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A recent program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, cosponsored with the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at TCU, explored the theme “Promoting Democracy and America’s Global Leadership.” While the program examined the news of the day, it also demonstrated how organizations are able to continue promoting a more traditional idea of America, even when the administration in power is not.

Susan Glasser, staff writer for The New Yorker, moderated a conversation with Daniel Twining, President of the International Republican Institute, and Derek Mitchell, President of the National Democratic Institute. And while the names of these organizations obviously convey a partisan bent, the conversation that evening clearly demonstrated that both organizations continue to promote very traditional ideas of America.

Just imagine the impact that concerned university presidents, business executives, NGO chief executives, executive directors of nonprofit, and active volunteers can have… all still operating effectively in today’s America. By merely promoting their cultures, values, visions, and societal initiatives they demonstrate their freedom, and the essential role they play in American enterprise. In fact, these institutions and leaders are what really make America great, and truly distinctive in the world.

We must therefore encourage everyone to take every opportunity to speak out on behalf of democracy and our institutions. We must encourage our friends to do it. And we must let journalists know that we expect the same from them. Telling more success stories about American institutions and individuals will provide much-needed context for our daily diet of negative news.

And word-of-mouth is still our most powerful form of communication. In today’s digital world it’s called “buzz.” But no matter the name, it remains super powerful. So get out there… and keep talking!

The main lesson of the Brett Kavanaugh battle is that mean-spirited politics, extreme partisanship, and fear-mongering leadership too often lead to seriously divided communities, a lingering climate of anger, and periodic shootings which often grow into widespread violence. This one-sided victory for some has divided our nation even more.

I informed my readers in my last post (Lesson 455) that I was taking several weeks off to refresh my thinking about the mess in Washington. My reason was that more and more people were telling me they were turning off the political chaos just to preserve their mental health.  

I was discouraged by the endless Trump-generated confusion. Republicans were focused only on winning in the legislature. Some were adopting the president’s autocratic style of “attack and divide” leadership. Democrats were behaving as partisans in their own reactionary way. And no one was championing the kind of American values that could unite the nation. So when I began hearing about people turning off to save their sanity… it made me think that they might actually be part of a larger unhappy, silent majority.

I first worked on the political predicament, and concluded that a total “system correction,” was needed.

It seemed to me that the only system correction that could work would require unhappy Republicans, non voters, minorities, legal immigrants, energized women, young people, and discouraged others, to vote for democratic candidates. If enough democrats won, this kind of shock might result in the silent majority becoming visible enough to force both parties to re-think their purposes, redraw their districts, debate their ideologies with mutual respect, and govern collaboratively.

Realizing this might not happen, I began to study the feasibility of drowning out the negativity of Washington with positive voices about American society and institutions.

Imagine the collective communication power of institutional leaders, business executives, NGOs, social services, educators, artists, musicians, journalists, clergy, foreign policy experts, allies, traditional Republicans, pragmatic democrats, independents, immigrants, minorities, and more! Apart from political extremism, America is alive and well.

Maybe my many years communicating and marketing institutions will yield some clues about how to accomplish telling this story. I will explore the possibilities in future blogs, other writings, and meetings with all levels of leaders and learners.      

This could get interesting. I hope you will join in.

The recent flood of news from Washington has been deeply troubling.

Bob Woodward’s book about chaos in the White House, Omarosa’s tell-all book about Trump, a highly controversial Supreme Court confirmation hearing, an anonymous Op Ed piece about growing “staff resistance” in the White House, attacks on governmental institutions which are there to protect us from the bad guys, all contrasted with memorial events for John McCain challenging everyone to reconsider traditional American values, and it all rolled out about the same time. Confusing enough. But then reports followed that the president might be psychologically unfit to lead. This was overwhelming, and for most of us it was also exhausting!

As a consequence many observers have been asking if the Trump era is finally coming to an end, or was this just an example of much more to come?

Frankly, I had already been feeling the need to step back and take a fresh look at everything. I had been wondering out loud if mindless daily Trump tweets will ever slow down. And what good will ever come from all this anger?

