Too Much Opinion. Not Enough Reporting. How Do We Fix It?

This is written in response to a Medium post by Lewis Wallace, a talented, brave and passionate young journalist who worked for the public radio show, Marketplace.  He was fired this week for refusing to take down his post.  The headline was: “Objectivity is Dead, and I’m okay with it.”

I disagree. A reporter’s job is to report, not to tell listeners what to think. It is a humble calling. Reporting is a craft, not an art.

One reason why Trump became President is the narcissism of our time. We all think we’re entitled to yell at each other. That everyone’s opinion is equally valid. It has become acceptable to take a verbal fire hose to those we disagree with.

There’s a place for resistance and protest. But bombast, ridicule and contempt are drowning out respectful disagreement, even good natured argument.

From TV, online media, newspapers, commercial radio and podcasting, there is much more opinion today. Not enough reporting.

One reason why so many people distrust us journalists is our lack of diversity. Not enough diversity of opinion. Diversity of class. Geographic diversity. We must do a better job of listening to those who make us uncomfortable. That includes listening to those who felt that Trump was preferable to Clinton.

The most important pursuit is the quest for truth. But truth can be elusive. This makes our jobs difficult, but profoundly important.

Journalism should strive to be more like science, where good researchers employ skepticism as they try to disprove their theories.

Objectivity may be in the emergency room. But it is not dead. Your view and my view of objectivity will be different. But we should still be searching for it just around the corner.

With respect,

Richard.

How Do We Fix It As We Leap Over a Cliff?


I’m in London – capital of “we have no idea what’s going to happen next.” 

This much is certain: Never in recent decades have Britain’s intelligentsia and political elite been in such a fog – baffled by Brexit and troubled by Trump.   I can’t remember a time when so many op-Ed writers end their articles with the limp observation that “only time will tell.”

It’s almost as if you can hear an audible shuffling of papers and clearing of throats, as the great and the good struggle to explain how great events might unfold in 2017. Most of them – us really – were so wrong about remaining in the European Union or the inevitability of Hillary. We have no idea exactly what is coming next.

It’s well past time for a little humility.

Speaking in Liverpool this week, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, admitted that many ordinary people had been screwed by the rise of globalism.  “The combination of open markets and technology means that … a globalized world amplifies the rewards of the superstar and the lucky,” said Carney. “Now may be the time of the famous or fortunate but what of the frustrated and the frightened?”

What indeed?  The usually bold and confident Governor didn’t seem to have much of an answer. 

How much damage will the Brexit vote do to the U.K. economy? It seems that the economic forecasts change almost weekly. 

After dire predictions during the summer of a great slowdown, promoted by uncertainty over the implications of the Brexit referendum, Britain should finish the year as the fastest growing economy of the G7 economies – according to a survey by Scotiabank. The Bank of England recently upgraded its outlook for the near future.

What will Donald Trump do to the environment and America’s standing in the world?  The omens are not good, but it’s hard to know if America will be the laughing stock when so many other countries are facing a similar challenge.

The voters smashed the china and there is very little agreement – here or back home in the U.S – on how it’s going to be put back together again. As “The Thunderer” (aka The Times of London) said in a recent editorial, it is not business as usual.  

To be continued.

How Do We Fix It? What I’ve Learned Since Donald Trump Won.

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I’m one of those damn fool East Coast journalists who was stunned by the results of last week’s election.  I didn’t see it coming.  I thought that we’d elect our first woman President.

So why should you bother to read this? Because I’m listening and learning from others who may be a bit smarter than me.

That includes our podcast co-host, Jim Meigs.

“We have an entire institution of media and opinion who misunderstood the country,” he told me the morning after the election on “How Do We Fix It?” “The sense of anxiety that was out there was not taken seriously.”

“This was the Caddyshack election,” said Jim. “In our popular culture, the idea of rich, sophisticated Ivy League-educated people often is met with a certain amount of resistance and cynicism by people who consider themselves salt of the earth.”

In “Caddyshack” (released in 1980) a brash, vulgar, nouveau riche land developer (played by Rodney Dangerfield) offends all the well-healed, preppy guys at a ritzy country club.  “That’s who Trump is,” says Jim. “People got a kick out of him tipping over the apple cart and causing trouble. They’re responding to a trait in our culture where we tend to distrust the polished elite.”

