How should broadcast news journalists interview and talk about extremists?

CNN has apologised for this on screen caption Nov 22 2016

CNN has apologised for this on screen caption Nov 22 2016

Over the weekend I spoke to veteran ex BBC journalist Robin Lustig, Berlin correspondent Damien McGuinness for an insight into Germany’s media and Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s 2012 senior strategist for 2 articles I wrote for The Guardian and The Big Issue magazine this week. Space limitations mean a great deal didn’t make the final edits. Here are the interviews in full, conducted via email. Obviously a lot has been changing in coverage since the first few days after the Trump election win, but the core issues are the same. My thanks to all three for their time and insight.

Robin Lustig

Q I’ve seem anecdotal examples of stories where racist views eg of the Breitbart boss now on Trump'[s team are being described  as “populist right” rather than anti-Semitic. In one US paper the “ape in heels” comment about Michelle Obama was today called “allegedly racist”. Reporting Nigel Farage’s personal insults about Obama as a “creature” without context on BBC News website. Many journalists are saying there’s a normalisation of views we used to call out as over the line unacceptable racism/misogyny/antimsemitism going on in the papers. Do you think this is the case?

For me, the key is to ensure a clear divide between news and comment. If I’m reporting what Stephen Bannon says, I don’t need to call it either ‘anti-semitic’ or ‘populist right’. I can leave that to others. And I would make sure that any news report included critics of his language. In opinion pieces, of course, anything goes. The argument over ‘normalisation’ is an odd one — if what someone says is newsworthy, it should be reported. e.g. If the leader of the American Nazi Party says he hates Jews, that’s not newsworthy. If Bannon says all Muslims should be locked up, that is. If Farage calls Obama a ‘creature’, why does it need context? I would quote what he says, and then follow it with horrified reaction from others.

Q And if so is it reasonable? (Again anecdotally been told editors of some newspapers telling writers to tone down rhetoric so as not to offend the Trump team). Is it fair to say the media need to  give them the benefit of the doubt, a bit like Obama saying we need to make this work? Are these views ones we need to spell out before we can discuss their appeal?

I worry about the ‘We must give Trump a chance’ argument. Yes, Obama has to, in order to maintain the ‘dignity’ of the office of president. But journalists don’t. If Trump says he’s going to deport 3 million illegal immigrants, let’s report it. If he says all illegal immigrants commit crimes, let’s report what he says and then quote the official figures that contradict him. I was worried before the election at the way the NY Times and the WashPo both turned their news columns into attack-Trump columns. Apart from anything else, I couldn’t see the point: how many potential Trump voters were reading those papers anyway?

Q Decision to give Le Pen a solo spot on BBC on Remembrance Sunday?

I think it was absolutely right to interview Marine Le P. It was unfortunate that it fell on Remembrance Sunday, but it was the first Marr show after the US election, so they obviously needed to get it on air at the first opportunity. Personally, I would have liked Marr to press her much harder on her party’s attitudes to French Muslims. As for the media ‘building up’ Farage and Trump, I think there’s a danger in blaming the messenger. I do accept, however, that for much too long, both Farage and Trump were treated a joke figures who were good for the ratings and a refreshing change to the usual dull old politicians. It took us much too long to challenge them head on.

Q Is there a legimitate comparison to normalizing fascism and Hitler and the 30s? Is there any real comparison for the press/media in the UK and USA?

There was no free press in Nazi Germany, so there is no comparison. When Trump starts shutting down the NYT or locking up journalists, it may be time to start making those comparisons. But not yet …

Q What advice would you have for news editors in this climate:? Really wonder what if anything you’d do differently if you were editing BBC News or presenting The World Tonight still?

I think news editors should do exactly the same with populist leaders as they do with any other politician. Report them fairly, and challenge them robustly. In the case of Trump, I would throw major resources at investigating potential conflict of interest issues. I would also look v closely at Moscow’s links to all Western populist right parties.

One general point: I think liberals are still too prone to blame the media for political outcomes they disapprove of. Many of the people who vote for populists regard the media as part of the despised establishment anyway; I very much doubt that they are influenced by media treatment of them. Treatment of issues like immigration, refugees, and crime, on the other hand, may well feed into a perception that ‘ordinary people’ are being let down by traditional political leaders. 

Q Are you worried at all? Is this like anything you’ve covered in your career before?

What worries me most is that so few metropolitan journalists, in both the US and the UK, saw either Brexit or Trump coming. It is a sad example of how badly local papers are needed, to reflect the fears and aspirations of the millions of people who don’t live in cosmopolitan London, LA or New York. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the so-called mainstream media have failed to reflect accurately the full spectrum of views in the communities they serve. 

