Elizabeth Warren’s Signature: Power of Open Records and False Claims

The Washington Post used an open records request to obtain Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s registration card for the State Bar of Texas, publishing the card with her signature showing she identified herself as American Indian.

In an article titled “Elizabeth Warren apologizes for calling herself Native American,” the Washington Post reported that the senator apologized for identifying as a member if the Cherokee Nation.

The report came in the wake of a recent apology to Bill John Baker, chief of the Cherokee Nation, expressing her regret for sharing results of a DNA test showing she had a distant American Indian relative.

She told the Post: “I can’t go back. But I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted.”

Here’s a video about the latest report.

This post is not about the embarrassing, hurtful claim; that’s evident in assuming an identity that is not genuine. Rather, this shows the power of fact-based journalism in using open records to verify false claims and hold public figures accountable.

Living Media Ethics (Routledge 2019) has a section dedicated to the Freedom of Information Act. Here’s an excerpt.

One of the “power tools” for journalists is the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson. Government entities often resist FOIA requests for information “by either refusing to provide properly requested records or ignoring the requirements that the documents be made available within specified time periods,”[1] according to the FOIA Project, funded in part by Syracuse University. If a FOIA request is denied, the Freedom of Information Act allows reporters and news organizations to sue. The New York Times filed some 36 federal FOIA lawsuits in the past 16 years. David McCraw, The Times’ vice president and assistant general counsel, states: “Simply, we feel that using this law is an essential part of our mission.”[2] 

Use of FOIA requests attests to the ethics of fact-based journalism as practiced routinely by news organizations like the Washington Post and New York Times.

The U.S. Department of Justice explains on its website and in the video below how to file such a request.

A FOIA request can be made for any agency record; moreover, you can specify the format that you prefer to receive the record, printed or electronic.


[1] “About the Freedom of Information Act,” FOIA Project, no date, http://foiaproject.org/about/aboutfoia/

[2] Ibid.


Crisis without Management: Virginia Gov’s Disastrous News Conference

A stoic spouse alongside a public figure accused of impropriety typically is perceived as an act of loyalty and faith in her partner’s ability to transcend circumstance. In this case, Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam acted as crisis manager. The governor could have used one.

Some politicians believe they can master the message better than practitioners who excel in reputation management or media ethicists who know the right thing to do during crisis management.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tried to restore his reputation in an impromptu news conference following disclosure of a 1984 yearbook photo showing a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan headdress.

At first Northam acknowledged that he was one of the two figures in the photo. Then he called a news conference in which he walked back that acknowledgement, stating he wasn’t in the photo. He would have remembered that, he said–and here is where he imploded in front of media–because he used shoe polish in a dance competition in which he impersonated Michael Jackson.

It gets worse.

When a reporter asked if he could still moon walk, the governor appeared ready to do just that. Fortunately, his wife Pamela Northam–an educator and environmentalist–intervened, informing him that such a display would be inappropriate, given the circumstances.

A long list of politicians and public figures have called for Northam’s resignation. The governor said won’t resign and can repair the damage, even though he violated just about every tenet of effective crisis management.

Living Media Ethics contains a chapter discussing proactive public relations during crisis management.

The Forbes Agency Council also has published golden rules of crisis management, proposing steps to take during professional, personal or political upheavals. Among them are:

  • Take Responsibility: “First off, don’t try to cover up the PR crisis, it will only worsen the damage.”
  • Be Proactive, Be Transparent, Be Accountable: Acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologize.
  • Get Ahead Of The Story: Apologize quickly and concisely using social media and other venues and then retreat to figure out strategy.
  • First Apologize, Then Take Action: Do something substantial to show you are changing and moving forward ethically.
  • Monitor, Plan And Communicate: Never “go rogue and potentially fuel the flames.”
  • Listen To Your Team First:  “Don’t comment, post or tweet before you’ve conferred with your PR team on what the best, most reasoned approach will be.”
  • Turn Off The Fan: “Don’t fuel the fire.” Step back, put yourself in your constituent’s shoes. Ask, “How would I feel if this happened to me? Looking in the mirror is the best PR advice there is when dealing with crisis situations. It ensures we do the right thing. And right beats spin every time.”
  • Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions: “Be sure that the first external communication following the crisis is a well-thought-out response.”

Northam refused to take responsibility or be accountable.  While he apologized immediately after the photos were publicized, he deepened the crisis by retracting that acknowledgement, saying he wasn’t in the photo and blaming the yearbook’s editing staff for putting the racist depiction on his page. Then he went rogue in a 40-minute news conference that fueled the fire, admitting he did do blackface in the same year as the yearbook photo was taken.

The inept disclosures indicated he lacked more than a PR crisis management team and a strategic response. He appeared to lack a conscience ready to accept consequences for his actions.

By violating basic tenets of effective public relations, Northam failed to look in the mirror to see how his past and present actions harmed others; instead, he looked into a future that included his resignation and didn’t like what he saw.