No, that doesn’t mean most Trump voters are racist or anything else -ist. In fact, Trump got more votes from people of color than Mitt Romney did.  There was no great surge of white voters for Trump.

In the words of George Packer of the New Yorker (his book “The Unwinding” is a must-read if you want to understand what the hell happened), this was a middle-finger election.  A lot of voters – especially late deciders – saw Hillary as elitist and more of the same. Pissed off, they decided to give the other guy a try.

One week before the election in “Bring the Right Wing Into the Mainstream Media,” Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View made the case of more diversity in newspapers, magazines and on the networks.

“The media is overwhelmingly liberal,” she wrote.  “It tends to mirror the left-to-center-left spectrum of the social class from which most journalists are drawn. That affects coverage, which right-wing readers pick up on.”

Most of the bias is subconscious, not deliberate, McArdle argues.  Those inside the castle gates of the Mainstream Media look down on those in flyover country with mixture of disdain and horror.

“Whoever is to blame for the problem, yelling at the residents of the swamp to behave themselves is probably not going to fix it,” wrote McArdle.  “What would fix the problem is if the folks in the castle made a concerted effort to open the doors and persuade some of the swamp-dwellers to move inside. Not just to move inside, but to help run the place, pushing back on liberal pieties and dubious claims with the same fervor that liberals push back on conservative ones.”

None of this is meant to excuse Donald Trump for what he said during the campaign nor suggest that we should “sit and down and shut up” for the next four years.  But right now – at least for the next few weeks – a little humility is in order. First understand. Then act.

And never assume we know what’s coming next.  As Janan Ganesh wrote this week in The Financial Times:  “The only intelligible lesson of 2016 is that William Goldman’s verdict on Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything”, said the screenwriter – applies to matters of state.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, Hillary! Tell More Stories.


By most measures Hillary Clinton had a pretty good night in her first debate with Donald Trump.  But something was missing.

Her disciplined performance may have convinced wavering voters to be somewhat more comfortable with the idea of her as President.  Clinton’s cool, calm demeanor contrasted with Donald Trump’s repeated interruptions and bluster.  She was also successful in getting under his skin.

However, Clinton did little to overcome her two biggest negatives: likeability and trust.  Neither did Trump.  Both are still disliked by surprisingly large numbers of voters. 

In the two debates to come, the breakout candidate could be the one who tells the best stories.

Clinton’s strongest moment on Monday night came right at the end of the 90 minute debate, after many may have turned it off.  She raised the case of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, who Trump had called “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.”

She made it personal. Her remark struck home because it was about a woman who many viewers could relate to.  

Same thing when Clinton talked about her late father and his work as a drapery maker. 

“Donald was very fortunate in his life and that’s all to his benefit. He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father,” she said.  “I have a different experience.”

In podcasts, the most successful moments are often the most intimate. When podcast guests share something unrehearsed, unexpected or emotional from their lives, they lift the curtain on they are and establish trust with the listener. 

All too often Clinton talks about “it” – policies and programs – while her opponent talks about “me” – himself.

Donald Trump could also be a much better storyteller. And given his extraordinary success in building his brand, it’s surprising he doesn’t know this.

Instead of talking about the “rigged system” in the abstract, Trump could share stories of the working class Americans he speaks for, who’ve seen their living standards decline in recent decades.

In the weeks to come, a personal touch potentially would have a far greater impact than his angry attacks on illegal immigrants and free trade. It would also counter the impression that Trump lacks empathy and is obsessed with his own success. 

Ronald Reagan understood this trick all too well – much to the frustration of his liberal opponents.  In debates and speeches, he always had a good tale to tell.  Skeptical voters who’d been warned that Reagan was a shallow extremist would ask themselves: “How this man be mean or out of touch when he was such a good storyteller?”

It was of Ronald Reagan’s great secrets. But then he was an old radio guy. He knew the stuff that today’s podcasters learn along the way.

How Do We Fix It: Time to Stop Sneering At Donald Trump Voters.

imageRetired steel workers union boss Lou Mavrakis is the Democratic Mayor of Monessen, Pennsylvania.  In 2008 he campaigned for Barack Obama.  This year he’s supporting Donald Trump.

“You’re in the heart of where steel and coal was born,” Mavrakis told Martha Raddatz of ABC News. But most of the good jobs have gone and this faded town’s population collapsed from 25,000 at its peak to 7,000 now. Monessen and countless other communities in “rust belt” America are places of pain – plunged into crisis by decades of decline.  Globalization, foreign competition and technology had a devastating impact on working-class Americans.

