Fixing News – A Simple Plan to Build Trust

Making America a little more great

As a mediator, one of my jobs is to look for ways that people can sit at the same table to negotiate. That can be made difficult by the negotiating tactics of one or both parties. One of the things that makes President Trump attractive to his constituents is his refusal to operate by long-standing rules of decorum and practices as President. He effectively uses social media to speak directly to the American people and the world. Some of those communications have value and others merely allow him to vent. His constant message of late is that the major media outlets manufacture fake news. In return, the media points out the major inconsistencies in the information that comes out of the Trump administration and voices their frustration. I’m not sure whether anyone has thought through the possibilities of fixing news — at least in a way that begins to satisfy the foundational purposes that drive our need for news.

Since I’ve decided to make an effort to be as objective as I can about the present state of our nation, I want to share my observations.

First, the news media taken as a whole is a mess. When news became a business, a significant amount of attention shifted to “selling newspapers.” This was a natural shift in that the gathering, analysis, and distribution of news is an expensive proposition and, since we believe there is tremendous potential for bias in a government-controlled press, we had to find a way to fund it. Unfortunately, in a free market environment, the competition for larger market share and the money that flows as a result often drive new organization from the solid ground of professional reporting to the edges of sensationalism.

Even when sensationalism isn’t the focus, other organizations drift to the right or left dependent on the political leanings of their ownership groups. Such alignment is natural and should be acceptable. We accept it in regard to politicians. So news people, just like anyone else, should be able to claim their political spot. But journalists should operate within the boundaries of truthfulness and accurate reporting.

I believe that the majority of news outlets have professional journalists dedicated to reporting the news accurately and asking vital questions. Let’s let them do their jobs — perhaps in a little different way.

Second, President Trump’s reliance on the surprise factor — his penchant for keeping everyone off balance — has put him in the White House. Yet, for those who listen carefully to what he says and watch what he does, that mode of operation has made him a highly questionable source of solid, factual information. Some say that is part of his genius. Others assert that it is only the vestiges of his ego and perhaps a more serious mental disorder. Looking at it objectively, his methods have been successful in keeping his opponents and, to a large degree, the American public guessing. I believe we are also hearing the uncertainty of world leaders building. The unpredictability of President Trump is a negotiating strategy. I teach negotiation. Most often, a prolonged assertion of unpredictability into the negotiation process is considered a hardball tactic. Equally seasoned negotiators either respond in kind or refuse to continue the game.

The news media has tried the hardball tactic. The results have been comical and would indeed be funny if the future of the nation and the world weren’t at stake. But aggressively arguing with a man who refuses to embrace the value of truth and accuracy is futile. Frankly, even if that is merely his negotiating strategy, it should be disturbing when basic honesty is cast aside merely to win. And, to be objective, we must admit there is some of that same game being played from within some of the news outlets.

So, my simple plan to fix news is this and is directed entirely to the news media. Here’s the more complex version of the simple plan.

  1. Observe and report on exactly what President Trump and his administration say and do.
  2. Go to his news conferences and listen. Don’t ask questions. Don’t bait him or be baited by him. When the prepared remarks end, close your notepads and walk away.
  3. When reporting on the President, present solid, fact-based data regarding what he says and does.
  4. Continue to seek out and even employ analysts who speak to the possible meaning of the history that is unfolding around us. Report their thoughts accurately and honestly.
  5. Seek other sources for news. Go to elected leaders and ask questions. Let political leaders enter into the debate and argument with the President. Give them a bigger share of the coverage.
  6. Report on alternatives that emanate from other political leaders and citizens. Give an objective score sheet to the American people to choose the leadership and direction of our country.
  7. Don’t rely on unnamed sources. We are beyond the moment when people who care about important things should remain anonymous.
  8. Be proud of what you do. The role of the news media is an important one. Don’t let negotiation tactics keep you off balance.

