Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

Tucson: successful crisis management

January 17, 2011

When you read an editorial in The Washington Post penned by Senator John McCain and titled “Mr. Obama’s admirable speech,” it’s clear that the speech had to be truly memorable. Senator McCain was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee during the recent presidential elections.  Barack Obama’s opponent on the ballot. In his editorial, McCain writes about President Obama’s speech during the services in honor of the victims at the shootout in Tucson, Arizona, and among other comments, states that Barack Obama is “a patriot.”

The President’s objective was for his speech to unite the country after the tragedy in Tucson. It is a president’s duty to do so in times like these.  And the general consensus was that he accomplished it.

Mr. Obama criticized the atmosphere of political verbal hostility in Washington. He did this because immediately after the shooting, the tense political climate was blamed for the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson.

Many leaders, including the President, reiterated the need to return to a political discourse where active and passionate dissent can coexist within a framework of civility.

I think that this climate of political attacks and counterattacks is by no means a monopoly of US politics.  This happens in each and every one of the countries I have covered as a reporter or lived in.  Aggressive dissent is inherent to politics.  And actually, the danger would be to not have this type of lively debate, because it would mean the absence of democracy.

Fortunately, even though we all remember painful exceptions, in the United States these differences are solved at the ballot box. Tucson was an exception. It isn’t even clear whether it was an attempt at a political assassination against a congresswoman because of ideological reasons or simply the work of a disturbed individual who fixated on her as he could have done on any other person for whatever reason.  All the experts agree that the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, has severe mental problems.  In fact, research by the US Secret Service state that the great majority of the so-called “political assassinations” in this country have nothing to do with politics. After many interviews with people who have attempted, with and without success, against the lives of political leaders, the studies conclude that the majority of the assailants are mentally ill and that this is the true reason behind the attacks. Not political dissent.

Speaking from a strictly communications point of view, it is clear to me that this crisis was managed masterfully by everyone.

The country was glued to television screens for days to find out every detail about the situation. The tragedy had a real impact on the nation.  Each and every one of the victims was an irreplaceable loss, but that of young Christina-Taylor Green especially touched the hearts of Americans. A nine year old girl born, paradoxically, on September 11, 2001.  The day of the attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon. A young girl interested in politics who wanted to see and listen to her congresswoman in person.

The President’s task to unite the nation with his speech was not an easy one due to the divisive political climate to which I referred earlier. However, not only did he do this well, he also managed the crisis masterfully.

The President reacted immediately to the news with a press release.  Later, he spoke on television to offer his condolences to the victims’ families and to wish a speedy recovery to the wounded. He also asked the FBI director to travel to Arizona to lead the investigation and offered all the federal government resources needed to handle the matter. His next step was to personally travel with the First Lady to Tucson to attend the commemoration for the victims. At every step we witnessed a President in touch and who reflected the country’s pain.

The Republican political opposition also reacted in a non-partisan way, focusing on what was important, the victims, and setting aside party-line disagreements. An example of this is Senator McCain’s editorial, which was interpreted as a first-rate example of elegance, class, responsibility and political leadership by the Republican senator.

Someone whose reaction to the tragedy did cause disagreement was former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.  The former governor of Alaska, in a video message posted on her Facebook page, used a term with historic anti-Semitic meaning which, undoubtedly, distracted her audience away from her intended message. Others also criticized her for talking too much about politics instead of the victims.  

In the past she has been accused of creating a political atmosphere that breeds confrontation in places such as Arizona. National political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, reiterated that the only person responsible for a tragedy of such magnitude was the person who pulled the trigger.

Many of Palin’s defenders say that she didn’t understand the context of the expression she used.  However, few people understand how none of her advisors expressed concern about it.  This has added fuel to the fire for people who accuse her of not having the necessary education to be president.

Nevertheless, the crisis was, in general, very well managed by everyone.

The President’s behavior was praised by even his most ferocious Republican critics. The Republican opposition was praised by the Democrats.  Politicians displayed a unity seldom seen in Washington.  They did not focus on themselves but on the tragedy and encouraged a somewhat more respectful political discourse.

Pro-gun activists, despite the tragedy, didn’t lose any ground. In fact, only a few days after the shooting, a gun show in Arizona was attended by thousands of people.  They insist that the weapons are not the problem and that any citizen is constitutionally entitled to have them. According to them, the problem is managing criminals and the mentally unstable so that they don’t have access to the weapons. Even though the subject was addressed during media coverage of the tragedy, the shooting didn’t really bring about a deep national debate about the use of weapons in the United States.  Without doubt, the pro-gun groups knew how to successfully deal with this situation. They stated their position, but respecting the victims’ suffering. They were able to prevent a popular upswell against them which could lead to federal legislation to significantly affect their interests.

Another group that successfully managed the situation was that of the doctors dealing with the tragedy. They were constantly available, gave frequent updates about the wounded, communicated effectively and in a clear manner about the medical procedures and demonstrated obvious empathy for the suffering of the families. They handled themselves with the utmost professionalism in a situation that was physically and mentally exhausting.  And in front of hundreds of journalists from all over the world.

This highlights that one of the most important things to do to successfully manage any crisis is to be prepared for it before it happens. The doctors and the hospital, without a doubt, did it.  Something like this can, unfortunately, happen at any time and the ability to communicate effectively cannot be improvised.

This is an example of how well a crisis has been managed, but there is a long list of crises that were extremely poorly managed on every level and which have very negatively impacted the reputation of not only those who were directly involved in it but also, for example, political leaders at the highest levels. If they study closely the reactions in and about Tucson, they will surely be better prepared for future crises, which, will undoubtedly have to face in the future.

