We’ve had presidents like Trump – twice

 

angry-trump

Events shape U.S. presidencies. Presidential character defines them. History portrays America at its strongest under presidents who took great political and personal risk by putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own and at its weakest under presidents who allowed animus and prejudice into their decision-making.

Abraham Lincoln recognized the moral and civil imperatives in ending slavery despite his own longstanding consent for it. Gerald Ford restored public trust in the presidency, but cost himself re-election, by denying the country his predecessor’s impeachment. Ronald Reagan’s easygoing comportment reassured an anxious, fearful public following an assassination attempt just weeks after his inauguration.

At the opposite end, presidents such as James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce are ridiculed for prolonging slavery, and Woodrow Wilson for defeating his own goal of world peace by yielding to cynicism, arrogance, and vindictiveness.

Character – the sum of individual honesty, courage, and integrity; the aggregate of traits that shape a persona and reputation – frames our responses to other people and contours our world view. It seeds our thinking, cultivates our emotions, and informs our beliefs. It is innate but can change if we are open to that change.

One hopes the man leading in the race to become America’s 45th president possesses that openness in some measure equal to the petulance he has displayed since starting his campaign to occupy the White House. History shows that petulance weakens and undermines presidencies, and none of the 44 people who served before Donald Trump have matched his propensity for, and willingness to display, infantile, foolish behavior.

We have come close to seeing it in two presidents: Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon, and their character crises left lasting scars on the country.

Jackson catapulted into public view by defeating the British in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans then hiring biographers to exaggerate his life story. But his reputation for outrageousness preceded the war: part of his wealth came from selling land promised to Native Americans for resettlement; another part from volume sales of slaves. In politics, Jackson preferred threats and violence to compromise and hired people to victimize and even beat his opponents. He relished identifying with rabble instead of the refined society that produced the six presidents before him.

As president, Jackson juggled cabinet secretaries on a whim, preferred patronage hires that wound up planting corruption deep into his administration, and purged federal office holders by devising false charges against them. His poor upbringing, rough demeanor, and populist views endeared him to the lower classes like no previous president, but his distrust of business and banks dragged the country toward an economic panic in 1837 that was America’s worst until the Great Depression.

Nixon also rose from meager beginnings, yet unlike Jackson lacked the will to tamp down any stigma attached to them. His father’s mantra of victimization, spurred by an early exit from schooling and an argumentative disposition, trickled down to the son, who thereafter in law school and politics envisioned more enemies than opportunities. Nixon reserved special scorn for Jews, blacks, immigrants, Ivy Leaguers, and the media, but his wider animus encompassed anyone on the opposite side of his perspective.

“One day we will get them – we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist … crush them, show them no mercy,” he told one of his White House advisors.

This put Nixon on a collision course with the national interest. He strived to shield the presidency from the public not for policy reasons but to cloud judgment on the extra-legal and illegal activities unfolding within – activities spilled first by Watergate and later the Oval Office recording system Nixon installed initially to help with his memoirs. The recordings underscored Watergate and subsequent efforts to hush or pay off conspirators and sped Nixon toward resignation in August 1974.

In 1977, during a televised interview, journalist David Frost asked Nixon whether he had obstructed justice while in office. He answered that “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” somehow forgetting that when presidents begin their service they swear an oath not to individual fealty but to protect the U.S. Constitution, America’s supreme body of law.

We walk daily amid the debris Jackson’s and Nixon’s character flaws left behind. Jackson legitimized the confrontational presidency. He bent the constitutionally higher power of Congress to his will at the expense of the public’s trust and the presidency’s integrity. Nixon pulled the nation into an unprecedented constitutional dilemma and emerged defiant, unrepentant, and confident that the title “president” equated with “Caesar.”

What will be the wreckage from Trump? Historians and ethicists point to his constant self-promotion and outsized egotism as symptomatic of deeper psychological trouble. They grapple with how Trump’s biases and Twitter tirades will translate into effective policy considering he has to work with Congress and the American people, not in competition with them, to produce measurable results. They see a man who blusters like Jackson, rages like Nixon, and who has instilled anxiety even among supporters over the country’s course these next four years.

