Posts Tagged ‘White House’

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.

The White House Learns a Lesson the Hard Way

February 18, 2010

President Obama has recognized that his Administration is not communicating well.  According to him, this inability to communicate effectively with the American people has been one of the main reasons for the Democrats’ most recent setbacks.  Poor communication equals big problems, be it in the political or business arenas.  Does this sound familiar?

The Democrats are still in shock after the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts that during almost five decades was a Democrat stalwart, and more specifically a Kennedy seat.  Republican Scott Brown’s surprising victory put an end to the Democrats’ super majority and, more importantly, with Obama’s healthcare reform proposal.  That is, the proposal the President wanted.

The White House stresses that the plan isn’t at fault; the problem is that the American people have not been told clearly what the plan entails.   The Administration is now retooling its communication strategy.  It will now include quicker responses to political attacks, a more stringent control of messages and more public appearances by the President.  The White House has said that its communication team allowed the opposition to take the lead with its message and failed to counterattack effectively.  Some examples of the new strategy include Vice President Biden’s appearance in two network Sunday shows.  After seven months, President Obama held a press conference last week – another example of the new strategy.

The conclusion is clear.  The White House has taken the offensive to be able to ensure the same support it had during the presidential campaign.  Everyone recognizes that the campaign communication strategy was one of the pillars of its successful run for the White House.

Another important part of the new strategy is getting the President out of the White House, to enable him to be seen in other scenarios where he is not surrounded by “Washington suits.”  If he is going to speak about the environment, he’ll go to a national park.  If he’s going to announce an initiative about the automobile industry, he’ll do so at a car assembly line in Detroit – the perfect photo op.

You can never let your guard down when it comes to communicating.  You must be proactive and sell your message constantly.  You must define your message and not let others do it for you.  If you do so, you’ll pay a very heavy price.  The White House has understood this all too well.