I think the sense of mutual alienation between traditional media and a ssection of the ‘majority’ (ie white) community is greater than at any time in my lifetime. On the other hand, let’s not exaggerate: in the US, more people voted for Hillary than for Trump, and in the EU referendum, the country was almost evenly split. Sometimes the media reaction seems to suggest that some great tsunami of extreme nationalist sentiment has swept across both nations. It hasn’t, although clearly there is a lot of it about. As there is in most other European countries as well. 

Stuart Stevens: political consultant, writer, worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid

Q Back in May you told CNN: “I think one of the greatest dangers of Donald Trump is the idea that he might normalize a speech and an attitude that as a group in America we have decided is unacceptable.” What sort of attitude/s did you mean?

America is founded on religious liberty. That’s all religions. America is nation of immigrants. If we start to make it acceptable to challenge these principles, it’s deeply troubling. 

Q Do you think that’s happening and how should mainstream news organisations – especially broadcasters respond?

Unlike most of the world, apparently, I really don’t believe those of us who aren’t journalists should be advising those who are journalists how to do their jobs. I write books, articles, tv shows but I’m not a journalist. I’m more in the support journalists while they deal with this than criticize them mode 

Q The British philosopher Alain De Botton has accused politicians and news media of a kind of “political Stockholm syndrome” -which he called “the rush of gratitude that a leader may not be outright murderous, merely wrong on almost everything.” What’s your view on the way to handle Trump – both for politicians and for the news media?

Trump should be treated like any POTUS. It’s not theoretical. He will be in Lincoln’s office. Don’t grade on curve.

Q On principle should people like Romney be working with him at all given the senior role of people like Steve Bannon? (I know we don’t know result of Romney’s talks yet).

Hey, I am going to stay away from any questions that touch on Romney. Don’t want any confusion I might be speaking with him or sending signals, Etc. Appreciate your understanding.

Q Have you talked to Romney? What are he/people close to him/senior Republican figures saying about the principle of working with Trump’s  administration?

Sorry. Same as above.

Q It’s still earlier days but the way the Hamilton Mike Pence tweets have pushed the Trump University fraud case court settlement off the headlines has sparked a discussion about whether this is some kind of deliberate distraction strategy, or actually rightly the focus of our attention. What’s your view?

Whatever the intent, seems an early lesson to be studied.

Q You seemed confident in the past that Trump wouldn’t pull off a victory. Here we are and I wonder how you feel about the immediate future of American political discourse? (There are those who say progressive values are too deeply embedded in mainstream culture to be overturned so fast).

I’ve got a lousy track record on predicting Trump and don’t see why that would change now. But I do know POTUS is a role model and how anything is said by a POTUS has deep ramifications. It’s essential civility  and tolerance and general decency are qualities seen in any POTUS. Here’s hoping.

Damien McGuinness – Berlin based correspondent, BBC

Q There was footage of Trump rally supporters chanting something akin to Luegen Presse during the campaign. How have the German media been covering Trump?

All German media, on the left and on the right, high- and low-brow, is very anti-Trump and is not shy about expressing this. Headlines the day after the election expressed horror. And this week’s Der Spiegel cover is entitled “the end of the world as we know it” with a picture of Trump as an open-mouthed comet heading to destroy earth. It’s fair to say that there are no mainstream newspapers which represent or support populism (which in Germany right now focuses on the refugee issue and virulent opposition to Merkel’s stance on migration.) The mass daily Bild, the nearest thing to a tabloid Germany has, is pro-refugee. The left-wing press supports Merkel’s humanitarian stance. And while some right-wing commentators are unsettled by migration, the language is moderate — they’re also aware that Merkel still means electoral success for the CDU. Mainstream moderate Germany is appalled by Trump’s simplistic approach to foreign policy (particularly when it comes to NATO / Russia / Syria). And there is a strong strain of anti-Americanism in Germany’s far-left and far-right that means that even though the AfD has welcomed Trump, his world view clashes with most far left and far right supporters who scorn American exceptionalism.

Q What has the German media’s experience been with Pegida and their own populist far right movements? Are there any useful comparisons with Farage and Trump?

