Author: Michael Bugeja

Generational Words Bias Biden’s Perception of African-Americans

It wasn’t so much the use of the term “record player” at the Sept. 13 debate that revealed former Vice President Joe Biden’s generational filters. The offensive idea that African Americans need government help raising children dates back to 1970s arguments about busing, segregation and social welfare.

Biden gave a rambling response to a question about slavery and his past statements about reparations and inequality. Here is the excerpt that came under intense scrutiny:

We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children,” Biden said. “It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

This was yet another incidence of believing poor, nonwhite children are inferior to Caucasian counterparts. In an Aug. 9 appearance in Des Moines, Biden said: “We have this notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”

Biden’s reference to words (“4 million fewer”) is intriguing. Living Media Ethics contains a section on words and phrases that provoke intense feelings–often ones we don’t regularly share with others–revealing hidden bias as well as generational and personal filters.

These are “trigger words” because they spark a reaction inside us and, consequently, cause us to lose perspective when we most need it.

Biden needed perspective and composure, especially since he was on national television in a vital debate at a historically black educational venue, Texas Southern University. A candidate for office should never make inappropriate racial comments. But doing so at a HBCU institution is certainly not the place to commit a gaffe that indicates insensitivity to audience.

While the term “record player” in Biden’s response betrayed a generational filter, the real triggers were embedded in the question of ABC News moderator Linsey Davis:

Mr. Vice President, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, ‘I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.’ You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?

Here are words and phrases that may have set off alarms in Biden’s bumbled response:

  • Segregation. Biden embraced segregation in 1975.
  • 1975.  (See above.)
  • Responsibility. “I don’t feel responsible for the sins, etc.”
  • Repair. Reference to reparations, which Biden hesitates to affirm.
  • Legacy. His own, including past statements on race.
  • Slavery.  All of the above.

Although Biden still enjoys a plurality of support within the African American community, journalists and social media are documenting his past views on race. New York Magazine published this retrospective:

Joe Biden once called state-mandated school integration “the most racist concept you can come up with,” and Barack Obama “the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.” He was a staunch opponent of “forced busing”in the 1970s, and leading crusader for mass incarceration throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Uncle Joe has described African-American felons as predators” too sociopathic to rehabilitate — and white supremacist senators as his friends.

In response to ABC’s Davis, Biden did mention that he supported federal intervention to investigate the practice of “redlining,” in which neighborhoods were outlined in red on maps to indicate areas too risky for mortgages. Often, blacks were deprived of loans and home ownership because of that process.

However, this post is not about Biden or the race for U.S. president. The two-fold lesson here concerns media practitioners:

Impartiality. Media practitioners should be aware of their own trigger words. This is an important aspect of fairness. Broadcasters especially have to be cognizant of words directed at them, meant to spark a reaction in an initial or follow-up question so as to reveal their own biases on a topic.

Research. Journalists and practitioners should craft well-researched questions–just as ABC’s Davis did in the debate–containing provocative words to elicit a truthful response from a client or source.

Readers of Living Media Ethics and students in author Michael Bugeja’s media ethics classes at Iowa State University are asked to compile a list of their own trigger words and phrases that evoke intense emotion, based on generational, familial and experiential influences. They also are instructed on how to research a client or source so as to phrase interview questions based on past responses or statements on record.


Ariana Grande Sues Over Trademark, Copyright Infringement

Music icon Ariana Grande sues Forever 21 for hiring a look-alike model in a social media campaign rather than paying contractual fees in earlier negotiations with the company.

Ariana Grande has filed a $10-million lawsuit against Forever 21, claiming the company hired a look-alike model in a series of Instagram posts that allegedly included visuals from the pop star’s video song “Thank U, Next,” according to The New York Times

A legal analyst cited in the Times’ article said Forever 21 might argue it is “simply mimicking a popular fashion trend” protected by First Amendment rights.

According to Grande’s lawsuit, Forever 21 reportedly contacted her agents on a possible endorsement contract using social media. The deal, however, fell through.

After Grande discovered the posts in question, Forever 21 purportedly agreed to take them down, but neglected to do so in a timely manner.

Living Media Ethics discusses similar cases concerning how far one company may go in using trademark or branding images. Advertising slogans often are the subject of similar lawsuits.

