Archive for December, 2014

The 24/7 news channels fill all day every day with reports written to compel us to stay tuned.  “Breaking news” has become the most used phrase. And digital technology has enabled this kind of immediate, intense and ongoing coverage of crises and disasters from school shootings and devastating storms to riots in the streets and airplane crashes. This week we have still another airplane crash in Asia, and so here we go again.

In such situations there are four basic “news” questions:  (1) What happened?  (2) Who was effected?  (3) What is being done?  (4) And what did we learn? When those questions are answered, why would coverage continue? Are periodic updates not sufficient?

Over zealous continuous news reporting almost always needs to be corrected. Corrections that follow much later get lost in the clutter. In the case of hurricane Katrina early information was full of errors, and later corrections made little difference. Continuous coverage of the Malaysian airplane disaster yielded little if any useful information. When the issue behind recent street riots in the U.S. became clear, what value was continuous live coverage? At what point do television news people become more influencers than reporters?

So what can we expect to learn from non-stop coverage of this most recent air disaster that we would not learn from periodic updates? Or to put it another way: When does news coverage become reality TV? And how do we tell the difference?


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In past posts I differentiated between “normal” and crisis times when it comes to making judgments about how leaders should respond. So was it wise for President Obama to say he wished that Sony would have consulted him before cancelling the film about the assassination of the North Korean President? What was the benefit of inserting himself in this way at this complex moment in time?

In addition to saying Sony should not have cancelled the opening of this movie on Christmas day because of our national belief in freedom of speech, Obama further added that he regarded the North Korean hacking as “vandalism” and not an act of terrorism.

Would it not have been better at this initial moment in the crisis to empathize with Sony’s difficult position and to avoid confusing a very uncertain situation? After all, Sony was responding to theater owners who were legitimately concerned about local crazies using the situation for their own purposes. And further more, maybe Sony was assessing their original “strategic” judgment about releasing this particular satire on Christmas day in a year when ISIS threats could very likely stimulate local sympathizers.

My judgment is that Obama’s critical remarks at this time merely insured more confusion, put Sony on the defensive, handed media pundits a field day, and stimulated angry responses from adversaries in congress about whether it was “vandalism” or terrorism.”

After empathizing with Sony at the initial time of crisis, and adding a firm commitment to find and punish the hackers, would it not have been better to wait a few days for Sony to decide when and how it would release the movie before saying any more? Then Obama could  “own” the moment, take the offensive, support Sony’s decision, and reiterate the nation’s  commitment to freedom of speech. This would also be the perfect time to define the concept of “satire” for the rest of the world, and to make a more careful statement about how the U.S. intends to respond.

It is true that during a crisis a leader needs to sound and look decisive. But in this particular case Obama also needed to avoid making matters more complicated, confusing and polarized.  Adding to the clutter as he did was not helpful.

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The hacking of Sony Corporation’s emails and their release to the public raises a number of critical issues related to the news media’s responsibility when it comes to reporting messages intended to be private. This is a complicated situation, but a very important one to analyze in this 24/7, highly competitive, often unedited, news media world.

Question #1. Do any of these emails have legitimate news value? For example, do some reveal improper relations with elected officials or criminal behavior?

Question #2. Do many of these emails only have “good headline” value because of the celebrities involved, or the sensational private comments of Sony insiders?

Question #3. Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe asked this critical question: “Does publishing most of these emails only result in the media doing the hackers’ bidding for them?”

Question #4. And when one or more media outlets decide to release these emails (and many will), will that mean all others will feel obligated to follow?

What makes this an even broader issue is the reality that making sensational statements of any kind these days can generate widespread headline coverage, and such headlines can multiply over and over. How often does this only amount to “doing the bidding” of the headline seeker?

This is not just a freedom-of-speech issue. It is also one of good judgment. No one questions the right to make these statements. But are they important news stories or merely audience  grabbing headlines?”

Now Sony has decided to delay or cancel the release of this movie. Was making the movie to begin with ever a wise idea? Have the hackers actually won the day?

Make no mistake. Sony’s rights are unquestioned. The news media’s rights are unquestioned. But what about their good judgment?

Should not the more principled news oriented journalists have taken more initiative to differentiate real news from what is merely good headline producing copy? Or if they cannot always make that distinction, should they at least ask the question more frequently?