Asked if Trump could bring back lost jobs, Mayor Mavrakis replied: “I don’t think any one of them could do anything for us, but he’s saying what I want to hear and what everyone else around here wants to hear.”

“I haven’t heard Hillary Clinton say we’re going to bring back steel.”

Mavrakis believes Trump will win more votes in Monessen than any previous Republican Presidential candidate, – telling the Financial Times  voters are rebelling against the establishment just as Brits did during Brexit.

But far too many Democrats – my friends included – shake their heads in amazement about how anyone could be lunatic enough to support him.

“In the land of NeverTrump, it turns out one American is more reviled than Donald Trump. This would be the Donald Trump voter,” writes MainStreet columnist William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal.

The same thing happened during Brexit.  Voters who bucked the metropolitan establishment and decided to opt out of the European Union are sneered at for being anti-immigrant, jingoistic racists.  No doubt, some are.  But people who’ve seen their living standards decline, their dreams fade to gray and their communities fall apart in the past few decades are understandably frustrated by the failure of politicians to address their concerns.

Even if you are disgusted by Trump and believe he’s an unprincipled opportunist, it’s time to look beyond the messenger.

Instead of “contempt for the great Republican unwashed” – as McGurn puts it – a conversation is needed about what many American people are trying to tell us.

 

 

 

 

How Do We Fix It? When Did It Become Cool To Be So Angry?

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Why are so many of us so damn angry?

Signs of fury are everywhere.  The national mood has darkened and it’s doing nothing to improve our democracy.

From chaotic scenes last weekend in Las Vegas when Bernie Sanders’ supporters threw a hissy fit at the Nevada’s Democratic Convention, to Donald Trump’s string of outrageous insults, it seems perfectly acceptable to claim that those who we disagree with are evil.

Yet these eruptions come at a time of modest improvement in many aspects of American life.  President Obama has been a disappointment, even to many supporters,  but his approval rating  – 51% says Gallup – is pretty decent for a President close to the end of his second term.

The jobs and housing markets are far from great, but they’re in much better shape today than when Obama first took office after the worst financial crisis in nearly 80 years.

The Affordable Care Act, while flawed, has not been the utter disaster claimed by many critics. Many more people are signing up and the U.S. uninsured rate is at a record low.

The “flood” of Mexicans surging across our southern border is a myth.  Since 2009, more Mexicans left the U.S. than entered the country.

Terrorism is always a threat, but the worst attack on U.S. soil happened nearly 15 years ago.

And he many of us are gripped by a deep sense of malaise and insecurity.  More than 7 in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country.  Cultural divisions, income inequality and a decline in living standards for non-college educated Americans threaten to pull is further apart.

All are reasons why Trump and Sanders have attracted huge crowds and surprising levels of support. But their policy prescriptions are simplistic.  We have very little idea of what they would do, if elected.

Who would pay for Sanders’s sweeping pledges of free health care and college education? How would Trump deal with China, The Middle East, immigration, job creation or the details of tax policy?

After his recent meeting with Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “Going forward, we’re going to go a little deeper in the policy weeds.” Too bad that hasn’t happened already.

Perhaps, Yuval Levin is right.  In his new book, “The Fractured Republic,” he argues that our politics have been paralyzed by nostalgia for the 1950’s and 60’s.  Liberals hanker for a time of greater income equality, before “the rise of the rest” meant that our workers had to compete in the resurgent global marketplace.  The right is nostalgic for cultural cohesion and  “traditional values”.

But those days of post-World War 2 U.S. dominance will not return. Our politics must address the technological and global challenges of today, instead of wallowing in the past.  We need to move beyond the primal screams of anger and work together, across party lines for a better future.

How Do We Fix It: Our Neighbors Just Across The Border

  
With audio/visual media class at UTEP.

El Paso:

Sometimes we learn a lot more than we expect to from the kids that we’re supposed to be teaching.

And so it was during my visit to Kate Gannon’s audio/ visual production class at UTEP – The University of Texas, El Paso.
I was asked to speak to the young students about my career in journalism, radio and podcasting. But during our 90 minutes together, I’m pretty sure these smart, switched-on students gave me something of much greater value than I was able to share with them.

