Getting past obvious answers – Trump on Today

Donald Trump in his fledgling try for the White House in 2012 is offering an astounding number of bromides and platitudes, braggadocio and bombast in his wave of TV interviews from O’Reilly (FOX) to Today (NBC). From the old saw of the birther’s claim that the president lacks his US birth certificate to matters of state Mr. Trump seems well prepared to talk over any and all other questions while repeatedly repeating all his preconceived message points. He knows how to talk, and talk, and talk.

In response to a question of what the President (Obama) has done well, Trump replied “he got elected.”
In response to the lack of a national budget Trump assured listeners it was due entirely to “a lack of leadership” that wouldn’t be the case if he was sitting in the oval office.
In response to a question on foreign policy he expounded that the “United States isn’t respected” any longer by the rest of the world.

In fairness questions that were posited to how he would change this if elected but they were parried and thwarted and never answered. The ‘how” of what would be different is often the most important question — not the if or the dreams or desires for change, but rather the execution, the how. Mr. Trump offered nothing to that debate or discourse.

Taking just the question of how the rest of the world may see us… after years of financially and militarily supporting dictatorial regimes all to assure the stable supply of crude oil to fill our gas-guzzling economy, or the nature of avaricious conduct in pursuit of minerals and raw materials to satiate our economic demands at the cost of local economies and indigenous people… these are the core issues of why we’re not liked, not respected. Having the biggest stick, the greater swagger, the most shiny boots on the ground isn’t sufficient to master world respect, much less domination. Assuring audiences this would all ‘be changed’ once he gets to the White House seems insufficient and unrealistic.

The media – all of us who are in charge of the microphone – better start asking the ‘how’ as the 2012 campaign gets underway. There’s likely to be a lot of noise in the coming months – but rather than just close our ears we could decide to have greater impact by thinking about and demanding answers to the real questions. Let’s start with ‘how’?

“Its the Apocalypse”, more after this

Is it just me or does much of the reporting from Japan have a certain giddiness, a breathless excitement of what may come next mixed with a dour expression of the degree of gloom looming with every next story?

I keep anticipating the growing expectations of nuclear horror to even drift right into the local traffic reports which precede most newscasts… “And in Northern Japan right now the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse are causing major delays to the flow of human refugees from quake stricken areas about to become too hot for human life… and now, the news and the latest on what’s happening in this ‘developing story’…

Japan is a big story. We know that because so many anchors are in country giving the story their personal touch, their individual raised eyebrow of concern and sobering reporting. The disaster in Japan reportage is punctuated by all the big hitters – the New York and Washington show hosts – who have been sent to the center of the action, as if the usual cadre of reporters might not be sufficient to indicate how great the devastation, how overwhelming the human toll and emotion, the degree to which this story is setting and influencing a national (to us) agenda. Now that the media commitment has been made in country, now this is big, and they tell us so.

I am as interested in the Beltway experts who in the hour of nuclear international dismay have stopped bullying one another long enough while weighing in on “just what might be happening” with their own editorial driven speculation (prejudices/agendas/points of view) about unseen events/actions/news releases from half way around the world while making often self-serving, self-aggrandizing points such as, “as they have been saying, worrying and warning all along” some thing like this was bound to happen”, “it was just a matter of time”, and this “should be a warning to us to address our…” nuclear/energy/national policy decisions going forward”.

These are quite obviously serious times. Events, while moving quickly, are not entirely clear, seen or immediately reported. As much as we want to know now, as much as we feel we must have decisive information immediately, this is a story where exact facts, truths and events are as clear as mud. Patience, while a virtue, is not being practiced. Maybe it can’t be… but the breathless excitement over each new tidbit, headline, next half hour of what’s coming up and how bad it will be is getting exhausting.

Was the question rhetorical?

Just after the carnage in Tucson the airwaves, especially cable and talk radio, seemed filled with hand-wringing and calls for toning down the vitriol in political debate.

There appeared to be a chorus proclaiming a need to return to civility.

In the last 24 hours there has been a turn about – with one network in particular proclaiming that since there is no evidence that harsh words, intemperate thought and anger were at cause for the shootings, then they should not be held responsible nor subject to criticism.

I wonder – if things are so good across this country’s political spectrum, is there is no longer a need for civility?
How did things change so quickly? Did we forget already that regardless of the craziness of the shooter in Tucson, perhaps we all might do better with moderation in thought, anger and speech?