Here’s an excerpt:

Advertisers, in particular, have to be wary about “word baggage,” or the alteration of meanings caused by social mores and other influences. A word like “king,” in “The King of Beers,” once may have connoted “tops” as in the Baby Boomer generation childhood game “King of the Hill.” In the 1990s this particular Budweiser slogan no longer seemed to appeal to younger consumers who considered the word “king” too aggressive or arrogant, associating the product with their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Nonetheless, Anheuser-Busch had invested millions in establishing its trademark and filed a notice of opposition in 2015 when a California company, She Beverage,” attempted to trademark its beer “Queen of Beer.”

The Ariana Grande lawsuit will test whether her icon status allows copycat advertising protected by the First Amendment or whether her branding claims supersede that argument according to caselaw on trademark and copyright infringement.


Another Governor Apologizes for Blackface

Last year Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admitted and later denied appearing in an 1984 yearbook photograph showing a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan headdress. Now a second governor, Kay Ivy of Alabama, acknowledges wearing blackface while at Auburn University.

Details of Ivy’s participation in a racist skit are still emerging, based on a 1967 radio interview when she was vice president of Auburn’s student body. Ben LaRavia, her fiancé then, shared details of the skit involving actors crawling on the floor looking for cigar butts:

As I look at my fiancée across the room, I could see her that night. She had on a pair of blue coveralls and she had put some black paint all over her face and she was — we were — acting out this skit.

The New York Times reported that the recording was discovered when Auburn began digitizing archived audio tapes.

Auburn university notified Ivey’s office.

The governor did not recall the skit or the interview but said she could not deny the obvious, issuing this apology:

I fully acknowledge — with genuine remorse — my participation in a skit like that back when I was a senior in college. While some may attempt to excuse this as acceptable behavior for a college student during the mid-1960s, that is not who I am today, and it is not what my administration represents all these years later. … I offer my heartfelt apologies for the pain and embarrassment this causes, and I will do all I can — going forward — to help show the nation that the Alabama of today is a far cry from the Alabama of the 1960s. We have come a long way, for sure, but we still have a long way to go.

The history of blackface, associated with vaudeville and minstrel shows, also can be seen in movies and cartoons (Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd) and entails white actors wearing dark makeup. Depictions are exaggerated, demeaning, and responsible for stereotypes that still exist today.

Last year NBC “Today” host Megyn Kelly appeared to accept blackface, leading to widespread criticism and, eventually, to her show’s cancellation.

Alabama’s Ivey is the second governor within a year to acknowledge using blackface. Virginia Gov. Northam at first acknowledged and then denied that he was one of the two figures in a racist yearbook photo. He called a news conference, claiming he would have remembered that, because he once used shoe polish in a dance competition in which he impersonated Michael Jackson.

You can view that disastrous news conference here.

The fashion industry also has had to deal with blackface ornaments and products, leading to several apologies in the past year. They included shows, sweaters and ornaments.

Gucci issued this apology:

Prada issued this apology:

Katy Perry issued this apology:

I was saddened when it was brought to my attention that it was being compared to painful images reminiscent of blackface. Our intention was never to inflict any pain. We have immediately removed them from Katy Perry Collections.

Living Media Ethics contains a chapter on bias and stereotypes and another on fairness and apologies according to ethical standards in advertising, journalism and public relations.

PR Firm Sends Wrong Photos, Embarrasses Supermodel Adut Akech

It keeps happening in the fashion media industry, confusing women of color with counterparts who have similar names or ethnicity. This post is a reminder to journalists and practitioners about the unintended harm that they cause when they commit such errors.

In a mix-up reminiscent of Vogue’s colossal blunder, misidentifying Muslim-American journalist Noor Tagouri, 24, with Pakistani actress Noor Bukhari, 36. In the latest case of misidentification of women of color, WHO magazine confuses South-Sudanese model Adut Akech with images of Ugandan-Australian model Flavia Lazarus.

The public relations firm responsible for the error issued this apology:

OPR Agency last week sent a file of images to WHO magazine which resulted in an incorrect image being used in an article about Melbourne Fashion Week Ambassador, Adut Akech. The error was administrative and unintentional and we sincerely apologise for this mistake and any upset it has caused to the models involved, and our client the City of Melbourne.

Akech responded, “Not only do I personally feel insulted and disrespected, but I feel like my entire race has been disrespected.”

She sent this tweet about the mix-up, noting that her aim in the post was not to criticize WHO magazine but to assert that this mistake “doesn’t happen to white models” and that “publications need to make sure that they fact check things before publishing them.”