The majority of the undergrads at UTEP are Mexican-Americans. Many come from poor families and struggle to keep up with tuition. But thanks to this school and its visionary President, Diana Natalicio (named to the TIME list of the world’s 100 most influential people), they’re on the up escalator.

That’s true of this class. Some come from the city of Juarez, which shares the same crowded valley as El Paso – just across the Mexican border. 

Their stories of what they must do to get to campus are moving. One young woman told me about her friend from Juarez, who wakes up at 5 a.m. each day, rides three buses and makes a time-consuming trip across the border to make a 10 a.m. class. 

   The crowded border border between El Paso and Juarez.

Armed with the right documents, you can walk across the bridge from Juarez. But going to a job, a University class or visiting a family member isn’t nearly as easy as it once was. And if Donald Trump gets his way, it could get much more difficult.

Another young Mexican in Ms. Gannon’s class burns with irritation over how Jaurez is portrayed by the media. After graduating, she wants to do something to change perceptions of her home town. 

“It’s nothing like what they say,” she says, speaking of Juarez’s stark reputation for murderous drug gang violence. Another student tells the story of a young Italian man who fell in love with a woman from Juarez and moved there. 

“He says he feels safer in Juarez than he did in Italy.”

Perhaps the crime statistics tell a different story. And there’s no doubt that the gangs are still a malevolent force in Jaurez and many other parts of Mexico.  

But a city or a country is more than numbers or abstract concepts. It is the sum of its people, its families, workers, grandparents and students. The vast majority of Mexicans shares the same hopes for a better tomorrow as we do. Dreams don’t stop at the border.

For far too long, Mexicans have been considered “the other.” The U.S. immigration debate needs to be reframed. As with Canadians, Mexicans are our neighbors. We are all North Americans together.

In this bilingual city, the people on the other side of the valley are not “them.” They are “us”. More than three-quarters of the residents in El Paso are of Mexican descent. This region has the largest bilingual-binational work force in the Western Hemisphere. 

None of this means the border should be forgotten or that U.S. immigration law can be flouted. Those who are here illegally should face deportation or other penalties.

But both countries need to have an understanding of their shared history. Since 2007, the border flow has changed dramatically. More Mexicans are leaving than coming to the U.S. 

One gesture that could send a powerful message and change the conversation: The next President should come here, walk across the bridge to Jaurez, arm-in-arm with civic and business leaders from both cities and speak of our shared humanity. 

  
Walking on the bridge to Juarez.

How Do We Fix It? How Bill Clinton Smashed the Passion Gap 

  

Unscripted comments often give us the worst moments of the Presidential campaign. Look no further than the embarrassing Republican debate in early March, when Donald Trump bragged about his penis.

But once in a while a tense, uncomfortable encounter can turn into a civics lesson.

And so it was when Bill Clinton stood up during an event for his wife in Philadelphia Thursday and faced down protesters from Black Lives Matter. They complained vigorously about anti-crime legislation that the former President signed in the early 90’s: a time when the crack epidemic led to a terrible spike in homicides, especially in African-American neighborhoods.

Instead of merely dismissing the shouts and signs of his detractors, or taking a politically correct vow of silence, he engaged them with a series of remarks about policy and the changed political landscape.

“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” the former President said wagging his finger. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [Hillary Clinton] didn’t. You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth.”

The tone may have been somewhat hectoring, and he sort-of apologized for it the next day. But the President’s passion was real. You don’t have to agree with him or his record to be impressed by the outburst of substance.

Far too much of this campaign has been about easy slogans, from Bernie Sanders’ simplistic break-up the big banks (thoroughly dissed in a New York Times column by liberal Paul Krugman) to Trump’s build a wall and make Mexico pay.

The biggest problem Hillary Clinton has been her apparent lack of passion. It’s why she has under-performed, and also why Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio failed to catch fire. 

Voters already know that the former Secretary of State, First Lady and Senator from New York has a deeply impressive resume and an intelligent grasp of governance and foreign policy, but much of her campaign has been canned —  on auto pilot. It’s as if she thinks she can glide to victory without taking risks. Without being a fighter.
But today’s media and political environment has changed. Americans – especially millennials – are increasingly bored with complacent, canned remarks. An occasional flash of humor or even anger can be refreshing and even change minds. 

Bill may have put his foot in it sometimes, but his spontaneous outburst in Philadelphia is a lesson for Hillary and a solution for her wobbly campaign. Fix the passion gap.

