Archive for the ‘Media Literacy’ Category

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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A recent article in the New York Times Magazine added factual clarity to what most us already know. The article is titled, “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It,” and its author Jonathan Mahler describes the drama driven approach to journalism of the President of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker.

Mahler points out that prior to coming to CNN Zucker had a successful entertainment career at NBC, with executive stints in Hollywood and New York. He held several entertainment related positions, including President of NBC Entertainment. In that role he had many successes, including improving the ratings of both the Today Show by adding “stunts” and the Apprentice by encouraging Trump to be Trump. As a result, Trump became a reality show star who gradually attracted a huge following, a following which over time enabled him to think about running for president. What’s revealing is that both Trump and Zucker share a passion for drama and entertainment.

So when Mr. Zucker came to CNN he brought a well-developed talent for bringing entertainment values and drama to news. He accomplished this by orchestrating what Mahler describes as “must see TV,” an “unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and Darwinian confrontations” produced entirely in a CNN studio. Mahler describes Zucker standing over program producers during newscasts giving them questions and comments to pass on to the anchors through their ear pieces.

As the sub-title of the article states, there continues to be “a strange symbiosis” between Zucker and President Trump. It began with the Apprentice at NBC, and is continuing in more subtle ways since Zucker moved to CNN. They both want to create drama. They both entertain. And as a result, CNN news ratings and profits have never been higher.

The fact is CNN’s success very likely depends on Trump continuing to be Trump. If Trump suddenly became more predictable, thoughtful and Presidential, CNN’s profits and ratings could suddenly drop. And this could also happen far beyond CNN.

Almost every media organization has benefited from Trump’s off-the-wall tweets and attacks. The more he attacks the media the better the drama. The better the drama the more interest there is in tomorrow’s news stories! The more sustained the interest, the higher the ratings and profits. So what is the incentive for the news media to run him off? Truthfully… other than a belief in truth and character credibility, very little.

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In over fifty years of study, teaching, and professional practice I found that the words people used either clearly reinforced their credibility or permanently destroyed it. There was no middle ground.

But sadly I have to acknowledge that the recent presidential election produced an exception. It seems that television experienced speakers in our 24/7 “live” television environment are now able to suspend this negative effect of repeated lies, vulgarities, exaggerations, bullying, and personal attacks for some uncertain period of time. This is especially true if they convincingly promise to fix their audience’s most deeply felt problems… even when the fixes may not be realistic.

And now other experienced television performers have managed to polarize their political party ideologies and unknowingly drive them into total gridlock. The sad consequence is that these mean-spirited performers accomplished this while being mindlessly unaware that great numbers of Americans were dropping out of their system. Now these drop-outs may be growing into a new majority.

New polls confirm that more and more Americans are concerned about unanticipated consequences of exaggerated promises, White House management turmoil, mean-spirited personal attacks, elimination of society’s safety-net programs, dangerous foreign policy pronouncements, continued gridlock, and mindless disruptive presidential tweets. The question that has so many of us living on pins and needles is… “When will something really bad happen?”

Do we have fresh thinking political leaders ready to engineer a new day? Do we need a totally new grassroots electoral system? Can the current two parties survive this mess they created? Or will a clean-up require new parties based on pragmatic problem-solving and new ideas? There are no easy answers.

But I must say that during my 50 years of immersing myself in all aspects of the power of media and communication I learned that it is possible that truth-telling, authenticity, integrity, ethical character, trust, and credibility can all be restored as unwavering prerequisites for leading anything… most especially great institutions and nations. Collective persistence is the key.

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Senor Editor at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson, wrote a very perceptive book called, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. It avoids articulating a specific formula for popular success, but it certainly clarifies many of the compelling factors involved.

It became a particularly important read for me because it helped me understand the election victory that many experienced and intelligent people failed to predict. For example, my takeaway was that bold and surprising pronouncements can have a strong audience appeal if they are surprising and credible enough sounding to a specific audience. Constant repetition of themes related to those pronouncements can then reinforce that initial appeal. And new and outrageous remarks will also guarantee ongoing media distribution and even news coverage.

In addition, in such a climate a super hero can be created by establishing that a superstar performer alone is capable of solving your problems. And when you combine bold repeated themes with the powerful persona of a superhero you have the potential for enormous popularity… especially with an already sympathetic audience.

