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Experience teaches that once someone speaks in anger, and then repeats it many times, it is all but impossible to “walk it back,” or soften it enough to make a difference. With that in mind, it has really been interesting to watch and listen to Mr. Trump on his recent trip to Asia.

Many foreign affairs analysts were hoping that our president would “walk back” much of the mean-spirited ranting he had been aiming at China. During the campaign he attacked its monetary policies and trade practices many times over. On this trip, however, he tried to walk back all that he could by congratulating China on successfully taking advantage of its trade advantages… but then he blamed past US administrations for creating the problem.

Before arriving in South Korea he tweeted that North Korea’s leader was short and fat. But later he walked this back and softened his past name-calling by suggesting that there might be the slight possibility of a negotiation. Of course, he added a few softened threats at the end.

The real question is this: Can a simple walk back provide the needed space for reaching an interim ceremony-only agreement, or at least a quick hand shake? Experience suggests that this kind of ceremonial agreement might be possible, but it will be very temporary. Later when professional diplomats gather to work, all bets will be off. Longer term communication possibilities will have already been defined by past rhetoric and behaviors.

Make no mistake, longstanding values, repeated statements of beliefs, and widely observed behaviors clearly demonstrate how much a person can be trusted. And it’s trusting that leaders will do what they say and make good on their promises that increases numbers of followers.

So did walking back any of his words change how the world will view Mr Trump? Experience suggests that it’s not likely. Mr. Trump must have concluded this because he headed off to the Philippines to meet with an autocrat while most Asian nations stayed behind to work out a new multilateral trade agreement, with China being the likely winner.

Speaking of autocrats, in a brief encounter Mr Putin apparently said flatly that Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the US presidential campaign. And, of course, Mr. Trump quickly announced that he believed him.

It is not surprising that in the months ahead our president will be dealing with many different autocrats. And he has been consistent in his admiration for their control and style. So did his walking back rhetoric lay any foundation for making America great again? Or even more to the point: Did he make you proud by advancing your “idea of America”?

 

 

Last week the senate committee on foreign relations met with both the secretaries of defense and state. I watched what seemed like endless give and take as these two powerful men sat next to each other answering probing questions.

The purpose of the meeting was to hear the administration’s perspective on authorizations for the use of military force. However, it seemed to me that the senators were really looking for ways to recapture their constitutionally defined “checks and balances” role.

Each secretary carefully made the case that in today’s rapidly changing world the president simply must have the power to strike quickly, especially when an adversary is seriously threatening us. The senators’ concern, however, was that this authority has amounted to giving presidents the power to engage in small adversary-related battles and air strikes at any time most anywhere in the world. And this is happening right now in Africa.

In today’s social media, 24/7 news, and Internet connected environment it seems reasonable to conclude that sorting out the details related to writing a military strike authorization policy might be next to impossible. But as various verbal challenges went back and forth across the room, it soon seemed apparent to me that the real agenda here was unspoken, and would remain so: Can this particular president be trusted to address these increasing threats carefully and intelligently?

Sitting next to each other these secretaries were explaining what to many would seem obvious: Modern presidents will likely face these split-second life and death decisions more than once. But right there in front of everyone was a secretary of state who reportedly had recently labeled his boss a moron, and was now trying to describe why such a president should have the power to authorize military strikes… even nuclear ones. Was this more reality TV, or what?

For people to feel confidence in high stakes leaders there must be a level of trust that can only be earned over time by demonstrating a strong moral character, solid and relevant experience, obvious high intelligence, and a record of good judgement. This is just common sense… and an often demonstrated communication 101 principle.

The presidential election literally shocked me into focusing on understanding the evolving role and power of digital media in leadership.  Looking back, however, I can now see that my interest in media actually began when I was a teenager, and then gradually evolved through several extremely disruptive communication revolutions.

In the late 1950’s I thought the highest calling in life was to be a rock’n roll disk jockey. I was growing up in a working class setting in central Pennsylvania just two hours down the road from Dick Clark and American Bandstand. And I was mesmerized by it all. Announcers somehow could sit alone in a studio unable to see their audiences, and yet still be able to delight millions of people! This seemed magical to me.

