Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Oren Shur

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Oren Shur is a senior vice president and political director at the Washington, DC-based political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker. Shur has extensive experience in political communication and political advertising, including serving as the director of paid media for Hillary for America in 2016. @OrenShur

1) To what ethical standard should political communication professionals be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

I believe we should ground our ethical standards in political communications in the various audiences to whom (or what) we owe an ethical responsibility to . . . In my view, we have an ethical responsibility to: the public, the elected officials/candidates we work for and our democratic institutions (specifically: the media and our systems of voting). As political communications professionals, we should be honest, forthcoming and honorable in the ways we communicate to the public, with our elected officials/candidates and about our democratic institutions.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Because we, as political communication professionals, are entrusted to communicate with the public about their elected officials and their government – that’s a sacred responsibility. If the public losses faith in our democracy and the people who lead it and the institutions that protect it (and that’s damn near close to happening right now), everything else we enjoy about living in America will erode.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

It happens all the time. When an elected official tells the public something they may not want to hear, but they deserve to know. Or when a candidate condemns a lie that was designed to help them instead of repeating it or winking and turning a blind eye. Or when a spokesperson is asked to lie to the media and refuses to do so. Or when anyone in the field admits a mistake. Unfortunately, the instances of unethical conduct tend to get all the attention.  

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

On many occasions over the years, I believed that spinning the truth or withholding certain pieces of information would be in my candidates’ best political interest – and, there’s a fine line between running smart and savvy campaigns and being unethical. In my view, the key is having the wherewithal in those moments to hit pause – and consider whether you’re about to say or do something that you’ll feel good about long after Election Day. I’ve tried to do that and mostly feel good about the decisions I’ve made in those moments. Anyone who works in political communications should expect to find themselves in those situations time and time again.  

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Your parents probably raised you to be a good, decent and honest person who treats others the right way – working in politics is not an excuse to abandon those lessons; it places a higher burden on you to honor them.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Jennifer Rubin

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Jennifer Rubin is an opinion writer for the Washington Post and an MSNBC contributor. @JRubinBlogger

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Rule #1: Never lie. It’s that simple. One can shade, spin or puff up your candidate, your cause or in your media conversation with political players but one cannot, as the White House communications staff now does, misrepresent or makeup facts. If I tell an elected the piece is about X, it better be about X. The same holds for spokesmen, advocates, candidates and electeds.

Rule #2: Do not incite bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or any other hateful rhetoric in the political realm. If your boss asks you to smear a group or attack an opponent’s religion, for example, you refuse. We now are seeing a surge in hate crimes and, specifically, violence against religious institutions. Anyone who contributes to that atmosphere owns some responsibility for the impact her words have on others.

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Your word is the coin of the realm. Still. If you lie, you’ll lose the ability to communicate effectively for your candidate or cause. If a journalist loses the trust of editors, readers and she is toast. Beyond that, political communicators are Americans living in the society that they help shape. If they want more reasoned debate and less divisiveness politics they must not spew falsehoods or fan the flames of bigotry.

 3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

James Mattis refused to lie or offer obsequious praise for the president. He continued to reaffirm his belief in the Constitution and in equality under the law. Eventually he was forced out, but he did not compromise his own code of ethics while he was serving.

 4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

We all face competitive pressures, but if speed is a priority over accuracy, we all lose. Whatever role you play in the political communications profession the most important words may be “I don’t know” or “I will get back to you.” In addition, in an environment in which political players may not respect objective reality, it is easy to fall into false balance. If one politician says the sky is blue and the other says it’s red, you don’t simply repeat each assertion. You say one politician correctly identified the sky as blue; the other misrepresented the sky’s color. (We should reserve “lie” for a deliberate falsehood as opposed to innocent error or ignorance)

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Learn history and policy. If you are simply a cipher or a transcriber for others you cede your reputation and moral authority to others. There is no shortcut by which you can cover healthcare, for example, and not understand in some detail the healthcare data and issues you will be communicating. Likewise, you don’t have to be a lawyer to cover the courts, but you better know how to read an opinion, have some substantive knowledge of the issues (e.g. separation of powers, voting rights) and understand the nuances of legal writing. The struggle to keep current when you have so much to do can be stressful, but “what you do” must include speaking and writing authoritatively.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Jim Kessler

Jim Kessler is the Executive Vice President for Policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. He has worked there in a senior capacity since 2005. He also worked for 12 years on Capitol Hill, most notably as Legislative and Policy Director for Chuck Schumer. @ThirdWayKessler

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1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