Interactive Budget Model – Multimedia Used Well

The Los Angeles Times published an interactive feature called the California Budget Balancer. It isn’t the first such model but it is worth attention and acknowledgment. Just as an example of the choices that one must make, the consequences of each decision, and the impact that every decision has to countless millions of citizens is valuable. Additionally – as a piece of media – it challenges and engages the audience to experiment with clicks and choices.
This is multimedia done well.

The national budget – state budgets – local government and agency budgets are all bloated and out of sync with incomes; yet visualizing this is difficult for both lay people as well as professionals. The Times has made a contribution to understanding using multimedia.

Stupid is as stupid does – again

Sitting in for Sean Hannity on FOX News this week Tucker Carlson called for Michael Vicks execution for pet abuse. Gawker has the clip.
Is this for ratings? Attention? Is it racism? Is it just reality TV?

The question of why the FOX bosses allow this is obvious – cloaked in “free speech” it garners attention and column inches, like these.

But is any one thinking of the longer term damage to discourse? Of course, if it is Tucker’s opinion calling for executions of pet abuses, then he’s welcome to it. Maybe he wants his own show again and feels this is the best way to accomplish that goal. But it just doesn’t pass the smell test of reasonableness… So why say it? For effect? For attention? One can only surmise he was motivated by being quote-worthy. He succeeded. But at what price?

What is the price for discourse? What is editorially responsible? Where is the line? Where are the editors? The managers? The grown-ups?

The war we don’t hear (much) about

Arguably the war in Afghanistan drones on into its ninth year with continuing Draconian consequences including the loss of lives (US & Coalition troops and Afghan citizens), a negative effect on US interests and reputation abroad and devastating impact on our national budget, among others. And yet, no one (including, especially the media) seems to pay much attention.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that just 4% of news coverage this year focused on the war and that’s down from the year before when it was a whopping 5%.  According to Afghan War Just a Slice of US Coverage this week, the war just does not merit much editorial interest or coverage.  Is that because the media finds the war uninteresting?  Difficult to cover?  Or is it the impression and/or understanding that the audience doesn’t much care for the story, so why cover something distasteful that’s apt to turn viewers off?  Or, all of the above?

Thinking back to Vietnam when there were thousands of reporters from all over the world covering that war, daily papers and multiple wire services were filled with incisive and comprehensive coverage. Nightly newscasts featured competitive stories. Names like Saigon, Da Nang, Hue, Cam Ranh Bay, Pleiku and so many others were widely known – heard frequently in coverage and by datelines – and discussed. But what of names, places and coverage from Afghanistan? After Kabul what names do come to mind? And could many (any) of us find them on a map?

Whose fault is that? Is it the media? There are fewer than a handful of reporters in country.  Is that because of diminished interest, reduced news budgets? The difficulty (near impossibility) of getting around without the assistance and escort of the US or coalition military? All of the above? But wouldn’t we be better served by more coverage – not just that which is approved by US military and diplomatic handlers?

From the Times’ story, “The low levels of coverage reflect the limitations on news-gathering budgets and, some say, low levels of interest in the war among the public. About a quarter of Americans follow news about Afghanistan closely, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“Inside the United States, you’ve got audiences that are beginning to suffer from war fatigue,” said Tony Maddox, who oversees international coverage for CNN.”

Competition among journalists in Vietnam as well as the wider range of published, conflicting and divergent viewpoints did contribute to the divisive nature of that war as well as to its ultimate peace.

The current crop of Afghan stories – according to what was published in the Times – seems to focus on whether the war is in fact winnable? A fair question – an obvious one at the end of the year and prior to the upcoming new Congress and State of the Union.

But – from a media standpoint – and a critical one – how is it that a war which is sucking resources at an appalling rate only merits 4% of the annual news coverage to begin with? Incidentally this isn’t just the fault of the media, for whatever our many sins might be, we have also become victims of the business culture which seeks to please audiences by giving them news they want, news they will be entertained by – not necessarily the news they need to make sober, serious and informed decisions. Afghan news is deemed to be unpopular unpleasant – it’s certainly foreign – and to be discriminatory or bigoted it is about people and a country we don’t generally think very highly of! There, I said it. From a media management standpoint – though they may not want to admit it – if honest they’d say their audiences don’t understand these people – don’t relate to these people – and don’t believe that our being in country is going to make much of (if any) reasonable difference. We’re marking time until the body county, blood-letting and money loss is so unsupportable that we’ll skulk out having declared a win, proudly asserting we had established a toe hold for democracy and proclaiming a peace. Whatever the hell that will look like.