Later on at American University in Washington I worked at the campus educational radio (later to become “public” radio) station where program hosts were learning how to delight audiences by appealing to their imaginations. They would read imaginative stories, describe beautiful landscapes, broadcast live performances with colorful descriptions, and generally ask their audiences to sit back and paint mental pictures. It was here where it really sank in that this radio thing was much more than rock’n roll!

But then I had my first encounter with television in 1966 at TCU. Here it became immediately clear that TV’s potential was even greater than radio’s. It could produce an even bigger impact by creatively combining camera movements, picture editing, dramatic sound, and other electronic surprises. TV was able to select what people saw and didn’t see… and then control pacing and timing to produce a completely engaging and often captive dramatic experience. Many viewers admitted they were drawn into this experience so completely that they became unaware of the people around them and would completely lose track of time.

About this time, Marshall McLuhan, a media scholar at the University of Toronto, was describing TV’s growing power in rather compelling ways. His basic observation was simply that when television came into the family, politics, education, government, foreign policy, religion, journalism, etc., all of them went through radical changes in how they functioned. In other words, the medium itself was often more powerful than its content.

It was easy for me to see that when the TV set came into my house it changed the way we arranged the furniture in our favorite room. That alone changed how we spent huge amounts of time. Many families would now be robbed of critical bonding time, leading some analysts to think that this change in interaction might account for reported increases in family problems. In fact, some observers argued that regular viewers were very likely to become more emotional, less rational, and even more prone to resort to violence when provoked. This “you are what you eat” theory of communication is an over simplification, but its overall implications are still worth thinking about.

Fast forward to the current digital and social media revolution and analyze for yourself the time we are now spending with computers, multiple social media platforms, sophisticated cell phones, and the Internet…  and the likelihood that all of these are radically changing society and individuals once again.

There is much to question about the consequences of less human face-to-face interaction, too much information to process, constant challenges to personal values, tendencies for repeated lies to sound true, bewildering changes in leadership dynamics, and the impact of these and other current issues on everyone’s overall sense of well-being.

This must be how I became obsessed with media!

 

This question came up in a recent conversation with colleagues about current news stories, and led to a more general discussion: Why do news organizations all seem to cover the same thing… and often do so to the exclusion of other important stories?

This is often referred to as”herding.” Simply put, anticipated audience interest dictates what news outlets cover. This almost always leads to everyone herding to the same place or story. The day’s news agenda can be determined by many things… an outrageous presidential tweet, a legislator’s dramatic pronouncement, a mass shooting, a violent demonstration in some other part of the world, or most any other earthshaking event.

For example, most news outlets followed the first wave of refugees across Europe, with each reporter seeking a dramatic story advantage. When boats capsized in Greece, most outlets sent reporters looking for an interest-grabbing edge. When a mass shooting happened all organizations sent reporters. And when bad weather wreaked havoc reporters and even celebrity anchors came from everywhere to stand in the rising water and compete for dramatic action photos. When any or all of this is going on, other important stories are likely being deferred.

It must be noted that social media has given Presidential tweets a new and often troubling kind of headline-setting edge. Puerto Rico, Hillary, Obama, or NFL tweets have been making headlines. Trump can push everything else aside and make it all about himself. From the media’s perspective, producers and reporters must grapple with his enormous ego while having little time for other stories. But any incentive to change weakens when ratings strengthen.

For those of you missing all those other important stories, worldwide coverage can still be found in many major newspapers and news magazines. But for the general public, media herding will likely continue to determine what we get. So in order to make any sense out of all this clutter we will have to learn how to control and manage our personal media consumption.

With all this in mind, I find myself urging once again that we establish media literacy education in all segments of our communities… in schools, civic associations, churches, nonprofits, and even in media organizations themselves.

One of the most frightening features of the digital technology world is that lies and doublespeak repeated endlessly can begin to sound true. This is especially so when the audience’s needs are acute and promises are delivered with a tone of believable commitment.

So Trump’s promises to make healthcare easily affordable for everyone and cover everything sounded credible enough in his campaign rally moments. His promises to cut taxes for the middle class and poor did as well. And the beat went on. For those not in his campaign audiences, however, it became crystal clear early on that he had no ideological or moral center that would make him trustworthy or reliable.