History informs our experiences. Character informs our judgment. We can still see the long, injurious shadows cast by our seventh and 37th presidents. Trump’s behavior alludes to the worst qualities of both.

6 tips for using Twitter like a professional

Twitter logoTwitter has been with us for almost a decade, yet we remain amazed at the things people tweet about. Personal beliefs. Private conversations. Elicit behavior. Groundless criticism. Uneducated perspective. Even public relations people, journalists and other professional communicators are guilty of excess and irresponsibility in their tweets.

Of course, plenty of twitterers in these fields set excellent examples. People such as Kenna Griffin, Callie Schweitzer and Sree Sreenivasan employ the platform in ways the rest of us should observe closely.

But what remains out of billions of tweets often resembles boorishness and self-aggrandizement, impugning and assuming, snobbery and effrontery.

When I was a newspaper reporter and editor, any attempt to garner attention through public channels was frowned upon and seen as ethically dubious, if not forbidden by company policy. Today, persistent and effusive social media use is considered essential to one’s employment, if for no other reason than to continually trumpet a media “brand.”

This deep knee bend to branding is ominous, thanks largely to such popular social media measuring sticks as Klout assigning overstated significance to digital socialization — a significance weighted in favor of quantity instead of quality. If we agree to hold up these sticks as accurate, then news reporting and corporate communications via social media will suffer the same dearth of quality.

Media consumers derive a certain assurance from a professional communicator’s detachment. That assurance peters out when, say, news providers shout above the loud partisan polemic drowning out rational thought — a polemic they help create.

The solution, short of avoiding social media altogether, is to exert greater care in separating personal from professional Twitter content. Despite claims that a personal touch demystifies media and makes information more consumable, personalization also blurs the line separating judgment from fact. When journalists and corporate communicators get too personal, they damage their own credibility and the credibility of their employers and put their professions at risk of being marginalized.

So, preserve your credibility and avoid marginalization in the workplace by following these six tips for better Twitter usage:

Separate personal from professional tweets — If this means creating separate Twitter accounts, then do it. At the same time, refrain from using the company logo or any derivative as a personal avatar.

Exercise care with criticism — Do you love Danielle Steel’s latest novel? Do you hate the plot twist in “Game of Thrones”? Fine, but avoid posting those opinions unless they are relevant to the job. Opinions water down the objectivity that professional communicators need for peak performance.

Avoid discussing company matters — If discord exists between management and staff in the workplace, or personnel matters prove irksome, then venting discontent via veiled insults on social media will undermine others’ faith in you and could prove actionable in a court of law. Similarly, honesty and accountability regarding one’s own errors denote respectability.

Rein in the urge to be defensive — By their nature, news media and corporate communicators invite criticism. Some of that criticism can be mean-spirited and vindictive. Avoid driving a conversation further down the same dark road. As humorist Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

Resist posting vacation and food photos — It’s always good to get away from it all, but avoid dragging readers and viewers too far along with you. That beach picture showing Diamond Head in the background, while pretty, smacks of braggadocio, and may even suggest a laxity about work — especially if the picture puts you in one place while the calendar says you should be somewhere else. Food photos, on the other hand, pose a problem rooted in esthetics: Food never looks as good in social media as it does sitting on the plate in front of us.

Avoid making sales pitches — Ensure personal and business brand integrity by not distributing or re-tweeting sales pitches or links to special deals. Leave that up to the sales people at work who are supposed to market those products.

7 reasons why your company should hire a journalist

You should hire a journalistTwenty years ago, the market for journalism soared. Print circulation reached all-time highs, and newspaper owners were flush with cash. Ten years ago, cracks appeared in the media industry’s wings and profits began to plummet.

Today, major media firms, battling to stay aloft, are jettisoning newspaper holdings like old socks. Many of the seasoned journalists who gave these firms credibility were jettisoned long before that.

What a waste — and what an opportunity for American business.