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Entrevista: La Opinión A Coruña (7 de noviembre de 2010)

November 7, 2010

Periodista coruñés en EEUU premiado con dos EMMY por sus investigaciones

Pablo Gato: ´El gran problema de Obama es que no sabe vender lo que hace´

“Se habla del hispano Marco Rubio como rival presidencial en 2012, pero dependerá de lo que haga en temas como la reforma migratoria”

Hace dos años que abandonó el periodismo activo para dedicarse a asesorar a Estados y empresas que operan en EEUU, entre ellas cajas españolas. Es el periodista latino que cubrió más conflictos internacionales en la televisión estadounidense, ha trabajado para grandes cadenas como CNN y NBC y obtuvo dos EMMY y cuatro nominaciones de la academia de televisión por sus investigaciones

SANTIAGO ROMERO | A CORUÑA

-¿Por qué salió tan mal parado Obama en estas elecciones?

-Hay dos cosas. Un tema de fondo, que es la crítica al gasto público que genera la agenda ambiciosa de Obama y otro que, aunque es un tema de forma, es el que ha tenido más impacto en las urnas: Obama ha tenido un fracaso de comunicación enorme, no supo vender lo que está haciendo. Se comunicaron perfectamente bien a la hora de elegirlo como presidente, movilizaron al país de una forma impresionante, de hecho recaudó más dinero que nadie. Pero a la hora de gobernar descuidaron esa maquinaria de comunicación. Y Obama lo ha pagado.

-Da la impresión de que el voto latino le ha dado la espalda.

-El problema es la reforma migratoria. Obama la prometió en el primer año y no lo cumplió. Entonces, aunque ha habido cosas que los hispanos admiten que son buenas y que benefician a todo el mundo, el incumplimiento de esa promesa lo opaca todo en la comunidad latina. Lo otro pasa a ser secundario y hay mucha gente que está decepcionada. Esto le costó votos.

-¿Se verá Obama obligado a cambiar su agenda de gobierno?

-La va a tener que cambiar a la fuerza, o no conseguirá que se apruebe nada. Yo creo que va a cambiar tanto la agenda de los demócratas como de los republicanos. Si se paraliza todo también van a penalizar a los republicanos, no sólo a Obama. Ahora que son parte del gobierno no pueden seguir siendo el partido del no sin más.

-¿Estos resultados pueden ser extrapolables a una elección presidencial?

-Son distintas. Hay mucha gente que ha votado republicano no por ideología, sino para penalizar a los demócratas. Los mismos republicanos admiten que esto no es un voto de confianza para ellos, sino más bien una especie de segunda oportunidad. Y está limitada a dos años. Puede cambiar fácilmente en 2012.

-¿Será el hispano Marco Rubio el rival de Obama en 2012?

-Automáticamente ya se habla de él como candidato presidencial. Ahora bien, el tema es más complicado. Primero, para ser candidato presidencial no le basta con el apoyo hispano. Y también habría que ver si la mayoría de la comunidad hispana se siente cómoda con él como representante digamos oficial. No cabe duda de que va a ser un personaje a tener en cuenta, pero aún está por ver a dónde llega. Entre otras cosas, ahora va a tener que comprometerse en votos concretos. El apoyo de la población hispana dependerá de lo que haga y la clave será la reforma migratoria.

-Creo que es usted el periodista latino que ha cubierto más conflictos bélicos en Estados Unidos.

-Sí, porque en una época me interesó mucho. Entre eso y que nadie quería ir, era la combinación perfecta. He conocido a varios corresponsales de guerra españoles que desafortunadamente han muerto, por ejemplo Julio Fuentes, que fue asesinado en Afganistán y también conocí en la guerra de Irak a Julio Parrado un día antes de que lo mataran. Y al periodista de Antena 3 Ricardo Ortega, que murió en Haití. En España se dice que los gatos tienen siete vidas; en Estados Unidos, son nueve; pues yo he agotado las nueve. He podido morir varias veces, pero tuve suerte.

-Recibió una mención de honor de la academia de televisión por el 11-S. ¿Cómo lo vivió?

-Fue surrealista. Yo vivo cerca del Pentágono, en Washington. Iba conduciendo y vi la enorme nube de humo que salía del complejo militar, que duró días en extinguirse. Enseguida llamé a la redacción, sabían ya lo de las Torres Gemelas, pero no aún lo del Pentágono. Parecía el apocalipsis: coches en dirección opuesta, gente armada cruzando la autopista y de pronto se apagaron todos los teléfonos móviles mientras oías explosiones por todas partes, era el tendido eléctrico, pero había rumores de que había explotado un coche bomba en el Departamento de Estado. Se tenía la impresión de que Washington estaba siendo atacada en toda regla. Fue meterse en ese caos y trabajar sin parar en la redacción durante muchísimos días.

-Los episodios de Washington son los menos documentados del 11-S, por eso se agarran a ellos muchas teorías conspiratorias.

-Bueno? es sólo porque no hay un material visual tan claro como en Nueva York. Mi compañera Lori Montenegro estaba justo delante del Pentágono y vio perfectamente cómo se estrellaba el avión en el Pentágono. Ella lo vio, pero no hay un video donde se vea claramente como en Nueva York. Por eso han salido todas esas cosas.

-Conoció personalmente a varios presidentes en la Casa Blanca. ¿Cuál le impresionó más?

-Clinton, sin duda. Tiene el poder de hacerte sentir el centro del universo cuando hablas con él. Bush también es afable y chapurrea algo de español.

-Uno de sus trabajos premiados destapó algo poco conocido en Europa: la conexión del terrorismo islámico en Sudamérica.