Now as president his chickens are coming home to roost. He disguises his failures to deliver on promises with doublespeak. Listen to what he says very carefully. His tone is all promotion. His content is incomplete. His sentences are disconnected. And his words are often garbled. In short, he sounds confident… but what he is saying is always incomplete, and therefore makes little sense.

During the campaign his general contempt for his predecessor caused him to declare past international agreements and treaties destructive to U.S. interests. But he said this with no substantive explanation. Now with no path forward, he has world leaders declaring the end of America’s values-based global leadership. So NAFTA, the Transpacific Partnership, the Paris Accord, UNESCO, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, etc. are now in various stages of decline or outright abandonment… with no regard for the loss of U.S. prestige, respect, or trust.

So what are the long-term consequences?  Just think about it. With promises not kept, agreements abandoned, daily tweets that only disrupt and confuse, and endless doublespeak sprinkled with lies, who in the world will ever be able to trust anything he says, or deals he makes? This is not politics or ideology. It is just how communication works.

Bob Schieffer’s new book, Overload, argues that today’s digital media clutter makes it more difficult than ever to find the truth. Social media and the Internet have produced a deluge of unreliable media outlets. In this confusing new world, Bob wants the consumer to know that the mainstream news media still fact-check stories before releasing them.

But how can we consumers cope with mind-boggling implosions of information every single day, some fact-checked and most not? Before we process one day, we are bombarded again the next. And this goes on relentlessly. Is there any consistent truth to be found in such a world? Or, are most of us only grabbing bits and pieces of “stuff” to reinforce what we want to believe?”

My worry comes from having tracked this mess for the last several years. In the presidential campaign we were asked to process exaggerations, vulgarities, extremists, personal attacks, bullying, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. Eventually we found ourselves realizing that even big lies repeated often enough begin to sound true.

Experts have always disagreed about facts. But in a digital technology world those daily disagreements tend to merge into a kind of permanent confusion. And even the “big data” research capacity of digital technology can be manipulated in many different directions. One political pollster once whispered to me, ” We like institutional and governmental transparency because with all that data I can prove anything I want!”

My fear is that the real consequence of this last media revolution is the creation of a mystical and foggy information “cloud” where facts helplessly turn to mush.

For example, when watching war on television I see what’s happening with my own eyes. But when camera shots and editing converge into cinema I can see either winning or losing, whichever truth I prefer. I tried to decide how I felt about the Vietnam and Iraq wars by watching live reports and only ended up even more confused. Recently, I found out from Ken Burns that very little of what I thought I learned about Vietnam was true.

So is truth dying, or is it already dead? Maybe all we have is the hope that the best ideas will magically emerge and somehow gather together to advance the greater good. I keep searching for a better conclusion and the best I can come up with is serious media literacy education in schools, organizations, associations, and the media themselves.

I was struck by a headline I saw this week regarding recent university demonstrations protesting speakers with extreme points of view. The headline simply stated: Worthy Speech. Not Free Speech.

For many, free speech is in the very fabric of what universities are all about. Scholars, students, staff, and all members of an academic community are supposed to be willing to listen to all points of view, learn something from the experience, and then simply agree to disagree when appropriate. So what is happening?

During a recent conversation on campus I suddenly realized that the digital media revolution not only changed teaching and learning, but it also changed the very nature of speaker events. And what may surprise you, the presidential campaign had actually demonstrated this change right before our very eyes.

During the campaign Trump was able to use outrageous statements to compel TV coverage at virtually all of his rallies. Anticipating these statements every day, 24/7 cable could not help but broadcast them. The result was incredible free publicity and high visibility for Trump, even when his statements were lies and personal attacks. Other candidates and events simply could not compete for broadcast time and visibility.

From then on extreme speakers would use live speeches to advance their narrow causes far beyond the event by using digital media… from cable TV, to talk radio, to Twitter, to Facebook, and more. And a campus event would be no exception. Some accepted extreme speakers as exercises in free speech. But I am now convinced that more and more people are resenting (often emotionally and unconsciously) having campus events used as stages for digitally promoting and advancing the most extreme causes. The big question now has become: Is the speech worthy?

New media clearly has muddied the waters when it comes to providing constructive environments for the thoughtful consideration of all points of view. Everyone is on their own to identify what they believe to be “worthy” ideas. All we can do now is hope those ideas that best advance the greater good are the ones that will win out in the end.