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Some are pointing out that Trump’s speech was fairly well drafted. It clarified a possible world view. Comparing it to past presidential UN addresses, some saw it pretty much as harmless boilerplate. But it was antagonistic. The tone was as much “Trump first” as “America first.” And it did not reestablish the values-based leadership role the US has had in the world.

Later, at a meeting with delegates from Africa he named a country that doesn’t exist and went on to talk about what a great healthcare system it has, raising the same questions many have had about Trump as world leader. World view is one thing. Competent leadership is something else.

In his major address Trump described his ideal world as a collection of independent nation-states, all with leaders asserting that their country comes first, just as he has. He explained this demonstrates that citizen happiness is their primary goal and that this will lead to world peace. The problem with such a world view is that world history, current international conflicts, terrorism, and the cultural diversity of nations, all teach that realistic world problem-solving requires collaboration, compromise, experience, and values-based leadership.

Many think the speech was largely the work of Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor for policy. And while it might provide a clearer explanation for what Trump thinks he believes, he has demonstrated in the first months of his presidency that he does not have the vocabulary, patience, experience, or knowledge of history and international issues, required to lead complex problem-solving.

World view aside, the speech also goes on to viciously attack North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. In the case of North Korea he threatens total destruction and continues mocking its leader by calling him rocket man. For the others, he promises aggressive intervention if they do not establish democracies. Putting aside the fact that there are not enough ambassadors or professionals left in the state department to take all this on, with a series of destructive storms pounding US cities; military commitments already made in Afghanistan, South Korea, Qatar, and elsewhere; and upgrades needed in military training and technology; how could the US handle or finance any of this?

So what we have here is a worldview that ignores the influence of history, cultures, religions, ancient tribes, autocracies, communication lessons, and much more. It also ignores the firmly entrenched international agreements from global warming to world trade that meet the needs of so many other countries. For many, this speech will reinforce why they voted for him. But for many others it was simplistic, antagonistic, and even frightening.

The critical question is will Trump’s antagonistic tone result in war? Much will depend on the experience and influence of the generals around him, and most especially the ability of allies and others to make increased North Korean sanctions work.

Certainly, the tone of Trump’s UN speech was not helpful. But believe me, it could have been much worse.

Here’s a typical daily scenario to think about:

  1. The president sends out another off-the-wall and destabilizing tweet.
  2. Television news puts it on the screen, making it a highly visible HEADLINE.
  3. Then opinion writers, on-line news commentators, talk radio hosts, bloggers, magazine writers, book authors, and even preachers and teachers rant and rave about it, turning a glut of information into confusing clutter.
  4. Soon a major portion of society becomes hopelessly confused, and with experts and pundits disagreeing on every channel, people simply reach for the “off switch” in their brain.
  5. Wait! Suddenly we see a small inkling of reality in the president’s behavior and we begin to think maybe he is changing. Maybe this time is different. But not likely.
  6. People everywhere are finally wearing out. Many feel numb. Some are in denial. Others are burying their heads in the sand. Are we now coming face-to-face with the possibility that a self-serving, wanna-be autocrat, might actually be able to continue indefinitely with his destructive bumbling?

Are there any alternatives? Well, legislators could come to their senses and become statesmen. Democrats could stop dividing against each other and put forth a unifying and inspiring vision for the country. Or as in France, an enlightened independent might find the resources to rise above this mess and mount a campaign to reestablish Thomas Jefferson’s values-based vision of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness!

Now we can see what happened. Politicians became extreme, mean, and hopelessly polarized. Media revolution innovations produced more clutter and confusion than clarity. People left behind by globalization chose the wrong leader. Truthfully, everyone helped build Trump’s swamp. Now, everyone must help drain it.

There are two important communication lessons here: (1) A 70-year-old, self-serving, amoral, mean-spirited plutocrat, simply is not likely to change. And (2) an autocratic, always angry, relentless tweeter, can eventually damage a values-based country beyond repair. So now what?

The benefits are clear: The latest technology tracks storms more accurately than ever. Potential victims get early warnings and important information. Dramatic pictures underscore the seriousness of the situation. Big events such as this deliver large audiences for scientists to tell us what they are discovering about global warming and increasing numbers of intense storms. And the general audience gets to have a vicarious experience of the turmoil without suffering the consequences.

