Opinion: Why Scaramucci's sacking is good news

Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci had no communications qualifications, training or experience.

By Dr Catherine Strong

The rapid sacking of the newest White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is good news for professional communications. He had no communications qualifications, training, nor experience, but his appointment sent out the message that none of this is important to gain a top job managing communications.

His cocky style was his foot in the door. In his brief ten days in the job he proved himself over-the-top vulgar, spiteful, bullying, slanderous of his colleagues, and intent on spinning a message.  

Previously he managed a hedge fund, and in the dynamic American market this requires a strong personality and nerves of steel. But this doesn’t make anyone an expert in communications or public relations or stakeholder engagement.  

Looking at his $50 million worth, according to the government discloser report, it’s understandable how he could refuse to accept any of the US$179,000 salary for the White House job. Good thing he wasn’t relying on this communication job to pay the bills. 

Dr Catherine Strong says New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza stuck to journalistic values in revealing the content of his interview with Anthony Saramucci.

The journalist as white knight

The white knight in this latest Washington saga is the New Yorker journalist who simply stuck to his journalistic values when Scaramucci tried to scare him off reporting an on-the-record interview, and threatened to sack all the White House communication staff if the journalist didn’t reveal his source for a previous story. That journalist, Ryan Lizza, went on nationwide broadcasts to clearly outline the newsworthiness of his story, and the journalism ethics of protecting a source once he has given that assurance.  

And Lizza’s qualifications to enter a political communication fray are plenty. He has been a dedicated journalist for more than 20 years, writing and reporting for a variety of high standard news outlets. He started out at the Center for Investigative Reporting in California, and continued for the next two decades covering politics for a variety of reputable news publications. 

I suspect this wasn’t the first time a political appointee tried to push him around and snarl he should back down on a story. This is not new for any journalist, even in New Zealand.  

But journalism training prepares young reporters for this. It may sound academic, but if you know why something is considered newsworthy, you don’t falter when someone more powerful tells you to back off.  And you also learn the ethics code of when and why to protect sources. More important is that Lizza simply kept to the facts of the interview. He didn’t interject his own opinion, use any emotive judgmental wording, nor interject unsubstantiated information. He kept to accurate quotes, verified facts, and pertinent contextual background.

In other words, he did a basic journalistic reporting job. And Scaramucci never denied that it was 100% accurate. He couldn’t. 

At the time of writing this piece the rumours are flying fast and furious as for the exact reason for Scaramucci’s sacking. The New Yorker fiasco may have simply put the spotlight on other issues for those making the employment decisions. It could be that they couldn’t afford another loose cannon in front of the media. 

It could be for any reason – the current Oval Office has a fast-spinning revolving door at the moment when it comes to its staff. But it does seem clear that some positions actually require qualifications.        

Dr Catherine Strong is a senior lecturer in journalist at Massey University. She is currently on sabbatical in the United States.   

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