A similar mishap occurred in Vogue with journalist Noor Tagouri. She happened to see a copy on the newsstand and asked a friend to document her elation for being in a magazine that she had read since she was a girl.

Ms. Tagouri, a Libyan American journalist, is known for her documentary series on the mistreatment of the mentally disabled. She also has exposed sex trafficking.

For more information about her and her work, visit

Academic Freedom: The Great Butter v. Margarine Controversy at Iowa State

This post summarizes the historic academic freedom controversy at Iowa State College compiled largely from two reports The great butter-margarine controversy and T.W. Schultz and Pamphlet No.5: The Oleo Margarine War and Academic Freedom.

As new food products come on the market, such as soy-based Impossible Burgers, researchers and media might revisit similar case studies of the past, including the great butter v. margarine debate at Iowa State College.

One of the main figures in the case was South Dakota economist T.W. Schultz, a radio journalist in his youth. He came to Iowa State College as an assistant professor in 1930. About a decade later, during World War II, he obtained a small grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct research on farm and food policy. That led to the publication of infamous “Pamphlet No. 5.”

The publication recommended vegetable fat, or margarine, for butter because making the latter was too labor intensive. There was also a shortage of butter overseas with the troops. Moreover, margarine was seen as an acceptable food substitute and just as nutritious. (Harmful trans fat of margarine had yet to be fully researched.)

An argument associated with climate change rather than labor intensiveness is being used to promote plant-based food products, replacing beef and eventually pork and chicken. Advocates say those new products are better for the environment. Social mores, what society holds important at any given time, often dictate conflicts of interest.

Journalists have to be careful and fair to all sides when writing about such debates. Health and economic interests often conflict. And, as we will see in this butter v. margarine case, sometimes those who lobby against replacement food products might have a viewpoint worth considering.

A few weeks after publication of Pamphlet No. 5, the National Dairymen’s Association purchased the entire back page of the Des Moines Register, attacking Schultz and a graduate student, O.H. Brownlee, who authored the publication. The advertisement denounced margarine, touting the nutrients of butter.

Then the dairy industry took aim at Iowa State’s president, Charles Friley, pressuring him to retract the publication and fire Brownlee. When that wasn’t done in a timely manner, industry representatives contacted the Dairy Record in St. Paul, Minn., which labeled Schultz as “sadistic” and “unstable.”

Now a major medium had taken sides, putting Iowa State and academic freedom in the spotlight.

At the time, President Friley was still defending academic freedom. But the dairy lobby argued that Iowa State received taxpayer funds and had no business recommending margarine or any major policy change in how the nation does business, during war or, apparently, anytime else.

President Friley did as many leaders do in crisis situations: He formed a committee. What he hadn’t foreseen, however, was how the panel’s deliberations would be covered closely by the news media. Committee reports incensed the dairy lobby, which again took out a full-page advertisement in the Register denouncing the university.

Friley blinked. He decided to forbid another Iowa State report on wartime food matters and said social scientists should not make policy recommendations.

Soon after, the committee that he assembled condemned Brownlee’s margarine report. That emboldened Friley who reportedly wanted that original article retracted and then planned to reorganize the Iowa State College Press’s editorial board so as to dispel members who disliked how he handled the situation.

Friley also planned to reorganize the Department of Economics and Sociology

Department head Theodore Schultz had enough. He resigned. Here is an excerpt from his resignation letter:

Mr. President, I have given much thought to ways and means of discussing these issues with you in an atmosphere conducive to clear thinking and constructive solutions. I want to be sure that our primary concern will be the welfare of Iowa State College. I do not want to protect my position or enhance my role at the College. So that our discussion may be as free as possible from any concern about my personal or professional interest as a member of the staff, I shall submit my resignation from the Iowa State College when we meet to discuss these matters on September 17.

When Schultz left for the University of Chicago, 15 social scientists also eventually resigned from Iowa State. Many followed Schultz to Chicago.

There are two ending ironies associated with the great butter v. margarine controversy.

In 1979, when Schultz was visiting Iowa State to deliver a lecture, Economics Department Chair Raymond R. Beneke received a call from NBC news wanting to congratulate Schultz on winning the Nobel Prize. Those on campus believed it was serendipitous that Schultz should receive word about this highest distinction while on campus. When asked by a reporter what he thought about the coincidence, he replied that Ames “is a very unusual and very precious place.”