To paraphrase Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” In political communications, the tension is between winning, scoring points, earning clicks and likes versus being truthful and ethical. If those weren’t the stakes, I suspect people and organizations would mostly behave ethically with their communications. Here’s a possible standard … what if you were the target of the communication? Would you think it was fair, truthful enough, captured the essence of the topic? Even if you didn’t like it, would you say it was above board? In 1998, I was a high level staffer on Chuck Schumer’s Senate race against the incumbent Senator, Republican Al D’Amato. It was a brutal race with negative attack ads, planted stories from anonymous sources based on opposition research, and the reality of having a tracker from the enemy team present and filming at every public event. At the end of each day it felt like a playoff hockey game between two teams that despised each other. We won (thank God) and when D’Amato called Schumer to concede, Schumer told him that it was a tough, tough race, but that Al was fair. You can still be tough, hard, and mean and have ethical communications.

2) Why should someone behave ethically when it comes to political communication?

I used to say that Washington is a town that remembers and they’ll remember if you played fair. I’m not sure that’s the case today. We are exploring new boundaries in communications on privacy and ethics. My wife witnessed a woman passed out at a jazz club being photographed by the table next to her and then posting it online. Why would someone do this? I’m sure they don’t consider themselves unethical, but here they are doing something horrid to a complete stranger. So we’ve become addicted to clicks and likes. And of course, it isn’t just people in bars … it’s reporters, comms directors, political candidates.

Perhaps the reason to behave ethically is because doing otherwise could hurt your client or boss or you. I prefer the old-fashioned reason: doing what’s right when no one gets helped or credit is called integrity.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Study the differences between Joe Lockhart (Bill Clinton’s spokesperson) and Sarah Sanders (Donald Trump’s spokesperson). Do more Joe; do less Sarah.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you have faced or that political communication professionals in your field are likely to face?

I work at a think tank. We are not inundated with ethical dilemmas. We are not in a winner-take-all election. We are not a for-profit company that has sold a product that causes cancer in lab mice. As the head of policy for our think tank, I strive for intellectual integrity in our work. Let’s not hide data that doesn’t support our view. Let’s release as much of the raw data underlying our reports as much as practical. When we do polling (and we do a lot of it), make sure the questions are fair and not designed to get an outcome we want.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

You’re the trailblazers. The online communications world is in its infancy. The temptation to appeal to an adoring online crowd, be a provocateur, put snark over substance will be immense. But the consequences are enormous. The rise of the populist right and left that has infected much of the world is partially the consequence of self-serving political communications. People my age won’t solve this problem. It has to be you.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Peter Loge

Peter Loge is the director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication, an Associate Professor at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, with over 25 years of experience in politics and communication including senior positions in the House, Senate, and Obama administration and on a number of candidate and issue campaigns.

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1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

From the White House Press Secretary to casual observers who post about politics on social media, everyone who communicates politically has an obligation to support, or at least not undermine, the system that allows that communication to take place. 

Our democracy is a long argument, and the quality of that argument determines the quality of our democracy. If our political arguments are shallow, based on deception and ad hominem, or are otherwise base our democracy will be as well. If our political arguments are honest, robust, passionate, and calling to us to a higher ideal, our democracy will reflect that as well. 

2) Why should someone behave ethically when it comes to political communication?

For the same reason one should behave ethically in general. For some that may be because bad behavior has a way of coming back at you, for others because the right thing to do is the right thing to do. Your ethical foundation should not be determined by the context, even if how those ethics are applied may be. In addition, winning at all costs may come at exactly that, a cost to our system ultimately larger than any one person or one issue.

Ethics and winning are often pitted against each other - people use phrases like “bringing a gun to a knife fight.” But our politics isn’t a fight to see which controls the turf, our politics is an argument about the best way forward together. Bring a crane to a construction site and use your superior tools to build a better house (given the context I should note this metaphor is not mine, a student named Andrew Smith thought of it). It can be really difficult to find ethical ways to win, and it can be hard to engage in heated partisan politics without taking the easy and ethically suspect approach. But if it were easy, you wouldn’t be paid to do it, and even if you aren’t getting paid our democracy deserves better than the easy way out.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Most political communication is ethical. There is a lot of political talk, most of which we don’t notice because it is neither especially inspiring nor is it especially awful. Recent examples of “we need more of that” include Senator McCain defending President Obama during their heated campaign for president; Senator Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, defending Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the initial debates over the Affordable Care Act; and Senator Flake calling out the President’s attacks on our democracy. These are notable because all of these legislators acted in ways consistent with their conservative beliefs while defending a forum in which their opponents could be heard. One can publicly commit to a rhetorical approach and still take a policy position against those whom they are defending. 

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you have faced or that political communication professionals in your field are likely to face? 

