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A Question of Ethics

A Question of Ethics

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

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It's not often we get to launch a new segment on the show around here, but that's what we're doing today. "A Question of Ethics" will be your chance to take the editor's chair and tell us how you would cover a story.

Since the presidential election is the story that just keeps on giving these days, we'll start there. Last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) defended her decision to stay in the race to the editorial board of a South Dakota newspaper. At one point she said, "You know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California." She got pounded by supporters of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), who argued the comment was in poor taste. The Clinton camp responded that her words were taken far out of context. And coverage in the media varied from front page news to a brief mention at the end of a newscast.

So, here's our question to you: Let's say YOU are the editor... Do you put the story on the front page? Do you think the news media handled the story responsibly?



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Yes. It has a place on the front page. And the national media handled the story properly. It opens a window into her dark and deceitful soul. Dark: Bringing up an assassination as a reason to stay in - or planting a seed? Deceitful: Bill Clinton had his nomination wrapped up by March 1992 - he had 4 times the delegates of the next closest contender. The comments show a continuation of a pattern and practice that has permeated her campaign. Then her non-apology was priceless, any apology that starts with "If I offended" is not a real apology.

Sent by Robert Troup | 1:33 PM | 5-28-2008

Oh my goodness! No!!! She simply meant that campaigns have gone on into June, and referenced a couple of campaigns that did! No, i do not think the news media handled the story responsibly, in fact, quite the opposite. They showed themselves to be unjust and inequitable.

Sent by Dana S. Farrar | 3:17 PM | 5-28-2008

The real story behind this sound bite is that Hilary's argument about staying in the race through June should NOT apply in this campaign as many of the larger states that use to have their primaries in June moved them up.

Sent by Wendy Coy | 3:47 PM | 5-28-2008

Way too much has been made of this. Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in June of that year. It is a shame that she had to apologize for what she said. I never even thought of her comment in the context of something happening to Obama. She was just saying it was too early to leave the race. Hillary Clinton is too classy to ever say something about her opponent being assassinated.

Sent by Andrea Hinkel | 3:51 PM | 5-28-2008

Wait a second! Hillary clinton has invoked this several times. She kept pressing it until it blew up!

Sent by Vincent Caldoni | 3:51 PM | 5-28-2008

This is going to be considered the story of the century and for centuries to come if Sen. Obama does get assassinated and Hilary Clinton becomes the President! The media covered the story very responsibly. Hilary Clinton did NOT think before she spoke or maybe she did!?

Sent by HS | 3:52 PM | 5-28-2008

I think it's a front page issue, just because her justification for staying in the race is poor and in poor taste. Referring to an assassination as justification for continuing a dead race is absurd. Additionally, I understand why it created such an uproar. Folk lore (perhaps founded - I have no idea) is that Colin Powell wouldn't run because he didn't want to be assassinated. I think that regardless of how Clinton intended her statement to be taken, it resonated with fears that people have regarding our first black presidential nominee.

Sent by Kristin, OR | 3:52 PM | 5-28-2008


It was obvious that Hillary meant that candidates are still in the running in June. I'd put it on the back page near the obts.

Sent by Bill Miller | 3:52 PM | 5-28-2008

Your host on TOTN referred to the city paper that broke the story on Hilary Clinton's remarks as being in Sioux City. It was factually the Argus-Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Sent by Shirley Hoelting | 3:59 PM | 5-28-2008

When I heard the comment the first time, I had no doubt what she meant; that the primary race was still in progress when Sen. Kennedy was assassinaneted - and that was in June. It's maddening the way the media, or other politically motivated people have to turn every possible comment and jesture any of the candidates express as something underhanded, mean spirited or evil. Let's just give it a rest and listen like we would to anyone else. The point being made becomes clearer as we listen, and if there is a genuinely negative point being pushed, that will become evident. This kind of misinterpretation is just plain stupid and irresponsible.

Sent by Carrie | 4:04 PM | 5-28-2008

Maybe not "PC" in the vocabulary Clinton used ~ As an editor I would not have considered it an "above the fold" story ~ My interpretation: Precedence for not dropping out until after the California primary.
Is there ethics in journalism these days? As an avid consumer of all forms I would appreciate an objective & "nonspinned" perspective.

Sent by A. DeCoste | 4:05 PM | 5-28-2008

Dear Sirs:

Unless I have misunderstood a comment by one of the guests, Senator Clinton had previously used the example of Robert Kennedy and Bill Clinton having primary campaigns that lasted until June AND that she had previously used Senator Kennedy's assaisnation as an illustration of why she knows that his primary campaign lasted until June. If your guest is correct, can somebody please explain why a statement by Senator clinicton is NOT newsworth the first couple of times, but can be vaulted into a front page story on (what will apparently be) the last time she says it, and a veritable frenzy on the blogs and talk shows.
Just asking? Because I find it puzzling. And to answer your question directly, if it was not news the first couple of times, then it cannot be news now and as an editor I would have covered the frenzy over the remarks, and not the remarks themselves (although I appreciate that this would have involved reporting the remarks along with both the more reasonable interpration and the more strained interpretations).

