaching multimedia journalism — I have boiled down my advice for my Tsinghua University Global Business Journalism students to ten commandments. Here they are:

•1. Thou shalt not steal

  • Don’t lift other people’s posts. Or quotations. Or photographs.
  • Intellectual property is intellectual property. If you don’t have the right to reproduce a photo or an article – even with attribution – don’t do it!
  • Make sure to properly attribute any quotation you pull from another source. Every single time!
  • If the original published source of your item turns out to be incorrect, you can be held liable for civil penalties in courts of law if you republish the falsehood.

•2. Thou shalt get it right.

  • 24/7 deadlines are no excuse to get it wrong.
  • Carefully attribute all facts you cannot confirm.
  • Just because somebody else published it on the Internet or sent it out by social media doesn’t make it true.
  • Just because somebody told you something doesn’t make it true. As the old journalism saying goes, even if your mother told you, check it out.
  • Better to wait a few minutes to confirm or disprove a post than to get it wrong, wrong, wrong.
  • As the Pew Research Journalism Project wrote: “Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built.”

•3. Thou shalt repent with speed and sincerity.

  • If you get something wrong, or link to another source who got it wrong, make sure you correct the mistake. Pronto. Your credibility is on the line.
  • Make sure to send corrections to your followers via social media. Falsehoods can go viral and it’s very hard to reel them back in.
  • If you made a mistake and others linked to your post, inform them of your mistake. Pronto.
  • Apologize.
  • Learn from your mistake.
  • Because of the instantaneous nature of digital communication, correcting errors is more important – and difficult — than ever.

•4. Thou shalt avoid gratuitous personal attacks.

  • Multimedia journalism provides you a basketful of communications options. Don’t use them to be childish, petulant or rude.
  • The same rules of fair play apply online as apply in traditional media.
  • Don’t mistake “snark” and “attitude” for wit and cleverness.

•5. Thou shalt be fair and balanced.

  • It’s not a partisan slogan. It’s our goal as journalists.
  • Fairness should never be sacrificed at the altar of an artificial deadline.
  • Efforts should be made to contact public figures referred to or criticized in multimedia reports.
  • Avoid sensationalism or distortion that is designed to win you “clicks” or “page views.”
  • A few tips from the Society of Professional Journalists:
  • “Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”
  • “Never distort the content of news photos or video.”

•6. Thou shalt not use unnamed sources to attack others.

  • It’s a sure sign of a journalism amateur or poseur.
  • People have a right to know who your sources are, with rare exceptions.
  • People have a right to know your sources’ motives.
  • If someone is too cowardly to attach their name to an attack quote, it tells you something about the person.
  • As SPJ writes, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”

•7. Thou shalt live in a glass house.

  • Don’t do anything you would criticize someone else for doing.
  • Journalists are public figures. Hypocrisy is news, whether the hypocrite is a politician or a reporter.
  • From National Public Radio’s Ethics Handbook: •“We hold those who serve and influence the public to a high standard when we report about their actions. We must ask no less of ourselves.”

•8. Thou shalt never give false witness about who you are.

  • It is always unethical to pose as someone else to collect information for stories.
  • You should identify who you are and for whom you work.
  • You should never identify yourself simply as a “citizen,” a “constituent” or a “consumer.”

9. Thou shalt not pay sources for information.

  • Or interviews.
  • It’s unethical. It separates infotainment sites from journalism sites. Let TMZ.com get the paid-for celebrity scandal scoop. Better to keep your soul.

•10. Thou shalt not be paid off.

  • Don’t take money to post, publish or air something.
  • Don’t show favoritism toward sponsors, advertisers or donors.
  • Disclose any conflicts of interest you or your publication may have.
  • Transparency allows your audience to weigh your credibility.

As SPJ’s code of ethics declares,  “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

We owe it to the public. And ourselves.