Reform TV News for the Sake of our Democracy

This article appears in Newsweek

The most outrageous feature  of this year’s historic race for the presidency is not that Donald Trump refuses to pledge to accept the election results, not that he bragged on videotape of groping women, nor that he has insulted minorities, the disabled, American P.O.W.s, and the gold star parents of fallen American soldiers. It’s the fact that a man so utterly unqualified in character, temperament, judgement and knowledge to lead the nation was able to become the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. As a journalist who was a network television correspondent for three decades and reported extensively on Trump, I believe the TV news industry deserves a substantial amount of the blame. Print, online, and radio news organizations all gave Trump disproportionate attention during the primaries, but what we saw on television, particularly cable TV news, was a hijacking of political coverage - Donald Trump manipulating and dominating the airwaves - in which television executives were willing accomplices.  Our democracy deserves better.


Did the 13 million Americans who cast their primary ballots for Trump do so because of any of the above mentioned Trump behaviors? Surely not.  Racists and bigots who slithered into the dregs of the Trump coalition comprise only a small percentage of his supporters. Millions of patriotic Americans disappointed with Washington and searching for a change agent put their faith in Trump because they believe in the personal brand he has built, his carefully cultivated reputation as a hugely successful, glamorous businessman with a Midas touch, a strong leader who tells it like it is and always gets what he wants. Trump was able to project this image to the entire nation with a huge lift from extensive television coverage, particularly the live, unfiltered airing of Trump speeches on the campaign trail.

The fact is, news organizations were well aware Trump’s image was based on a long series of lies. Numerous journalists, particularly business reporters like myself, had investigated Trump for decades, reporting how he overloaded companies with debt; shafted investors who had bought his bonds; drove companies into the ground; destroyed the career of a Wall Street analyst who had accurately pointed out the huge risks and likely failure of Trump’s multiple Atlantic City casino ventures; was frequently sued for his business practices; cheated working class people who paid as much as $35,000 for his Trump University get-rich-quick scam, and greatly exaggerated the extent of his wealth, never mind his years of antics with the gossip media to promote himself as New York’s leading ladies’ man. Journalists know that Trump obsessively tries to control his coverage through intimidation, phoning to complain when they report unflattering facts, as he called me, warning, “I’m watching you”, and even threatening to sue.  Reporters understand that Trump relies upon the media to build his brand, while having little regard for the First Amendment.

But rather than feature the facts about Donald Trump during primary season, TV news executives largely ignored the deep archive of Trump reporting, instead focusing on the horse race, as they always do. In this case,  they highlighted the horse that was a proven ratings magnet because of his larger-than-life personality, willingness to make outrageous comments that draw attention, and successful history on the entertainment side of television. “I’ve known who he is and what he is for a long time,” CNN President Jeff Zucker told the Harvard Institute of Politics in October.  Zucker knows, because as head of entertainment at NBC he signed Trump to star in “The Apprentice”,  the platform that enabled Trump to greatly expand his image as a master business mogul to the entire country.

During the primaries, the cable TV networks virtually handed a free microphone to Donald Trump, while giving other candidates a small fraction of his attention. By February, Trump had “earned” nearly $2 billion of free media, more than six times that of his closest Republican competitor, Ted Cruz, and almost nine times the next closest candidate, Jeb Bush.  The tens of millions of Americans who most often get their news from television, 57% of U.S. adults according to the Pew Research Center, had been fed a steady diet of Trump PR. TV gave scant attention to the long history belying Trump’s claims that his personal successes would surely “Make America Great Again”. Instead, the all-Trump-all-the-time media attention permitted the presidential candidate to perpetuate the myth he had built as the savvy billionaire who would be America’s savior. Millions of Republican voters fell for it. Even during Republican primary debates, many of the questions were Trump-centric, focusing on his statements and positions. While Trump sucked up air time, little was left for other candidates, a huge disadvantage in their efforts to connect with the American public.

As ratings soared, CBS CEO Les Moonves  said of Trump’s dominance in the election coverage, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…..the money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Indeed, the Trump ratings boost has been manna for an industry that had been under assault from the internet, suffering years of shrinking audience, a rapid aging of viewer demographics, and declines in profitability.

So, why shouldn’t TV executives be celebrating? Because the news business is about more than making money, more important things like ensuring the public is well informed.  An informed electorate is crucial in a democracy where citizens are responsible for electing their leaders. Unfortunately, millions of Americans who rely upon television as their primary source of news were misinformed; TV news coverage of the primary season, particularly cable TV news, failed the American public.

It’s true that earning a profit is important to sustaining any business. The days of news as a prestige loss-leader for the TV networks are long gone. But, the news business must measure itself by factors other than ratings and revenues because of its responsibility to the public. So, it’s high time for TV news organizations to take a look in the mirror, commit to a serious review of their coverage of the presidential race, and determine how they can better serve the viewers who depend upon them for accurate information.

Here are a few suggestions for starters:

  • Less media manipulation.