Sent by Gene Berk | 4:14 PM | 5-28-2008

Hillary Clinton's statement implied that the potential assassination of her opponent was justification for her staying in the race. The fact that she didn't think about that before she said it highlights her lack of judgement. This is why it was front page news. Maybe now she understands that words are important.

Sent by Victor Mundy | 4:15 PM | 5-28-2008

Look at the comments made by Clinton and her camp just days before she made the Bobby Kennedy comment... she actually said that she was staying in the race, because there could possibly be additional Obama baggage that could surface or more issues like the one regarding Rev. Wright that could actually erode the delegate's support to Obama. Think about it: When she makes a remark that can be understood like what happens if Obama dies? That is pretty much in the same context of her previous comments about possible additional Obama baggage that could have taken him out of the election. Who is she kidding?

Sent by Jay D | 4:16 PM | 5-28-2008

Having heard Ms. Clinton's comment one time, and in passing, it seems that she was referring to the fact that other presidential campaigns, such as RFK's, and her husband's, have all run into June, and beyond. Nothing more. Her recalling RFK campaigning in CA, in June of 1968, and being misconstrued by others with a political agenda, as hoping that anything might befall Obama is purely political posturing by those engaging in such conjecture. The media, yet again, appears to be guilty of attempting to create and fan a tempest in a teapot. I am less than thrilled with each of the remaining presidential candidates. The media, as a whole, leaves much to be desired with their inability, (unwillingness?)to tell it like it is.

Sent by Charles | 4:20 PM | 5-28-2008

The context of Clinton's remark was in regard to how long she was going to stay in the race. First she mentioned Bill Clinton wrapped up his nomination in June, of '92; and then went on to say Bobby Kennedy was assisnated in June as another reference to other candidates still in the running in the month of June; that what she is doing is not so unusual. It was not about waiting around until something happens to a running mate but her reasoning as to why she has not succeeded the race. And I would not have made the comment first page news as it was used, inflammatory, but only as part of the campaign story as to why Sen. Clinton is still in the running for President this late in the year...June, '08.

Sent by pj gray | 4:35 PM | 5-28-2008

This discussion of ethics a analysis of the actions of a critical player entirely out of the discussion. What about the Obama campaign? As Joan Walsh, news editor at, points out, the Obama campaign was helping to stoke the fire, e-mailing news editors and reporters with the Obama spin on the Clinton remark. As Walsh writes: "to argue that she was suggesting she's staying in the race because Obama might be assassinated -- even after both Clinton, and the journalists who interviewed her, said her reference was to RFK's June campaign, not to his heartbreaking murder -- requires either a special kind of paranoia or venal political opportunism."

Ethical reporting requires balance; ethical coverage of a discussion of ethics requires the same.

Sent by Nora Bredes | 4:40 PM | 5-28-2008

Ahhh, hindsight and the right to express it as foreknowledge. Thank you America. All the observations are worthy not to focus, pick apart, emphasize one minioptic as THE story of the story about this crossed my mind that she was able to say it in such a way that reporters let it slide and editors picked it up is more about the difference between reporters and editors.
And yes I'd run the story, and the story about the story from every conceivable angle I could. And then I's run a story about THAT story....oh you beat me to it. So now I'm writing an email about your story. Tag you're it.

Sent by David Milliken | 4:47 PM | 5-28-2008

I find this story very frightening. My skills at telling my point of view are not a skilled as some. It feels like Scapegoating. I feel the editors could look at the venom of Keith Olbermann and critique him for scapegoating. The lack of criticism of his YouTube by the general press is a very deep concern. I feel that as Hillary goes so goes women like me. It is the first stage of making older women fair game. The Hillary Hatred is something that Obama benefits from. He gets votes because 'they would never vote for Hillary". It is a thin disguised for Women hatred. Misogyny, is alive and well in this country. But when the scapegoating goes unchallenged, I worry not only for Hillary, but am afraid for myself.

Sent by Oregon Bell | 5:11 PM | 5-28-2008

The story would have been about Hillary making a case for why holding the primary in June is not unusual and would have included fact checking on her reasons but it would not have included the misinterpretation that the media decided to highlight. She was not implying anything about Obama- that there could be an assassination.

I would also run a story (like the one here) about how the media can cherry pick statements the candidates make and create a frenzy out of them when they would have otherwise been benign and gone unnoticed by the public. The misinterpretation was thrust upon the public and is really not healthy for our nation. Yellow Journalism is what it's called and it's tearing the democratic party apart.