After the news conference debacle, the governor only has a few more steps to take: He should resign and then go about salvaging what is left of his reputation by meeting with groups and constituents he offended. He also should work in transition with Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would become acting governor if Northam were to resign.

If that happened, Fairfax would be the state’s second African-American governor. That outcome would be best for everyone involved.

Iowa State alumnus and former BuzzFeed writer discusses layoffs

Digital advertising increasingly is going to mega-tech companies like Google and Facebook, causing a ripple effect in fact-based journalism, with hundreds laid off last week. In this post, Tyler Kingkade–recently let-go BuzzFeed writer–has an optimistic outlook about the future of journalism.

A New York Times op-ed, “Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy,” discusses recent layoffs across media platforms, including two hundred staff and journalists at BuzzFeed as well as 800 from Yahoo, Huffington Post, TechCrunch and other outlets. Gannett reportedly is letting go an additional 400.

According to the piece, a chief concern involves digital advertising going to media monopolies such as Google and Facebook:

The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants. The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.

Tyler Kingkade, an outstanding alumnus from Iowa State’s journalism school, who worked for the Huffington Post and most recently BuzzFeed, was one of the employees who received a pink slip.

He sent this message to media ethics and tech/social change classes at his alma mater:

“It’s admittedly concerning if BuzzFeed had to downsize. Particularly in our News division, they laid off reporters who were in the process of turning our work into documentaries, which was a new avenue of making money. However, the ones laid off have gotten a lot of people flagging job openings for us, or asking to meet about giving us jobs. Even the LA Times, which has reduced its staff, is now building back up. The Seattle Times oddly enough is on a hiring spree.

“Journalism is a field that does not grow – there is never going to be a boom time for us. But I don’t believe it will ever dry up. People will figure out a stable model, whether it’s through selling story rights to be TV shows and movies (see Dirty John for a recent example) or subscription or a nonprofit donor model like ProPublica. I bet there will soon be something that gives you a bundle of subscriptions, in the same way that Spotify got people to finally stop illegally downloading music and pay for it again.

“The currents against you in media will always be strong; young journalists will just need to learn how to be strong enough to swim against it.”

Kingkade, based in New York, focuses on covering civil rights, crime, sexual harassment and assault, and the treatment of teens in vulnerable and traumatic situations. His work has earned multiple awards, recognition from national nonprofits, pushed companies and prosecutors to take action, and caused inquiries by universities and lawmakers. Most recently he was a National Reporter at BuzzFeed News in New York … and is currently looking for his next assignment.

Foxconn Reconsiders $10 Billion Project

Any time legislators give tax incentives to corporations, they must inquire about artificial intelligence and negotiate iron-clad deals. Journalists also have an obligation to research companies’ past histories with robotics.

Interpersonal Divide posted about Foxconn’s planned Wisconsin plant in July 2017, proclaiming “Say Hi to C-3PO.” At the time few politicians mentioned how Foxconn replaces workers with robots.

Foxconn’s use of artificial intelligence was covered in Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine:

In 2016, Foxconn Technology Group, an Apple and Samsung supplier in China, replaced 60,000 workers with robots. If any country should be concerned about automation, China might top that list with its population of 1.35 billion people. In reporting the mass firing—a population larger than Pensacola, Florida—the British Broadcasting Company noted that economists “have issued dire warnings about how automation will affect the job market, with one report, from consultants Deloitte in partnership with Oxford University, suggesting that 35% of jobs were at risk over the next 20 years.” See: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-36376966

Earlier plans to build the Wisconsin plant promised jobs to thousands of blue-collar workers making LCD screens. That changed this week. Reuters reports that Foxconn Technology Group “said it intends to hire mostly engineers and researchers rather than the manufacturing workforce the project originally promised.”

The British wire service also reported that Foxconn’s “technology hub” in Wisconsin “would largely consist of research facilities along with packaging and assembly operations.”  The report quoted a company spokesperson: “In Wisconsin we’re not building a factory. You can’t use a factory to view our Wisconsin investment.”

As companies ask states for tax incentives to build plants, promising thousands of jobs for local residents, legislators have a responsibility to make iron-clad deals. This remains an essential discussion as the state of Wisconsin may be paying as much as $2 billion in incentives, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune was one of the few U.S. newspapers to cite the mass firing of Foxconn workers in China to increase profit by replacing them with robots.

Any time a new plant is announced, involving tax incentives, journalists need to monitor how robotics are going to be used.

Interpersonal Divide warns that artificial intelligence and robotics are going to replace jobs across the manufacturing sector: “Two-thirds of Americans believe that robots will do much of the work currently being done by people, according to the Pew Research Center; however, 80 percent of respondents believe that their own jobs and professions will be largely unaffected.”

The only way to know in advance is to put companies on record concerning artificial intelligence and negotiate contracts that companies like Foxconn have to honor.

New Twitter study shows older users spread fake news

New study of 16,000 Twitter users reveals less use of bogus content on the portal than anticipated with the majority of those spreading fake news finds tending to be older and politically conservative.

A report in Science about a new Twitter study shows a mere “0.1% of the more than 16,000 users shared more than 80% of the fake news …  and 80% of that fake news appeared in the feeds of only 1.1% of users.

