Archive for April, 2019

There is no denying it. Leaders at the top of nations and institutions can either set a contagious tone of optimism, or use fear to divide people against each other, and possibly even incite hate.

For example, when a white supremacist has a stash of heavy weapons, a kill list of journalists and politicians, and has already attempted to murder several of them, this is pure hate in action. And when a top leader does or says nothing to stop this person, haters everywhere feel encouraged to act. It’s called “copycat” behavior. And it’s easy to recognize.

So when hate-driven shooters of Jews and Muslims confess white supremacist motivations, numerous copycats can be activated… especially when leaders won’t denounce supremacist behavior dramatically enough. Then, other potential victims begin living in fear, and everyone else constantly feels on edge.

So what is needed to bring a divided nation back together and reestablish a collective sense of optimism? The answer is not difficult: How about an inspiring leader with a clear and compelling vision for the future, strong personal values, solid leadership experience, a pragmatic game plan, and boundless energy? And if we’re lucky, we may already have one auditioning right now!

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Researchers have long pointed out that successful communication can only take place if the message receiver has the same meaning for the words that are used as the message sender. For example, when I say the word “dog,” I am only making a noise. The receiver must have the same meaning for that noise that I do. A dog lover will respond differently than a dog hater, and some people might even be thinking about a person they know!

Recent media revolutions made this communication reality even worse. Many important words are now losing their meanings. They get blurred in the mass of our overwhelming information overload. Simply put, people hear what they want to hear. Words like truth, socialism, conspiracy, collusion, treason, communism, capitalism, extremism, conservative, democracy, republic, spying, and even crisis, are clearly meaning different things to different people.

For example, many Marxist scholars would see socialism as a stage midway between capitalism and communism. And Russian communists will claim they are a democracy simply because they hold elections. When candidates are asked if they are capitalists, their answers will definitely mean different things to different audiences.

During my professional career I would ask groups to define words like these and there always was very little agreement. Most confused socialism with communism. Few had the same understanding of capitalism. And when Bernie Sanders talks about democratic socialism, his audiences will no doubt have differing ideas about what he really means.

Especially today, speakers and writers should always define their most important words before they use them. Or even better, maybe they should avoid using some words completely, and focus mostly on explaining their best ideas, as well as their plan for a totally renewed United States of America.

A positive tone and message for 2020 will be the only way to recapture the American dream. Above all, both parties must avoid drowning in the current administration’s moral cesspool.

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Recent media revolutions created a daily diet of confusing message patterns, processes, and change-producing forces. It requires a big picture perspective to see how these undercurrents of disconcerting messages are changing what is socially acceptable, and how making daily bold pronouncements has become a tactic for gaining and maintaining power.

For example, Mr. Trump’s success is because he unknowingly stumbled into this new media environment. I am sure he was surprised to discover how outlandish promises, lies, cruelty, chaotic disruptions, and “wannabe” dictator demands, could work exactly as his reality TV programs had worked in the past. Even better, he could now change the tone and content of public discourse, while also experiencing “bully pulpit power.” All he would have to do is dominate the media agenda every day by saying things that are outlandish and irritating.

For example, he is making new border control pronouncements almost every day. Since there are no real policy guidelines, he adds irritation simply by contradicting himself. Lacking both confidence and sophistication, he ignores criticisms and just makes more demands and threats. The resulting confusion and chaos is what enables bully pulpit power to emerge.

But the consequence is a seriously divided nation. Significant portions of the general public are experiencing disturbing psychological reactions to these ongoing disruptions. First, people become emotionally and mentally exhausted. Then, they become anesthetized, and simply look away. Many describe deep feelings of depression. All this, while many extremists are actually becoming encouraged and emboldened.

In this new digital media world, would-be autocrats with little substance can dominate the media agenda and gain power. But they also divide us. My goal is to use 50 years of lessons-learned about media dynamics to make you care. Then, I hope you will examine your lessons-learned, and do whatever you can to bring back the United States of America.

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If I was their communication consultant I would tell both parties that their extreme polarization is destroying them. And with a president constantly going crazy with hostile pronouncements, the road ahead is loaded with life-threatening hazards!

Let me first deal with the Dem’s. If they significantly turn up the heat on their Mueller investigation, there very likely will be a voter backlash. I would therefore recommend proceeding very carefully. However, simply by using known facts, they can develop effective talking points for their candidates. Details about the president’s character, cruel behavior, questionable foreign business interests, lack of cabinet experts, and many interactions between his campaign and Russian oligarchs, are already well-known. And now more than ever, these candidates must not get bogged down in the Trump swamp. Winning the 2020 election will require a huge preponderance of forward-looking big ideas, specific plans of action, and bold visions for recapturing global leadership.

What about the GOP? Its problem is that in spite of all the Trump turmoil, Republicans still have their heads in the sand. The idea that a few favorable White House policies excuse overlooking the president’s autocratic ambitions and mindless cruelty has run its course. Endless lies, gross exaggerations, admiration of dictators, and cruelty to everyone, eventually wear out in a media-driven, information-saturated, environment. And now, with the president’s most recent anger-provoking pronouncements, the GOP must focus on saving itself. Republicans desperately need an alternative to Trump who is intellectually capable of explaining the true meaning of the “American dream,” and why people all over the world admire it so much.

I am a critic of both parties, and have been for years. But today’s angry attacks, mindless polarization, and daily rants from the White House, have totally upended the founder’s dream of equal opportunity and justice for everyone. Sadly, it’s the people we elected to protect that dream who will be responsible if we lose it.

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I first began to study communication seriously when television was new. Early on, many of us thought that “talking heads” were boring. We needed lots of pictures because TV was a visual medium. As TV stars emerged, however, we modified our thinking to say that “talking head’s were boring only if their content and performance was boring.

Today, with conservative talk radio and 24/7 cable in our face everyday, the airwaves are filled with nonstop talkers. It’s amazing how compelling they have become for so many of us just by saying the same things over and over, often for weeks at a time. Admittedly, they do alter their language a bit, and sometimes even change guests. But over time most of these talkers bring very few issue-settling insights. And when their guests also develop this now coveted nonstop talk talent, they become regulars.

I quoted a definition of “word salad” in post #477. Now we also have “talk soup!” Together, we have a whole meal. Bon appetit!


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