If you want to convince skeptical voters that you’re not a crook, put away the script and speak from the heart.

How Do We Fix It?  You and Me.  Our Role in Partisan Divide

 How many times have you heard someone say: “I’m fed up with the campaign and politics in general.”

That’s hardly surprising at a time when media coverage has focused on personal insults, name-calling and partisan gridlock, instead of governance and compromise.

But much of this is our fault. Not just the politicians.  From older angry white men (Trump supporters) to idealistic Millennials (Bernie backers), voters have repeatedly rewarded candidates who use angry rhetoric and blame others for the country’s problems.  Sanders bashes Wall Street “crooks”, while Trump attacks Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

Among the candidates of left and right who have pushed back against this trend, only Ohio Governor John Kasich has won more support than expected.  

“We live with the dysfunction of partisan behaviors and believe we must and can do better,” says Joan Blades, co-founder of the non-profit group, LivingRoomConversations.org.  She makes the case for personal dialog across party lines, arguing that it’s a key part of changing the way all of us think about politics.

A strong progressive, who co-founded the liberal activist group, MoveOn.org in the late 90’s, Joan says you’ll never convince anyone with an opposing viewpoint unless you listen to them first. 

“One of the problems progressives have right now is that if they run into someone who doesn’t believe in climate science, they roll their eyes.” As soon as you do that, “you’ve lost your conversation,” Joan says. “Nobody listens to anybody.”

Americans need to find new ways to speak about our differences and visit websites with opposing political opinions from their own.  Speaking with those you don’t agree with is part of the solution.

 “It’s actually really fun having a living room conversation,” she tells us on episode 44 of our podcast, How Do We Fix It? “They’re more fun than if you have a bunch of people around and you what they’re going to say.”

LivingRoom Conversations.org has simple for ground rules for each meeting – encouraging participants to be curious, show respect and take turns.  

Listening to people is the best way to get people to listen to you. These conversations are not debates. Instead of winning, the aim is come up with solutions.

The group’s guidelines are open-source. People can use whatever works for them. I want to host one.  What about you?  And what topics might work in these settings?  You can find examples at  LivingRoomConverstions.org.
   

How Do We Fix It? What Elites and Pundits Don’t Know About The Rest of Us.

  

The results are in from the latest batch of primaries.  Once again, the year’s most surprising trends persist: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are doing far better than pundits, pollsters and elites had expected.

Despite a furious and well-funded campaign against him by the Republican establishment, Trump trounced his rivals in Mississippi and Michigan.  Sanders scored a major upset win in Michigan.

Both are the blame-the-other-guy-candidates.  

For Trump, it’s poor Mexican migrants who are storming across the border and taking our jobs. Or crazy Muslims who are claimed to be a danger to us all.

For Bernie, wicked Wall Street and evil billionaires are to blame for our troubles.  And it’s time to teach them a lesson, even if business is crippled as a result. 

Both are dishing out what their worried, weary, and above all distracted, followers want to hear.  

And the rest of us, who are either stunned or appalled by the election results so far, can learn something very interesting about how most people form opinions and make up their minds on the big decisions in life. 

Emotions and feelings play a much bigger role than most of us realize. 

In his recent book, “Copy, Copy, Copy,” Mark Earls, a British writer and well-known consultant on marketing, communications and human behavior talks about the  “I’ll have what she’s having” phenomenon from the 1989 movie, “When Harry Met Sally“.  That’s what the woman who’s sitting nearby says after Meg Ryan’s very public and fake orgasm. 

The widely held view that we make decisions on our own and in a rational way is a complete myth.  Instead, we vote and buy stuff by copying others – our friends, family and our neighbors.

Donald Trump is “much smarter than we give him credit for,” says Mark on our podcast. “He gets that people need to feel stuff rather than think about it.” 

Much of Bernie Sanders’ appeal is about personal integrity and authenticity. He clearly says what he believes and that may seem very refreshing, even though his left-wing policies made in a loner in the U.S. Senate. But that doesn’t matter one bit to his adoring tribe. Sanders won a stunning 80% of the millennial vote in Michigan.

With Donald and Bernie it’s not about detailed policies.  Or what might happen after Election Day. Their appeal is based on group identity and emotions. 

The sooner “rationalists” and “experts” realize that, the better.

Top: Front page of “The Economist” magazine.