Depending on one’s perspective, Sam Nunberg has either raised or lowered the bar on television-news weirdness—and thrown a bright spotlight on the ethics and responsibilities of the journalism biz.
Not since Charlie Sheen embarked on his crazed media tour seven years ago to rant about “tiger’s blood,” “Adonis DNA” and his identity as a “warlock”—in an ill-advised contract dispute with the producers of Two and a Half Men—has a single human so overwhelmed the media ecosystem with public displays of eccentricity.
“As one saw all of this unfold, one didn’t know whether to laugh or weep,” Dan Rather told The Daily Beast on Tuesday concerning the Charlie Sheen of American politics. “It was a sad spectacle for journalism but, worse than that, it was a sad sight for the country” that the president of the United States would once have had a political adviser who “gives every appearance of being one of those people who score in the high 90s on the Dumb Test.”
It was the day after the 36-year-old former Donald Trump aide participated in half a dozen live cable television interviews to flaunt his defiance of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s subpoena for emails, texts and grand jury testimony.
In an increasingly bizarre series of appearances on MSNBC, NY1, and CNN, Nunberg claimed his arrest would be “funny,” bragged that he planned to rip up the subpoena on camera, called White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a “fat slob,” and was compelled to deny that he had liquor on his breath.
At the end of a loopy half-hour-long grilling, which began with Nunberg, an attorney, advising Sanders from afar to “shut her fat mouth,” CNN anchor Erin Burnett, sitting beside him on the set, informed Nunberg she smelled alcohol; he denied he’d been drinking, and told her he had taken only antidepressants.
That all came mere hours before Nunberg abruptly reversed course Monday night and told the Associated Press that, yes, he’d comply with Mueller’s subpoena after all. (This was around the same time that MSNBC host Ari Melber, who also featured Nunberg on his show, was on the phone to Nunberg’s father in a late-night off-the-record chat about his son’s predicament. On Tuesday Nunberg told the Daily Caller that his on-air discussion with civil rights attorney Maya Wiley persuaded him to cooperate with the special counsel’s office.)
Nunberg, who reportedly plans to seek sobriety treatment after his grand jury appearance on Friday, didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Dan Rather, the legendary CBS News anchorman who currently helms the “News and Guts” journalism production company, said Nunberg’s sudden dominance on TV news—which continued well into Tuesday, with clips of his more outrageous remarks played and replayed over and over—could not have occurred during the glory days of the broadcast networks back in the last century.
“There were fewer megaphones for a guy like this to grab,” Rather said. “Now, with the proliferation of cable and satellite channels, there are many more opportunities for a character like this to grab his 15 minutes of fame or infamy.”
Actually, judging by Monday’s cumulative spectacle, it was more like two hours—with three separate interviews on CNN, two on MSNBC, one on NY1, but zero of Fox News, which largely resisted Nunberg’s shtick until it could no longer be ignored on Tuesday.
“Our job is to provide context and some perspective, which was sorely lacking yesterday,” Rather added. “It’s the job of journalists to put a frame around things. If somebody says something that’s not a fact, point it out, or if he says something completely unsupported point it out.”
A current cable news anchor, who asked not to be further identified, said Nunberg on Monday was often permitted to bandy claims for which he had no qualifications or knowledge to assert.
“He should have been called out more and held accountable instead of just milked for opinions,” this person said, adding that years ago, the anchor declined the opportunity to interview Charlie Sheen on the air because “I didn’t think it was right to put illness on display.”
Tellingly, MSNBC accorded major-news status to Nunberg’s unsupported speculation—initally in a phone interview with anchor Katy Tur—that Mueller has evidence that Trump did something wrong or illegal during his presidential campaign (from which Nunberg was fired in August 2015 after his racist postings on Facebook were exposed).
“GOING ROGUE,” read MSNBC’s exultant chyron on the bottom of the screen for much of Tuesday.
In the 86-year-old Rather’s network news heyday, “we might have had him on for a minute and and a half or 45 seconds or maybe even four minutes. But don’t put him on live for an unedited half hour or more, unbridled,” the ex-anchorman said. “I say it’s a sad day for journalism because he was allowed to rant and rave this way. But this is the new world.”
Former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, meanwhile, said that while Nunberg’s subpoena from the special counsel is unquestionably newsworthy—especially because “he’s prepared to speak publicly and compellingly about the subpoena”—the eager showcasing of his erratic performance is “part of this voracious, unforgiving appetite of cable, of constantly feeding the cable beast and living off the melodrama and psychodrama of the Trump administration.”
Sesno, who directs George Washington University’s school of media and public affairs, added: “Spectacles are always honey to the bees of television… If Nunberg is unhinged and he shows up drunk—and I have no idea if that’s the case—that would not suggest he would necessarily be on the air for 30 minutes. But he is who he is, and the public deserves to see it. That doesn’t mean he should be dangled as a spectacle for longer than is necessary”—which “probably” happened on Monday, Sesno conceded.
Media lawyer Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said that “it’s really painful to watch somebody self-destruct on live television”—and that cable news’ enthusiasm for such a display in Nunberg’s case is arguably at odds with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, especially the “Minimize Harm” section.
Among the guidelines:
*Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
*Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
*Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
Trump biographer Tim O’Brien, for his part, suggested Nunberg’s performance was “news porn,” but that “Sam Nunberg’s melty isn’t just news porn,” as he wrote on Twitter. “He’s part of a broader problem: Trump has routinely surrounded himself with third-rate or ill-equipped advisers and all those bad hires have created legal nightmares for the president.”
NY1 politcal anchor Errol Louis—whose colleague Josh Robin conducted Monday’s on-air phone interview in which Nunberg insulted press secretary Sanders (for which Nunberg later apologized)—said it wasn’t up to journalists to protect the former Trump aide from himself.
“We reached out to him. We figured if he was talking to everybody else, he ought to talk to us, too,” Louis said, and Nunberg was ready and willing. “It’s one more piece of an ongoing story, and Nunberg is unquestionably newsworthy… And if it’s a strange and erratic person, and it’s not in their self-interest to come on television, that’s his problem, not my problem.”