And then more questions also poured out: Will Republicans and Democrats ever get their acts together? Is there a third political party in our future? Will Congress and the White House ever learn how to govern again? What media lessons are here for leaders of any institution? And how can we restore the faith we had in our most precious ones? How can we stop determined autocrats and bullies in their tracks? And what can be done about new media platforms being used as weapons? How can we best convey the purpose of press freedom? How can we revisit the reason for the separation of church and state? How can we restore experienced diplomacy and citizen engagement in foreign policy? What do we need to do to have world class schools? How can we provide medical care for everyone? What new possibilities will technology and globalization bring to higher education? How can the founding “idea of America” be reinvigorated and preserved? Can the core values of “freedom and justice for all” restore American leadership in the world?

With these questions in mind, I am going to take a few weeks away from the blog to refresh my thinking. And I am counting on returning to my writing and teaching with some fresh insights… cross your fingers.   

 

The good news is that cities have been rarely divided by political extremes. Many have stories far more promising than today’s politically tainted supreme court hearings and presidential tweets.

While the nation and many states slosh around in mean-spirited ideology fights, city officials generally don’t have that luxury. They are just too busy. Every day most cities face both legal and illegal immigration issues, demands for affordable housing, homeless people living on the streets, unemployment problems, factory closures, pockets of serious poverty, children coming to school hungry, gangs and racial violence, deteriorating infrastructure, continuing police controversies, global warming consequences, aging water pipes, industry produced air pollution, and both international and homegrown terrorism threats.

But cities are also getting practical help from serious-minded professional associations, expertise sharing conferences, networks of experienced professionals, and problem-focused partnerships, all helping them bypass their politically paralyzed national and state governments.

For example, New York has been able to resist much of the pressure of Washington’s hard-line immigration and police program funding to address its problems more collectively. An active terrorism prevention partnership with Paris, France is but one example. L.A. is engaged in a wide variety of public diplomacy exchanges through its international office, and Fort Worth Texas is using citizen diplomacy to exchange ideas through its award-winning Sister Cities organization. These are but a few examples.

Many smaller cities are also dealing with both local and global issues more pragmatically. Highly experienced neighborhood volunteers, seriously concerned businesses, community problem-focused non-profits, public and private school outreach initiatives, university research and subject-matter experts, and urban-savvy arts organizations, are all becoming willing and engaged resources.

When cities face their issues head-on they also find counterparts all over the world with the same problems. An innovative city manager in Oregon is likely to find a counterpart in Asia with the same planning problems. A small town mayor in Nebraska may find a counterpart in Africa with a similar water problem. And Orlando officials are likely to find help in Amsterdam when it comes to dealing with both international and homegrown terrorism.

So while political parties fight and autocrats play bully games, imaginative cities are finding that citizen action, public-private partnerships, and public diplomacy initiatives can get the job done. You might want to read Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows for more examples to renew your hope.

CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour recently nailed it when she said, “My job is to be truthful, not neutral.”

It has been the tradition of much of mainstream journalism to remain neutral by always presenting both sides. That is usually done by putting news makers on both sides on the spot, often debating. But in today’s fake news intensive environment wouldn’t it be better to simply ask for explanations, and then follow by describing how journalistic investigation uncovered the truth?

For example, when serious journalists decide to put news makers on the defensive, those in the audience will usually dive deeper into their biases. They simply hear what they want. But when news makers are only asked to explain the situation as they see it, and then professional journalists describe the truth as they uncovered it, the integrity of the profession is preserved and a little education might also take place.

The morning after the Michael Cohen trial one network anchor demanded that Cohen’s lawyer present physical evidence that the president was involved in payments to silence two women. The intent was to remain neutral and fair. A second network invited former prosecutors, defense lawyers, award-winning journalists, law professors, ethics experts, and experienced strategic communicators to explain what happened and what is likely to come next. Which approach was most likely to polarize audiences, reinforce biases, and possibly perpetuate fake news? And which one might at least provide some useful understanding of the situation?

