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Archive for the ‘Media Literacy’ Category

This essay has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is about how self-centered and hateful communication can screw up everything, especially governing.

We have a president who uses attacks as ways to force deals. He doesn’t negotiate them. He makes demands with no plans in hand, or even the vocabulary required to explain them. He uses an autocrat’s style, transparently driven by a relentless “it’s all about me” ego. Even when he reads a thoughtful script written for him, it’s clear that this uncomfortable “reader” is not really him. And so the fear of what he might say or do next continues.

At the same time, elected officials have created a vicious competition-based legislative process that has become so entrenched there seems to be no other way they can try to do business. The result is severe polarization, extreme thinking, and an overall meanness that has made too many legislators blind to the horror they have created. For the most part, both major political parties are now talking only to themselves internally, making each other believe that their extreme ideologies are best for everyone. All it takes is standing back for a second or two to know that problems just don’t get solved that way.

The result in Washington is a mean-spirited environment, and a totally confused nation. A deluge of negative and contradictory stuff just keeps coming every day from the White House, from legislators, from special interests, and from the news media. And try as they might to sort things out, the 24/7 news media also ends up adding more clutter than clarity.

Finding and communicating simple truth in the midst of overwhelming clutter is almost impossible. There certainly are many good people trying to do it. But in a churning sea of turmoil even top experts can’t agree, constant lies begin to sound true, and the ongoing build-up of clutter continues to confuse. Our only hope is that somehow responsible fact-hawks will persist and endure, and their never-ending determination will sooner or later enable truth to break through.

With the incredible cost of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, frequent nuclear threats from North Korea, and countless other threatening issues facing legislators, what can we expect from a president and federal government in ceaseless and senseless turmoil? Or maybe the better question is this: Will these crisis moments be big enough to break through crippling legislative extremism and a self-obsessed president to finally make the greater public good our national priority? We all better hope so. The stakes have never been higher.

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Communication lessons learned:

Experience and research teach that intended messages are often not what audiences receive. Therefore, what a monument communicates will depend on what its’ various audiences want to receive. And even then, that will likely change when situational, historical or political circumstances change.

When a monument is intended to mark a historical event, it should best be placed in a museum-like environment where context can help reinforce its history lesson purpose. A clearly defined indoor or outdoor museum space with historical captions and explanations is the best approach. Otherwise, any monument will mean different things to different people, and there is no way to change that.

So in the case of today’s monument controversy, unless they are already located in a museum-like space, some people will be thinking either positively or negatively about a divided country, white supremacists and Nazis will have racist and pro-slavery responses, others may simply see a message of hate, and only a very few will see the monuments as purely historical. And the strong emotion produced by all these different responses will very likely lead to hostile demonstrations, and some of those certainly may turn violent.

For better or worse? Simply put, context clearly helps define how most messages are received. If a statement is intended to be historical, a clearly defined historical context is essential. Otherwise, most people will only “hear what they want to hear.”

 

 

 

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To what extent does the overall tone of presidential leadership influence the behavior of members of the public. If that tone is positive and unifying will it help bring about unity? And if it is combative and hostile will it encourage people with similar inclinations to act out their anger?

My experience over the years working with institutional presidents is that their tone certainly influences the cultural characteristics of their institutions. When a president is out front and aggressive, message tone often shapes brand identity more than the content. Sometimes it’s a culture of strong optimism. Sometimes it’s a culture based on deeply felt human values. Sometimes it’s a culture of big vision and teamwork. But sometimes it can be a negative culture of blame and unending criticism. And especially when that tone is the expression of the president’s long-established attitudes and behaviors, it is not likely to change.

The president of a nation similarly sets the tone for that nation with words and deeds. A chief of staff can improve daily operations. Second level administrators can set a different tone for their operation.  But only the person at the top can establish the nation’s tone.

So what about Charlottesville?  Did the previously combative and autocratic style of the current U.S. president establish a tone that encouraged white supremacists and other hate groups to show up, feel empowered, and behave violently? If his consistently hostile tone was a factor in causing the event, what happened when the television cameras arrived?

Clearly, television coverage gave the event a world-wide audience. Close ups made the violence more emotional. Lively reporting and commentary turned it into engaging “reality TV,” a situation with which Mr. Trump is perfectly comfortable. Those who planned the event got the mass publicity and validation they wanted, and the final outcome is that we are left with the fear that copy-cat violence and events like this will likely be ongoing public safety worries.

Make no mistake, a consistent and combative tone at the top of any organization or nation will encourage people with similar hostile inclinations to act out their anger in both small and large ways. When this happens, entire organizations and societies will inevitably experience increasing amounts of hate speech and violence.

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The talk in Washington is about Russian internet hacking to influence the U.S. presidential election. But future concerns should also be about “bad guys” having the capacity for even more pervasive influences in a country’s economy, institutions and politics. From a citizen’s perspective, these activities can easily operate silently “below the radar,” and are likely in time to become extremely disruptive. The communication process implications here go far beyond computer hacking.

Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Heather Conley, was a co-director and co-author of a study of Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe.  The study was a project of both CSIS and the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD). It is titled, The Kremlin Playbook, and the complete study can be downloaded at CSIS.org.

My take: “Bad guys” can influence political processes with much more comprehensive and sophisticated communication and other tactics than internet hacking. Combining insights from my reading of this new study with those from scanning periodic U.S. news media stories, here is my take on how this frightening process can work:

  1. “Bad guys” make various real estate investments in target countries of special interest, including the U.S.
  2. They also facilitate profitable investments and partnerships in their country for well-healed investors from their target countries.
  3. They then look for specific “mogul level” investors who are willing to consider bigger and more profitable opportunities.
  4. These bigger opportunities will soon involve ethically questionable situations that include “moments” of possible personal “entrapment,” some with later blackmail-potential.
  5. Now, with the help of entrapped investors, bad-guy-operatives begin to infiltrate political activities, with the ultimate goal of influencing election outcomes.
  6. Electronic hacking is an important part of this formula, but only one part.