A team led by David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, analyzed tweets from 16,442 registered voters who used Twitter during the 2016 election.

According to the report in Science,

One of the most popular sources of misinformation identified by the study is a site called “The Gateway Pundit,” which published false headlines including: “Anti-Trump Protesters Bused Into Austin, Chicago” and “Did a Woman Say the Washington Post Offered Her $1,000 to Accuse Roy Moore of Sexual Abuse?”

The Gateway Pundit is one of several sites identified as fake news sites. Here is a list of such sites compiled by Snopes (warning: images on this page and links to fake news reports are disturbing; please do not access if you feel content will offend you.)

The Northeastern University study comes on the heels of another concerning fake news on Facebook.

A Marketwatch report found similarities between the two studies, stating the spread of false information on Facebook found “few people shared fakery, but those who did were more likely to be over 65 and conservatives.”

Living Media Ethics contains information in several chapters associated with social media use and how it influences our thoughts, words and deeds at home, school and work.

This site also published a guide to avoid fake news and access legitimate news sites.

Michael Bugeja, author of the guide and Interpersonal Divide, asks social media users to think like a journalist, adopting these four traits:

1. Doubt — a healthy skepticism that questions everything.
2. Detect — a “nose for news” and relentless pursuit of the truth.
3. Discern — a priority for fairness, balance and objectivity in reporting.
4. Demand — a focus on free access to information and freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

A recent op-ed by Bugeja in the Des Moines Register also documents how fake news taints the journalism profession because users do not distinguish between journalism and media.

Here’s what you can do about fake news before the 2020 election

Des Moines Register

By Michael Bugeja, Iowa View Contributor

In 2019, Iowans will hear the phrase “fake news” whenever a report sullies a political party or presidential hopeful. We may support or scorn candidates without knowing fact from factoid.

This column explains what you can do about it.

People typically do not differentiate between journalism and media. Journalists report and edit news. Media mostly disseminate news (i.e. tweets, posts, blogs, websites, android apps, etc.). Journalists adhere to ethical standards. Social media does not.

Many voters no longer believe what they read, view or hear. We have a choice: Embrace lies and half-truths or subscribe (actually pay something) to access fact-based reports.

For the rest of the post, click here or visit: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2019/01/22/heres-what-you-can-do-fake-news-before-2020-presidential-election-journalism-media-russia-facebook/2647269002/

In Vogue: Journalist Tagouri Misidentified as Pakistani Actress

Libyan-American journalist Noor Tagouri was misidentified in Vogue as Pakistani actress Noor Bukhari, 36. Tagouri, 24, tweeted a video on her elation and disappointment on seeing the error. Now we learn the magazine has done it again, this time with Crazy Rich Asians stars Gemma Chan and Tan Kheng Hua.

In the video above, Noor Tagouri describes her ethical values as “pioneering, tenacious and religious.” She had read Vogue since her teen years and was elated when she was asked to pose for the magazine.

The Pakistani-English newspaper, The Express Tribune, published profiles of the two women in an account of the misrepresentation.

In an emotional post Tagouri wrote, “I’m so heartbroken and devastated. I have been misrepresented and misidentified multiple times in media publications — to the point of putting my life in danger. I never, ever expected this from a publication I respect so much and have read since I was a child.”

To view Tagouri’s emotional reaction as she came upon the error, click the photo below.

Vogue immediately tweeted this apology:

Yahoo News reported that the misidentification issue happened again, this time with Crazy Rich Asians stars Gemma Chan and Tan Kheng Hua. It happened during fashion coverage of the Screen Actos Guild Awards. The gaffe was noted by Diet Prada on Instagram.


The magazine corrected the latest error without apology.

Its apology to Noor, however, lacked two of seven basic ethical components of a correction, as described in Living Media Ethics:

  • Identify the error (what it was, when/where it occurred).
  • Correct the record.
  • Do so as soon as possible.
  • Do so prominently.
  • Provide an explanation to the audience or clientele.
  • Disclose how the error could have been avoided and/or how it will be prevented in the future.
  • Issue an apology to those damaged by the false disclosure.

In attempting to address the cultural problem of such a mistake, the magazine stated: “We also understand there is a larger issue of misidentification in media–especially among nonwhite subjects [emphasis added].”

Some viewers on social media criticized the use of the term “nonwhite,” wondering why the magazine didn’t simply say “people of color.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 49 countries have populations in which Muslims comprise more than 50 percent, with Nigeria projected to become the 50th Muslim-majority country by 2030.

Journalists and practitioners also should know the difference between the words “Islam” and “Muslim.” Islam describes the submission of the self to the will of God; Muslim denotes a person who has made such submission. Islam refers to religion; Muslim to the person who follows the religion. Click here for more information about the difference between the two terms.

The new edition of Living Media Ethics (Routledge 2018) dedicates a chapter on bias and stereotypes of Muslims and other ethnicities as well as addressing inclusivity and diversity in other chapters associated with advertising, public relations and journalism.