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.