Clinching the Debate: Is Hugging Political Candidates Unethical?

By Casey Bukro

All is fair in love, war and politics. But do they mix?

Critics say Rachel Maddow, MSNBC television host and political commentator, crossed a line when she hugged Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton after a televised debate.

Rachel Maddow hugs Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
Rachel Maddow hugs Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Maddow says she’s a hugger, and probably will hug again if invited to host another debate regardless of political party.

Conservative Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz is among those who object. “She shouldn’t have been on that stage as moderator,” Kurtz writes on foxnews.com. “She is an unabashedly liberal commentator who rips the Republicans every night on her program. She should not have been put in that position.”

Kurtz acknowledges that Maddow is a smart lady, a Rhodes scholar with deep knowledge of the issues. But as Kurtz sees it, the hugs restrict MSNBC’s efforts to shed its left-wing label and rebrand itself as a news network.

Brit Hume, another political commentator, tweeted about the clutch play, saying “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a moderator do that before.”

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple shrugs it off.

“Consider the hugs through the prism of journalism ethics,” writes Wemple. “Were they transparent? Yes, there’s a video of the hugs, which took place in front of the cameras; any clandestine backstage moderator-candidate hugging is strictly forbidden. Were they even-handed? Yes, both Sanders and Clinton received hugs of very comparable warmth, duration and hand-pats. Were they prejudicial? Nah, coming at the end of the event, it’s hard to say that the affection received by Maddow influenced the questions, which were solid.

“So, that’s the verdict, considering that there doesn’t appear to be a hug provision in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.”

True, the code does not outlaw hugging specifically. But it does warn against conflicts of interest, “real or perceived.” And it urges journalists to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Those tenets apply to this case, which is why some journalists might do a double-take at Maddow’s embrace.

In a later blog post, Wemple returns to the debate-ending squeeze. “The industry’s orthodoxy dictates that those with opinions shouldn’t be running such straight-news events. Count me out of that strain of hollow thought. We’ll take Maddow over some ‘objective’ drone every time,” he writes.

Which is to say journalism standards and customs change over time. Lines are drawn and redrawn. And journalists will agree or disagree. It’s the nature of ethics.

That Herman Hupfeld song from the movie “Casablanca” comes to mind, “As Time Goes By.”

“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.” Nothing there about hugs.

In your view, was Maddow wrong? Leave a reply below.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz.

Professional journalists with ethics questions may contact us at ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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