Sent by Rebecca | 6:39 PM | 5-28-2008

"Fairy Tale." "As far as I know." "Hard working white voters" 'Assassination' Not only does she know what she is saying she knows exactly who her comments are intended. As racially charged as this campaign has been it is impossible for me to believe the "hard working white voters" was a Clinton mistake. That was code to rally the troops and certainly connected to the "fairy tale" comment. As every American, friend or foe of Obama is aware, the death threats and fear are real and continue to escalate as he gets closer to the nomination and later the White House in November. This comment on its own maybe I give her the benefit of doubt but in concert with the tone of her campaign rhetoric and her feelings of desperation as she watches this nomination slip away, I believe she is knows exactly what she is saying and is fully aware of the any implication taken from her message.

Sent by Phillip Blake | 6:59 PM | 5-28-2008

Look, no matter who one is, one doesn't put one's aspirations in the same sentence as an assassination, thereby linking them in people's minds. And you don't do it repeatedly. It is newsworthy in its stupidity, bad taste, and un-presidential betrayal of her ambition-at-all-cost attitude. And - if I wanted to sell papers - nothing sells like someone putting their own famous foot in their own famous mouth. If Hillary was really a populist, the humility factor should have been forthwith. Alas - no story about that!

Sent by Craig | 8:25 PM | 5-28-2008

Maybe it should have been on the front page the first time she said it: that was a heck of a statement, context or not. If the roles were reversed, if Obama were behind and made the same statement, Clinton wouldn't think it was so meaningless. There would be exactly the same uproar. I'm sure she knows that.

Sent by Elaine | 8:27 PM | 5-28-2008

Hilary's comment was about JUNE not assassination and it is just sheer stupidity to think otherwise. But Kristin from OR raises a terribly important issue: the significant and real fear I've heard expressed by many that both Obama and Clinton are at risk of suffering the same fate as RFK and Martin Luther King. Where is the media coverage about that? As an Editor, I'd focus on the media frenzy ( thank you Gene Berk) and the mangling of the RFK reference to continue the discussion of why the powers that be might be threatened by a black or woman president and our fear of another RFK tragedy out in the open.

Sent by TIm in Los Angeles | 10:20 AM | 5-29-2008

I listened with interest to your ethical question segment yesterday (May 28, 2008). I felt the real issues were missed. First, according to the Society of Professional Journalists, the Code of Ethics consists of (a) seek truth and report it, (b)minimize harm, (c) act independently, and (d)be accountable. The "Hillary story" was not placed in this framework. Second, in relation to the Hillary story, how sad that journalists did not take into consideration the safety issues surrounding ALL the candidates; and worse, took advantage to "create" (everyone agrees it was taken "out of context") a sensational story to play on people's imaginations and worse fears. I find this type of journalism "Inquirer-like" and irresponsible. Third, I am saddened by most current journalism, which consists of talking heads spouting (and often shouting)or writing their personal (undocumented and unreliable)opinions. Wouldn't real (ethical) journalists help the listener digest the news of the world with thoughtfulness and respect (to both the subject of their story and the reader/listener)?
Thank you for adding this wonderful segment to your show. Next time, please help us understand the issue of news reporting in accordance with your Code of Ethics!

Sent by Katie Lemley | 11:38 AM | 5-29-2008

Not only should it have been the featured piece but additional aggressive followup should have been done by a responsible media. Was she hoping he'd be assasinated in June? Was she inciting the crazies to go after him? Hell, was she proferring a contract? The media let her off the hook.

Sent by LParson | 7:14 PM | 5-29-2008

The very first caller nailed it. She said she would not have put the 'interpretation' in her story. When the commentators asked her, what would you do when your editor was mad because all the other stories covered it that way, she said, 'I'd find another editor.' The commentators responded, Oh, no, it doesn't work that way! But dear hearts, yes it does work that way. It works that way, or our system doesn't work. Your ethics mean nothing. You have to be willing to lose your job to tell the truth. By the way, I would have covered the story the way it was covered. They correctly interpreted her words, and wrote what they should have written. But the point of the show was ethics in the media, and the first caller said what a writer must do when confronted with an editorial policy contradistinct from her own. You have to call it as you see it, or the system is too soft, too yielding to lies. That is what we presently have, including--obviously, from the commentators' comment--NPR.

Sent by Janet Baker | 10:18 AM | 5-30-2008

I'm disappointed to see that one of the story's commentators tried to downplay Hillary's comment, essentially declaring it to be non-newsworthy. Let's put this into perspective. (1) Hillary desperately wants to win the nomination and become president; she will explode in a volcanic fit of rage when the primary is officially over. (2) Hillary would LOVE it if Obama fell off the face of the earth.

Sadly, the media seems to be conveniently ignoring that context and has not reported what is perhaps the most interesting and juiciest aspect of this story:

Is it possible that Hillary was intentionally trying to plant the notion in the head of radical feminists that they could help put a sister into the White House by sacrificing themselves for the cause by assassinating Obama?

Why have commentators and the media ignored this very real and seemingly obvious possibility?

Sent by Helga | 4:15 PM | 5-30-2008