Archive for September, 2016

A recent Newsweek cover story described in some detail how the Trump organization’s foreign business ties could upend U.S national security should he become president. In a follow-up interview with Judy Woodruff on the PBS Newshour the author described extremely complicated business interests in potentially dangerous countries of the world. He therefore questioned how a sitting president’s family members can possibly run his international business relationships as if it really is a “blind” trust.

If this journalist’s investigative work is accurate, this campaign may no longer be about political ideology or “looking” presidential. It could very well be about national security. Based on this story alone should not every investigative journalist in America be working to verify its accuracy? And if accurate, should not every media organization feel compelled to bring these facts to every citizen?

In addition, are there Clinton Foundation projects related to human rights, immigration, or terrorism that could complicate U.S. foreign policy? Do voters deserve to know more about how having a past president as “first husband” will actually work?

The problem is that the “business of journalism” and the nature of television often favor daily drama over investigation. Reporters are urged to pick up the pace, dramatize headlines and “breaking news,” promise new information when only words change, and cover staged events in anticipation of dramatic headlines more than substance. The unquenchable appetite of 24/7 cable is what led to this situation, but many mainstream newscasts have also been influenced by entertainment values which attract mass audiences.

The debate was interesting. It was good television. But we learned little more than how effective the candidates are as speakers on television. Looking past the debates, if television news continues to focus mostly on the drama of rallies and polls and fails to investigate and report the dangerous implications of candidate entanglements and conflicts, all of America will lose.

We are in the closing weeks of a crazy and scary campaign. Television news must now slow up and bring the best possible research and investigative information to all Americans. Facts, truth and integrity really do matter. We are running out of time… and our national security may be at stake.

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What did you learn about either Trump or Clinton from Monday’s debate that you did not already know?

Television inevitably makes drama from reality. TV debates are no different. TV backgrounds become performance stages. Cameras are attracted to dramatic close-ups. Performances are carefully mapped and rehearsed. What you are seeing is television drama… and acting.

Trump is an experienced reality show actor. He has created drama with his foul and cruel mouth. He lies about facts, but does it dramatically. He has hidden his finances and then makes boisterous claims about his charitable giving. He admires with pleasure the leadership of a Russian dictator. He uses brash and bullying remarks at rallies to incite dramatic responses, which sometimes turn violent. He makes loud and outrageous claims about what he will do without any ideas about how. He is a reality show actor, the world is his stage, and win or lose a dramatic television debate setting tells us little about what he actually will do as president.

Clinton’s public personality has been shaped by controversies. She is a private person that in many ways is impossible for the public to read. She can be very secretive when threatened. She has refused to be transparent about her recent email controversy, which raises concerns about how forthcoming she will be in future crisis situations. She also can be highly political, and therefore could end up reinforcing the very legislative polarization that has this country currently divided. She rehearsed heavily for this television debate performance. With this in mind what did you actually learn about how she will make decisions as president?

If television news only follows the drama of future rallies and polls, and needed investigative work never gets done and visibly reported, we will be relegated to choosing our next president based on who we think will do the least harm.

Note: More to come about this in a few days…



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Television prefers human drama and emotion over explanations of policy details. I learned this the hard way as a public affairs producer early in my career. Drama is simply in the nature of the medium. The more information I crammed into programs the more boring they became. The more I used the camera to stress emotion and drama the more compelling they became.

Trump is a natural. He instinctively creates endless streams of drama while continuously “fogging” details. TV producers simply cannot resist him. Think about his recent rally at his new hotel in Washington. His promise to admit for the first time that Obama was born in America guaranteed live TV coverage. His  insistence on not saying it until the end guaranteed total rally coverage. His setting included military “brass” behind him. And his beautiful hotel was the background. And to add even more hotel exposure he required reporters to come inside if they wanted to ask questions. A perfect television event: Great background. Emotional anticipation. Few details.

In this age of imagery pseudo-events are fast becoming a new reality. Trump’s campaign staff had actually already told reporters what he was going to say. Even so, people were willing to watch the event until the end just to hear the “celebrity” validate it. And when he finally did, he went on to preview the next dramatic episode with a clever misstatement of facts.

What’s more, all of this was hours of free publicity for both Trump’s hotel and his campaign, with no new news. In this age of imagery performers with Trump’s television instincts will continue to compel this kind of visibility. That is unless the vast silent majority and politicians with integrity finally step-up and proclaim they have had enough… and the broadcast journalism profession also musters enough courage to do the same.

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With today’s mixture of outlandish statements, outright lies, and name calling it is becoming more clear every day that without integrity and clarity our words no longer have any consistent meaning.

I was talking with a colleague the other day about why he is so afraid of Donald Trump. He said it’s simple: ” Trump said he admires Putin who clearly is a dictator. He also said that as president if he did not like his generals he would fire them and find ones he did. That sounds to me like a person on his way to creating a dictatorship.”

Another colleague said about Clinton: “She has refused for far too long to explain in simple terms what actually led her to put a private internet server in her home. At first I thought it was just a campaign strategy, but watching her fumble around on television all this time I have come to think she just can’t be trusted to do the right thing.”

Without a base of fundamental integrity and transparency, and without a commitment to the accurate use of language, there is no hope for trusting  any speaker we ever hear or see. If we continue like this in today’s image saturated and social media dominated world we will never know for sure what we are getting in a public servant. And what’s more, this leadership uncertainty can also carry far beyond politics into business, nonprofits, education, and everywhere else.

The basic question now is this: “Are there enough good people in media, politics and the rest of society who are disgusted enough to take charge of the situation and set the standards necessary to save the day?  The irony is that the same digital technology that enable this mess to begin with could actually be used to fix it.

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The word “optics” is creeping into journalism jargon. It essentially means that how and where an event is staged and seen either reinforces or harms the impact of the content of the message.

From a communication perspective optics are therefore extremely important. There is no doubt that the setting and impact of the overall imagery of an event play an important role in how audiences respond. That said, how it actually works in practice is always very complicated.

Leaders already in positions of responsibility need to be careful about the setting they chose for handling crises or dealing with major issues. For example, when a disaster strikes it matters whether a CEO or president is seen commenting while playing a round of golf or while moving to a more “take-charge” looking location to manage the situation.

But when it comes to political campaigns choosing the setting can be a different and more complicated matter. A setting for making comments can look natural and appropriate or it can come-off as contrived and artificial… depending on the predispositions of the audiences. And reactions can even vary among different segments of the same target audience.

For example, when Donald Trump recently appeared in an African-American church would you say he was successful in demonstrating a sincere concern for the plight of the group? Or did he look uncomfortable and out of his element? When he read his statement was he convincing? Or did he sound awkward and artificial? In the final analysis, did he succeed or fail in meeting his objectives?

Some might say he got positive points for just making the effort, no matter how he looked. He may have neutralized the issue somewhat merely because his opponent is gradually losing some ground with this audience. Others might say his real audience was not his regular followers, or even in that church. Rather his target was middle class white Republicans who just wanted to see media reports of him making an effort to reach out to minorities.

When Trump met with Mexican President Pena Nieto did he look presidential?  Some were no doubt predisposed to say yes even before he made the trip. Others were predisposed to say no. Then, when he returned to the US was sounding like a different person detrimental to his cause? Or were the same people already predisposed to like him in both situations?

Optics are certainly important in all leadership communication. Setting and imagery do matter. Predispositions and expectations also matter. But in the case of today’s political campaigns there are just too many conflicting predispositions to be certain of overall results.

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