The simple version is this:

Respect the office of the President. Don’t play games with someone who has thrown away the rule book. If the game is based entirely on misdirection, you will never win unless you are better at creating confusion through misdirection. Create a new game with new rules. Observe, be fair, and distance yourself. Find alternative reliable sources and offer your readers and audiences the opportunity to decide who they will trust.

Escaping Insanity – The Case for Unequivocated Withdrawal

Until recent years, I haven’t been much of a “cause person.” While I recognized both the advantages and disadvantages of some of my friends’ life passions, I found it much easier to simply rock along in the sweet spot of non-commitment and relative peace. Avoidance — absolute withdrawal — was a safe haven that not only kept me far from strife and harsh words, but it also allowed me the luxury of inaction. Looking back, it also became my source of fuel to channel my attention to less than noble things. Not necessarily bad things, but not the best investment of my relatively short time on this planet.

I now see the need and the potential power of many causes. My life has been blessed with friends and acquaintances who are different from me in gender, race, religion, and lifestyle. As I have set aside time to listen to them and have come to love them deeply, I have become deeply provoked by an underlying thread of their stories. I have come to know my privilege as a white male living in a society that still leans in my direction.

My parents and some godly mentors taught me to work hard. I have tried to do that every day of my adult life — undoubtedly to a fault sometimes. I am not undeserving of what I have from that effort. Yet, I am undeserving of the advantages that have made that so much easier than it has been for others.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment is watching the unhealthy ways that we engage in conflict and disagreement. Oh, that I could throw the first stone in condemning and eradicating the utter nonsense of this behavior and the rancor that escalates in its wake. But I can’t.

Deep within me I feel the anger and the frustration when facing opinions different from mine and actions foreign to what I believe is right and good. In those moments, I begin to see those who differ from me in an alarming way. My inner being tells me they are inferior to me in both mental ability and moral grounding. In doing that, I sin.

One way to address sin is to flee. The Bible tells us that. In my experience, the Word of God doesn’t tell us everything, however. Pieces of our prescriptions from the divine are absent leaving us space to explore and to fill in the gaps with unfathomable opportunities to learn the spirit of our Creator. Pieces are absent, but not missing.

I grieve a bit when I venture into social media and watch people I know attack and vilify others. In the past week, I have seen total strangers with a common friend on Facebook turn on each other. Assumptions, accusations, and character assassinations boil quickly to the surface. Sometimes the violence of unruly protesters pales in comparison with what is said and done in this virtual world.

Yesterday, viewing the reactions around the country from the inauguration, I hovered over the “Deactivate My Account” button. My heart was breaking over the venom and reckless rhetoric. Total avoidance seemed the only answer.

Many of my friends have left social media because of the emotions I felt yesterday. I bless them in that decision. Most of those I know well will not withdraw completely from the deeper conversations. They have simply recognized the discord that the unique and challenging environment of social media presents.

I could make that same decision and it would greatly improve my outlook and, perhaps, even my service to others.

However, if I left social media today, I would lose much. When you place yourself in solitary places constantly, you lose touch with others and, too often, your own capacity for compassion and love. I tend to be an introvert and have no problem spending time alone. In earlier periods of my life, I’ve seen my own compassion and love quotients drained away as a result.

Jesus’ ministry on this earth was tumultuous. And so often, he would withdraw to a quiet place to talk to and listen to God. He would then emerge and face the challenges of his countercultural life with grace, love, and passion for the oppressed.

His example, of course, shows balance. Each of us have a different balance point. I am prayerful in my quest for that divine meeting place carved out by our Maker.

However you choose to interact, whatever conversations you invest in, never hesitate to withdraw to a place from time to time that stokes the fire of your grace, love, and passion.