-Sí, en la llamada triple frontera de Brasil, Argentina y Paraguay, que es la capital latinoamericana del contrabando. En esa zona hay una comunidad árabe muy fuerte y había acusaciones de que Hezbollah recaudaba allí dinero para Oriente Medio. Fuimos a comprobarlo y nos encontramos sorprendentemente con gente que confesaba sin tapujos su militancia islámica e incluso alguno que se declaró dispuesto a inmolarse en atentados suicidas si estuviese en Irak.

Interview: La Opinión a Coruña (11/7/2010)

November 7, 2010

PABLO GATO

Two years ago he left journalism to advise organizations and businesses that operate in the United States, among them Spanish banks.  He is the Hispanic journalist who has covered the most international conflicts on US television, has worked for large networks such as CNN and NBC and received two Emmys and four nominations from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his investigative reports.

A journalist from A Coruña in the USA who received two Emmys for his investigative reports

 “Obama’s big problem was his inability to sell his accomplishments”

“[Hispanic Senator-elect] Marco Rubio is being touted as a presidential nominee rival in 2012, but this will depend on what he does about issues such as immigration reform”

Santiago Romero (A CORUÑA)

–   Why did things go so badly for Obama in this election?

–   There are two issues.  The underlying one is the criticism about the high public cost of Obama’s ambitious agenda and the other which has had more impact on the ballot box: Obama has had a huge communication failure; he didn’t know how to sell his accomplishments.  They communicated perfectly well to get him elected President, they mobilized the country, and he actually raised more money than anyone else.  But when it came to governing they neglected that communication machinery.  And Obama has paid for it.

–   It looks like Hispanic voters have turned their back on him.

–   The problem is the immigration reform.  Obama promised it would happen during his first year in office and he didn’t do it.  Therefore, even though there are things that Hispanics say are good and that benefit everyone, failing to fulfill this campaign promise puts everything in a negative light for the Hispanic community.  Everything else is not important and there are a lot of disappointed people.  This cost him votes.

–   Will Obama have to change his agenda?

–   He will be forced to change it or he won’t be able to get any legislation passed.  I think that the agendas of both the Democrats and Republicans will change.  If everything comes to a halt the Republicans will be punished for it, not just Obama.  Now that they’re a majority in the Congress they cannot continue being the party of no.

–   Can these results be extrapolated to a Presidential election?

–   They’re different. There are many people who voted for the Republicans not because of their ideology, but to punish the Democrats.  The Republicans admit that this is not a confidence vote in them, but actually a second opportunity.  And it is limited to the next two years.  It can easily change in 2012.

–   Will [Hispanic Senator-elect] Marco Rubio be Obama’s opponent in 2012?

–   He’s automatically being talked about as a presidential candidate.  Now, the issue is more complicated than that.  First of all, getting Hispanics behind him doesn’t guarantee he will become the presidential candidate.  In addition, it’s yet to be seen if the majority of the Hispanic community feels comfortable with him as their so-called official representative.  Undoubtedly he will be someone to watch out for, but it’s still left to be seen how far he’ll go.  Among other things, he will have to go on the record with actual votes [in the Senate].  The support of the Hispanic population will depend on what he does and the key will be immigration reform.

–   I believe that you are the Hispanic journalist in the United States who covered the most wars.

–   Yes, because it was of great interest to me during a time in my career.  Between that and the fact that no one else wanted to cover these conflicts, it was the perfect combination.  I have met several Spanish war correspondents who unfortunately died, for example Julio Fuentes, who was murdered in Afghanistan and during the Iraq war I met Julio Parrado a day before he was killed.  And Antena 3’s Ricardo Ortega, who died in Haiti.  In Spain the saying is that a cat has seven lives; in the United States it’s nine; I have used up all nine.  I could have been killed several times, but was lucky.

–   You were recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for your coverage of September 11.  How was that experience?

–   It was surreal.  I live near the Pentagon, in Washington.  I was driving and saw a huge smoke cloud coming from the military complex, which took days to extinguish.  I immediately called the office, they knew about the World Trade Center but not about the Pentagon.  It was like the Apocalypse: cars driving the wrong way, armed people crossing the highway and suddenly all the cell phones went off while you could hear explosions everywhere, it was the power lines, but there were rumors that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department.  It just seemed like Washington was under attack.  It was going into that chaotic situation and working non-stop at the news desk during many days.

–   What happened in Washington is the least covered of the September 11 attacks, which is why so many people believe in conspiracy theories.

–   Well… it’s only because there isn’t the same kind of video record as there is for what happened in New York.  My colleague Lori Montenegro was right in front of the Pentagon and saw clearly how the plane crashed into the Pentagon. She saw it, but there isn’t a video where it can be seen clearly as in New York.  That is why all those things have come out.

–   You’ve personally met several Presidents at the White House.  Which one impressed you the most?

–   Clinton, without a doubt. He is able to make you feel like you’re the center of the universe when you speak with him.  Bush is also affable and speaks a bit of Spanish.

–   One of your reports that received an award uncovered something that is not well-known in Europe: the connection between Islamic terrorism in South America.

–   Yes, it’s in the area known as the Triple Frontier between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the Latin American smuggling capital.  This zone has a strong Arab community and there had been accusations that Hezbollah raised funds there for the Middle East.  We went to find out and surprisingly found people who admitted openly their affiliation with radical Islamic groups and one who told us that he would be willing to be a suicide bomber if he were in Iraq.

Comedy and Journalism

October 31, 2010

I went to Washington, DC’s famous Mall on Saturday, October 30, to witness the reaction of participants to the call by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to their rally to “Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive.”  Most press coverage stated that “tens of thousands” attended the event.  The amount of people attending was, undoubtedly, much larger.  London’s The Guardian newspaper estimated attendance at around 250,000.  I think that amount comes closer to reality.  Despite the lack of support for the Iraq war during President George W. Bush’s last years in office, there never was a protest against the war that ever came close to bringing so many people to Washington.  Some go further and say that as many as 500,000 attended the Stewart-Colbert’s event.

