Last week I attended a week of lectures and discussions at Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York presented by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. CSIS is a nonpartisan think tank that focuses almost exclusively on national security issues.

Major topics throughout the week included national security strategy, geopolitics, surprising changes in China, endless turmoil in the Middle East, the changing energy landscape, the future of cyber warfare, and much more.

At week’s end, the always engaged Chautauqua audience came away understanding that there are some very smart people in Washington, that many of them reside in think-tanks, that they are generating very detailed information about global trends every hour of every day, and that CSIS houses one of the best and most nonpartisan group of experts specializing in national security in the world.

But they also came away hearing that there are very few if any firm solutions when it comes to the big issues we are all concerned about: What to do about North Korea? Russian political interfering? Chinese uncertainty? Individual privacy? Globalization consequences? The impact of Trump’s constant rants? Poverty? Energy? Public Health? Global Warming?

In the final analysis, think tank research results in presenting informed action alternatives and expert opinions to government officials for their consideration. But when pressed, most experts admit that the world keeps changing, issues keep getting more complex, and there never is only one right way forward.

But it’s also important to mention here that there are lessons from communication and media research that provide some promise. While it is true that research shows communication always breaks down, that true success requires time and interaction, that media revolutions always change how society works, and that 24/7 digital news is resulting in information clutter and confusion, it can also be said that scoundrels will likely be revealed and defeated, and that with persistence, productive action steps can gradually emerge.

So keep your practical problem-solving hat on, make your expectations for leaders shaped by traditional American values known, and keep your fingers crossed!  Oh, and also make sure you have read the preceding two posts.

Or, is the French presidential election really a precursor for what will soon happen in the US? Put still another way, will young voters and the vast silent majority be looking for a completely new choice outside both parties?

Captured by extreme conservatives, the Republican Party wasted seven years as the party of “no” and failed to prepare viable solutions for America’s complex problems… most especially healthcare. Their voter districts were hijacked by extremists and Congress became hopelessly polarized. As a result significant numbers of Americans simply are disgusted.

Democrats on the other hand want to focus on jobs but also have no real plan. And as in the presidential election, they now run the risk of focusing on the shortcomings of the current president and failing to articulate a viable vision and plan for the future of the country. They also have become a party of extremes and have no compelling emerging leader.

The winning presidential candidate’s “Make America Great Again” slogan may have sounded visionary to some but it has not been accompanied by a mechanism for solving serious domestic problems, and it has not produced a workable leadership role for America in the world. The result is a planet in disarray.

Also in disarray, the people of France rejected their political party mess and elected an outsider as president… one who is strategically smart, articulate, and visionary. Is America ready to do the same?

Could such a leader who is well-educated, internationally experienced, understands practical problem-solving, operates on a set of traditional American values, and has an imagination impressive enough to restore America as the leader of the free world emerge here?

I am betting that it can… because it must.

The talk in Washington is about Russian internet hacking to influence the U.S. presidential election. But future concerns should also be about “bad guys” having the capacity for even more pervasive influences in a country’s economy, institutions and politics. From a citizen’s perspective, these activities can easily operate silently “below the radar,” and are likely in time to become extremely disruptive. The communication process implications here go far beyond computer hacking.

Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Heather Conley, was a co-director and co-author of a study of Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe.  The study was a project of both CSIS and the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD). It is titled, The Kremlin Playbook, and the complete study can be downloaded at CSIS.org.

My take: “Bad guys” can influence political processes with much more comprehensive and sophisticated communication and other tactics than internet hacking. Combining insights from my reading of this new study with those from scanning periodic U.S. news media stories, here is my take on how this frightening process can work:

  1. “Bad guys” make various real estate investments in target countries of special interest, including the U.S.
  2. They also facilitate profitable investments and partnerships in their country for well-healed investors from their target countries.
  3. They then look for specific “mogul level” investors who are willing to consider bigger and more profitable opportunities.
  4. These bigger opportunities will soon involve ethically questionable situations that include “moments” of possible personal “entrapment,” some with later blackmail-potential.
  5. Now, with the help of entrapped investors, bad-guy-operatives begin to infiltrate political activities, with the ultimate goal of influencing election outcomes.
  6. Electronic hacking is an important part of this formula, but only one part.

Has Russia employed these tactics to influence the U.S. political system and voting processes? It certainly seems likely. And if so, will they do it again? Answering these questions with more facts is what the current special investigator’s challenge is all about. But here is the most important question of all: When we finally have all the facts about Russian involvement, will we have the courage to do what needs to be done?