Has Russia employed these tactics to influence the U.S. political system and voting processes? It certainly seems likely. And if so, will they do it again? Answering these questions with more facts is what the current special investigator’s challenge is all about. But here is the most important question of all: When we finally have all the facts about Russian involvement, will we have the courage to do what needs to be done?

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We live in a world where experts disagree on most everything and the environment is so cluttered with information that many of us give up trying to understand. In the case of politics many end up voting for a candidate like Mr Trump who sounds like he understands them and promises a better life.

The mess we are in with healthcare is somewhat similar. Experts disagree on what work’s best. And 24/7 news confuses to the extent that we all end up in a “mental fog.”

Topics such as these only confuse most of us: Medicaid extension, Medicaid elimination, private sector-based system, single payer system, premiums vs. deductions, VIP programs, interstate transferable, insurance provider pull-outs, drug costs, tax incentives, lower-income taxes, bankrupt system, and on and on. And now we also are hearing about plans designed in secret, ultra conservatives vs. moderates in conflict, needed amendments, necessary votes to pass, and all this for a program that nobody can understand, and may not want.

The most critical questions remain unanswered: How does all this apply to me? What will I be able afford? Will I lose what I already have?  Were do I go for clear answers? The fact is that while people are choosing sides nobody really knows what they are supporting.

Extreme politics and information clutter have created this confusing and perpetual “mental fog.” With respect to healthcare, it began with political polarization and degenerated into either like and “fix Obamacare,” or declare a crisis and call for “repeal and replace.” Much like in the presidential election, the only choice you really have is to pick the political side you tend to favor, rally around its cause and your legislator, and hope for the best. Or you can drop out in disgust.

Like it or not we are living in a time of  political polarization, big data, information clutter, and mental exhaustion. With respect to healthcare, people simply want an easily affordable and understandable system that covers everyone no matter their illness. Tragically, we are not likely to get it.

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The recent tragic shooting at a practice for the annual Congressional baseball game resulted in politicians on both sides agreeing to lower the temperature of their out-of-control angry rhetoric. Many recalled the days when Democrats and Republicans actually socialized, knew each other’s families, developed meaningful friendships, and found ways to work together on legislation.

Turning the temperature down on the rhetoric in Congress is indeed a great idea. But the president must do the same. His behavior and body language with oval office visitors, choice of words in daily tweets, constant bad-mouthing of his predecessor, and strong-man “photo-ops” on foreign visits, all establish an atmosphere which enables and even encourages similar behavior in others.

When news and social media reinforce the drama in political events everything degenerates even more. Eventually pundits begin reporting that the country is disintegrating, and historians remind us of how many great civilizations have totally destroyed themselves.

Partisans always blame the other guy. Republicans began attacking and blocking everything Obama wanted to do, and did so for more than eight years. When “repeal and replace” instead of “we can fix it” became both their strategy and tactic, battles erupted and soon descended into all-out war. And instead of articulating a well thought out plan of action with a vision, the opposition became defensive and lost their way. Many other outsiders went “AWOL” and ran off into “Never-Never Land.” But their absence also became part of the problem.

The natural inclination of the news media is always to enhance the drama. Hostility makes good copy, and conventional wisdom suggests that debating issues is a good thing. It certainly is good television. But the communication reality is that aggressive debating without objective scoring always results in polarizing both debaters and audiences.

Simply put, people hear what they want to hear. A Democrat’s argument only makes a Republican a better Republican. And vice versa. To find our way out of this mess we will need to replace betting on horse races and taking sides in debates with focusing full news media and political attention on finding workable solutions to complex problems.

We desperately need to turn the temperature way down on hostility all across society. Now more than ever each and every politician, government official, journalist, and citizen must play a part in eliminating the wickedness that is tearing us apart… and find specific ways to help save the future of our otherwise values-based country.

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Three people with three knives and a van are able to able to achieve 24/7 nonstop visibility. Are cable channels just handing terrorist organizations the publicity they seek, or is all this coverage essential information that the public needs to have? This is one of the dilemmas of the “reality television” world we now inhabit.

Cable news has the technology to provide immediate and ongoing coverage, and along with that comes a business model that requires them to use it. So here is the way such coverage unfolds:

Getting there first with the most technical and human resources is an important competitive advantage. Keeping the audience engaged becomes critical. Losing viewers is counterproductive to their purpose. Witnesses in the street are the first available interviews. So early death and causality numbers will come from their speculation and hearsay. These numbers are always wrong, but are reported anyway. Ongoing casualty reports now become an unmentioned “keeping the audience engaged” factor. It will take a while for investigating and political officials to make more accurate statements.

Soon retired FBI and other experts are brought in to review once again the steps that investigators follow to identify potential accomplices. They tell us that investigators go to where the terrorists live, find their family members, locate their friends, identify previous travel and possible training, etc. The audience will likely hear this process described over again by several different retired experts.

Reporters also will describe once again where victims are taken, explaining that several hospitals are always used. As witnesses who were inside the event (or are now in the hospital) can be found, they are also asked to tell their stories in as much emotional detail as they are willing. These tragic human interest stories become the final step in continuous coverage, and potential followup stories later.

Both recent London bridge events are examples of how these events unfold for long periods of time with very little new information reported along the way. Cable channels cover it because they can, and it simply is what they do. It is good reality television. But how much of it is news? And how damaging is it to be giving terrorists the publicity they so desperately crave?

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