The real question is this – from a media standpoint – 4%. Is that the best we can do? Is that a measure of how little we really care – and its failing Y2Y.

So as we enter 2011 let’s watch for stories with more bang-bang than politics. And stories about Presidential visits – 3 hours at an US air base – instead of a texture piece on the complexities of the Afghan government. And let’s not minimize the panache of visiting news anchors – Beauties in Bush Jackets – who visit from time to time to do their own ‘in-depth’ personal reporting conducted from the safety of US military escorts. This isn’t reporting. This is white wash. We deserve better… we don’t want to pay for it, we don’t want to be bothered by tough reporting and serious questions… and so instead we wait for Beltway pontificators to fill in what we don’t get from the field — offering platitudes and opinion instead of reportage.  It is however a poor alternative for the real thing.

Is doing enough actually enough?

Joshua-Michéle Ross who writes a nifty column Opposable Planets on social media has written Be Committed but Not Attached offering a phrase “be committed to the work that you do, the purpose you have, the intentions and integrity of your actions. Don’t be too attached to the results.”

I’ve been pondering this for the last few days.

Applied to the work: media – especially the challenged world of multimedia communications today – is just being committed enough? In times of tumult – of change – of business challenges while one cannot live daily on the edge, doesn’t one have to be committed to results? Is there any other way that is as rewarding?

The whole world is in a terrible state of crisis, and we dont hear much about it.

The foreign correspondent has become a casualty of the economy.  The days of the dashing foreign correspondent, trench-coated and adorned on top with a fedora are long-gone. 

Newspapers which prided themselves on their overseas commitment and the breadth and depth of their coverage have long since shuttered their news bureaux overseas.  So too have networks preferring to import pictures of breaking stories to London to be voiced there before being re-transmitted to New York.

So what’s lost?  The foreign correspondent is dead. Long live the foreign correspondent piece in today’s Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash is a thoughtful, insightful view as to what’s lost when we no longer care (or are willing to pay) to find the news ourselves.

His closing graphs, “For all my experience cries out to me: there is nothing to compare with being there. However many thousands of fantastic clips, blogs and online transcripts you have, there is nothing to compare with being there…

The unique value added by the 20th-century foreign correspondent consisted, at best, in the combination in one person’s experience over time, the considered throughput in a single mind and sensibility, of all three elements: witnessing, deciphering, interpreting. If we can somehow preserve that, in the journalism of our day, then we may yet achieve both more and better foreign news.”

The Guardian story is worth a look…not so much because it breaks a headline about the dearth of competent foreign journalism as much as it is a reminder of what we have lost… and to think about the consequences of our ignorance, a lack of awareness or interpretive appreciation and an absence of understanding.

In 1924 Sean O’Casey ended Juno & the Paycock with the admonition “”th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis”. Never did it seem that was more true than today.

Long live the foreign correspondent.

What’s “new” is already old and what’s old isn’t selling

When did TV News lose its balls? When did TV news decide it was better to get the interview and promise not to offend than to actually hold people accountable and perhaps, dare even, make news in the process?

Is it some sort of unwritten code not to be tough? Is it the result of cut-throat competition that has resulted in a broadcast environment of pabulum? Did news producers find their legs cut from beneath them by corporate ownership (Viacom, GE, Disney) that is more concerned with legislation and other corporate divisions than they are devoted to their news operations and what once passed for content?

David Carr’s To Beat Today, Look to Tomorrow is a thoughtful compendium of what’s wrong with morning news. Those stalwart morning shows… on ABC, CBS or NBC are hardly news any more, certainly not often news-worthy and more often news-light.

Soft features that once would never see airtime in what was once called the 7 o’clock “hard news hour” now dominate and sometimes even lead the broadcasts. Editorial-lite, anchor-intense gabfest now proliferate where once pointed interviews were the morning staple.
News was made – people wanted to be heard making news – programs wanted to break news – politicians and others were expected (and perhaps at times were excited) to appear and speak the truth (that’s news!) as the business day began.