Studying the communication dimensions of leadership has been a strong interest of mine ever since I started years ago working for and consulting with institutional presidents and executives.  There are many lessons. Here are three of the most important:

Lesson One: Presidents set the tone, policy agenda and direction for their institutions or nations simply by what they chose to say… so much so that they even have a “contagious” emotional effect on the behavior others. It is both the opportunity and liability of being a president.

Lesson Two: Never, never bad-mouth your predecessor. Comfortable or not, a new president always stands on the shoulders of those who came before. There are too many influential people still around who supported the others, and not to understand this will almost always prove ruinous.

New presidents obviously need to learn from the mistakes of past presidents. But bad-mouthing them undermines leadership stature, exposes personal ego problems, reveals any lack of knowledge of the institution’s or nation’s history, and significantly diminishes attention on (or reinforces the lack of) a workable plan for the future.

Before I retired I worked closely with several institutional presidents, both at my institution and as a consultant. Each one had to deal with the mistakes of the past. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I learned that for the most part the institution had the right president with the right strengths at the right time. Each president made mistakes, no doubt. But it was far more effective for new presidents to honor past presidents’ contributions then to criticize their mistakes. In this way a new vision and plan could rest on a solid historical foundation while reaching out to everyone, no matter their past loyalties, background, or special interests.

Lesson Three: Don’t pick a fight with the news media. Expressing disappointment about poor coverage is certainly fine, even required. But expressing frustration by relentlessly attacking the media will eventually make any president look weak, think-skinned, dysfunctional, and eventually untrustworthy. Make no mistake. It’s a no-win situation.

What also happens is that the president’s entire staff becomes disorganized trying to respond to daily disjointed attacks and soon find it impossible to advance other far more important initiatives. Like it or not the agenda will always be set by what the  president says that day, and the media will reign in the end simply as a result of the administrative chaos and daily supply of crisis news. “Breaking news” increases readership, broadcast ratings, and media profits. It’s as simple as that.

As we all know the U.S. president did not win the popular election. From a purely communication perspective he won the presidency because of two unlikely situations: He found a large number of legitimately unhappy voters. And his opponent failed to manage an email server crisis, fell into the trap of almost exclusively attacking him, and therefore failed to articulate a plan and vision for the future of her country.

My long experience in communication and media teaches that these hard lessons apply to all top leaders of anything, everywhere. And the lessons most certainly apply right now to everyone currently involved in party politics and government.

We live in a world where experts disagree on most everything and the environment is so cluttered with information that many of us give up trying to understand. In the case of politics many end up voting for a candidate like Mr Trump who sounds like he understands them and promises a better life.

The mess we are in with healthcare is somewhat similar. Experts disagree on what work’s best. And 24/7 news confuses to the extent that we all end up in a “mental fog.”

Topics such as these only confuse most of us: Medicaid extension, Medicaid elimination, private sector-based system, single payer system, premiums vs. deductions, VIP programs, interstate transferable, insurance provider pull-outs, drug costs, tax incentives, lower-income taxes, bankrupt system, and on and on. And now we also are hearing about plans designed in secret, ultra conservatives vs. moderates in conflict, needed amendments, necessary votes to pass, and all this for a program that nobody can understand, and may not want.

The most critical questions remain unanswered: How does all this apply to me? What will I be able afford? Will I lose what I already have?  Were do I go for clear answers? The fact is that while people are choosing sides nobody really knows what they are supporting.

Extreme politics and information clutter have created this confusing and perpetual “mental fog.” With respect to healthcare, it began with political polarization and degenerated into either like and “fix Obamacare,” or declare a crisis and call for “repeal and replace.” Much like in the presidential election, the only choice you really have is to pick the political side you tend to favor, rally around its cause and your legislator, and hope for the best. Or you can drop out in disgust.

Like it or not we are living in a time of  political polarization, big data, information clutter, and mental exhaustion. With respect to healthcare, people simply want an easily affordable and understandable system that covers everyone no matter their illness. Tragically, we are not likely to get it.

The recent tragic shooting at a practice for the annual Congressional baseball game resulted in politicians on both sides agreeing to lower the temperature of their out-of-control angry rhetoric. Many recalled the days when Democrats and Republicans actually socialized, knew each other’s families, developed meaningful friendships, and found ways to work together on legislation.

Turning the temperature down on the rhetoric in Congress is indeed a great idea. But the president must do the same. His behavior and body language with oval office visitors, choice of words in daily tweets, constant bad-mouthing of his predecessor, and strong-man “photo-ops” on foreign visits, all establish an atmosphere which enables and even encourages similar behavior in others.