 

The Right Path

Changing the culture through counter culture

My social media feeds explode with political themes even now — after the election and just days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The eruptions I’m seeing are not only from those who opposed Mr. Trump and oppose him still. The majority of outbursts I am seeing are from the side of the victor. Should any one venture to express concern over anything remotely connected to the incoming administration or the legislation it supports, immediate taunts ring out along with veiled and, sometimes, open threats. With such attempts to demean and devalue, the true nature of the person bubbles closer to the surface. This should be a time of finding the right path, the one that leads to common ground and reconciliation.

These angry and irrational voices from both sides are not those of patriots. Patriots are those who have searched their souls and, after serious contemplation, taken a stand for what is just and right. Justice and righteousness moves well beyond what is good for just one individual. The refusal of these angered individuals to seek understanding and their insistence on following blindly is frightening and bear no resemblance to patriotism.

On this day, January 16, 2017, we pause as a nation to honor the memory of a man who, above all else, pursued the right path. Not a perfect man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood as a blessed and blemished child of God to speak out with dignity against sin and social wrong.

Through the years, Dr. King’s detractors have attempted to distract the world from his message by parading his human failings. He had some. However, for those of us who are truly honest, we recognize that we are no different. Our challenges may or may not be a little different from his. The power of the message from Dr. King comes from the fact that he was broken like all of us. And from the lips of those who have been with us on the journey comes the most helpful of all advice.

In this time of heightened emotion and political activism, we stand at the brink of disturbing thought and behavior. With that as a backdrop, please consider these words from Dr. King, delivered in a sermon in Montgomery, Alabama on November 6, 1956, one week before the Supreme Court of the United States would declare Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

Although Dr. King delivered those words to his congregation, the importance and implication are apparent regardless of the political posturing you exhibit. We must learn to talk together without the violence of words and action. What will your chief legacy be? We must choose the right path.

Comparatively Speaking, Why Does Your ‘But’ Have to be Bigger Than Mine?

the lesser of two evils is, by definition, still evil

I read an article yesterday about an intellectual, liberal-thinking writer who had published a number of articles in support of Mr. Trump as President. The writer does not support many, if any, of Mr. Trump’s positions. Yet, he was voicing his endorsement for one sole reason: Mr. Trump is refusing to play any of the political games of Washington. Speaking of the contrast, the writer lauds the disruption that Mr. Trump is injecting into practically every moment. Comparatively speaking, past presidential transitions have been calm at the top — the President and the President-Elect are portraits of cooperation and the turbulent waters are at the bottom. This year is marked by turbulence throughout the Reflecting Pool.

Just after reading that article, I was cruising through Facebook and I saw a post from a friend lamenting Mr. Trump’s choice of words for one of his New Year’s Day tweets. His point was, to some extent, about content. Primarily, however, it was about tone and demeanor. As you would expect, a number of readers responded with like feelings. And then, in crept somebody’s ‘but.’

I read, with fascination, as entry after entry sprung to the screen. At one point, the responses gave way to an attack against an individual. As it turned out, the two individuals involved didn’t know each other at all. The root of the conflict? The attacker feared that her ‘but’ was bigger than his.

In order to move forward in the political world — or any any human interaction — we have to stop comparing bad as a justification for our allegiances. Instead, we must seek out good and reward it.

A Place to Start
Conflict is resolved effectively only when the parties involved agree to leave the battlefields and join forces on the construction site. The true path to peace is in building something better, not in demolition.

Don’t you think it’s a little juvenile to be investing so much time in comparing the size of our ‘buts?’ Instead, why don’t we begin identifying leaders and language that point to a better future for all people? For too long, the vast majority have believed that we have been voting for the lesser of two evils. I pray that in 2020, we will be voting for the greater of two goods.

The Thin Line

The vanishing point between war and rumors of war

This holiday season revealed a terrifying scene. A world leader threatened a nuclear attack against a neighboring country because of a fake news story. Pakistan versus Israel. Nothing for us to worry about, right? Tragically, the thin line that weaves its way between truth and lie, honesty and dishonesty, accountability and absence of accountability is losing weight. The real tragedy is that irresponsibility in communication is now being recognized as a skill.