In this irresponsible, lie infested, information cluttered, digital media world, should not the distinction between our “rights” and our “responsibility for exercising good judgment” become a matter for widespread public discussion? And should not the most responsible and principled journalists take the initiative to facilitate that discussion?

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“In the century ahead, U.S. strategic interests will align more closely with India than they will with those of any other continental power in Asia.”  That is the first line of a very perceptive essay by former Undersecretary of State, Nicholas Burns, in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs.

There was a widespread burst of enthusiasm in the U.S. when newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, signaled that he wanted to build a more ambitious partnership with the United States. And now there are reports that Russia’s Putin is making his own overtures to India about the possibility of building a pipeline and engaging in nuclear projects.

Anticipating this may be why Nicholas Burns urged the White House to respond quickly following Modi’s election. He pointed to already ongoing military ties and cooperative projects on space, science, technology and education as examples on which to build.

But Burns also acknowledged some stumbling blocks that need to be quickly overcome. These include specific trade disagreements, complications involving Pakistan, and discouraging taxes on new investors. Even educators have been encountering some surprising stumbling blocks.

For example, I traveled to India as a part of a delegation of university presidents and state legislators. We were welcomed by university administrators with open arms. There was little doubt they were interested in forming partnerships. Before we knew it we were being asked to sign letters of intent. Their primary interest was faculty exchanges. But it soon became obvious that these exchanges very likely would be lopsided. They could upgrade their teaching with US faculty. In most cases, however, their faculty would contribute little to US institutions. And there were financial barriers to establishing more comprehensive win-win institutional partnerships.

But if those barriers could be addressed I saw incredible long-term opportunities. I was there primarily as a speaker to deliver an address about why international higher education should be seen as a pure form of public diplomacy… people-to-people relationship building. I affirmed the value of strong institutional partnerships, and talked at length about the potential of those partnerships to solve the most pressing international problems… from water, energy, hunger, poverty, global warming and public health, to rebuilding institutions torn apart by revolutions.

If Mr. Modi’s interest in partnering with the U.S. is sincere and trade and education restrictions can be addressed, I believe a strong partnership between India and the United States has endless possibilities. And our shared commitment to democracies should clearly keep Mr. Putin’s self-serving nationalistic ambitions out of the game.   

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For the past two weeks the demonstrations and accompanying violence in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of a young black male has concentrated the world’s attention on just how much tension exists in many of our cities. And now we have still other police brutality issues in the news, including one on the streets of New York. This is causing a number of international adversaries around the world to point out that while we like to preach human rights issues we have some serious ones of our own.

A recent blog post of mine discussed where a president should be located during a crisis in order to exercise effective leadership. Different crises bring different expectations. Should he stay at the White House? Should he go to the site of the crisis? Or should he locate somewhere else?

A panel of journalists on Face the Nation Sunday discussed whether or not President Obama should go to Ferguson to facilitate a community conversation in order to heal the wounds. John Heilemann of Bloomberg Politics, argued strongly that Obama should go there because only he has the credibility to help bridge the gap and find some common ground. And besides, since he is in his final years as president he need not worry about political consequences. He is free to focus totally on understanding the issue and finding ways forward.

Michael Crowley of Time Magazine, however, pointed out that attempting productive dialogue in a setting where all the facts are still not clear could very quickly become counterproductive. Opinions about what actually happened would no doubt become and remain the focus.

Crowley suggested that Obama should find a city that could serve as a model for how such police-community relationships are already being discussed and improved. In such a place he could lead a constructive community conversation while bringing his personal experiences and insights to bear on the topic. In such a setting, the focus can be on coming to understand all the ramifications of this complex issue and how it can be addressed in cities everywhere.

In crisis management you always try to know all the dimensions of the issue at hand and all the details of exactly what happened before you make any comment. The reality, however, is that each crisis has its unique aspects, and you are likely to encounter new facts as the story unfolds. Since the case in Ferguson still has facts under contention I favor Crowley’s approach. By working with a city already addressing the larger issue Obama can bring insights and experiences to this topic that others cannot. He simply should not miss this opportunity to handle this in a constructive and positive way.

In this context, 24/7 television might actually turn its attention away from the drama of street violence and business burnings to feature the dramatic human interest stories on all sides of this very complex issue.


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