For those who are not familiar with Stewart or Colbert, we can call them the fathers of “fake” news shows that are designed from a comedic point of view.  They both work on the basic cable channel Comedy Central.  Their audience levels are quite high, as are those of another comedian called Bill Maher, whose show is broadcast on pay-cable’s HBO.

In the United States, all three are what are known as liberals or sympathizers with the Democratic Party.  In general, the target of their attacks and ironic comments is the Republican Party (and more recently, the new Tea Party movement, although they say that both are the same).  However, they also attack Democrats.  A recent example was when Stewart interviewed President Obama during his October 28 show.  Yes, that’s right; President Obama went to the comedy program and let himself be the target of Stewart’s irony and chastisement.  Why would a President do this?  First of all because he knows that Stewart’s audience is a friendly one and secondly, because he is very cognizant of the show’s power, especially among young viewers.  And those viewers translate into votes.

Stewart confronted Obama by basically saying that he had disappointed those who’d voted for him because the health care reform had not been sufficiently wide reaching and encompassing.  That it had been too timid.  The President disagreed with the term timid and responded by stating that “you’ve got thirty million people that will be getting health insurance as a consequence of this.” But the point is that Stewart, a comedian, has the power to have the President as a guest on his show and that he asked him questions of a level of irreverence that journalists would surely not dare ask.

Of course, Stewart is a comedian, not a journalist.  A journalist is not there to make jokes, but to find out information and later share it with the audience in a professional and objective manner.  Not to give his or her opinion.  That being said, if hundreds of thousands of people attend an event such as the one held by Stewart and Colbert and millions more religiously follow what they say on their “newscasts” on TV, it seems to me that the phenomenon goes beyond some well-written and told jokes.  It is a true sociological phenomenon.

The shows’ audiences tend to be progressive and fairly well educated.  Their guests include academicians such as economists and historians, as well as politicians and former presidents.  Many of them are conservatives as well.  People such as Stewart say that many of the so- called experts featured on news shows (be they liberals or conservatives) aren’t qualified to speak authoritatively about the subjects they discuss and, therefore, many of the shows where political issues are discussed end up turning into an endless stream of consciousness full of screams where very little objective information is discussed.

These comedy shows became very popular because of the war in Iraq.  Many people watched them because they say these shows were the only place where they could truly get the real story of what was happening in the war.  Many criticized traditional news media because it was not more critical of the government.  Both when it came to finding out the truth about the government’s accusations against Baghdad as justification for the war, as well as, later, the development of the war itself.  Especially, the human and financial cost of the war.  These critics added that the media had censored itself regarding important issues because it was wartime and it was not popular to criticize the government when US soldiers were dying in the Iraqi battlefield.

Whether or not these charges against mainstream media are true, the reality is that these comedy shows built a loyal and massive audience.  And whether the accusations are true or not, those who watch the shows believe that watching mainstream media they do not get the whole story that they need to find out what is happening in their country and the world.  For that they have to go to Comedy Central or HBO.

It isn’t true that there is nowhere in the United States where someone can’t go to get first-rate and completely serious news information.  The news programs produced by public television and radio (PBS and NPR) are an example of this serious and in-depth news reporting.  It is also true that many people criticize the verbal disputes and the level of entertainment on cable television, but they are the same people who are first in line to enjoy those dialectic matches.

However, it is also true that there should be many more options than PBS and NPR to get news in a serious and in-depth manner and that should also be the role of the mainstream media.  It is fine to have popular programs as part of a channel’s schedule.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be entertained, especially when the success of that type of programming is key to the general survival of those channels.  But it should also be an obligation to have a news department whose principal objective is not the audience levels, but to providing a public service to its viewers.

We are dealing with very serious matters, such as the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or the economic crisis.  Issues that affect, in one way or another, the lives of every person in this country, not to mention people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world.

I am a journalist and if our profession isn’t able to satisfy the public’s need for information to the point where millions of people watch comedy shows to find out what is really happening, I think we have a very serious problem.  I reiterate that these people don’t only watch these shows to laugh, but to find out information that they say they can’t find out anywhere else.  I don’t think it’s a good sign for my profession if a large portion of the public chooses a comedian instead of a journalist like me to find out what is going on.

These comedians are brilliant, make jokes and analysis that are truly hilarious.  However, if they become an important source of information to the public, and not only a source of comedy, there is a truly serious problem for our profession.

Do we clearly differentiate opinion from information?  Have we become activists instead of journalists? Are we not sufficiently aggressive when it comes time to make governments or institutions accountable?  Have many media outlets lost their vocation of public service?  And, have newsrooms become another way to raise audience levels instead of focusing on informing the public about issues of vital importance to them?  Why don’t politicians and institutions make it a requirement that to be able to secure a broadcasting license a channel must have professional newscasts that are not ratings-driven in its programming?

I love to laugh watching a good comedy show.  However, I fear that the success of events such as yesterday’s on the Mall in Washington, DC has a worrisome angle:  they are clear proof of our inability, as journalists, to do our job well.  And this isn’t because of lack of professionals who are willing to do their jobs well on a daily basis.  There are many who, day-to-day, show their worth as journalists.  Well-educated people, for whom journalism is a vocation and who work endless hours to inform the public about what’s going on.  Journalists who, in addition, have had to face enormous challenges to be able to bring quality stories on air.  The problem is that they don’t have the necessary resources at hand to do their job well.  As I said before, I love comedy shows, but I hope that, at least regarding news reporting, we can offer our audience what they need and that Comedy Central can be watched to laugh at reality, not to inform about it.

