Archive for November, 2018

Media revolutions change everything. From families to politics, they change how society works, how individuals behave, and even how the news is reported. In fact, the entire profession of journalism has been permanently changed by the television and digital technology revolutions.

Here are some of the changes:

  • The television and social media revolutions created a media ecosystem of endless, mind-boggling information clutter. The entire journalism profession is struggling to adjust.
  • Growing numbers of TV channels and social media platforms resulted in more emotional content, fewer details, less fact checking, and a lot more consumer confusion.
  • Local newspapers lost significant income and readership when social media took over classified advertising… many local papers closed, and all of them reduced staff and local coverage.
  • “Multitasking” became standard procedure. Each day every surviving reporter had to learn to write website posts, develop stories for the main newspaper, do TV and radio interviews, research complicated issues, cultivate news-maker contacts, and then interview them.
  • 24/7 cable news channels multiplied quickly, focused on breaking news, developed political biases, and promised frequent updates to keep audiences watching.
  • Outrageous claims, unrealistic promises, and personal attacks resulted in headlines, added an entertainment dimension to news, and produced talk show and cable celebrities.
  • Rather than educate, on camera two-way debates resulted in mindless shouting and extreme polarization.
  • Social media platforms, email newsletters, bloggers, websites, and podcasts gradually multiplied, offering special-interest content and advertising that attracted loyal audiences.
  • More aggressive reporting, attacks by political opponents and foreign governments, and overall information overload, gave an air of credibility to charges of fake news.
  • Consumers began to rely on mainstream TV and cable for crisis reporting, and competition for audience among the networks led to non-stop, 24 hour coverage of riots and shootings.
  • Television coverage of events looks real, but TV news can be very deceptive.
  • Communicating with images resulted in a whole new visual language… wide shots define the story’s boundaries, medium shots focus attention on the action, close-ups add intimacy, editing manipulates time and space, special effects add surprise, and moving cameras allow viewers to ride along with the action… and all this comes together to make news into exciting drama.
  • Responding to market forces, talented anchors and reporters change their tone, content, and style to increase audience interest, thereby making news programs even more entertaining.
  • So, can today’s journalists bring us factual clarity in the midst of this new media ecosystem? Probably not. Only widespread media literacy and civics education, coupled with right-thinking leaders in media and politics, can do that.

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Presidents everywhere find many reasons to get upset with journalists. They all would prefer to explain what they are doing as they see it, and simply have that described accurately.

However, when the framers of the Constitution guaranteed “freedom of the press” their idea was that the primary role for reporters would be to ask probing questions. The press was expected to look behind what was said, and expose any wrongdoing.  Over the years most presidents found ways to work with this constructively. Some even enjoyed the challenge. After all, it sharpened their thinking and provided easy opportunities to reinforce their goals.

Mr. Trump and his administration, however, expect reporters to simply report the president’s schedule and accomplishments. As a result, the president began labeling unfavorable reporting as fake news, and has often gone so far as to call mainstream media “the enemy of the people!”

The result is an unhealthy division between the press and the White House. And the “enemy of the people” label adds a seriously dangerous dimension. Deranged individuals can take this statement as permission to bring real harm to journalists and their organizations… including correspondents working in danger spots around the world.

The White House “daily” briefing has simply become too combative and unproductive. Maybe in such a setting journalists should do little more than take notes. Later they can add more information gathered from off-the-record conversations and interviews with inside contacts… offering their professional observations where appropriate. After all, the best investigative reporters have always worked this way.

Eliminating angry confrontations between the administration and the press is critically important, especially right now. We know that unstable people can do stupid things, and we already have too many instances of attempted violence and shootings.

What’s more, when any leader of any country is informed enough on relevant issues, has a well thought out vision for the future, and is capable of a substantive conversation, an experienced journalist will always write an accurate story. But when that leader has no clear plan, is not educated on the issues, and angrily attacks people and situations, the attacks and divisions are what become the headlines.

Of course, there is always the occasional reporter who is arrogant and irritating enough for a president to call a managing editor and ask for a different one. But reporters like that are clearly the exception. On the contrary, professional journalism is precisely what the founders promised us: (1) watch over the health of our democratic republic, and (2) expose the scoundrels.