From the White House down to the city council, all politicians try to influence and direct media coverage. But Trump plays the media like a puppet. The fact that he is a ratings draw is good reason for him to host a “reality” TV show,  but no justification to grant him unfettered access to TV news viewers, and even to permit him to hawk his steaks, wine and hotels during political coverage. News directors and assignment editors need to be highly cognizant of efforts to blatantly manipulate them and have the integrity to resist.

  • More facts, less fiction.

The public deserves hard facts, which means more reporting. Reporters and producersdo the bulk of the journalistic digging at TV news operations, so they deserve more air time to share their reportage. Commentators with their own agendas that often deviate from the truth should receive substantially less airtime.

  • More perspective.

There’s far too much parroting of the candidates’ spin doctors in TV news political reporting.  Reporters must be well-informed enough to put candidates’ comments in perspective, calling them when they twist the truth. Rushing to a candidate’s spinmeisters and parroting their words adds no true value to a journalist’s reporting.

  • More fact checking.

It’s not just the major political debates that should be fact checked.  Every speech that is covered should be fact checked. The Pulitzer-Prize winning website PolitiFact serves as an excellent model. Had TV news more thoroughly fact checked Trump’s speeches, the viewing public would have known there was little substance to many of Trump’s assertions.  It was only after Trump won the Republican nomination that he received a serious vetting in the news media.

  • More focus on the issues.

The public deserves to know where every candidate stands on the issues that will affect their lives and impact America’s place in the world. A dedication to exploring the issues should guide editorial decisions that determine which stories get on the air. Given their 24-hour coverage, cable TV news networks should have plenty of air time to devote to the issues, but it’s the horse race that always gets the bulk of the attention. TV news can do a much better job of reporting on the substantive issues, while still covering every angle of the all-important horse race.

The First Amendment is a wonderful privilege journalists enjoy in the United States, a foundation upon which our free society is built. News organizations should not abuse that privilege by placing the pursuit of profits above their obligation to accurately inform the public.  As this election season has demonstrated, the health and strength of our democracy depend upon a responsible news media.







The Art of Apology

This article originally appeared in Fortune on August 7, 2016

There was one thing missing from Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, one thing she has failed to deliver to the American public that explains why she’s entangled in a tough battle against a Republican candidate who so clearly lacks her qualifications for the highest elected office in the nation. It’s her failure to address the trustworthiness issue, the biggest obstacle between her and the presidency.

Hillary Clinton has a trust deficit. Polls conducted just prior to the convention showed that a majority, about two-thirds of Americans, find her to be untrustworthy. The revelation of Clinton’s unauthorized use of a private e-mail server for sensitive government business while secretary of state and her response to the issue has been particularly damaging. So have the findings that eight of the e-mails she turned over to the Justice Department in the course of its investigation of the matter were classified “top secret,” with Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey criticizing her handling of highly classified information as “extremely careless.”

Clinton’s actions were not criminal, but at each point in this scandal, she could have limited the damage with a genuine, sincere apology for having violated government protocol. But her belated, reluctant admission that “I made a mistake,” followed by her insistence that “it was allowed,”combined with her defensive body language, essentially nullified any sense of contrition, leaving the impression that she believes the rules don’t apply to her.

True, many Republicans will never warm up to Clinton, no matter what she says. But the fact is, Americans are a forgiving people. When done properly, apologies, followed by actions to make amends, are effective in politics – even convicted felons have been re-elected to public office – as they are in the corporate world.

There were no fatalities as a result of Secretary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, but two of the greatest corporate crises in recent history, which did involve multiple deaths, demonstrate the power of prompt, meaningful apologies.

Johnson & Johnson’s James Burke set the standard during the Tylenol poisoning crisis in 1982 for quickly acknowledging the problem, taking corrective action and apologizing. More recently, General Motor’s Marry Barra upheld her company’s image and business by sincerely apologizing for faulty ignitions that had caused fatal accidents, fully investigating the matter, swiftly instituting reforms in GM’s manufacturing and management, compensating victims’ families, and reaching out to GM customers. (Full disclosure: I served as one of Barra’s advisors during the crisis).

Those infractions were more serious, but Clinton needs to take a page from Mary Barra’s playbook because one of Clinton’s great failings is that she doesn’t know how to properly apologize. An early admission of error, displaying true contrition, would have gone a long way to improving perception of her trustworthiness. As soon as the e-mail story broke months ago, Clinton should have acknowledged fault, expressed true regret, and given a genuine apology.

The problem is, Clinton gets defensive, very defensive in her language and body language when she is asked about the e-mail issue or, for that matter, any serious criticism. She stiffens, gives a penetrating glare, and speaks with a tone that says, “I am right,” no matter what words come from her mouth. This has been a gift to Donald Trump.

Trump, himself, owes apologies to numerous segments of American society, ethnic and religious groups he has insulted, including Mexican-Americans, immigrants, and Muslim-Americans. But Trump appears incapable of sincere apology, as his criticism of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of an Army captain killed while serving in Iraq, is demonstrating. It has cost him in the polls and will very likely contribute to him losing in November. But Clinton is still in a fight for the presidency.

