Archive for the ‘Public Affairs’ Category

The founders of this democracy put forth a balance of power framework to insure that no administration could establish an autocracy.

Here is the current situation. Hard power is the job of the Department of Defense. Soft power is the practice of diplomacy, which is the job of the Department of State. The state department explains the current administration’s foreign policy to governments around the world… and their citizens. This last part of their job is generally called “public diplomacy.”

But international organizations such as professional associations, aid organizations, management consultancies, international banks, corporations, treaty organizations, universities, schools, and more, also find themselves explaining their “idea of America…” which usually is how they see the U.S. founder’s intent. And citizens too explain their “idea of America” as they travel… which is often described as “citizen diplomacy.”

All this adds up to confusion about whose idea of America matters most… and digital media revolutions have only added to this confusion. 

The current administration is challenging many fundamental ideas of America, including the generally understood “balance of power” framework, and the content of “soft power” diplomacy. This has led to the actual dismantling of much of the work of the state department, and therefore democracy itself.

Following the fall of the Nixon administration a system of inspector generals was created to monitor and put a stop to malpractice in government departments and institutions. This was intended to put more balance of power back into the system. But by firing four of these inspectors, and then declaring they all should be eliminated, the current president is gradually dismantling democracy and building his own autocracy.

This is what happens when extreme politics replaces statesmanship in governance. Democrats and Republicans simply must come together and stop this ongoing dismantling of our democracy.

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A strong democracy requires strong institutions… AND empathetic leadership.

  1. Empathetic leadership only comes from studying those leaders who learned during crises how to describe the truth about what is happening while offering an inspirational vision for a better future when it’s finally resolved.
  2. Strong institutions are the bedrock of any democracy. Some are government institutions… such as the justice department, the CIA, or FBI. These institutions exist to provide essential research and information without political consideration to whoever occupies the White House.
  3. Some institutions exist in society as a whole, such as schools, universities, human services, international nonprofits, arts organizations, and church denominations, and these are also critically important for a functioning democracy.

But the truth of the matter is that the current administration has cut the budgets and staffs of most governmental institutions, as well as their support for those in society that are proud of their political independence. Governments focused mostly on winning elections will likely use social media and conspiracy rumors to distract and confuse, attack those who criticize (including mainstream news), blame others for what goes wrong, and use political extremes to divide people against each other.

What is needed now in America is a leader who will tell the truth about this current pandemic, use examples to show how people come together to find lasting solutions, and articulate an inspirational vision for a future that the entire country can easily rally around. It also seems obvious that any truly empathetic leader would be finding all the resources necessary to meet the needs of everyone on the front lines of healthcare, as well as those who have lost their jobs… or are losing their small businesses.

Only after everyone is led through this crisis with common cause will the economy really come back. And then, finally, it very likely will come back with “warp speed.” 

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Freedom of speech gives us the right to protest and say whatever we are thinking. Many think this also includes the right to ignore current health warnings: I have the right to risk my health and go anywhere I want without a mask.

If risking one’s health threatens the health of others, what happens to the others’ rights? Doesn’t some kind of “hybrid” way forward seem necessary in situations like this? In other words, shouldn’t the idea of the “greater good”  take over? But for this there is an important requirement: A genuine leader who is transparent, empathetic, and trustworthy. Instead, sadly, we have a president thoroughly obsessed with his own re-election.

But, there is also one more big requirement: Our 24/7 digital world created  a permanent state of information-saturated confusion… a truth hiding daily mental fog which causes many people to reject expertise and align with political extremists who promise to take care of everything. And what’s more, we are learning that autocrats thrive in this kind of media-produced fog. It is therefore absolutely necessary that Internet consequences, and not just social media skills, be taught in schools and discussed in community groups all over the world. 

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Truth in politics comes much the same way it does in teaching…

I never thought about it this way until graduate school. It was there I first realized that the really great teachers were actually “living their subject-matter,” and that this was the real appeal of a career in education. Students came in and out of their lives, but the best teachers were constantly growing and changing by living their subject-matter every day.

I found in my teaching that living my subject-matter meant getting lost in my own world of communication and media when and where students could engage with me. As I referenced the best experts and reflected on the consequences of media revolutions, new thoughts would magically pop into my head. Truth would therefore gradually come to us by constantly searching for it together.

