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I first began to study communication seriously when television was new. Early on, many of us thought that “talking heads” were boring. We needed lots of pictures because TV was a visual medium. As TV stars emerged, however, we modified our thinking to say that “talking head’s were boring only if their content and performance was boring.

Today, with conservative talk radio and 24/7 cable in our face everyday, the airwaves are filled with nonstop talkers. It’s amazing how compelling they have become for so many of us just by saying the same things over and over, often for weeks at a time. Admittedly, they do alter their language a bit, and sometimes even change guests. But over time most of these talkers bring very few issue-settling insights. And when their guests also develop this now coveted nonstop talk talent, they become regulars.

I quoted a definition of “word salad” in post #477. Now we also have “talk soup!” Together, we have a whole meal. Bon appetit!

 

Over the years I often evaluated the communication performance of presidents and CEO’s. But I must say it never occurred to me to seek answers to questions like these:

Did they engage in lies, gross exaggerations, personal attacks, and confusing doublespeak? Did their international actions and decisions ever endanger national security? Did they demonstrate affections for autocrats and dictators? Could this have been a clear sign of their own goals? Did they use fear mongering to seek support for controversial projects? Did they often fail to condemn hate crimes, white supremacy, and civil rights violations? Was their overall moral character in sync with America’s human rights and rule of law values? Were they mentally and emotionally stable enough to govern? Were they often vengeful and cruel in their response to those not supporting their actions?

Recent announcements by this president to totally eliminate Obamacare with no healthcare program replacement, to cut back aid to Puerto Rico while still rebuilding from a devastating hurricane, and to cut all funding to the Special Olympics… made me think, is he really crying out, “please stop me, I can’t help myself?!”

In addition to cozy relationships with Russians and legal ways to obstruct justice, Trump family business practices will now be added to a long list of concerns about this presidency. These will include money laundering, employment of illegal immigrants in golf clubs, racial discrimination in rental properties, payments to prostitutes, misrepresenting wealth in bank transactions, illegal family foundation practices, and using government relationships here and abroad to enrich the family, now and in the future.

I have noted in several past blog posts that I get frustrated when news media report each action of the President and White House in a matter-of-fact manner, failing to immediately point out obvious lies and gross exaggerations. With today’s technology and 24/7 investigative journalism, simultaneous fact checking is usually available, and is certainly needed.

We are experiencing a whole new day in politics, the presidency, and journalism. And it all adds up to a desperate need to use every opportunity to break through the noise, chaos, bullying, and cruelty, with hard, cold facts.

Pundits are offering differing perspectives about the outcomes of the Mueller report… so much so that people will be able to hear and believe whatever they want.

Some are claiming the president has been cleared of collusion and obstruction, and that’s all that matters. Others believe he’s probably guilty, and it is being hidden by the White House. And others are pointing out that guilty or not, close campaign associates are already going to jail for their criminal conduct, and communication between many of the candidate’s associates and the Russians during the campaign has been clearly documented.

So whether or not crimes have been committed, this much is clear: Simply from a digital media and communication dynamics perspective, the damage to our democracy by the Russians (and possibly other foreign governments) has been serious, and the 2016 presidential election was clearly compromised. And what’s more, the 2020 election probably will be too.

We simply cannot ignore what words can do. When divisive words become the norm, they inevitably incite anger… and eventually produce violence. The fact is… Social media are creating an international vocabulary of copycat words, with the power to unite extremists and incite violence.

“Immigrant invasion” emergencies. When any emergency is explained as an “invasion of immigrants,” it must be recognized that this is a code phrase being used by white supremacists who have already staged killings in New Zealand, Charleston, Pittsburg, Charlottesville, and many other places around the world.  Today, social media has become its own ecosystem with an incredible international bonding power for lost and angry souls.

Contempt for adversaries. When constructive conversations in search of imaginative solutions degenerate into widespread contempt and hatred for adversaries, violence is close at hand.

Populism, nationalism, and autocracy.  When populism and nationalism force citizens to take sides, an autocracy is in the making. Fueled by social media, and encouraged by autocrats, dangerous divisions have already appeared in Russia, China, Philippines, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and a number of countries in eastern and central Europe.

The dividing power of wealth. History teaches that widening class divisions can eventually destroy entire civilizations. In the U.S., huge tax cuts mostly benefiting the rich, unfair job advantages, easy elite college access, plus arrogance… and more, might be early indications of a possible middle class and poor people’s rebellion.

The seriousness of climate change. Willingness to ignore modern science by too many of those invested in polluting industries, is inspiring a growing and dangerous youth rebellion. Such generational divisions have a history of turning into worldwide, peace-threatening, demonstrations.

Code words and phrases. Fear mongering on social media every day exacerbates, unites, and incites. And when leaders suggest that their followers might get out of control on their own, a kind of permission for violence is felt by those who only need a little encouragement.

Autocracies can actually become attractive. In countries threatened by division, a gradual belief can emerge that the control promised by an autocrat is necessary to bring about stability. Inevitably, however, autocracies backfire into cruel dictatorships.

“With me, or against me” are words that produce dangerous divisions, no matter the political ideology. Ironically, they are both the dividing and uniting words of terrorists, autocrats, and dictators all over the world.

Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, has a new Book: Love Your Enemies. It is an alarming warning of how violence results when constructive debating grows into contempt and hatred for your adversaries.

Finally feeling in political control, party enthusiasm might very quickly lead Democrats to a an unanticipated costly overreach. And it’s important to understand that there are unavoidable communication dynamics at work in political moments like this.