CBS News’ Scott Pelley, in a recent interview, asked Clinton about her honesty. When she responded, “I have been as straightforward as I could be. I haven’t always been perfect, but I don’t know anyone who is.” Pelley followed, “Critics will say, ‘see, she didn’t say I will never tell a lie.’” Clinton responded, “You’ve done this to me before, Scott,” then proceeded to complain about being the victim of mean-spirited attacks.

Clinton needs to stop singing the same old song, because playing the victim does not work for a woman who has been First Lady, a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and is very close to becoming the nation’s first female president. By dint of her historic accomplishments, Clinton simply does not qualify as a sympathetic character, and she needs to comprehend this fact. It’s way past time for her to swallow her hubris. So, as harsh as the criticism may be – and much of it comes with the territory – she should not personalize it.

Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, made that mistake during the Deep Horizon oil spill disaster. As he was trying to apologize, Hayward momentarily made it all about himself, blurting out, “I’d like my life back.” Here’s the full transcript from that interview segment: “We’re sorry. We’re sorry for a massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. I mean, we’re. There’s no one who wants this over more than I. You know, I’d like my life back.” Hayward went off script as he was trying to force an apology out of his mouth, and made the issue all about himself, a mistake that sealed his downfall as BP’s leader.

If an apology is sincere, delivered in an empathetic manner, more often than not, it will be accepted. Most Americans want to believe and trust in people. But leaders have to give the public reason to do so. And, that’s the one thing Clinton, for all her accomplishments, policy expertise and tireless work, has yet to deliver for voters.


It's Not So Much What You Say, It's How You Say It

This article appeared in Fortune on July 23, 2016. 

As the Republican National Convention closed this week, Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican presidential nomination reaffirms one of the most important principles of persuasive public communications: it’s not so much what you say, it’s how you say it.

Indeed, one could easily argue that Trump has become the Republican presidential nominee in spite of what he’s said. Who could have imagined anyone emerging victorious from the primaries by uttering one offensive remark after another: accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists; proclaiming his intent to ban Muslims from entering the United States; and falsely claiming“thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building [the twin towers] was coming down.”

But, as Trump has invented stories, offended Americans and made arguments that reveal his ignorance of the separation of powers (saying he would “loosen” libel laws to challenge news outlets; attacking the federal judge overseeing class action lawsuits against Trump University), he has done so in a style that remained convincing to millions of voters.

Trump’s presentation style is engaging. He draws attention not only through his outrageous remarks, but also with his assertive, energetic and highly confident delivery. Trump may be telling lies, may be making it up as he goes, but the vocal and visual qualities of his presentation tell an audience he firmly believes every word coming out of his mouth, and so should they.

Trump’s vocal tone is firm. He speaks in confident, booming cadences that say, “Listen to me! I know.” The inflection of his voice is always declarative. He emphasizes his core messages, by slowing down to stress key phrases, pausing to allow those points to sink in, then repeating himself, which is an effective presentation tactic because it helps to cement a message in the audience’s mind. Trump utilizes hand gestures for extra drama, pointing his index finger for emphasis; repeatedly connecting his index finger and thumb to give the OK signal; extending both hands forward to connect with the audience. His direct eye contact is piercing.

To reinforce his image as a business titan, Trump always wears a power suit and tie. Rather than trying to be a relatable shirtsleeves politician, as is typical for a presidential candidate, Trump’s choreography is intended to keep him above the crowd. He needs to maintain the aura of wealth and power, upon which his entire image and appeal is built, so his posture remains upright, his chest always out to match his bravado.

Never mind that Trump’s word choice pales in comparison to great orators like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. It’s the complete package that matters to his audience. The vocal and visual aspects of Trump’s presentation give him credibility in the eyes of his voters, in large part because they are focused on his presence, as much, if not more than his words.

Contrast, for a moment, Trump’s style with that of Jeb Bush and it is easy to see how the front runner just one year ago never had a chance. Bush may have smarts, may be brighter than his brother George W., but he lacks presence. Bush looked uncomfortable in his own skin during the debates, as if there was any place he’d rather have been: his smiles were forced, his slumping body leaned on the podium for support, his head bounced back and forth like a bobble head character. Bush’s non-verbal communication appeared to say, “I’m trapped in this body and need to get out.”

The takeaway for leaders is that the vocal and visual aspects of presentation speak loudly, often with more volume than words themselves. Non-verbal aspects of presentation influence how we hear words, can overwhelm details and create an overriding impression. That’s working in Trump’s favor, enabling intelligent members of his audiences to ignore his false claims and insulting rhetoric. They’re buying what they’re seeing and how it sounds.

Executives should heed this lesson from Trump’s political success. Leadership is not about being the smartest in the room, nor the most insightful. As helpful as those qualities are, the ability to galvanize audiences by attracting attention, holding it, and delivering essential messages in compelling, memorable phrases is more important. In practical terms, it’s better to rehearse delivery of an important speech with your presentation coach than forgo practice in favor of obsessing over precise language until minutes before the presentation. One week after a speech, audience members typically will remember little of the content, but they will recall the impression the speaker left. As Trump is proving, style often has more staying power than substance.