Journalism on Life Support

July 24, 2010

With a few honorable exceptions, in my opinion, journalism is clearly declining.  Every day it becomes less relevant when it comes to exercising its primary function as an independent mechanism of oversight and investigation of the government and organizations regarding issues of vital importance for our society.  The latest example is the surreal case of Shirley Sherrod.

For openers, it is surreal because President Obama called her twice, couldn’t reach her and she didn’t even return his call until the following day.  What?  What do you mean?  THE President Obama?  The one that world leaders constantly court and go through hoops to hold fleeting meetings with at the White House?  Yes, the very same.  Just like you have read.  And when he was finally able to speak with her, it was to apologize.  And this is just the latest of the twists in this story of journalism-fiction.

What could have led to this Presidential apology?  Mrs. Sherrod was an employee of the US Department of Agriculture.  This past March 27, Sherrod made a speech at an event of the NAACP, an organization that defends the civil rights of minorities in the United States.  A few days ago, a blogger and conservative activist, Andrew Breitbart, uploaded on YouTube a video clip of Mrs. Sherrod’s remarks.

On the video, she admitted that 24 years ago she hesitated about whether or not to help a white farmer who came to her for assistance to save his farm.  The reason?  He was White.  At the time, Sherrod worked in the south of the United States for a non-profit agency established to help African-American farmers.  Mrs. Sherrod is African-American.

When the media got a hold of the video, all hell broke loose.  A strange and schizophrenic virus took over all media outlets, the Administration, as well as the public.  A first year journalism student would have behaved in a more professional, ethical and responsible manner than the reporters who covered this story.

Especially, the conservative media began to attack Sherrod furiously, accusing her of being a racist.  Like an out-of-control forest fire, the video spread throughout the Internet and the attacks increased, culminating in the Secretary of Agriculture’s decision to fire Mrs. Sherrod.  Some commentators have said that the White House responded so quickly and forcefully out of fear that the Administration of an African-American president would be accused of racism against Whites.

There’s a small problem.  It happens that the video uploaded to YouTube was a specifically edited clip of what Mrs. Sherrod said during the NAACP event.  The real story told by Sherrod was the complete opposite:  one of redemption and racial reconciliation.

At the event, Sherrod acknowledged her previously held prejudices, her inner struggles and stated that she finally decided that she and the farmer were human beings and that there were no differences between them.  She not only helped the White farmer to save his farm but a long-lasting friendship grew from their encounter.  The farmer, Roger Spooner, and his family confirmed that everything that Mrs. Sherrod said was true.  That is, the exact opposite of the image that the world built of Mrs. Sherrod was real.  However, there she was: fired from her job, slandered and constantly criticized by one and all.

Afterwards, the conservative blogger acknowledged that the video he uploaded to YouTube was actually an edited version of the speech.  According to him, the people who gave it to him never told him that the video was made up of selected clips.  Whether or not this is true, the damage was already done and journalism in general suffered a serious setback.  Others accuse the blogger of knowing exactly what he was uploading and that he did it anyway to create a controversy that attacked the Obama Administration and promote his blog.

Did no one verify to make sure that the story and the accusations were true? Where did journalistic ethics go? Where are objectivity, the sense of information equity and justice?  Did nobody bother to request a complete copy of the speech to find out if the quotes reflected accurately the spirit of what was said?  Or was it that, just like it happened, the quotes were taken out of context?  Did anyone find someone who actually attended the event to confirm the authenticity of the remarks?  Did anyone check with a variety of sources to verify the information? Did an experienced editor or producer review the story before printing or airing it? Was nobody suspicious that an organization such as the NAACP, which is on the forefront of calls for social harmony, would invite a supposedly racist speaker to their event? Did this simple fact not raise the alarm?  Did anyone bother to speak with Mrs. Sherrod to allow her to defend herself? Did anyone demand that the story not be made public until all the information had been verified, to ensure that irreparable damage to her reputation was not made if the accusations were not true? My goodness, I could go on and on all day writing this type of questions.  These are the basic tenets of journalism.

However, as I mentioned previously, this situation goes further.  How could the Obama Administration fire someone without verifying that the accusations were true, basing this decision only on press reports?  Is it that those in the government do not know that just because something is published by the media it is not necessarily true?  Then, is it true that, as some people insist, President Obama was actually born in Kenya and that instead of being a Christian is actually a Muslim?  Is it true then that Elvis Presley was having breakfast this morning in Las Vegas? And, how is it possible that the general population can also let itself be influenced in such a manner by the media without displaying the least interest in finding out whether or not this story was true?  Did anyone say, “Wait a minute, is this true? Could someone be making too big a deal out of this?  Couldn’t these be politically motivated falsities?  Has she been given the opportunity to defend herself?”?  No, no one said anything and the life of a woman who has fought during decades on behalf of others’ civil rights, regardless of their skin color, radically changed in a matter of days.  Suddenly, the entire country saw her as a racist.

When everyone finally realized the enormity of the mistake they had made, a great feeling of collective guilt took over.  The Secretary of Agriculture apologized during a press conference and offered her another job.  Some of news outlets also apologized and President Obama himself called her to apologize on behalf of his Administration.

However, once again, this case goes beyond this one situation affecting Mrs. Sherrod.  These are the consequences of what we see in journalism nowadays.  On the one hand, newspapers, television and radio stations fire a large number of experienced journalists to replace them with recently graduated one who are paid a third of the fired journalists’ salaries.  However, they clearly have no experience.  News bureaus have less and less true professional journalists on staff and those who are still around have an enormous amount of work.  They cannot properly do their job.  It is not their fault.  Journalists nowadays have to do the work of two or three people, support the online side of the news, as well as sometimes film and edit the stories they cover.  It is impossible to deliver good, solid work as a journalist under these conditions.