But there also can be unintended consequences for those destined to be victims. Early warning information can be misleading. As accurate as tracking has become, it usually changes at the last-minute. Many can wind up in traffic jams, without enough food, water and fuel, and headed in the wrong direction. And when power is lost they can be out of touch. Can better preparation long before a storm be helpful?

For example, could a digital device with a supply of extra batteries be developed for potential victims that can keep them in constant communication with officials wherever they are? And could people living in storm-prone areas be given an official list and then required to certify that they have stock-piled essential supplies, located already assigned shelters, and rehearsed appropriate responses?

When it comes to the larger mass audience TV producers just can’t resist dramatic possibilities. For example, is it really necessary for journalists to wade into deep and debris-filled flooded areas, expose themselves to blinding wind blasts, stand out in sheets of rain pounding down on their heads, and getting way too close to life-threatening walls of surging water… all while shouting out play-by-play commentary? And is it really necessary for meteorologists surrounded by science-fiction looking apparatus to be giving out the same information over and over, hour after hour. When presented at a fast pace, watching all this can be hypnotic and mesmerizing. But it also is emotionally exhausting and stress producing for many. Wouldn’t regularly scheduled updates be responsible enough news reporting?

Of course, keeping people glued to their screens is the life-blood of 24/7 cable channels. But when main stream broadcasters join in the nonstop coverage it’s easy to see how competition increases to find the most spectacular images. So wouldn’t it be wise for us to now step back and review what actually works best for the victims, and for the larger television audience?

The best use of television and film I believe is to produce after-the-fact news documentaries. This is when entire true stories can be told as stand-alone dramatic presentations with specific lessons to teach. Documentaries can explain how rescue teams work, how neighborhoods can become fertile ground for producing terrorists , or even how 9/11 firefighters became victims themselves. Using television and film to tell these kinds of stories can be dramatic without being misleading.

In an age when a bad-mouthed reality TV star with no governing experience can become president, we obviously still have a lot to learn about this bewildering medium… its positive benefits, and its potential harmful psychic and social consequences.

September 11, 2017.  What a day!

We paused today to remember the horrible world trade center disaster, which all of us watched unfold live on television. And how could it be that on the anniversary of that horrible event we are watching still another devastating event on television, this time a second destructive hurricane in as many weeks.

The mysterious nature of this medium allows us to watch news unfold before our very eyes, and then involve us emotionally and helplessly in the experience. But there are also interesting questions about television’s unique capacity to become a part of the event itself, and then go on to mislead us in unintended ways.

This week I reached a milestone of 400 posts about media and the way they influence social change. And I am more mindful than ever of two media facts that continue to dominate my thinking:

  1. Media Revolutions Change Everything.  After this week and during the months ahead I will broaden my thinking beyond tragic events, leadership, politics, government, and foreign affairs, to include families, individuals, values, religion, education, and more.
  2. Communication Always Fails. And I will also continue to explore the perplexing challenges of trying to communicate effectively in this overwhelming, information cluttered, digital media world.

COMING SOON: My reflections on both the benefits and problems of following Irma on TV. And then, onward.

This essay has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is about how self-centered and hateful communication can screw up everything, especially governing.

We have a president who uses attacks as ways to force deals. He doesn’t negotiate them. He makes demands with no plans in hand, or even the vocabulary required to explain them. He uses an autocrat’s style, transparently driven by a relentless “it’s all about me” ego. Even when he reads a thoughtful script written for him, it’s clear that this uncomfortable “reader” is not really him. And so the fear of what he might say or do next continues.

At the same time, elected officials have created a vicious competition-based legislative process that has become so entrenched there seems to be no other way they can try to do business. The result is severe polarization, extreme thinking, and an overall meanness that has made too many legislators blind to the horror they have created. For the most part, both major political parties are now talking only to themselves internally, making each other believe that their extreme ideologies are best for everyone. All it takes is standing back for a second or two to know that problems just don’t get solved that way.

The result in Washington is a mean-spirited environment, and a totally confused nation. A deluge of negative and contradictory stuff just keeps coming every day from the White House, from legislators, from special interests, and from the news media. And try as they might to sort things out, the 24/7 news media also ends up adding more clutter than clarity.

Finding and communicating simple truth in the midst of overwhelming clutter is almost impossible. There certainly are many good people trying to do it. But in a churning sea of turmoil even top experts can’t agree, constant lies begin to sound true, and the ongoing build-up of clutter continues to confuse. Our only hope is that somehow responsible fact-hawks will persist and endure, and their never-ending determination will sooner or later enable truth to break through.

