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This question came up in a recent conversation with colleagues about current news stories, and led to a more general discussion: Why do news organizations all seem to cover the same thing… and often do so to the exclusion of other important stories?

This is often referred to as”herding.” Simply put, anticipated audience interest dictates what news outlets cover. This almost always leads to everyone herding to the same place or story. The day’s news agenda can be determined by many things… an outrageous presidential tweet, a legislator’s dramatic pronouncement, a mass shooting, a violent demonstration in some other part of the world, or most any other earthshaking event.

For example, most news outlets followed the first wave of refugees across Europe, with each reporter seeking a dramatic story advantage. When boats capsized in Greece, most outlets sent reporters looking for an interest-grabbing edge. When a mass shooting happened all organizations sent reporters. And when bad weather wreaked havoc reporters and even celebrity anchors came from everywhere to stand in the rising water and compete for dramatic action photos. When any or all of this is going on, other important stories are likely being deferred.

It must be noted that social media has given Presidential tweets a new and often troubling kind of headline-setting edge. Puerto Rico, Hillary, Obama, or NFL tweets have been making headlines. Trump can push everything else aside and make it all about himself. From the media’s perspective, producers and reporters must grapple with his enormous ego while having little time for other stories. But any incentive to change weakens when ratings strengthen.

For those of you missing all those other important stories, worldwide coverage can still be found in many major newspapers and news magazines. But for the general public, media herding will likely continue to determine what we get. So in order to make any sense out of all this clutter we will have to learn how to control and manage our personal media consumption.

With all this in mind, I find myself urging once again that we establish media literacy education in all segments of our communities… in schools, civic associations, churches, nonprofits, and even in media organizations themselves.

One of the most frightening features of the digital technology world is that lies and doublespeak repeated endlessly can begin to sound true. This is especially so when the audience’s needs are acute and promises are delivered with a tone of believable commitment.

So Trump’s promises to make healthcare easily affordable for everyone and cover everything sounded credible enough in his campaign rally moments. His promises to cut taxes for the middle class and poor did as well. And the beat went on. For those not in his campaign audiences, however, it became crystal clear early on that he had no ideological or moral center that would make him trustworthy or reliable.

Now as president his chickens are coming home to roost. He disguises his failures to deliver on promises with doublespeak. Listen to what he says very carefully. His tone is all promotion. His content is incomplete. His sentences are disconnected. And his words are often garbled. In short, he sounds confident… but what he is saying is always incomplete, and therefore makes little sense.

During the campaign his general contempt for his predecessor caused him to declare past international agreements and treaties destructive to U.S. interests. But he said this with no substantive explanation. Now with no path forward, he has world leaders declaring the end of America’s values-based global leadership. So NAFTA, the Transpacific Partnership, the Paris Accord, UNESCO, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, etc. are now in various stages of decline or outright abandonment… with no regard for the loss of U.S. prestige, respect, or trust.

So what are the long-term consequences?  Just think about it. With promises not kept, agreements abandoned, daily tweets that only disrupt and confuse, and endless doublespeak sprinkled with lies, who in the world will ever be able to trust anything he says, or deals he makes? This is not politics or ideology. It is just how communication works.

Bob Schieffer’s new book, Overload, argues that today’s digital media clutter makes it more difficult than ever to find the truth. Social media and the Internet have produced a deluge of unreliable media outlets. In this confusing new world, Bob wants the consumer to know that the mainstream news media still fact-check stories before releasing them.

But how can we consumers cope with mind-boggling implosions of information every single day, some fact-checked and most not? Before we process one day, we are bombarded again the next. And this goes on relentlessly. Is there any consistent truth to be found in such a world? Or, are most of us only grabbing bits and pieces of “stuff” to reinforce what we want to believe?”

My worry comes from having tracked this mess for the last several years. In the presidential campaign we were asked to process exaggerations, vulgarities, extremists, personal attacks, bullying, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. Eventually we found ourselves realizing that even big lies repeated often enough begin to sound true.

Experts have always disagreed about facts. But in a digital technology world those daily disagreements tend to merge into a kind of permanent confusion. And even the “big data” research capacity of digital technology can be manipulated in many different directions. One political pollster once whispered to me, ” We like institutional and governmental transparency because with all that data I can prove anything I want!”

My fear is that the real consequence of this last media revolution is the creation of a mystical and foggy information “cloud” where facts helplessly turn to mush.