As a society we have long-revered the art of manipulation and deception. We have even honored it in times of war, sports, and day-to-day negotiation. Yet, those of us who have studied negotiation know that things spiral out of control when the players in war or games or daily transactions begin to worship the thrill of deception or, at least, ignore the immorality that is inherent to it.

In public and community matters, what is most concerning is to have the public pounded with information that is simply untrue. Some of this information is false and purposefully constructed to wreak havoc and upend normalcy. Personally, I think that our law-making bodies should intensify targeted efforts to prosecute such intentional lies. Although asking our social media purveyors to police that is a positive move, I don’t believe that their solitary efforts will be enough.

Another false-news type is doing damage at the same time. Unverified statements, made as fact, are psychologically hardening positions across our political spectrum. For example, it was very easy for President-Elect Trump to recently tweet that his election has resulted in a 10% gain in financial markets. Unfortunately, neither Mr. Trump nor his organization has responded to requests for credible sources for that claim. Meanwhile, at the time the statement was made, a look at leading market indicators showed that the gains were below that margin — some far below.

Look, I was clear during and following the election that I did not support Mr. Trump in his bid for president. However, I did say that I would respect his office and give him an opportunity to be successful. In order for me to do that, I’m just asking that he make an effort to be accurate in what he says or writes. He would have been perfectly correct to simply say that the financial markets have made significant gains since the election. That is true and I have no problem admitting that. And, I think it is within the realm of acceptable behavior for him to claim his impending presidency as the factor that made that happen.

I’m not just pointing to Mr. Trump.

We all realize that, although Mr. Trump seems to have a huge capacity for distributing misinformation and making statements that he or his aides must later “walk back,” this lack of accuracy is not limited to Mr. Trump and has infected almost every crevice and pore of our public lives in a negative way.

Another example from Mr. Trump’s Twitter account. (To those of you who are willing supporters of Mr. Trump, please keep reading. Until someone gets him off Twitter, he just provides too many examples. Spoiler: I’m actually going to give him the benefit of the doubt here.)

The early reactions I heard only quoted the first eleven words. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity.” Given Putin’s rants at about the same time, it certainly sounded as if Mr. Trump was putting us back on the front row of a cold war — with glowing nuclear armaments displayed all around. However, the second part of that tweet does show that Mr. Trump recognized boundaries.

I have to admit, I don’t follow @realDonaldTrump on Twitter. At my age, I just haven’t needed that constant anxiety. But had I accepted the reports of his statement at face value, I could have only concluded that he had every intention of rescinding all progress that ‘s been made toward nuclear disarmament. That is not what he said and we can all hope and pray that was never his intention.

The problem, of course, is that Mr. Trump’s communication is vague and no one can determine its face value. Even though there have been additional statements issued about this, we still aren’t exactly sure of what he intended. This is one of those moments where it is our responsibility and duty to ask — even demand — clarification. And insist on accountability. But be fair, he didn’t say that he was going to pursue a cold war. This is when we ask questions and seek clarification.

So, if you’ve been waiting for my big point, here it is . . .

Given the world of misinformation we live in, shaped from social media, cable news, and the major news media organizations, we must be vigilant and we must demand accountability. As the American people, we have a long history of following leaders we are unwilling to listen closely to. Close enough has been good enough. If a policy sounds like it benefits us personally, then we’re supporters. We have ceased being people of thought and inquiry. We have voted “us versus them” and it is coming back to bite us — and them.

We are them. They are us. We’re in this together.

So, a call to our leaders, our news sources, and to each of us personally:

Invest time in getting and communicating good information from multiple sources. Then, act on it responsibly. Don’t simply stir discord. Have friendly conversations. Commit to beginning and ending your discussions as friends. And set aside time for the next visit.

This call was to me, as well. I’m dangerously close to following @realDonaldTrump. Maybe right after my next physical.