Despite the tip-toeing of U.S. justice officials, there's little question that Donald Trump’s harsh, threatening and decidedly-uncivil rhetoric played a role in the phony bombs the right wing Florida nut job recently dispatched to Trump critics.
Nor is there much doubt that the similarly-inflammatory statements of Bernie Sanders, Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi et al. helped stimulate equally-delusional left wing wackos, like the Illinois crazy who shot up the Republican baseball practice.
Add to this the lunatic anti-Semite who massacred temple goers in Pittsburgh, and one can readily agree with CNN President Jeff Zucker’s conclusion that the President, his press secretary and the rest of us ought to recognize that “words matter.”
Public relations professionals, in particular, have a responsibility to advise the clients they counsel and the media they talk to that toning down accusatory or offensive rhetoric is every public person’s responsibility and that civility begins at home.
For example, we could begin by tamping down the vitriol, not to mention repeated unfairness, of some of our most trusted media companies themselves, starting with … Mr. Zucker’s company, CNN.
The one-sidedness of Fox News and MSNBC is clearly an embarrassment to anyone who still believes in the pursuit of “objective journalism.” But neither network pretends that Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow or Lou Dobbs or Lawrence O’Donnell is anything near “fair and balanced.” They’re not. They’re true believers and make no bones about it.
Sure, they should clean up their act too, but CNN — which insists that it even-handedly reports “news”— must go further.
CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta is a textbook case of incivility. Acosta has gained wealth and notoriety for being the press corps master of badgering and interrupting the press secretary, disrespectfully challenging the President and shouting out impertinent questions when press scrums are over. Acosta unabashedly nurtures his persona of despising Trump. Here’s how he put it in a recent interview:
“If you think ... you can take children away from their parents on the border and put them in cages, if you think you can demonize immigrants and call them rapists and criminals, if you think that you can distort the sense of reality that we all have on a daily basis by telling lie after lie and falsehood after falsehood, and not face any hard questions, then you’re just not living in the same United States of America that I live in.”
Not exactly the most objective reporter. If CNN President Zucker is serious about his comments on the need for civility, he might like to chat with his decidedly uncivil White House correspondent.
The network known for Brian Williams’ lying, Matt Lauer’s sexual harassment and, most recently, Megyn Kelly’s blackface backlash, can point to at least one sterling representative of fair and balanced journalism.
Lester Holt, since he was reluctantly brought in to rescue a tottering NBC Nightly News ship after Williams nearly sunk it in 2015, has represented the network with principle and professionalism. If he has a bias against any individual or institution, he stifles it well.
The same can’t be said for the two virulently anti-Trump NBC reporters who cover the White House. Hallie Jackson and Kristin Welker nightly pile on the President and his administration with regularly negative, thinly-sourced quasi-news.
Among the NBC reports: Welker’s “scoop,” attributed to unnamed “current and former officials,” that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly privately called Trump an “idiot,” a charge presented with breathless coverage and commentary that Kelly labeled “total BS.”
Jackson’s show biz probing of the Presidential doctor who declared his patient in “incredible health,” asking “if you can assess the President’s mental fitness for office?"
An exclusive and extensive interview with Justice Brett Kavanaugh rape accuser Julie Swetnick, who, along with her attorney Michael Avenatti, have subsequently been recommended by Congress for criminal investigation for making the whole thing up.
The point is that in a world where incivility reigns, NBC News must hold itself to a higher bar than Facebook or Twitter or the countless repugnant social media sites, in determining what merits making its nightly 22 minutes of most important “news.”
The New York Times
More than any other journalistic institution, The New York Times should feel the greatest obligation to treat its subjects dispassionately in its search for truth, regardless of the personal views of its management and editors.
Sadly, in the age of Trump, the Times has fallen from its perch of respectability, not only in its undeniable anti-Trump bias but in picking on other unlikeable editorial targets. Like Exxon Mobil, for example.
The Times clearly doesn’t like the oil company, particularly in terms of its perceived lassitude in reacting to climate change. Even though today’s Exxon acknowledges that over time it’s come to believe that climate change is real, the Times refuses to abandon its vendetta against Exxon for perceived past sins.
For the past three years, the Times has relentlessly propped up a difficult-to-fathom and probably even more difficult-to-prove campaign by anti-fossil fuel advocates that Exxon purposely misled its shareholders about the dangers of global warming.
The Times began its quest to take out Exxon in March 2016 with a lead front-page story announcing that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, joined by 15 other attorneys general, was considering suing Exxon Mobil for lying to the public about climate change. The story compared Exxon to the tobacco industry, which purposely covered up research proof that cigarettes caused cancer. Exxon immediately labeled Schneiderman’s quixotic quest for justice an expensive waste of taxpayers’ money.
A year later, to keep the Exxon controversy front and center, the Times ran a half-page story highlighting a content analysis study, authored by hardened Exxon critic Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard Professor. The study concluded that Exxon knew all about climate change for years but failed to share the information with the public. Exxon disputed the findings essentially as “rubbish,” and other university researchers questioned Oreskes’ methodology as “biased.”
Last week, the Times was back again with the announcement that the AG successor to Schneiderman, who had lost his job after being ousted as a multiple #MeToo offender, was finally suing Exxon for defrauding shareholders by downplaying the expected risks of climate change to its business. Once again, Exxon labeled the lawsuit as an attempt, after three years of finding nothing, to justify a “meritless investigation.”
But the Times was undaunted, quoting another long-time Exxon hater as concluding, “Apparently, Exxon has deceived the investing public about the economic consequences of climate change, just as they deceived the general public about the ‘catastrophic’ harm they knew their products would cause.”
Forget that the assertions against Exxon “deceiving” anybody have never been proven… that the vast majority of Exxon shareholders have no complaint against the company … that Exxon over the past decade has acknowledged the existence of human activity-related climate change, discontinued contributing to climate deniers and invested heavily in alternate energy sources…and that a lawsuit at this stage will waste millions of taxpayer dollars and contribute nothing to society.
The New York Times, like the other Exxon enemies it regularly promotes in its pages, seems committed only to obtaining its “pound of flesh.”
Not exactly the most promising start to restore civility to society.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.