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Archive for the ‘Public Affairs’ Category

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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“Relationship Marketing” might be Biden’s secret sauce…

Relationship Marketing involves building relationships with individuals and groups to establish and sustain visible loyalty. It begins with identifying specific individuals and groups that mean the most to an organization or cause, and then determining the most effective communication platforms and tools to use to acquire their active support.

Super Tuesday turned out to be a good example of Relationship Marketing 101.

This is what happened. Basically, African Americans are an important and growing constituency of the Democratic Party. In the South Carolina primary, Joe Biden’s long career earned him the support of one of the most influential politicians in the state, who also happened to be black. That was enough to start a momentum ball rolling, which quickly attracted the support of several other presidential candidates, key democrats, and traditional party leaders. Watching this kind of dynamic develop amazed all the pundits. But this is how relationship marketing can work. It soon became apparent that Super Tuesday could very well end in a two-candidate run for the White House.

But to keep the momentum ball rolling, the Biden campaign will now need to add the support of other political leaders, small businesses, labor unions, health organizations, civic groups, professional associations, and local civil servants. These groups and leaders also represent most of middle America, which truly is the heart of the Democratic Party. This should also cut into the president’s base, which so far seems to have forgiven his failure to deliver on his quality-of-life promises.

Effectively using these groups and individuals, boldly articulating a future for America, showing heart-felt passion, looking and acting presidential, debating adversaries skillfully, being totally prepared to handle each criticism no matter what, and demonstrating experienced organization and teamwork… all of these these will be absolutely necessary for success in November.

And really, this is not too much to expect of any presidential campaign… is it?

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In a social media dominated world, here is the way it works when an ill-equipped government is in place:

  1. First, when a new administration really believes government is too big, it needs to be careful where and who it cuts.
  2. Brutal budget and staff cuts in agencies that are depended on to manage crises, especially health related ones, are big mistakes.
  3. And when the people in that administration are there primarily because of their loyalty, and not their expertise, they will always be inclined to underplay the possibility of any crisis.
  4. Inexperienced staff and supporters will always model their leader’s tactics. Thus, today they will rush to criticize the traditional news media, and use extreme talk radio, supportive pundits, and social media to attack their political opposition.
  5. And when the truth about the danger of any crisis situation finally gets out, as it inevitably does, without the necessary experience and enough expertise on board and ready… everything crashes.

Those who have been saying, “Everyone knows the president lies and makes-up stuff every day… that’s just him,” will now feel the serious consequences of “only I can do it” leadership.

Yes, it’s true that our new digital and social media world is what allowed this to come about. The big lesson now is that we can never let this happen again.

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Confrontational questions, limited time for responses, previously promoted arguments, and the use of cameras to enhance the dramatic potential of the situation, is how television makes it all feel super exciting. But to what extent have these television debates simply become more “reality TV?”

Film critics long ago pointed out that when cameras are pointed at any event, the primary producer, or “author,” is actually creating a whole new reality. These critics pointed out that what is not shown simply doesn’t exist for the viewer. But, people who are actually at the event are able to determine their own reality.

In other words, whoever points the cameras becomes the “author” of a totally different experience. “I am seeing it with my own eyes,” can make it seem real… but the cameras are really creating their own reality.

Making dramatic moving pictures is the very heart of television. It does not like details, and hates boring talk, Rather it prefers images, which will always lead to more drama. Authors, producers and directors almost instinctively use editing, pacing, camera movements, sound enhancements, colorful backgrounds, and picture montages, to capture audience attention… and keep it.

And with respect to the last debate, what about the topics (foreign policy, role of allies, defense guardrails, immigration, autocratic presidential behavior, etc,) that were never addressed? TV debates have all the elements of reality TV… and serious issues will usually be slighted.

 

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When someone enters a primary election late, or when a candidate begins to emerge as significant, the news media will naturally begin to investigate their past. News professionals will describe this practice as essential and responsible journalism. But it’s also great “copy!” Aggressively investigating the past of political candidates always energizes the business side of news.

It is therefore very important for media consumers to understand that the same media revolutions that created our current state of chaos and confusion will also make it impossible to be sure that investigative journalism will uncover the “real truth” about the past.

Choosing the most reliable information sources possible has become critically important. After all, it’s possible that past transgressions were settled at the time, and times do change. And some people really do learn from their mistakes.

No matter how many viewers, listeners, readers, and “profits” these investigative news reports generate, in a world of ongoing media revolutions we can never be sure we are learning the whole truth. Getting “close” is the best we can do… and we must even work at that.

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A communicator’s view…

Being a liberal has meant that your focus is on the needs of the working class and supporting government programs that provide for their welfare.

Being a conservative has meant that your focus is on making government smaller, keeping welfare programs at a minimum, building a strong military, and having a very dim view of deficit spending.

When a balance of liberal and conservative voices can be found, balanced reporting should be expected.

But Trump’s activities and pronouncements have nothing to do with conservatism. Rather they are filled with lies, gross exaggerations, cruel attacks, and building an autocracy.

It should therefore be the focus of professional journalism to call out this divisive behavior, to remind people that freedom of the press is protected in the constitution, and to explain the founding “idea of America.”

This is not about political ideology. It is about the communication responsibility of the news media. 

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I am frustrated with both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats have handled their long primary campaign poorly, and the Iowa caucuses will not fix that. And the Republican party has been reduced to “the party of Trump.”

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander rightly stated that the democrats produced so much factual content that there is little need for witnesses. Other Senators are now agreeing with him. But where they are wrong about acquittal is their assertion that it will properly allow the matter to be decided by the people in an election.

This is wrong because the president has already been attacking and making fun of adversaries, declaring that he alone can fix things, and asking foreign nations to help him get re-elected. This is the behavior of an autocrat, and acquitting him now will only allow this behavior to continue.

I have asked colleagues why they think the Republican Party has become the party of Trump. Fear of him they think is the reason. They listed fear of Trump’s Twitter attacks; fear that voters in their home districts will turn on them; fear that McConnell will take them off his list for PAC and lobby money; and in some cases even fear of physical harm. Maybe some Senate leaders even see a safe and powerful place for themselves in an autocracy.

When watching the State of the Union address, I suggest that you look for and evaluate details. How clearly does he give real substance to his claims? Also compare the tone of this “written for him” speech to his off-the-cuff and rambling pronouncements as president. Who is the real Trump?

This much is clear: With this acquittal the checks and balances system that our founding fathers designed to save us from a dictatorship could be coming to an end.

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