In many ways Mr. Trump became a super hero for a very small segment of American society… people who had good reason to be unhappy and felt that they had not been heard. His “Make America Great” theme sounded new enough, but it also had a familiar ring. This was because Ronald Reagan used much the same theme and Trump just made it sound new, relying on the power of it also sounding familiar. And then he captured ongoing news coverage for this revived theme by constantly making new and outrageous remarks.

Simply put, this analysis suggests that Trump is an experienced entertainment machine skillfully designed to make himself a super hero… the only person who can fix your problems. And while much of his base would eventually see all this as over-bragging, over time they would merely overlook his crazy remarks as “just Trump,” choosing to believe that he could still deliver a better life for them.

Now that he is President this analysis does raise compelling questions about how effectively these instincts for achieving popularity in unique situations transfer over to leading a nation, solving complex social problems, dealing with relentless terrorists, managing huge national and international crises, and making life and death war decisions.

Make no mistake, this analysis is not about political ideology. It is about the scary psychology of popularity, the winning instincts of a previously successful entertainer, and the good and bad consequences of this age of instant technology, “tweeting,” and 24/7 news.

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Will President Trump follow his address to Congress with an ongoing change in the tone of his leadership? What follows now is obviously what matters most. There is a good deal of compelling anecdotal evidence that leading with arrogance, threats, and anger unleashes similar behavior in organizations and citizens.

For example, threatening rhetoric about vetting refugees from specific Muslim countries unleashed anger on several fronts, even though most citizens might have agreed on a softer approach. A surprising resurgence of antisemitism around the country has been occurring for no apparent reason… except for a growing feeling of anger. A widespread fear of military style deportations came over huge numbers of Hispanics as a result of the rhetoric… even though there were no changes in the law. Responding to scary ambiguities about health insurance coverage, refugee vetting, and deportations brought shouting crowds to Republican town hall meetings, even though these were not new issues. Angry students at universities across the nation protested and tried to block speakers with extreme messages, even though the appearance of such speakers had been fairly commonplace. Shouting crowds related to gun violence and police brutality brought a resurgence of dramatic news media coverage. And in the midst all this unrest the news media was angrily declared the enemy.

It is as if a hostile tone was set at the top, and then it spread into to the streets encouraging all kinds of frustration and anger to be acted out. In fact, many of us have been getting awake each morning afraid of what might happen next… a situation that is also expressed by many foreign policy professionals around the world.

My study of communication dynamics clearly suggests that leadership tone can either bring people together or produce even deeper divisions, more anger, and high levels of anxiety. Did Trump’s address to Congress put his leadership style on a more constructive course, or will his angry tone reappear and keep feeding a climate of chaos and unrest? Only time will tell.

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There are endless horrible images of the ravages of war on television. Do they compel people to act?  Do they horrify, but just leave us feeling helpless?  Or, do most of us just quickly dismiss them with mumbles about a world that’s coming apart?

The Vietnam war was reported every day on television. I remember that my first exposure to real war on the tube was horrifying. But gradually as those images became daily experiences they lost much of their early shock. People I interviewed admitted that eventually these reports started to look more like a movie to them. And those early feelings of real horror would only return when they reminded themselves that this was actually real war.

War reporting on television is our daily reminder that a steady diet of most anything on this medium eventually can become accepted as commonplace. We learned that surprising lesson in our recent presidential election. Flat-out lies, personal attacks, and vulgarities became commonplace all too quickly. And I fear that the horrible daily images of bombed-out buildings with desperate families and dying children are becoming all too commonplace as well.

But once in a while there is an image so powerful that it sticks in the mind and won’t let go. We all are haunted by that one image of that lone little child, fully dressed, curled-up, so innocent-looking, washed up on that beach– even though we deep down also knew that there were countless others just like him.

Now, much to my dismay, the other day I saw one more such horribly haunting image.

A bomb had just exploded and people were running away from the rubble for their life. In the middle of the chaos and devastation there was one lone child sitting there with only two bloody stumps remaining for his legs. His father was running aimlessly and yelling desperately for help. And with his arms both stretched upward toward the sky this ravaged little child simply said,” Daddy, please pick me up!”

This one will leave me crying for a lifetime.


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