For example, when watching war on television I see what’s happening with my own eyes. But when camera shots and editing converge into cinema I can see either winning or losing, whichever truth I prefer. I tried to decide how I felt about the Vietnam and Iraq wars by watching live reports and only ended up even more confused. Recently, I found out from Ken Burns that very little of what I thought I learned about Vietnam was true.

So is truth dying, or is it already dead? Maybe all we have is the hope that the best ideas will magically emerge and somehow gather together to advance the greater good. I keep searching for a better conclusion and the best I can come up with is serious media literacy education in schools, organizations, associations, and the media themselves.

I was struck by a headline I saw this week regarding recent university demonstrations protesting speakers with extreme points of view. The headline simply stated: Worthy Speech. Not Free Speech.

For many, free speech is in the very fabric of what universities are all about. Scholars, students, staff, and all members of an academic community are supposed to be willing to listen to all points of view, learn something from the experience, and then simply agree to disagree when appropriate. So what is happening?

During a recent conversation on campus I suddenly realized that the digital media revolution not only changed teaching and learning, but it also changed the very nature of speaker events. And what may surprise you, the presidential campaign had actually demonstrated this change right before our very eyes.

During the campaign Trump was able to use outrageous statements to compel TV coverage at virtually all of his rallies. Anticipating these statements every day, 24/7 cable could not help but broadcast them. The result was incredible free publicity and high visibility for Trump, even when his statements were lies and personal attacks. Other candidates and events simply could not compete for broadcast time and visibility.

From then on extreme speakers would use live speeches to advance their narrow causes far beyond the event by using digital media… from cable TV, to talk radio, to Twitter, to Facebook, and more. And a campus event would be no exception. Some accepted extreme speakers as exercises in free speech. But I am now convinced that more and more people are resenting (often emotionally and unconsciously) having campus events used as stages for digitally promoting and advancing the most extreme causes. The big question now has become: Is the speech worthy?

New media clearly has muddied the waters when it comes to providing constructive environments for the thoughtful consideration of all points of view. Everyone is on their own to identify what they believe to be “worthy” ideas. All we can do now is hope those ideas that best advance the greater good are the ones that will win out in the end.

 

 

A nation’s institutions embody, protect, and make real its most cherished core values. Therefore, effective presidents and prime ministers will build and nourish their country’s institutions.

The strength of a country’s institutions will also determine its preparedness for international leadership. Conversely, leaders who continually attack their institutions will facilitate their country’s decline in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The Government… Prior to the recent hurricanes, wholesale cuts in homeland security and state department budgets weakened the nation. Emergency funding has helped. But an internally decimated government cannot consistently lead itself out of crises, let alone lead the world.

Legislatures…  Politicians are elected based on party ideology. Once in the legislature a democratic republic requires them to become statesmen, putting the country’s greater good above party. Extremism and polarization will irreparably weaken any nation.

News Media… Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the US constitution. Constructive media criticism is expected and necessary. But relentlessly attacking professional news organizations as “fake news” is destructive… and seriously weakens this nation.

Courts… Courts exist in a democratic republic to guarantee justice for all. To appoint judges based on politics undermines their role. Attacking their decisions based on politics does too. A judiciary subjected to political influence substantially weakens any nation.

Police…  To protest police violence, a minority football player dropped on his knee while facing the flag during the national anthem. This was seen by many as anti-patriotic. Some voiced their opinions, but widespread protests never occurred. But when the president openly attacked the practice, the situation became explosive. Groups took sides. The racial divide became worse. And as a result the country could be severely damaged. Divisive presidents weaken nations.

Public Schools…  Picking on schools and teachers is fair game in our society. When criticism is informed and constructive, the nation is strengthened. But when public education is continually attacked by politicians and political appointees in Washington the nation is weakened.

Universities… Universities are much like small cities. They have many of the same problems, i.e. ongoing crime, occasional protests, endless controversies, and sometimes weak leadership. But the vast majority of students still achieve better quality lives and productive careers. And many show their gratitude with lifelong donations over and above the tuition they paid. Attacking universities relentlessly for their flaws, and suggesting they are failing to do their job for the country, weakens the nation… especially when these institutions are actually the envy of the world.

Nonprofits…  Service organizations are easily criticized. They rarely have the resources and staff necessary to perform at a their peak. But when you need them you are really glad they are there. Supporting them brings stability to a nation. Tearing them down weakens that nation.

