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.
- Observe and report on exactly what President Trump and his administration say and do.
- 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.
- When reporting on the President, present solid, fact-based data regarding what he says and does.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t rely on unnamed sources. We are beyond the moment when people who care about important things should remain anonymous.
- 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.