On the other hand, there is the emergence of the so-called blogosphere, which isn’t necessarily journalism.  Many times it is its very opposite.  A weird world where we come across true professionals, but also an army of lunatics and people without the most basic knowledge of issues or journalism but who sell themselves as “serious” journalists.  That, of course, without including the throng of crazed political activists who want to make themselves pass for journalists and don’t have a clue about what they’re writing about.  The result is that you can come across anything on the Web, but readers don’t always know or can’t distinguish between good information and blatant propaganda.

Media outlets always want to beat the competition to the punch when it comes to reporting news.  It is the nature of the business.  To be first.  However, with the arrival of the Web and 24-hour news cycles, the struggle is now down to beating the competition by mere seconds.  The pressure to be first is very strong and, as we can see from this example, the right steps are not always taken before publishing or going on air with a story.  Speed trumps the truth.

The media needs to be an institution where respected journalists and professionals come together and are able to inform the nation in an independent way. People who dedicate their lives to investigate and report the news objectively and truthfully to their readers, viewers, and listeners.  They have to be the point of reference for the public, where they can confidently go to get the news.  The media cannot be the circus sideshow that we just saw with Mrs. Sherrod.  I have profound admiration for journalists who embrace and take seriously their profession.  They are vital to our society.  A real democracy cannot function without a strong, independent, truthful, qualified and brave media.  In spite of this, I think that journalists who are not in this group do real damage to our society and we have to protect ourselves from them.

Many will view this episode as anecdotal, but the problem is that it isn’t.  It represents a very dangerous tendency.  Do you remember the Iraq War?  Do you remember the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly being hidden in Iraq?  The media did a terrible job in its coverage prior to the war.  And what can be said about the current economic crisis?  How is it possible that financial sector journalists didn’t investigate the problem that was brewing?  Now we know that more than a few predicted something was going to happen, but where were those reporters to talk about these concerns, about the imminent danger of a financial catastrophe?  Surely, due to the decrease in newsroom budgets, these reporters were covering several stories a day and didn’t have the time to cover any of them properly.

From my vantage point, there are only a handful of news media outlets with the financial resources and professional staff to truly make a difference in today’s media world.  Most journalists are doing the work of several people or are deeply enmeshed in looking for the daily irrelevant scandal to increase viewership, ratings, and the number of newspapers or magazines sold.  Many bloggers don’t even care if what they write is true or a lie.  Everything is geared to creating a scandal to get the most hits on their page.  And with that, to increase their notoriety.  Fame.  Others, with political motivations, whether on the right or left, don’t even care about that; their concern is to politically hurt their opponents.  Again, without caring if their accusations are true or merely made-up.  As you well know, a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.

All of this is truly dangerous for our democracy and for the overall well-being of our society.  Crises bring about serious economic problems for millions of families.  Wars bring about death and enormous debt.  The public has a right to be well-informed to be able to make important decisions.  Journalism’s mission is to provide this information.  It has always been said that journalism “informs, educates, and entertains.”  From my point of view, today’s journalism informs very little, educates even less, and entertains us more and more every day.

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The General in his Labyrinth

June 24, 2010

The newest victim of a lack of Media Training is a US Army general by the name of Stanley McChrystal.  Even though he had a successful 35 year-long career in the Armed Forces, it quickly crashed down because he was not ready to deal with the media.

A four-star general in charge of the war in Afghanistan could hardly be considered stupid.  Therefore, it begs the question:  How could he make such a fatal mistake?

I have covered many wars and can say that I have not observed armed forces where its members can speak with as much freedom as those of the United States.  They are always accessible on the battlefield and their senior commanders make them available for interviews.  Sometimes they praise their leaders’ decisions and other times they don’t, freely talking about their point of view.  They also talk about whether or not they agree or disagree with fighting in a specific campaign.  This type of openness is not usual among other armed forces.

However, McChrystal clearly went above and beyond this openness.  During an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine he said that the White House’s National Security Advisor was a “clown,” stated that President Obama seemed to be “intimidated and absent” while meeting with US military leaders, referred to Vice President Joe Biden with an euphemism that cannot be quoted on this blog and which definitely was not a compliment, and on top of all of this, pretty much said that the US Ambassador to Kabul was a traitor.

It seems obvious to me that McChrystal did not intend to make these critical comments and then resign because he disagreed with how the war in Afghanistan was being carried out.  If this had been the case, after reading the interview, he would not have immediately called Vice President Joe Biden to apologize nor would he have waited until President Obama decided whether or not to fire him.  He would have preemptively resigned.  His press assistant did immediately lose his job.

McChrystal’s problem is that he was never trained about how to deal with the media.

Was the reporter who interviewed him sufficiently clear when he told him that everything McChrystal said would be used in the article?  Did McChrystal and his advisors think they could speak candidly with the journalist and that whatever they said would not be published and would be considered comments among “friends”?  Did they make it perfectly clear to the journalist that all of those comments were “off the record”?  Does McChrystal understand that a journalist’s main loyalty is not to his “new military friends” but to get good stories for his or her publication or channel?

Neither McChrystal nor his advisors deny making the statements in question, but I think that they never thought that they would be quoted verbatim.  No one wants to end such a distinguished career on such a disgraceful note.

A simple Media Training course would have saved McChrystal from this embarrassing end to his career and he would still be the supreme commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Tony Hayward, British Petroleum’s CEO, would also have spared himself from the many confrontations he has faced and saved quite a bit of money if he had been trained properly.  Hayward’s mistakes during the Gulf of Mexico crisis are way too many to outline in this article.  His behavior only served to exacerbate an already difficult situation.