Churches… Church and state in many parts of the world are basically one entity. The US, however, was founded based on the separation of church and state. This was a promise of complete religious freedom for everyone. Thus, acting like one religion is more important than another is contrary to the founders’ intent, and weakens the nation.

Think about it. A strong nation really is the sum total of strong institutions. Building them up leads to the admiration and prestige necessary for global leadership. Constantly tearing them down guarantees international disappointment… and will eventually lead to global insignificance.

 

Some are pointing out that Trump’s speech was fairly well drafted. It clarified a possible world view. Comparing it to past presidential UN addresses, some saw it pretty much as harmless boilerplate. But it was antagonistic. The tone was as much “Trump first” as “America first.” And it did not reestablish the values-based leadership role the US has had in the world.

Later, at a meeting with delegates from Africa he named a country that doesn’t exist and went on to talk about what a great healthcare system it has, raising the same questions many have had about Trump as world leader. World view is one thing. Competent leadership is something else.

In his major address Trump described his ideal world as a collection of independent nation-states, all with leaders asserting that their country comes first, just as he has. He explained this demonstrates that citizen happiness is their primary goal and that this will lead to world peace. The problem with such a world view is that world history, current international conflicts, terrorism, and the cultural diversity of nations, all teach that realistic world problem-solving requires collaboration, compromise, experience, and values-based leadership.

Many think the speech was largely the work of Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor for policy. And while it might provide a clearer explanation for what Trump thinks he believes, he has demonstrated in the first months of his presidency that he does not have the vocabulary, patience, experience, or knowledge of history and international issues, required to lead complex problem-solving.

World view aside, the speech also goes on to viciously attack North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. In the case of North Korea he threatens total destruction and continues mocking its leader by calling him rocket man. For the others, he promises aggressive intervention if they do not establish democracies. Putting aside the fact that there are not enough ambassadors or professionals left in the state department to take all this on, with a series of destructive storms pounding US cities; military commitments already made in Afghanistan, South Korea, Qatar, and elsewhere; and upgrades needed in military training and technology; how could the US handle or finance any of this?

So what we have here is a worldview that ignores the influence of history, cultures, religions, ancient tribes, autocracies, communication lessons, and much more. It also ignores the firmly entrenched international agreements from global warming to world trade that meet the needs of so many other countries. For many, this speech will reinforce why they voted for him. But for many others it was simplistic, antagonistic, and even frightening.

The critical question is will Trump’s antagonistic tone result in war? Much will depend on the experience and influence of the generals around him, and most especially the ability of allies and others to make increased North Korean sanctions work.

Certainly, the tone of Trump’s UN speech was not helpful. But believe me, it could have been much worse.

Here’s a typical daily scenario to think about:

  1. The president sends out another off-the-wall and destabilizing tweet.
  2. Television news puts it on the screen, making it a highly visible HEADLINE.
  3. Then opinion writers, on-line news commentators, talk radio hosts, bloggers, magazine writers, book authors, and even preachers and teachers rant and rave about it, turning a glut of information into confusing clutter.
  4. Soon a major portion of society becomes hopelessly confused, and with experts and pundits disagreeing on every channel, people simply reach for the “off switch” in their brain.
  5. Wait! Suddenly we see a small inkling of reality in the president’s behavior and we begin to think maybe he is changing. Maybe this time is different. But not likely.
  6. People everywhere are finally wearing out. Many feel numb. Some are in denial. Others are burying their heads in the sand. Are we now coming face-to-face with the possibility that a self-serving, wanna-be autocrat, might actually be able to continue indefinitely with his destructive bumbling?

Are there any alternatives? Well, legislators could come to their senses and become statesmen. Democrats could stop dividing against each other and put forth a unifying and inspiring vision for the country. Or as in France, an enlightened independent might find the resources to rise above this mess and mount a campaign to reestablish Thomas Jefferson’s values-based vision of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness!

Now we can see what happened. Politicians became extreme, mean, and hopelessly polarized. Media revolution innovations produced more clutter and confusion than clarity. People left behind by globalization chose the wrong leader. Truthfully, everyone helped build Trump’s swamp. Now, everyone must help drain it.

There are two important communication lessons here: (1) A 70-year-old, self-serving, amoral, mean-spirited plutocrat, simply is not likely to change. And (2) an autocratic, always angry, relentless tweeter, can eventually damage a values-based country beyond repair. So now what?