What has caused the change? Not that long ago news makers who said quote-worthy things on a morning show set the agenda for the day to follow. They were even used as snippets in subsequent broadcasts. How long has it been since that happened?

When did TV News lose its balls? When did TV news decide it was better to get the interview and promise not to offend than to actually hold people accountable and perhaps, dare even, make news in the process?

Is it some sort of unwritten code not to be tough? Is it the result of cut-throat competition that has resulted in a broadcast environment of pabulum? Or perhaps what is more likely, did news producers find their legs cut from beneath them by corporate ownership (Viacom, GE, Disney) that is more concerned with legislation and other corporate divisions than they are devoted to their news operations and even concerned for the absence of what once passed for content?

Ok, for disclosure – as a freelancer I do work for more than one of these morning broadcasts 0r their cable cousins, albeit far from the decision centers on West 57th Street, Times Square or 30 Rock.

Guests are fawned over – given fruit baskets with notes signed from “their friends and family at XYZ news”. Yes, God’s truth… that’s what I and others have been instructed to write. I have declined.

I have noted over the years the news divisions sway over the content seems to have been minimized – the intensity of the questioning has been lessened. In its place we see a zeal for getting the guest – for proclaiming it an exclusive even when there was no competition for the story itself.

Have we all deluded ourselves into believing that the audience cared about an exclusive that was, on its merits, not truly important? Does making a hullabaloo about an exclusive raise the story to be worthy of the water-cooler later in the day?

David Carr is correct. The morning news model is dated.  Once there was a chance to earn greater interest because the shows were content heavy, compelling attention, and featuring well-written copy instead of largely ad-libbed repartee.

One day the audience might again demand more. Today in the 500 channel world of entertainment it seems as if too many stations – like CBS’ Early Show – are mired in repeating what is already shown elsewhere – echoing through the airwaves – instead of forging new ground.

So sure, toss out the old anchors. Pretend that’s the problem and the solution. If we are following the tried-and-true model of network production next the New York masterminds will once again remodel the show’s set and change graphics package for the program.
For when the anchor carnage doesn’t pan out, this will surely so the trick… after all we’ve experienced this before.

National Security Trumps the Right to Know, Sometimes Even the Opportunity to Ask

The recent gas explosion that destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, California offers another example of police and local authorities using the drape of “national security” to push the media back from the scene, to refuse to answer questions, and to deny access to maps and other documents that would give knowledge and comfort to residents, rate payers and tax payers.

Before the dawn of the morning following he explosion I was ordered back from an intersection more than a mile from the fire by a sergeant of the Pacifica (California) police acting as part of a mutual aid response. Why couldn’t we remain where we were parked – and had been parked for some 12 hours? “National Security” was his response as if by declaring those 2 words it precluded any further discussion or need for explanation. One could surmise if we refused to move the skies would be filled with black helicopters and the streets with black SUVs as federal law enforcement would leap from these vehicles as if clowns packed into too small a car in a circus ring.

“National Security” is all one needs to say now in defense of any argument or inquiry. Why can’t the utility PG&E release maps of outs gas lines? “National Security.” I suppose they are worried that terrorists with backhoes will soon be digging up streets to cause unimaginable destruction.

I suppose if I trusted those making the assertion, that in fact there was a real threat I’d be more willing to comply with their instruction. It just so often seems to ring like a hollow excuse. It becomes a wild card for which there is no argument; it trumps all other discussion.

But we have been too-often toyed with before. We are told we can’t make pictures at an airport or along a public waterfront where joggers run and mothers stroll with baby carriages because it might give advantage to our enemies. How about the damage this Draconian approach might cause to a free and open society? Is this truly for our safety or is it window dressing in the absence of a better, more effective plan? It reminds me of the months following 9/11 when the California Highway Patrol assigned a patrol cruiser parked at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge as a final bulwark of security against a cascading truck aimed at the bridge towers. I so often saw the officer in that car asleep in his seat that I wondered how much real security was being provided as opposed to what might otherwise seem to be window dressing.

It is frightening to witness the erosion of media protection. It seems to be a step in the wrong direction to limit access, to thwart entry, and to restrict the free flow of information. If there is a real threat, then there is no argument. If there is no reason except for the desire of authorities to conduct their work free from the eyes of the media and the public, then this must be fought.