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Uproar Over Harvard Newspaper's Call To ICE Is Just The Latest Challenge To Media Norms04:57
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Harvard University campus in Cambridge (Lisa Poole/AP/File)
Harvard University campus in Cambridge (Lisa Poole/AP/File)

The political moment is testing journalistic norms.

For example: Some news outlets that typically avoid the word "lie" have started using it to describe false statements that President Trump repeats even after the claims are discredited.

Now, student activists at Harvard are calling for another change: They want the campus newspaper to stop seeking comment from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It's the latest challenge to some long-held ideas about how the media should work.

Here's another example: Conventional wisdom among journalists has been that when the president holds a news conference, cable news channels show the whole event live. Lately, however, uninterrupted coverage is not a given.

"Uh, we hate to do this, really, but the president isn't telling the truth," MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace said in September, as she took the unusual step of breaking into a presidential news conference to correct a false claim Trump made about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

TV host Greta Van Susteren — who has worked for MSNBC, Fox News and CNN — said many journalists are reconsidering the notion that a president's remarks are automatically newsworthy.

"There's nothing wrong with good judgment, so use your best judgment," Van Susteren said. "And the one advantage we do have is that there are so many news outlets that if one news outlet doesn't take it, another will."

Several of those outlets use former White House spokespeople such as Wallace, a communications director for President George W. Bush, on the air. Other TV regulars include Dana Perino, Ari Fleischer and George Stephanopoulos.

Oh, and one more: Sean Spicer.

"The visuals alone of Sean Spicer on 'Dancing with the Stars' were certainly nothing that we've ever seen before," said Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of The New York Times.

She added that Spicer's tendency to cha-cha past factual realities — like, say, Trump's inauguration crowd size — is also something we've never seen before.

"Of course, we know all politicians spin," Sullivan said. "Press secretaries try to put the right emphasis on things. That's something that we're used to, and is relatively normal in the political realm. But there was nothing normal about that."

"Dancing with the Stars" judges have their own complaints about Spicer.

"You were offbeat most of the dance," Carrie Ann Inaba said after Spicer's attempt at a salsa.

"And your hip action," added Bruno Tonioli. "It looked like they were set in cement, your hips."

But some Trump administration critics say the real issue with Spicer is that he was different from his White House predecessors. They argue that too often, his statements veered past spin and, therefore, he deserves different treatment from the media.

The same thinking animates activists' beef with The Harvard Crimson newspaper. In a petition, they suggest Immigration and Customs Enforcement is different under Trump. They accuse the agency of "retaliating against those who speak out against them."

So, the activists contend the Crimson should not ask for comment, even if that means ignoring a core tenet of journalism ethics.

"We need to humanize the stories but, then, don't put the people in danger," said Angélica Serrano-Roman, who represents students on the board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Serrano-Roman edits the campus newspaper at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in San Juan. She said she understands why a group that advocates for undocumented immigrants might be afraid to attract ICE's attention. But Serrano-Roman added that if activists stage a public demonstration calling for the abolishment of ICE — as they did at Harvard — they should understand why reporters felt compelled to give ICE a chance to respond.

"We need the perspective of the administration, too, because when we interview the administration, we know more things," she said.

That's essentially the explanation that Crimson leaders offered in a note to readers. The paper declined an interview request, as did the activist group.

The president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Hugo Balta, also sides with the Crimson in this debate. But he said a more prominent newspaper, The New York Times, recently got it wrong when reporting a different story related to immigration.

"They were missing, in their storytelling, cultural competency," he said, referring to coverage that followed two mass shootings over the summer. In one attack, Latinos were targeted by a gunman who echoed Trump's rhetoric about an "invasion" at the Southern border.

When Trump changed his tone after the shootings, the Times' front-page headline read: "Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism."

"That headline is a reflection of a newsroom that came up with a headline that is factually correct but missed the point," Balta said.

The Times was flooded by criticism that it let Trump off the hook with a headline that seemed to obscure his record of divisive comments. The paper changed the headline in later editions.

Balta, who's also a senior producer at MSNBC, said the media's old, "just the facts, ma'am" mantra doesn't cut it anymore. The facts demand more context than ever.

This segment aired on November 5, 2019.

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Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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