First is what we all face - how to engage in political discussion or argument. A lot of it for me is what I choose not to do - I don’t tend to pop-off about politics online, and regardless of the venue I I try to focus arguments on the argument and not the person, and I try not mistake the clever for the smart.

Most of my career has been spent working on issue and advocacy campaigns. A critical element of those campaigns is framing the issue - helping shape what the issue is “about.” Most issues are about a lot of things at once, for example smoking is about farmers, convenience store owners, smokers’ rights, public health, and much more. How the issue is seen by the public, policymakers, and the press determines who the allies and opponents are likely to be and the range of likely policy outcomes. How advocates decide to try to frame an issue may be miles from how they come into it. One way to succeed on criminal justice reform is to secure the support of law enforcement (and it’s hard to win and then have policies implemented without it). The framing choice raises a few ethical questions. First, are you lying about your motives to get the outcome you want? If so, is that OK? This is a variation on the ends/means question, but with personal values being the means. A bunch of years ago I was the first director of The Justice Project, a self-described “death penalty reform” organization; we didn’t take a position on the death penalty, but said we had problems with trials and fairness. The goal, of course, was to abolish the death penalty. We believed that if we brought enough attention to its flaws people would give up on it. This framing brought in new allies and ultimately succeeded. Early in the effort I got a call from a childhood friend who had heard about the effort - he was devout and a law professor - he called me to chew me out for clearly lying about my motives. This was the first time I’d talked to him since about 8th grade. In another case I was asked to write a plan to pass legislation making an international industry more transparent, which the client thought would make it easier to identify and combat human rights abuses. It occurred to me that the issue could also be framed as terrorism (transparency would help identify and break up terrorist networks). I then went out to find people who thought this was true - the idea came before the research - and it turns out some experts agreed with me. So we ran an anti-terrorism campaign, the bill ultimately passed, and has since been repealed.

In addition to the question of motives, the success of the efforts may have unintended longer term consequences that may make other problems harder to address. If the real problem with the death penalty is a larger set of structural problems with crime and punishment, “reform” that eliminates the death penalty may have the effect of strengthening the logic of our current approach to crime and punishment, an approach with which many anti-death penalty advocates have serious problems. By drawing attention to terrorism and the need for more tools to combat it, the effort could have the unintended consequence of increasing surveillance and limiting civil rights - a close cousin to the need to protect human rights, which is why the advocates got involved in the first place.

In both cases I stand by my decision and my approach, but I can also see why others would disagree.

Advocates will regularly be faced with similar challenges. How far are you willing to push the messaging to get the end you want? How many unusual suspects are you willing to bring into your effort and thereby possibly strengthen their goals which may be very different than yours?

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Think about ethics early and often. Find a personal set of principles or foundations and stick to them. One way to do that is to write down lines you will not cross, or ideals from which you will never stray, and tape them to your computer or stick them in your wallet so they are never far.

More civility and respect in politics would be good, but that’s not always the same as ethics. You can be ethically partisan, aggressive, impolite, and in your face. There may be times when your ethical principles demand no less. But always remember that there are always Wednesdays in politics. The world doesn’t end with Tuesday’s election. Every bill you help pass needs to be an effective law. Every program you help fund needs to be as successful as possible. Your deadline might be Tuesday’s election, Wednesday’s city council vote, or Thursday’s hearing - but your goal is what happens as a result.

In The Crack Up F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.” 

It can be easy to see the obvious - promises of money or favors in exchange for votes or statements are wrong. Ethics is also about the small decisions we may not see until it’s too late. The corner cut or something we let slide out of expedience. The offer of money in a brown paper bag is the wolf at the door, it’s easy to see and easy to figure out you should keep the door closed. The little ethical decisions are the termites in the basement that, left unchecked, can bring down the house without your noticing anything is wrong until it is too late. The effect that we have on society as political communicators often does not come down to a few core decisions that define us, but in the small decisions we make day to day.  

Introducing Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication

Those who do political communication for a living tend to think of themselves as generally ethical people doing the best they can to make the world and our country a little better. To find out more about those ethical foundations we are asking political communication professionals, and those who study political communication, what, if any, ethical responsibility political communication professionals have, and to whom or what they have that responsibility.

All participants answer the same five questions (more or less). We want to know what ethical standards should be, why someone should be ethical, examples of ethical and unethical behavior, and what those just starting out should think about. We might also ask another question or three, depending on what’s in the news, how the conversation is going, or because we think it’s interesting.

We are reaching out to Republicans and Democrats, experienced professionals and those new to the profession, writers and philosophers, and anyone we think might have something interesting to offer the discussion. If you have an idea for a good person to ask, shoot us an email at info@ethicsinpoliticalcommunication.com.