With the incredible cost of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, frequent nuclear threats from North Korea, and countless other threatening issues facing legislators, what can we expect from a president and federal government in ceaseless and senseless turmoil? Or maybe the better question is this: Will these crisis moments be big enough to break through crippling legislative extremism and a self-obsessed president to finally make the greater public good our national priority? We all better hope so. The stakes have never been higher.

Weather disasters seem to define the crisis management role of cities, states and the federal government with a clarity we otherwise rarely see. We now have another example in Texas. Weather-related or not, the fact is that most large-scale crises happen in cities… be they about gang or police violence, illegal immigration, homegrown or international terrorism, contagious diseases, school shootings, tornadoes, hurricanes, and even transgender-bathroom disputes.

If you have followed the recent weather disaster in Texas you heard the federal coordinator say that local officials are the ones responsible for managing the situation, and that federal resources are authorized by the president when requested by governors. You also heard him dance around questions about homeland security budget cuts and reduced numbers of staff, while giving credit to a president who has been shying away from any out-front leadership. It’s important to note here that this president actually said at a news conference that he picked the unfolding disaster in Houston as the time to pardon a politically supportive sheriff who broke the law because the “ratings would be higher.”

Nonetheless, past experience suggests that Texas can expect federal help for search and rescue, and a presidential visit or two. But search and rescue is one thing, and rebuilding is something else. It’s important to remember that following major storm “Sandy” in the northeast it was politicians from the Texas region of the country who blocked essential additional emergency funding.

It is true that governors have a stronger role when it comes to funding first-responders, mobilizing state public safety and shelter resources, and even calling-up the national guard. But many governors also face disasters with limited budget and staffing levels that are the result of their own narrow partisan priorities. Even so, search and rescue will get funded somehow, and some rebuilding projects probably will too. But Houston citizens were also truthfully told early on by their mayor that they cannot rely on rescue help getting to them, that they should focus on saving themselves, and that they must help each other. And this is precisely what they are doing.

The truth is that when the disaster smoke finally clears getting needed help to citizens will continue to be a relentless and daily city reality. As a result many cities around the world have become extremely effective at taking a practical approach to addressing their own problems… even national and international ones, for that matter. Immigration issues and terrorism threats, for example, are alive in most city neighborhoods.

While nations and states tend to be highly political in all matters, more and more cities are not. Cities are therefore learning to take practical advantage of the many partnership resources available to help them. Universities, public schools, businesses of all kinds, neighborhood groups, experienced professionals, museums, performing arts groups, nonprofits, individual volunteers, associations, churches, civic clubs, supermarkets, restaurants, and even local news outlets… all have strong vested-interests in their cities, and surprising problem-solving capabilities.

On-the-ground experience quickly teaches that serious problem-solving and political ideologies don’t mix. Partisans end up talking only to each other and believing that their narrow ideology-based ideas benefit everyone. These partisans mostly end up problem-creators, not solvers. It’s therefore a very good thing that mayors and city managers around the world are gaining valuable experience in nonpartisan crisis management and practical problem-solving.

Houston will become still another example that these experience-educated city leaders will be needed everywhere in the world in the days ahead.

Communication lessons learned:

Experience and research teach that intended messages are often not what audiences receive. Therefore, what a monument communicates will depend on what its’ various audiences want to receive. And even then, that will likely change when situational, historical or political circumstances change.

When a monument is intended to mark a historical event, it should best be placed in a museum-like environment where context can help reinforce its history lesson purpose. A clearly defined indoor or outdoor museum space with historical captions and explanations is the best approach. Otherwise, any monument will mean different things to different people, and there is no way to change that.

So in the case of today’s monument controversy, unless they are already located in a museum-like space, some people will be thinking either positively or negatively about a divided country, white supremacists and Nazis will have racist and pro-slavery responses, others may simply see a message of hate, and only a very few will see the monuments as purely historical. And the strong emotion produced by all these different responses will very likely lead to hostile demonstrations, and some of those certainly may turn violent.

For better or worse? Simply put, context clearly helps define how most messages are received. If a statement is intended to be historical, a clearly defined historical context is essential. Otherwise, most people will only “hear what they want to hear.”