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Archive for the ‘Lessons Learned’ Category

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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We now live in a media-ecosystem where constantly repeated lies sound true, vicious personal attacks abound, and celebrated experts disagree on everything. The accumulated impact of all this on the nation’s culture is deep social divisions, dangerous feelings of anger, increasing acts of hostility, and growing voter confusion.

Gerald Seib, Washington Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, offered that no matter the election outcome, Mr. Trump already owns the soul of the Republican Party. My concern, however, is more for the soul of the American people!

Candidates who support the president have rationalized that they can overlook his cruelty and lies because they support his policies. They accept that ends justify any means, and are willing to overlook that it’s the “means” that establish the country’s cultural norms. And many candidates on the other side don’t seem to understand that counterattacks only widen social divisions. What is needed from each party is an inspirational and unifying vision that is grounded in our country’s founding ideas of freedom, opportunity, and justice for all. In the past, if one party doesn’t provide that, the recourse has been to vote for the other.

Anyone who ever studied communication knows that words really do matter. CEO’s and presidents have the power to choose to be a force for the common good, or a force that stirs angry passions, or a force that calms when events require. The problem is that this president doesn’t have enough empathy to know what’s appropriate. As a result, he awkwardly reads the few sensible scripts that are written for him, and then quickly reverts to the only style he knows… that of a dramatic television entertainer. Once he get’s started, the only material he has is what he makes up. He never had the patience to study social issues, and never paid attention in history class.

Sadly, the only solution I see is at the ballot box. A BIG surprise in the election next Tuesday could be the catalyst needed for some immediate change. Not that one party is the victor over the other, but rather that maybe all this election mess will convince both parties to finally make the system work more respectably.

Beyond that, we sorely need intensive media and civics literacy training for our schools, universities, social media initiatives, Internet sites, professional association programs, community organization agendas, and other critical issues projects. Admittedly, this is a long-term undertaking, but it will be absolutely essential if we are to survive this mess.

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Following this week’s pipe bomb incidents, will any candidates on either side have the fortitude to condemn all the lies, bullying, and angry attacks that have become tactics in too many campaigns, including the president’s? 

Certainly there must be traditional Republicans, thoughtful Democrats, Independents, and heretofore non-voters who are finally disgusted enough with the fear-mongering, constant lying, and angry attacks on individuals devastating our politics.

After this week, it should be possible for candidates in both parties, and at all levels, to call out this loathsome behavior, and to do so without getting down in the gutter themselves. Really, how can any candidate with a conscience go forward if they don’t condemn and help clean up this mess?

Here’s what a candidate can do when mud begins flying: Temper tantrums, “me first” boasts, vulgar and vicious attacks, false claims of immigration horrors, supportive references to violent acts, senseless fake news charges, strings of bold-faced lies, and campaign rallies that are no more than political wrestling matches, can be labeled, described, condemned, and countered, from a position of self-confidence and strength. Accomplish this quickly, and the real substance of the campaign message can become practical and substantive ideas and plans for a better America.

Some candidates have sidestepped this mess by focusing on healthcare, tax cuts and jobs. These are important issues.  But what we have now is all out attacks on individual people, legitimate news organizations, and common decency by too many candidates. And this is creating dangerous societal divisions that are threatening the very foundation and future of our democratic republic.

Our country desperately needs candidates who will take this on. And people of good will in both parties should do the same.

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When an ally goes rogue… words matter. They really matter.

Beginning with the deliberations that culminated in the U.S. constitution, human rights has been a major feature of American exceptionalism. It is the core idea that resulted in a war to eliminate slavery, and what countries the world over have come to count on as the lead idea of U.S. foreign policy.

The recent crisis with Saudi Arabia certainly tests this core American value. Even with periodic sanctions, there is little doubt that financial benefit is replacing human rights as the primary concern of the current U.S. administration.

Words matter a great deal when it comes to establishing a country’s brand identity. The words you lead with are the ones that define you. It makes a big difference whether you lead with human rights concerns and follow later with protecting your financial interests, or whether you lead first with your financial priorities and add a few sanctions later.

And what makes matters worse with the Saudi’s is that constant lying and disdain for journalists on both sides raises serious questions about the overall autocratic interests of both leaders.

It therefore is critically important right now for Americans who understand their heritage, and want to preserve those basic values, to speak out in support of universal human rights. 

With this Saudi situation, the rest can play out later. But it will only do so if Congress finally performs its proper checks and balances duties.

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A recent program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, cosponsored with the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at TCU, explored the theme “Promoting Democracy and America’s Global Leadership.” While the program examined the news of the day, it also demonstrated how organizations are able to continue promoting a more traditional idea of America, even when the administration in power is not.

Susan Glasser, staff writer for The New Yorker, moderated a conversation with Daniel Twining, President of the International Republican Institute, and Derek Mitchell, President of the National Democratic Institute. And while the names of these organizations obviously convey a partisan bent, the conversation that evening clearly demonstrated that both organizations continue to promote very traditional ideas of America.

Just imagine the impact that concerned university presidents, business executives, NGO chief executives, executive directors of nonprofit, and active volunteers can have… all still operating effectively in today’s America. By merely promoting their cultures, values, visions, and societal initiatives they demonstrate their freedom, and the essential role they play in American enterprise. In fact, these institutions and leaders are what really make America great, and truly distinctive in the world.

We must therefore encourage everyone to take every opportunity to speak out on behalf of democracy and our institutions. We must encourage our friends to do it. And we must let journalists know that we expect the same from them. Telling more success stories about American institutions and individuals will provide much-needed context for our daily diet of negative news.

And word-of-mouth is still our most powerful form of communication. In today’s digital world it’s called “buzz.” But no matter the name, it remains super powerful. So get out there… and keep talking!

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