General McChrystal is a product of the Special Forces.  A secretive organization that works in the shadows, away from the public eye.  McChrystal was admired by his subordinates because he led by example.  In 2005, for example, he led a small group of commandoes in Iraq in a pre-dawn attack against one of the hideouts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda leader who was subsequently killed in combat.  The insurgents surrounded the small group of US soldiers and McChrystal fought valiantly in the intense battle.  It is not usual for a four-star general to risk his life in such a way.

McChrystal was used to the world of undercover operations.  To live in the shadows.  However, when he was named to such a high-profile job as that of supreme commander of ground forces of the Afghan war, he entered a completely different and unknown world for him.  And one of the most drastic changes was the continuous contact with the press.

It is obvious to me that no one trained him to deal effectively with the media.  A mistake that decimates his 35-year career of sacrifice for his nation.  He leaves through the back door, accused by the President of questioning the civil authority over the Pentagon and of bringing division to the team in charge of the war in Afghanistan.  Strong accusations all, especially now that the conflict in that country intensifies and the number of dead Americans is on the increase.  The great majority of Americans, according to recent polls, don’t see the reason behind continuing the war.  This incident with McChrystal definitely does not help the Administration at this junction.

In a society such as ours, with an ongoing news cycle where information flows 24 hours a day, Media Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity for anyone who is or wants to be a part of that cycle.

Media Training should be a required part of the curriculum at colleges and universities.  Whether for members of the military, scientists, physicians, economists, or basically any professional.

For example, someone can spend years in business school preparing to be an excellent manager.  However, if he or she does not know how to communicate effectively, they will miss an important value added component.  Not only because they miss out on opportunities to get free, positive publicity through the media.  Or because they won’t be ready to communicate well during times of crisis.  But, also because all these techniques to communicate effectively with the media are also applicable to internal communications in any organization.  And of course, they can also be used to communicate effectively with external stakeholders.  

The victims of this lack of Media Training will continue to surface.  McChrystal is only the most recent one.  A new one will soon come to our attention.  Stay tuned.

The White House Bubble

May 30, 2010

Every president is a victim of it.  Each one, sometime during their Administration, hears that he has locked himself in “the White House bubble.”  This means that, immersed in his daily work, spending most of his time isolated in the Executive Mansion, he has distanced himself from the country’s realities.  That he doesn’t understand what’s happening on Main Street.  That he doesn’t understand any longer the daily concerns of the common citizens. These criticisms are now aimed at President Obama.  The reason?  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House is on the defensive regarding this issue.  During the first weeks of the crisis, the polls stated that the public had decided on a clear responsible party for the disaster, British Petroleum (BP), and approved of the way the government was handling the situation.  However, opinions have been changing substantially since then and the confidence on the Administration has fallen significantly.

Many pundits criticized President Obama for, apparently, not giving the crisis the importance it merits from the very beginning.  The April 20 incident has already become the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. 

The President responded by holding a press conference on May 27 and said that his Administration has always led the response to the crisis and that those who doubted this, simply “don’t know the facts.”

However, even well-known Democratic activists such as James Carville, who lives in the affected area, have directly confronted the White House, accusing it of responding to the crisis too slowly.  Carville even added that if the crisis had taken place on the coasts of California or on the beaches near the Washington, DC area, the response would have been completely different:  quick, efficient, forceful, well-coordinated.  Carville, a key advisor during the Clinton Administration, has grown more aggressive in his critique of the way the White House is managing the situation.  And he is doing this publicly, completely aware of the resentment that he is creating in the Administration.  Still, Carville isn’t the only one.  Louisiana’s Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu, also stated “the President has not been as visible as he should have been on this and he is going to pay a political price for it, unfortunately.”

The Republicans state that if this had happened to former President George W. Bush, rather than to President Obama, the Democrats would be criticizing him mercilessly 24-hours a day.  They would accuse him of incompetence and of not being actively involved in the crisis because of his ties to the oil industry.

During the press conference President Obama insisted that this is a clear priority for his Administration and that from the onset they have devoted the necessary experts and resources to solve the oil spill as fast as possible.  According to him, this situation is first on his mind when he wakes and last when falling asleep.

We won’t put in question the President’s statements regarding his efforts, but the truth is that many people think that the government has not done enough and that they have let BP take the lead in dealing with such an important issue.  These people qualify the spill as a national crisis and add that, therefore, the government should clearly have a leadership role and attitude.  According to them, this leadership has either not been in place or has not been properly communicated to the American people.  And as we all know, in politics perception is 90 percent of reality.

I think that the President’s press conference took place too late.  It was not proactive but reactive.  I believe that if President Obama immediately named US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen to be in charge of the Federal response to the disaster, from the beginning Allen should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with BP’s representatives during the daily press conferences.  This also applies to the local and state authorities.  But the US public only saw one person:  the BP spokesperson.  I think that the President cannot hold a press conference without being informed that a key player in the situation had been fired or had resigned.  This person is Elizabeth Birnbaum, the former director of the Minerals Management Service, an executive who answered to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. This is the very government agency that President Obama criticized for its responsibility in allowing the oil industry to have improper influence in the environmental control area and security regarding oil rig accidents.

On Friday, May 28, the President once again to the affected zone to witness the effects of the disaster.  The government now asserts that instead of the five thousand barrels of oil it had previously stated were being spilled, the real number is 19 thousand.