After the trial the president went off to one of his early campaign “reality TV” rallies… “cheerer-upper” gatherings largely built on lies and gross exaggerations. Journalistic attempts to remain neutral and fair usually result in reporting such rallies as news. But isn’t that approach legitimizing a mostly fake news-driven event? Maybe being truthful rather than neutral requires a completely different approach.

Advancing fake news without realizing it happens to the best of reporters. And it happens most often when journalists just can’t resist reporting one-sided political entertainment or polarizing shouting as legitimate news.

When all is said and done, isn’t Amanpour’s “truthful not neutral” the better professional journalism standard for today’s confusing and divisive information-saturated world?

 

 

On a dramatic television program nothing exists outside the widest camera shot. That boundary defines the total universe for that program. And within that boundary the director is in complete control of where your attention is focused.

Now, imagine that the entire planet is that wide shot, and your attention is focused within it every day by someone who is directing your attention. That would mean that the reality TV issue is much bigger than Mr. Trump. When you think about it, many of us really do get most of our news and information from a television, computer or smart phone screen. and it is orchestrated somewhere by the minds of producers who understand exactly what makes moving images so effective.

Well ahead of the recent digital and social media revolution, the television revolution of the late 40’s and 50’s changed most everything… politics, government, religion, and most especially family and individual behaviors. And just maybe the ultimate impact was that many of us unconsciously and over time came to view producer-directed news as harmless daily doses of entertaining reality!

Most educators today accept that the primary learning advantage of TV is more in its ability to engage us in deep cultural and human experiences than to achieve deep and objective factual knowledge. The best education combines various media platforms, each with its own strengths.

There is little doubt that television has a way of imposing its unique nature on its content. It simply prefers drama and conflict. Camera movements, editing, visual effects, and mood-establishing sound, are all tools that can generate excitement and suspense. Too many details become too tedious for contemporary attention spans.

We are already living in an age where our world very likely is becoming known to us much the same way as we process movies? Simply put, without realizing it too many of us are consuming our news as a form of daily entertainment that we erroneously regard as harmless. It’s like getting hooked on competitive fishing when your only fishing experience is in your home on cable TV!

 

 

 

Imagine a political candidate facing a crowd of supporters. He is anticipating their needs and begins making promises to make things better for them.

As they respond he doesn’t have facts at his fingertips, so he exaggerates by guessing at some numbers. The crowd applauds, so he does it again as his promises multiply. Finally, the crowd is shouting. The sheer joy of the experience becomes a trap that nudges him into even more exaggerations and lies the next time.

He simply does not have enough knowledge to educate constituents about issues. But he finds that the more lies he repeats the more true they sound, even to him. So soon they become rallying cries and full-blown campaign themes. And as crowd after crowd goes crazy with shouts and screams, feeling that exhilaration becomes his narcotic.

The issue of immigration is another case in point. Stopping illegal border crossings has widespread political appeal. A campaign promise to fix the situation can be quite popular. But in making a strong immigration case it’s easy to misrepresent the kind and number of people coming across. Some exaggeration is expected in campaigns, but when the candidate’s exaggerations are responded to with shouts and screams, it becomes all too easy to misrepresent facts even more.

Exaggerations soon become outright lies, and promises for fixes become more and more extreme. In the case of immigration, putting in place some kind of border barrier is a possible step toward a fix. But when a call to build an impregnable wall the entire length of the border is met with wild cheering, a candidate can easily be tempted to keep this theme going… and expanding.

What might have been a reasonable campaign promise quickly can expand into a wild “drain the swamp” idea. It’s just the kind of noise maker angry voters might be craving. A bold border wall proposal may not be practical, but that doesn’t matter. Enthusiastic revenge-seeking supporters can quickly become cult-like, and others will likely climb aboard because they think they will benefit politically and personally simply by association.

So… after our president recently asked his team to hold a press conference and tell the truth about Russian election hacking, he immediately flew off for his next narcotic fix. Standing there basking in the exhilaration of rally lies, exaggerations, shouts, and screams, he totally contradicted what his team had just said about the Russians. Mr. Trump is clearly in his element when entertaining his troupes… but a colleague recently suggested that he should also be saying, “Please stop me, I like this stuff way too much!”