But the final irony may have been that the dairy industry was essentially correct about butter being more nutritious than margarine. According to the Harvard Medical School, “The truth is, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Making the switch was a well-intentioned guess, given that margarine had less saturated fat than butter, but it overlooked the dangers of trans fats.”

The moral of this case study concerns academic freedom and the news media’s right to cover controversies, especially ones impacting health and economy. Fairness is essential during those moments. But don’t discount the role of advertising, either. Because the dairy industry couldn’t get sufficient coverage of its viewpoint, it took out entire page ads that pressured Iowa State to make concessions. The dairy industry’s public relations practitioners delivered an effective campaign to articulate its side.

As the butter v. margarine case illustrates, food science takes time to cover all aspects of debates. Journalists and practitioners take heed: Media history often repeats itself.

Impossible Burgers, pig-napping and the situational ethics of ‘ag-gag’ laws

Impossible Burger (Photo: Impossible Foods)Impossible Burger

Michael Bugeja, Iowa View, Des Moines Register

Last week in Mankato, I ate my first plant-based “Impossible Burger.” I could barely tell the difference between it and beef as far as taste was concerned; the texture, though, was more like grilled meat loaf.

I still prefer a sirloin burger on my backyard barbecue.

Like many carnivores, I don’t think about the life of the steer when I check the fridge for condiments.

Animal activists (not to mention vegans) say that I should.

This brings us to a case in North Carolina, reported by the New York Times, in which activists concerned about antibiotics in hogs actually kidnapped one to showcase its maltreatment. The animal was stolen from an operation under contract with Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pork producer.

Iowa’s newly enacted ag-gag law, also known as Senate File 519, was created for such infractions. An earlier version, under appeal, was deemed unconstitutional because of First Amendment concerns. The revised law criminalizes intrusions as aggravated and serious misdemeanors whenever a person or group uses deception to infiltrate livestock facilities with the intent to cause physical or economic harm.

For the rest of the commentary, click here. 

Does Secret Facebook Group Reflect Culture at Border Control?

ProPublica investigated a secret Border Control Facebook group that posted graphic, demeaning, doctored images of Latina congresswomen. How was it possible that Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan did not know about this? That’s an important ethical question.

At the 3:40 mark of the above video, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions DHS Secretary McAleenan about the employment status of Border Patrol agents who posted racist and demeaning messages and memes in a secret Facebook group.

The group, which boasted more than 9,500 members, viewed lurid posts directed at Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar related to a planned visit to a Texas detention facility.

According to ProPublica, the online publication received images of Facebook discussions “and was able to link the participants …  to apparently legitimate Facebook profiles belonging to Border Patrol agents,” including a supervisor. (WARNING: ProPublica link contains doctored images of graphic sexual violence.)

McAleenan condemned the posts, subject of an ongoing investigation, when appearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member.

“Did you see the posts planning physical harm to myself and Congresswoman Escobar?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.

McAleenan responded that he did and immediately launched an investigation “within minutes of reading the article.”

“Did you see the images of officers circulating PhotoShopped images of my violent rape?” Ocasio-Cortez asked. McAleenan said that he did.

She asked if those officers are on the job still. McAleenan didn’t immediately know.

Ocasio-Cortez pressed him about whether racist rape memes indicated “a dehumanized culture” at U.S. Border and Customs Protection.

“We do not have a dehumanizing culture at CBP. This is an entity that rescues 4,000 people a year,”  he replied, “committed to the well-being of everyone that they interact with.” He added that it is unfair to apply these posts “to the entire organization or that even the members of that group believed or supported those posts.”

Ocasio-Cortez continued to press him. How did 10,000 members belong to a secret group without the leadership knowing, she asked?

Again, McAleenan referenced the ongoing investigation.

No matter how you feel about Ocasio-Cortez or the situation at the Mexican-US border, the secret group does reflect poorly on McAleenan and his agency because no one reported it to the leadership. While failure to report the group may not indicate a dehumanized culture, it does indicate a lapse of ethics. In sum, employees of any workplace are beholden to report unacceptable behavior, especially in a “secret” online group.

In this case, ProPublica did. That’s the role of investigative journalism.

Living Media Ethics makes this point repeatedly throughout the text in sections on racism, sexism and conflicts of interest. A person may not be racist or sexist. That is not the ethical challenge at the workplace. The real question is what an employee should do if he or she witnesses such infractions?

The answer is obvious: report it.

Typical workplace policy mandate reporting of unacceptable behavior. In many venues, those who do not report such behavior may themselves be fired or held legally responsible.