After one of Sam Nunberg's erratic TV appearances Monday (there were several), Republican media strategist Rick Wilson tweeted that the former Trump campaign aide's “stunt” smelled of Roger Stone, the political trickster whom Nunberg describes as a “mentor and like a father.”
A few hours later, CNN's Erin Burnett said she smelled something else while interviewing Nunberg.
“I have smelled alcohol on your breath,” Burnett told Nunberg on live television.
Nunberg denied that he had been drinking, but Burnett's remark added to the speculation that he might not have been in full control of his faculties during a media blitz in which he spoke flippantly about defying a subpoena from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Shortly before the Burnett interview, Nunberg's mother told New York magazine her son was “not doing well,” and the Daily Beast reported that three of Nunberg's friends were concerned about alcohol abuse.
Monday's unusual episode has prompted some journalists to debate ethical protocols. Journalistic codes don't offer much guidance on how, or whether, to interview someone like Nunberg — someone who might be impaired but is also newsworthy. The closest-to-applicable advice from the Society of Professional Journalists, for example, is to “use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.”
If Nunberg were under the influence of alcohol, his ability to consent to an interview could be compromised. But even in such a scenario, “use heightened sensitivity” is hardly a concrete directive.
“It is not a journalist's responsibility to save an adult from himself or herself,” Samuel G. Freedman, a media ethics expert at Columbia University, said. “If Nunberg was indeed drunk during the interview, it was still his choice to do it. And it's eminently newsworthy if a president chooses to surround himself with people who are publicly unhinged.”
Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley, countered that in his view, “putting Nunberg on the air in what they suspected was an impaired state was highly problematic. If he was drunk, he would likely speak recklessly, which would put others at risk; his veracity would be questionable, and the whole spectacle would teeter on the cusp of exploitative.”
Nunberg's appearances made some other reporters uncomfortable, too.
“I don't believe it's ethical or humane to have a person on live TV to feign concern for their well being,” tweeted Olivia Nuzzi, the New York mag writer who spoke with Nunberg's mother.
Axios's Mike Allen wrote that Nunberg's performance on Monday was “a sad, epic meltdown” and added that “this is one of the reasons America hates the media. Our entire industry lit itself on fire because a troubled Trump hanger-on made an a-- of himself — live.”
Politico's Jake Sherman tweeted his discomfort with “judging another man's mental and emotional status.”
Former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren countered that there is a difference between passing judgment and “just reporting the facts of what you observe,” such as “odor of alcohol,” as Burnett did.
“Journalists should not be chastised for speaking with Nunberg,” Andrew Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee, said in a blog post, “but that does not mean each of his statements and accusations should be printed or broadcast.”
“It may have been best and more responsible to tape an interview with Nunberg instead of airing it on live television,” Seaman continued.
Aly Colón, a former director of standards and practices at NBC News, agreed that taping interviews with Nunberg would have been one way to handle a delicate situation. But Colón, now the Knight Foundation's chair in journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, said he is not certain that even a taped interview with Nunberg would have held enough value to air.
“The story isn't really about Sam Nunberg; it's about what he said and how it's connected to an important grand jury investigation,” Colón said. “Because he was an aide, there were all these factors that made him kind of important to give consideration to, but then once you've done that, how does he advance your story so that you understand more about what's going on? And I'm not sure I understood that clearly.”
Nunberg's central point, in multiple interviews, was that he would not comply with a subpoena to appear in court Friday and turn over emails and other documents. But he reversed himself later on Monday night, telling the Associated Press that he is “going to end up cooperating with them.”
Fox Business's Charles Gasparino reported Tuesday that Nunberg will seek treatment for alcohol abuse.
“Sam’s a friend of mine,” Gasparino said on the air. “I’ll disclose that right off the top. But he’s a guy that needs some help. From what I know, he is going to cooperate now. He’s fully cooperating. He’s handing over all the emails through his lawyer to special prosecutor Mueller. He’s also going to seek treatment for what ails him. There’s something. Drinking, I believe, is a big part of it, and that’s what happened yesterday.”