Archive for August, 2018

CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour recently nailed it when she said, “My job is to be truthful, not neutral.”

It has been the tradition of much of mainstream journalism to remain neutral by always presenting both sides. That is usually done by putting news makers on both sides on the spot, often debating. But in today’s fake news intensive environment wouldn’t it be better to simply ask for explanations, and then follow by describing how journalistic investigation uncovered the truth?

For example, when serious journalists decide to put news makers on the defensive, those in the audience will usually dive deeper into their biases. They simply hear what they want. But when news makers are only asked to explain the situation as they see it, and then professional journalists describe the truth as they uncovered it, the integrity of the profession is preserved and a little education might also take place.

The morning after the Michael Cohen trial one network anchor demanded that Cohen’s lawyer present physical evidence that the president was involved in payments to silence two women. The intent was to remain neutral and fair. A second network invited former prosecutors, defense lawyers, award-winning journalists, law professors, ethics experts, and experienced strategic communicators to explain what happened and what is likely to come next. Which approach was most likely to polarize audiences, reinforce biases, and possibly perpetuate fake news? And which one might at least provide some useful understanding of the situation?

After the trial the president went off to one of his early campaign “reality TV” rallies… “cheerer-upper” gatherings largely built on lies and gross exaggerations. Journalistic attempts to remain neutral and fair usually result in reporting such rallies as news. But isn’t that approach legitimizing a mostly fake news-driven event? Maybe being truthful rather than neutral requires a completely different approach.

Advancing fake news without realizing it happens to the best of reporters. And it happens most often when journalists just can’t resist reporting one-sided political entertainment or polarizing shouting as legitimate news.

When all is said and done, isn’t Amanpour’s “truthful not neutral” the better professional journalism standard for today’s confusing and divisive information-saturated world?



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On a dramatic television program nothing exists outside the widest camera shot. That boundary defines the total universe for that program. And within that boundary the director is in complete control of where your attention is focused.

Now, imagine that the entire planet is that wide shot, and your attention is focused within it every day by someone who is directing your attention. That would mean that the reality TV issue is much bigger than Mr. Trump. When you think about it, many of us really do get most of our news and information from a television, computer or smart phone screen. and it is orchestrated somewhere by the minds of producers who understand exactly what makes moving images so effective.

Well ahead of the recent digital and social media revolution, the television revolution of the late 40’s and 50’s changed most everything… politics, government, religion, and most especially family and individual behaviors. And just maybe the ultimate impact was that many of us unconsciously and over time came to view producer-directed news as harmless daily doses of entertaining reality!

Most educators today accept that the primary learning advantage of TV is more in its ability to engage us in deep cultural and human experiences than to achieve deep and objective factual knowledge. The best education combines various media platforms, each with its own strengths.

There is little doubt that television has a way of imposing its unique nature on its content. It simply prefers drama and conflict. Camera movements, editing, visual effects, and mood-establishing sound, are all tools that can generate excitement and suspense. Too many details become too tedious for contemporary attention spans.

We are already living in an age where our world very likely is becoming known to us much the same way as we process movies? Simply put, without realizing it too many of us are consuming our news as a form of daily entertainment that we erroneously regard as harmless. It’s like getting hooked on competitive fishing when your only fishing experience is in your home on cable TV!




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Imagine a political candidate facing a crowd of supporters. He is anticipating their needs and begins making promises to make things better for them.

As they respond he doesn’t have facts at his fingertips, so he exaggerates by guessing at some numbers. The crowd applauds, so he does it again as his promises multiply. Finally, the crowd is shouting. The sheer joy of the experience becomes a trap that nudges him into even more exaggerations and lies the next time.

He simply does not have enough knowledge to educate constituents about issues. But he finds that the more lies he repeats the more true they sound, even to him. So soon they become rallying cries and full-blown campaign themes. And as crowd after crowd goes crazy with shouts and screams, feeling that exhilaration becomes his narcotic.

The issue of immigration is another case in point. Stopping illegal border crossings has widespread political appeal. A campaign promise to fix the situation can be quite popular. But in making a strong immigration case it’s easy to misrepresent the kind and number of people coming across. Some exaggeration is expected in campaigns, but when the candidate’s exaggerations are responded to with shouts and screams, it becomes all too easy to misrepresent facts even more.

Exaggerations soon become outright lies, and promises for fixes become more and more extreme. In the case of immigration, putting in place some kind of border barrier is a possible step toward a fix. But when a call to build an impregnable wall the entire length of the border is met with wild cheering, a candidate can easily be tempted to keep this theme going… and expanding.

What might have been a reasonable campaign promise quickly can expand into a wild “drain the swamp” idea. It’s just the kind of noise maker angry voters might be craving. A bold border wall proposal may not be practical, but that doesn’t matter. Enthusiastic revenge-seeking supporters can quickly become cult-like, and others will likely climb aboard because they think they will benefit politically and personally simply by association.

So… after our president recently asked his team to hold a press conference and tell the truth about Russian election hacking, he immediately flew off for his next narcotic fix. Standing there basking in the exhilaration of rally lies, exaggerations, shouts, and screams, he totally contradicted what his team had just said about the Russians. Mr. Trump is clearly in his element when entertaining his troupes… but a colleague recently suggested that he should also be saying, “Please stop me, I like this stuff way too much!”

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Daily streams of lying, exaggerating, bullying, and threatening from the White House are causing voices of concern to get louder about dangerous effects on fundamental standards of civility and human decency.

Some basic questions to consider: When does the behavior of a CEO influence copycat behavior in others? Or, do leaders quickly become role models for followers with similar inclinations? Or, as they are now suggesting, can a president’s subordinates implement a set of consistent policies while his behavior is continuing to be more erratic every day?

My past experience consulting with institutions simply teaches that when a leader at the top is seen to be unsteady, leadership can never be successfully taken over from below. Everyone will always look to the CEO when making judgments about how things are going.

I joined a conversation the other day where the participants were lamenting what they believe to be a rapid breakdown of civil discourse in our society. They were arguing that the president’s “only I can fix it” obsession and constant mind changes on critical issues have cancelled out any hope for unifying the nation. And they see this behavior (intensified at his rallies) as inciting serious racial divisions and increasing the likelihood of hostile community confrontations.

Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with political ideology. This is only about a top leader’s choice to either champion good or bad cultural values and open dialogue in nations and institutions, and the impact that choice will have on those inside and out.

When the idea emerges that a strongman’s ends can justify a strongman’s means, it must be remembered that a strongman’s ends most often will be tragic, and a strongman’s means will inevitably establish hostile and fearful communities which eventually will have to be fixed.

That is, of course, if the destruction of vital institutions and firing of talented experts has not already gone too far.




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