When news and social media reinforce the drama in political events everything degenerates even more. Eventually pundits begin reporting that the country is disintegrating, and historians remind us of how many great civilizations have totally destroyed themselves.

Partisans always blame the other guy. Republicans began attacking and blocking everything Obama wanted to do, and did so for more than eight years. When “repeal and replace” instead of “we can fix it” became both their strategy and tactic, battles erupted and soon descended into all-out war. And instead of articulating a well thought out plan of action with a vision, the opposition became defensive and lost their way. Many other outsiders went “AWOL” and ran off into “Never-Never Land.” But their absence also became part of the problem.

The natural inclination of the news media is always to enhance the drama. Hostility makes good copy, and conventional wisdom suggests that debating issues is a good thing. It certainly is good television. But the communication reality is that aggressive debating without objective scoring always results in polarizing both debaters and audiences.

Simply put, people hear what they want to hear. A Democrat’s argument only makes a Republican a better Republican. And vice versa. To find our way out of this mess we will need to replace betting on horse races and taking sides in debates with focusing full news media and political attention on finding workable solutions to complex problems.

We desperately need to turn the temperature way down on hostility all across society. Now more than ever each and every politician, government official, journalist, and citizen must play a part in eliminating the wickedness that is tearing us apart… and find specific ways to help save the future of our otherwise values-based country.

A reader recently asked me how public confidence in journalism can be restored. I did not have a ready answer, but promised to reflect on my longtime experience and make some observations.

A compelling article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs argues that Americans are losing confidence in expertise everywhere. Experts are confusing because they disagree with each other. And 24/7 information clutter makes it too hard to sort out the truth. So the result is that a growing number of people just want to find strong sounding leaders they can believe will make their life better. Then, they vote that way and ignore the experts… be they professors, scientists, pundits, or journalists.

Even so, serious journalists remain deeply concerned about the decline of public confidence in their work. To some extent they are indeed victims of this overall changing public attitude about expertise. But they also work for organizations that must be commercially competitive and earn profits. This reality adds additional complications.

In earlier broadcasting days I remember a television production professor of mine pointing to a TV camera and saying, “This is a TV camera. It is used to make programs that deliver audiences to commercials.” At first, news was not seen as a profit center. But as it demonstrated it could become one, “the news” began to change. Producers learned how to attract audiences for commercials that would pay the high cost of news reporting. And they did it by bringing entertainment values into news programming. Gradually they used the power of celebrity and ratcheted-up the pace and drama to make it all more compelling.

But is it possible that by making news more entertaining people now watch it (or read it) mostly for entertainment? Consider that Mr. Trump’s press attacks stimulated a “news war” between the New York Times and the Washington Post and that a colleague told me that he found following it to be quite entertaining. Trump gets his visibility. Television gets viewers. Newspapers get readers. Profits are up. Everyone wins. Except possibly all the serious investigative journalists, and the seriously confused news consumers.

Here are some questions to ponder:

  1. Can pressures for more and more news drama be lessened?
  2. Can preferring fashion model look-a-like anchors and pundits be changed?
  3. Can anchors stop aligning their own celebrity status with entertainment and sports celebrities?
  4. Can overall fast-paced, high drama anchoring be slowed down?
  5. Can using the term “breaking news” just to add drama be stopped?
  6. Can promising “new information after the break” (when only the words change) be stopped.
  7. Can legitimate experts be allowed to finish their thoughts instead of constantly cutting them off?
  8. Does the profession have the responsibility to explain exactly why consumers must become their own editors?
  9. Can “live” TV coverage of clearly outrageous, headline-seeking political events be ended?
  10. Can shouting reporter mobs alter their behavior “optics?”
  11. Should both the uses and hazards of “insider news leaks” be explained more clearly in the reporting?
  12. Should media organizations  underwrite and promote “media literacy” education in schools, universities and community groups?
  13. Should news accuracy policy commitments be visibly broadcast and printed?
  14. Should news consumers be asked to submit ideas for earning their confidence… on-line and in ongoing focus groups?

The U.S. constitution protects the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. But this protection did not anticipate today’s “news business,” and its need to be profitable. Some would suggest that expanding public broadcasting and nonprofit news organizations is the answer. But others accurately observe that adequate funding and creeping commercial underwriting influences are also issues in today’s nonprofit world.

Even in an age where faith in educated expertise might be declining, greater public confidence in journalism is absolutely critical to preserving our nation’s democratic future. My conclusion is that both the news consuming public and journalism professionals have shared responsibilities for finding the best way forward.