In retirement, however, I now teach about media, communication and politics without a classroom. My students are the readers of my blog. My new ideas appear during walks, or while struggling for clarity. I read the experts, try every day to pull some truth out of the media fog, and continue to interact with individuals and small groups as I am able.

This is what I learned…

Finding truth in politics today requires searching the cluttered media everyday for bits and piece of it. Our task is to compile the pieces that make sense to us, realizing that our conclusions are likely to change as we go… just as they do in successful teaching careers.      


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Several months ago I wrote how disappointed I was with both party’s behavior in Washington.

Instead of paying attention to meeting the needs of people in middle America they were focused on fighting each other. This opened the door for anyone promising to meet those needs to become president. I remember even writing about the feasibility of a third party candidate, or even a charismatic independent running for president and winning.

Now we have COVID-19. The obvious thought is that this should be a great opportunity for bipartisan problem-solving and leadership. But, alas, political polarization continues.

The president is obviously using his daily press briefings as a platform for re-election. He is blaming governors and even the World Health Organization. He is ignoring true experts and even occasional advice from inside the White House. And he recently made inspector-general and other personnel changes to align his daily briefings with his campaign. There are are even growing concerns about how the money allocated by Congress to help those losing jobs will be managed. So far his party appears to support him… probably out of fear of losing their own elections. As a consequence, Democrats in the House and Senate are also drawn into these politicized, and therefore polarizing, battles.

Political party scholars have observed in the past that criticism of presidential leadership generally grows over time, and this often causes a swing in political direction to the other party. It looks like this is happening right now… even before the end of this president’s first term.

So those who find his self-praising and dictatorial behavior dangerous to national security, or who are just fed up with politicizing a universally life-threatening pandemic, will simply have to vote for the other party. Right now the public’s health, a reliable economic recovery, and American leadership credibility, are all at stake.

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In a crisis, presidential press conferences traditionally are held for two reasons:

  1. To bring the country together by inspiring confidence in its leadership.
  2. To report new factual information about the crisis important for the public to know.

Today, presidential press conferences have these characteristics:

  1. They compel cable TV coverage, visibility, and big audiences.
  2. They give a former “reality TV” star a comfortable “rally style” format.
  3. They confuse and divert attention when facts were ignored and denied far too long.
  4. They allow putting critics on the defensive, including legitimate professional journalists.
  5. They strive to create the of illusion of leadership in the absence of knowledge.
  6. They keep the president’s political base intact… cruelty and lies have become style characteristics acceptable by far too many.

It’s time for cable networks to stop daily live coverage, and only report outcomes when the two traditional reasons for presidential press conferences are met. This is because:

  1. Rambling on for hours only confuses everyone.
  2. The integrity of professional journalism must be much better demonstrated.
  3. The unmet needs of those in “the president’s base” should be constantly explained by the press.
  4. Those who can meet those needs should be identified and challenged to do so.
  5. The consequences of ongoing political polarization in Washington should be constantly explained.

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Sometimes more information is not better.

Recent media revolutions created an information overload, which also created a growing fog of confusion. For example, the President announced anyone can get a virus test who wants one, but that did not play out to be true. Later he announced that quality masks are being made available to doctors, but front-line healthcare workers disputed that. Six or more weeks ago he was saying the virus is a hoax, and now he is claiming he is a war-time president. And the beat goes on…

The world is full of misinformation, and partisan political leaders are often generating it. So maybe 24/7 news channels should stop covering presidential press conferences and political statements live. Maybe professional journalists should attend these events for us, and then report only what is true and helpful. Maybe they should concentrate only on content experts.

As I explained in a previous post, constant lying and bully behavior caused this president to lose his communication credibility a long time ago. Even his supporters know this. Once lost, credibility can never be earned during a crisis. And what makes matters worse, this president believes the chaos he generates works to his advantage… and he may be right.

The future of professional journalism is at stake right now. So will news organizations make good decisions about how they report critical issues and crises, or will they bow to current temptations to fill 24/7 schedules with live political events that produce good ratings?

Or put another way: In this horrible crisis will they choose reality TV-type opportunities, or will they make content choices that restore public trust?



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