With all the reserve of a talking howler monkey escaped from the zoo, former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg has been galivanting from one TV news show to another to bawl his defiance at a grand jury subpoena; speculate on the crimes of Donald Trump; denounce his political enemies (including former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski); affirm his allegiance to Roger Stone (his “father figure” and “mentor”); sling insults (Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a “fat slob”); and spread sizzling gossip.
On Monday alone, Nunberg clocked on-air interviews with CNN (Gloria Borger, Jake Tapper, and Erin Burnett), MSNBC (Katy Tur), Bloomberg TV and NY1, and spoke at length with various other news organizations, including Politico, the Washington Post and New York. The Nunberg performance caused Twitter to light up like a meteor shower as appalled journalists and others marveled at Nunberg’s sustained nuttiness and the press corps’ willingness to extend so much coverage to the flight of a loon. It was press criticism writ in 240 characters, with most of the comments expressing regret more than sadness at the spectacle of the collective news decision to let Nunberg run his leash out several thousand yards.
“There’s a point at which it become[s] irresponsible to keep airing Nunberg. We passed it hours ago,” tweeted Kai Ryssdal, anchor of public radio’s Marketplace. “What are the networks’ policies about allowing someone who might be drunk or on a manic binge to keep going on air?” added Mother Jones Editor Clara Jeffrey. “I’ve seen a couple of Nunberg interviews now and a few clips. I’m not a professional, but I’m not sure he’s alright. Not sure he should be interviewed,” seconded NPR’s Scott Simon. “I’m not at all sure airing Nunberg right now is ethical journalism,” wrote Brit-journo James Ball. Even Erin Burnett exhibited a pang of creeped-out conscience while still conducting her Nunberg interview, asking him directly if he was loaded. “Antidepressants, is that OK?” Nunberg responded.
But the largest disapprobation bomb was dropped by Axios reporter Mike Allen in his newsletter, who called the Nunberg coverage the “worst scandal porn” and wrote that such coverage is “one of the reasons America hates the media.”
Labeling the Nunberg coverage “scandal porn” indicates a prudish turn in American journalism. Not long ago, the way to dismiss a story that you thought was beneath you was to brand it as “scandal” coverage. Nowadays, the “porn” modifier must be hitched to “scandal” to classify something as so sordid, déclassé, repugnant and shameful that people must look away.
But should we automatically regard pornification of a thing as negative? Why not look at pornification in a positive light? Why not think of it the process of dispense with the subsidiary in pursuit the essence? What has the entire special counsel’s investigation been but an overdrive chase for the Trump horcrux? Allen clearly disapproves of the Nunberg “porn,” which is his right. But the label shouldn’t persuade you to avert your gaze from the action.
I’ll agree that the Nunberg interregnum might not have been American journalism’s finest moment, but its newsworthiness cannot be denied. As we go down the checklist of why the Nunberg story was a real story worth reporting, we begin with the special counsel’s subpoena of Sam Nunberg. Was that newsworthy? Even Axios thought so, heralding as a “Scoop” its Sunday story by Jonathan Swan that broke the news of the special counsel subpoenaing of an unnamed witness to produce all communications from 10 individuals associated with the Trump campaign.
On Monday, when Nunberg announced he was that unnamed witness, was that not more news than it was smut? When Nunberg declared in print and on TV that he was going to ignore that subpoena—placing himself at risk of jail—was that not news, too? The same goes for his repetitions on subsequent TV shows, especially his opinion that Special Counsel Robert Mueller III has Roger Stone in his prosecutorial sights and his views on what Donald Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting and when he knew it. Even Nunberg’s insults and rumormongering conveyed useful information, though it was the sort of information that made you discount his other statements of fact and opinion.
As those who have interviewed Nunberg can tell you, he knows how to keep a reporter’s attention with his willingness to go on the record and say bold things. Viewing his TV interviews in retrospect, we can see he was trying to give the impression that he knew more than he was saying by repeating his view that Mueller had “something” on Trump. Each time he did, his interlocutors did the right thing by framing their questions tighter to elicit a more direct response. This process takes time. Sometimes it reaps a reward. Other times—as was probably the case last night—it reveals that the source is mostly joy-riding and should be dropped at the next corner.
And yet the interviewers kept coming at Nunberg (and are coming at him still) because they thought they had the right series of questions that could unlock his disorganized, prone-to- nonsequiturs mind. If you anchored a TV show, you would have made the same move. The only alternative to grilling and re-grilling Nunberg—porning him, to borrow Allen’s usage—would have been to ignore him. Journalists can’t turn away from a potential news source just because the source might be “mentally imbalanced” or high for the same reason they can’t turn away from criminals or fanatics or traitors or know liars just because the truth value of their statements might be hard to ascertain. Imagine the hubbub if the journalistic universe had turned its back on Nunberg after Katy Tur’s conversation, leaving his wild assertions to hang and rot there. A million bogus conspiracy stories about a media coverup would have followed. It would have been the opposite of pornography, whatever that is.
The idea that the media cruelly porned Nunberg by giving him a microphone, and that it instead should have introduced him to a therapist instead, is consistent with the burgeoning belief that best option for a reporter confronting unsettling news material is not to report the news. Don’t give Nunberg the mic because he’s not all there and the experience will ultimately humiliate him. Don’t report on mass shooting because that encourages additional shooters. Don’t write about Nazis because that lends them PR. Stop covering the White House press briefing. Don’t post ISIS videos, says the Pentagon, or you’ll become complicit in the group’s crimes. And so on.
I accept that some viewers would prefer journalists not cover stories like the Nunberg one out of concern for his well-being. Others, I suspect, want journalists to ignore the Nunberg stories not out of concern for him but for themselves: The coverage makes them cringe. But journalists aren’t supposed to look away. Their job is to watch and re-watch and watch some more until they’ve satisfied their need for watching. If we’re going to charge anybody with the responsibility to look away, we should leave that choice to individual news consumers.
Yes, you interview a drunk member of Congress because he might say something interesting. You can even buy him a drink. Am I a dupe or a dope? Send your judgment to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts runs a G-rated shop. My Twitter feed has the world’s largest collection of soft-porn. My RSS feed likes to look.