President Obama went to one of the beaches suffering the effects of the crisis and later met with the leaders in charge of fighting the spill.  After the meeting, he left Louisiana.  He left without even speaking with the fishermen and citizens of the area.  Those clearly most directly affected by the disaster.  It was a flyover type of trip.  Taking into account the criticism, right or wrong, regarding his behavior up to then, why not take advantage of the long Memorial Day weekend to stay a couple of days in the area and become more deeply familiarized with the situation where it is happening?  Why not stay to listen to first-hand accounts from the victims?  Why not stay and convey the clear message that he doesn’t have a priority more important than this one?  I think that it was a great lost opportunity for the President and that this has highlighted even more Louisiana’s belief that Washington truly doesn’t understand what this situation means to the state.  A state already very resentful with the federal government for its response to Katrina.

President Obama was universally praised for being a master in his relations with the media during the presidential campaign.  He is undoubtedly a great communicator.  He’s also has left his mark in history by being the first who knew how to mobilize massive popular support for his campaign through social media networks.  Something that enabled him to raise more money than any other presidential campaign in history with an average contribution of $100 or less.  He also has shown that he is not afraid to “grab the bull by the horns.”  In just a year he has led the fight for health care reform, financial reform, and significant economic stimulus packages.

President Obama said in Louisiana that he has tripled the aid to deal with the oil spill.  He has even given his White House phone number to the local community authorities so that they can call him directly if something that has been promised is not taken care of.  His advisors confirm that he is constantly briefed about everything that is happening and that stopping the oil spill is one of his main priorities.  That this issue takes up many hours of his day.

Nevertheless, the truth is that the ongoing perception is that there hasn’t been enough presidential leadership on this matter.  To this day, many people still don’t know who is really in charge of this crisis.  Yes, the President stated that he is ultimately responsible, but, who is responsible on a day-to-day basis?  BP? The Coast Guard admiral?  The governor of Louisiana? The local authorities?  Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar?  Someone in Washington? Who?  I, who have been following this situation closely since it began, must admit that I have no idea.  The Administration has yet to put forth a face that we can all identify as the person responsible for the daily management of the crisis.  Something fundamental in terms of public perception is that someone specific is designated as being in charge.

And that it’s not enough to do things, but that you must know how to efficiently communicate what is being done.  It is difficult to understand how an Administration such as this one, so aware of the importance of public opinion, has allowed for this perception to spread regarding an issue as important as this one.  Now, in addition to solving the problem, they will have to communicate extremely well everything being done to prevent that this ecological disaster also becomes a political one for the White House.

Bad Communication in Massachusetts: A Recipe for Disaster

January 22, 2010

I recently wrote about the Haitian government’s failure to communicate during the tragic times it is going through.  Today we will see how this doesn’t just happen in poor countries without resources, but also in the wealthiest ones.

The US political world is still astonished by Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts in a special election to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat.  Massachusetts is a bastion of the Kennedy family and the Democrats.  Up until a few weeks ago, the Democratic candidate led her Republican opponent by more than 20 percentage points.  Nevertheless, she lost.  After practically five decades in Democratic hands, the seat now becomes Republican.

This change has national repercussion because the Democrats lose their 60 seat majority in the Senate, needed to prevent Republican filibusters.  The immediate result is that the Health Care Reform Plan, one of the pillars of President Obama’s domestic agenda, is in danger of not being approved.  Or of being approved without most of the provisions the Democrats wanted.

What happened?  President Obama stated it clearly:  bad communication.

President Obama said that even though his Administration’s programs are good, there has been a failure in not communicating and explaining well to the American people the projects’ benefits and advantages.  “We were so busy doing our work and managing the immediate crises at hand that we neglected to speak directly to the American people,” said Obama during an interview with ABC News.  During the 2008 campaign, even Obama’s detractors praised his communication strategy, singling it out as innovative and one of the main keys to his final success.  This is precisely why the experts are so confounded about this failure.  If they had such an effective communication plan during the campaign, why did they stop using it?

There were communication missteps at both the national and local levels.

The first misstep, the local candidate’s.  Be it due to arrogance, excessive confidence or a rather imprudent underestimation of the Republican candidate, many Washington Democratic leaders predicted that the election would be a “cakewalk” for Martha Coakley.  But did they ever have a rude awakening.  These same Democrats openly admit that Coakley neglected her campaign.  For example, from December 23 to the 30, she made no public appearances.  Before she aired her first TV ad, Scott Brown had already aired two.  In addition, the Republican candidate took much better advantage of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Some Republicans say that the Massachusetts election became a national referendum of President Obama’s Health Care Reform Plan and the money that is being spent in it and other programs.  The second misstep was at the national level, which Obama himself has admitted.  According to him, the message regarding the Plan’s benefits was not properly conveyed to the middle class.  Republican analysts state that the plan created uncertainty and unhappiness among the middle class and that this unhappiness carried over to the Massachusetts election.

Once again, poor communication at the highest levels causes devastating damage.  The political consequences for the Democratic Party and the Administration could be very painful.  Those who do not understand the value of knowing how to communicate are destined to fail or to succeed incompletely.  Even professional politicians forget the most basic rules: constant communication, conveying a clear, ongoing and easy-to-understand message.  Don’t become distracted from your message.  Know the audience to whom you’re speaking.

And now, there is even talk of Scott Brown as a possible Republican presidential candidate.  Until a few days ago he was a true unknown in the national political arena.  Now cameras follow his every move in Washington as if he were a Hollywood star.  He is a lawyer, handsome, young, a good communicator, not easily intimidated, who knows how to highlight his virtues and how to best expose his opponent’s weaknesses.  In addition, he understands very well the importance of communicating and especially of social networks.  Is he presidential candidate material?  Who knows! There still is an eternity left in political terms to know the answer to this question. His political experience is limited to having served as a state legislator.  But Obama was also unknown barely three years ago.  What we do know is that the last person to underestimate Brown paid dearly for having done so.