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After this crazy midterm election, and looking forward to 2020, this seems to be the perfect time to review the basics of media as they very likely will shape the days ahead in politics.

  • Strong television presence is now required to run for most important political offices.
  • Media will continue as weapons… used by partisan competitors and foreign governments.
  • The cost of campaigning will continue to limit who can run for office.
  • The dominance of images and drama has permanently changed news reporting.
  • Commercial judgments will influence story selection even more as journalists become celebrities.
  • The overall 24/7 news deluge, media used by opponents as weapons, and media assaults by foreign governments, will all contribute to “fake news” confusion.
  • TV’s preference for drama will continue to give the presidency access at will, upsetting the balance of power.
  • Those in Congress who perform well on camera will have greater access to news coverage.
  • Newspapers will still be looking for ways to generate revenue, and being competitive. It can affect news judgments.
  • Talk radio will continue to be a force, especially for extremists.
  • Consumers will continue to choose media that reinforce their biases.
  • TV and social media will continue to rob families of bonding time, with various consequences.
  • Evangelicals will continue to use media’s dramatic potential, and mainstream denominations will continue to struggle with media’s behavior consequences.
  • Education will continue to incorporate new media and digital technology, with varied results.
  • Technology made the world smaller, but instead of building unity it magnified our differences.
  • Managing foreign policy is now more difficult as news instantly swirls around the world.
  • Midterm election results have made the White House even more anxious and unstable.
  • Media literacy and civic education as a part of public education will become even more important.

When social media and digital technology connected with the imagery and emotion of television, an entirely new and confusing media ecosystem emerged. Dealing with its consequences will remain a huge challenge in the months and years ahead.

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Democrats won the House and Republicans retained the Senate… a virtual tie.

However, the president held a press conference where he declared victory for himself, offered the possibility of working with Democrats in the House, but quickly followed by reprimanding fellow Republicans by name who asked that he not help them, and warned Democrats that if they launched investigations he would retaliate. Later in the day he fired his Attorney General and replaced him with a political supporter inclined to limit or end Robert Mueller’s investigation.

So is a unified legislature and country even possible? From a communication perspective unity requires ongoing interaction. The problem with Congress is that legislators no longer care about getting to know each other. They aim to win, not to govern as nonpartisan statesmen. As a result, they generally travel home on Thursdays to avoid each other, and no longer move their families to Washington.

Unity requires a business-like openness to new and innovative ideas. It requires respect for each other’s backgrounds and an honest curiosity about what different cultural experiences can bring to the discussion. What works best is a pattern similar to many conferences… work hard in meetings, consider everyone’s ideas, and then adjourn to social receptions and dinners. A combination of business and social interaction that often included family members, is what legislative life was like in Washington in the past.

And when it comes to the news media, a similar pattern of business combined with mutual respect and occasional “get to know each other” events and meetings works best. But when politicians simply label the press fake news for their own combative benefit, and reporters respond with tougher and tougher questions, division is magnified and any possibility of mutual understanding is undermined.

In the real world peace maintenance requires finding at least a semblance of win-win solutions. And a genuine desire for stability is necessary in diplomacy. But when one side declares war, communication strategy shifts from finding common ground to winning at any cost. Media become weapons, divisions become permanent, and winners take all. My fear is that the president has already set up the inevitably of two more years of political warfare and dangerous division.

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Not the pretty ones… I’m talking about the ones in your stomach!  I can’t ever remember being so nervous on election day. The soul of America is on trial. And today, it’s about who we are as Americans!

I must say I identified with former Mayor Bloomberg’s television statement that aired nationwide yesterday. In normal times, he was an independent voter who preferred to split his ballot between Republicans and Democrats… always based on merit and the issues. That was me too. But those were normal times, and these are not.

In previous blog posts I discussed the dangers of polarization, personal attacks, lies, and total partisanship. Bloomberg’s reluctant conclusion is that voting straight Democrat this time is the only way we can shock the system.

We should not be in this situation. I yearn for the day when I can again vote based on the personal integrity, talent, and ideas of the candidate… no matter which party.

But for the life of me I cannot think of a better approach to voting today than Bloomberg’s. It’s the very soul of America that’s at stake!


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