You announce a Congressional investigation. You release ambitious plans to move quickly ahead. You immediately make requests for documents from your recently defeated adversaries. And then, you ask many of them to testify at a hearing. But, just as quickly those adversaries begin complaining about harassment, and very soon begin to use doublespeak to state doubts about your legitimacy. In time, this constant noise-making opens a few cracks and weaknesses in your arguments, threatening the future of your investigation.

In the case of current hearings underway in the House of Representatives, one committee’s immediate request for over 80 documents, combined with extremely liberal ideas becoming vocal at the same time, will likely expose unanticipated vulnerabilities. All lawyers know that in situations like this embarrassment is lurking somewhere. Thus, political parties in the minority will always complain about hypocrisy, and in this case will brand leftist liberal ideas as Communist-inspired socialism.

And all this is going on when polls are showing that the majority of Americans are somewhere in the political middle. So when Republicans brand Democrats as extreme socialists, and also produce a pragmatic sounding counter-plan, they will very likely find a large and receptive “silent-majority” audience. Hence, aggressive overreach is dangerous… especially now for the Democrats.

It’s also important to understand that the danger of overreach is a natural part of communication dynamics, and has little to do with political ideology. 

So avoiding the bad consequences of overreach requires strategic communication savvy more than political argument. Don’t make huge requests for documents from adversaries up front. Consider inviting them to meet with your committee first. Carefully plan penetrating, but fair, questions. Then, follow-up with requests for only essential documents. Don’t be in a big hurry. Only then, threaten to subpoena the important hold-outs. And all this while stating and restating your ultimate pragmatic game-plan… preferably one that meets the needs of the already known “silent” majority.

In today’s overwhelming media ecosystem, the irony is that what seems to be a political breakthrough one day, might end up only adding more clutter and confusion to an already vast universe of good ideas. Or worse, overreaching can also lead to political defeat.

Since the president began calling the news media “the enemy of the people” I have been asking colleagues how they think reporters are doing with finding and reporting truth.

One colleague recently told me that he thinks many journalists are doing their best in a very difficult climate. But he does not understand why so many television anchors still put opposing experts on camera to shout at each other, and why some journalists still report wild assertions as if they are reasonable. And also, why do rallies based on personal attacks and double-speak still get so much coverage?

His remarks reminded me that traditional journalism education has always taught reporters to give equal opportunity to all sides of controversies. This obviously makes sense. But in an all new era of nonstop lies, gross exaggerations, and personal attacks, should this practice be revisited?

In other words, in today’s confusing media ecosystem, should the national news media focus more specifically on fact-checking and reporting the results in real-time, no matter the source?

The president’s two-hour double-speak at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will connect with different people in different ways. For some, it simply will be remembered as harmless entertainment. For others, it will be remembered as the sad cries of a person losing his mind. And for others, it will only have been more of the same from the person they chose to support during the campaign.

But is there an overall truth that should be unpacked and reported as the main story from this perplexing CPAC extravaganza? I think so… see Lesson 477, “Word Salad” leadership.

That said, we must also remember that even nonprofit news often operates as a business. All news organizations are influenced by TV ratings, newspaper readership, celebrity power, and advertising/subscriber/fund-raising revenue. Could it be that in the final analysis the president’s daily antics are the best “profit” producers the news media ever had? Sadly, this too often complicates reporting only truth.

When television overtook print as the dominant medium many of us studying the media assumed that we now had the technology in place to bring about a happy global village. It seemed obvious that people would easily come together, understand and appreciate each other’s cultures, and world peace would finally be within our reach. The cold war between superpowers was coming to an end, but instead of creating this imagined happy village, television would magnify a wide range of already simmering smaller conflicts. Instead of a better world, television would help create a more dangerous one.

Later, when the digital revolution gave us social media, we once again assumed that media platforms like Google and Facebook would become positive forces. Certainly, Facebook would bring people all over the world together as happy “Facebook friends.” That did happen for a while. “Friending” people became the thing to do, and collecting thousands of them was a source of pride. But eventually angry people would begin using the technology for angry things, and very serious social disruption issues would appear.

Gradually many teenagers are finding that the Internet is robbing them of important face-to-face interaction skills. Their interests are narrowing instead of broadening. Their ability to process complex information is actually fading. Many gradually become lonely, interacting mostly from their bedrooms and texting all day long.

To make matters worse, some of these teens fall under the spell of bullies and sexual predators. As a consequence, a growing number battle depression. Some even consider ending their lives, while others have done so.

Even the social media platforms that provide the rest of us happy and useful family, personal, and professional interactions, are proving they can be time wasters, and even dangerous weapons in the hands of foreign and local adversaries. Suddenly we are all scrambling to learn how to spot the “fake news” that is viciously intended to create social division and discord.

While the benefits of social media platforms are clear, many of those same platforms have damaged their own original benefits by selling access and advertising to the wrong people. Facebook is struggling right now to balance the idea of access based on “freedom of speech” with access based on “fair use policies.” But it may be too late. Populist and terror groups disguised as legitimate organizations have already become experts at using this technology to mobilize their followers.

With an autocrat-determined president who uses Twitter every day to create division, chaos, and fear, it is now virtually impossible to separate truth from lies, and to stop fringe groups from using these tweets to empower themselves to act out their often racist anger. And today’s populists are not just right wingers. They are any extremist group, left or right, that decides to get mad and incite sympathizers to make trouble, and even violence.

Yes, social media really does have a dangerous dark side. And an in-depth civics and media literacy program in every school, college, and community action group, seems to be the most practicable way forward.