There is no credible acceptable leader of Pegida. All of them are too extreme and tainted by neo-Nazi associations / scandals. Lutz Bachmann is the most well known leader, but he’s got a criminal past, and too much baggage to ever be credible (e.g. a scandal of him posing as Hitler in a photo ). He’s not someone you would ever see on public TV. and he won’t even talk to the press anyway as Pegida refuses to give interviews, accusing the press of being part of the “system” (nazi term for establishment). Lots of splits and rows which means the movement has lost momentum. But Pegida has also lost influence because the AfD has become more radical and picked up their supporters, entering regional parliaments and likely to enter national parliament for the first time next year. Frauke Petry is the respectable face of the AfD. Young and attractive and a woman she tries to make the AfD’s anti-migrant stance acceptable. 3 years ago the AfD was anti-euro and had moderate leaders who were seen on public TV. With the refugee crisis the AfD split, became more radial and now  focuses on being anti-migrant. This makes it more toxic for moderate voters — but more successful with non-voters. Over the last year, as the AfD has entered regional parliaments, public TV has been forced to change its stance (e.g. one German public TV station has decided to stop calling the new AfD “right-wing populist” which in German is tantamount to being “right-wing extremist” ) and treat the party and its politicians and supporters as legitimate. Pegida is different because their statements and rallies often cross the border of illegality into hate speech.

Q How far is that limited by clear law? How far is there a mindset? You mentioned the press being inherently conservative and pro-Establishment. Can you explain that a bit?

I’m not sure if conservative as such is the right word. Certainly not socially or politically conservative. The media debate tends to be left-wing liberal — Germany is anyway essentially more left-wing than Britain when it comes to attitudes towards migration and the size of the welfare state. Even right-wing parties support a large welfare state and the EU. (mainly because they are “Christian” parties and see welfare for society as part of their responsibility)  So in that sense the media is supporting mainstream German society and the establishment. Traditionally anything that could be seen as veering too much towards right-wing extremism (ie Nazi ideology) was toxic. That is changing with AfD. But generally anti-incitement laws and anti-hate speech laws tend to trump (as it were!) ideas of free speech because of Germany’s Nazi past, and because of Germany’s constitution in which respect for the individual is key.

Also public broadcasting has a strong moral component, having been set up after the war to preserve democracy (modelled on the BBC) — but public broadcasting has less of a culture of two sides … there’s more of a sense that there’s a correct way of thinking and talking (ie not racist, pro EU, not sexist, pro environment ) which would preserve democracy. Even if not everyone thinks this. Anything not in tune with that is often seen as not legitimate. My opinion is that in part That’s where the Luegenpresse label comes from. So public broadcasting here tends to try to form and educate, rather than simply reflect. Quite an old fashioned top down approach which is very different to the BBC and British media culture. Whether that’s good or bad is another question. This traditionally means that populism spreads less into the mainstream. but also that the populism there is, has no voice in the mainstream media, and therefore tends to be more extreme. i.e. anti-Muslim Pegida marches with slogans that I couldn’t imagine seeing in the UK. Instead in the UK the debate is on the BBC which by nature means the language / views are moderated slightly. Though this might change in Germany with the electoral success of the AfD

Q I instinctively feel this story and its presentation (Nigel Farage’s comments on President Obama and Theresa May on a talk radio station) presents a dilemma about how far people like Farage are carefully pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse.  How would it be covered in Germany do you think?

Difficult to say: in some ways racially charged or sexist terms are often more acceptable in mainstream German society than British society. Germany is quite new to multiculturalism and some parts of Germany have quite traditional attitudes towards women (eg when it comes to motherhood). So in fact you do occasionally get politicians saying things that would be unacceptable in Britain. They cause a row, but they’re still said in meetings / private events etc (eg. Oettinger’s comments recently about Chinese delegations). The public media debate though is different, and often more politically correct. I think anyone defending Trump like this would be shot down by mainstream media. He wouldn’t really be a able to talk on the radio like this anyway. And it’s hard to imagine public broadcasters reporting this without talking about why it’s problematic.

Q Andrew Marr show just interviewed Marine Le Pen. Some people complaining that this is exactly what you shouldn’t do just after the Trump victory. BBC says she’s polling 30% and hasn’t herself said anything illegal. With your German experience can you offer the German media view on it?

I think German broadcasting is also struggling with this. Pegida is probably too toxic to appear on talk shows etc, but they won’t appear anyway, so it’s not an issue. Some members of AfD though do have views which would not have been expressed on German TV 10 years ago. (eg Hoecke waved a flag on one show which caused an outrage) But now that large numbers of people are voting for them (eg 30 percent in Mecklenburg Vorpommern ) they can’t be ignored. Still seen as controversial though. And I’d be surprised if they d get le Pen on.

Further reading

From Trump to Le Pen: We must challenge extremist views with tough questions (Big Issue column)

How to interview extremists and avoid normalising racism (Guardian)

Associated Press on writing about the “alt-right”

Robin Lustig’s blog

Stuart Steven’s website

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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