Because more than ever, information is currency. Employees who can find information, analyze it, disseminate it, and do all of these things objectively, have far more value than those who merely copy and paste it. And journalists do much more than just gather information; they’re trained to explain why that information matters to you.

Experienced journalists provide a return on investment, and companies that recognize the value of people who can process information instead of just repeat it hold clear advantages in the marketplace.

So, when you’re searching for someone who can turn information into gold, consider these seven reasons why a journalist may be the best person for that job.

They’re good at research — There’s a joke that says the best place to hide a corpse is on the second page of a Google search. In their quest for accurate, timely information, journalists dig much deeper than the algorithms of a search engine or a social media platform can. They understand that data lie as well as inform. Only hard research and investigation reveal the distinction.

They value accuracy — The Delete key is not anyone’s friend or savior. It only removes what’s on the screen; it does not remove false or inaccurate information from either archival or human memory. Journalists understand that accuracy begets credibility, and correct information up front forms the foundation of sound business judgment.

They have institutional memory — Today’s college graduates have lived their lives enmeshed in the Web, but not all answers to life’s questions reside there. Journalists with 15 to 20 years’ experience remember digging for data by hand — sifting through dusty file cabinets and interviewing people in person. A lot of that information still isn’t online, yet these journalists recall it because, according to researchers, we tend to remember information that was difficult instead of easy to obtain.

They appreciate deadlines — When print media was dominant, journalists had only a few times each day to convey information. This forced them to focus, to plan, to be efficient. In today’s never-ending news cycle, every moment holds deadline potential, but having so many opportunities increases the likelihood of hesitation, delay, and a lack of appreciation for deadlines. Put another way, when every moment is special, then no moment is special. Journalists appreciate the value of a moment.

They are persistent — To borrow from tennis champion Billie Jean King, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” Good, responsible journalism requires the same approach. Truth resides somewhere beneath the surface of an issue, and so to get at truth requires dodging or occasionally plowing through obstructions. A journalist who is able to carve out that path does so with razor-sharp intellect.

They are ethical — There are better paying jobs than journalism, but no journalist I know entered the profession for the money. They value the power of words and are imbued with an innate sense of justice, they cherish the watchdog role that comes with being a journalist, and they respect the profession and their employers by being accountable for their actions.

They have compassion — Besides showing accountability, good journalists respect their audiences. The information that journalists gather and disseminate is for the benefit of those audiences, not their own egos or their own brand, and serving those audiences demands powerful responsibility. With good information culled from reports and research, the public can make educated decisions. So, too, can employers.

Imagine how successful a business could be with proven, committed employees such as journalists on its payroll.

Knight Center offers free training in investigative journalism

ReporterWhat about the word “free” don’t you understand?

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas will offer a five-week open online training course covering the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism, without charge. The course, “Investigative Journalism for the Digital Age,” begins May 12, and concludes June 14.

Instruction will cover, among other things, general concepts about conducting investigations, finding and cultivating sources, analyzing digital data and databases, sifting through social media for useful information, and presenting stories with attention to fairness and ethics. Four instructors will present multiple videos edited in a college-style classroom format.

The instructors are Brant Houston, who teaches investigative journalism and advanced reporting at the University of Illinois; Michael Berens, an investigative reporter for the Seattle Times and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting; Steve Doig, data journalism specialist at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism; and Lise Olson, senior investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle.

Each week’s work can be completed at the student’s own pace. Quizzes will be given at the conclusion of each instruction module. Students can request a certificate of completion at the course’s conclusion for a small fee.

Anyone who is interested should register now at the Knight Center’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) site. The center is supported by the Knight Foundation.

Larry ignored me, and look what happened

Poor Larry. If only he had taken me up on my offer.

Larry Conners, courtesy of  the Post-DispatchThe Larry in question is Larry Conners, the once-ubiquitous, now erstwhile KMOV-TV news anchor. My offer was an invitation that he join the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

I can’t help but think that if he had accepted the invitation, maybe, just maybe, Conners wouldn’t be in such a fix today.

Instead, he’s learning a lesson about the vagaries of celebrity and social media, and those lessons can to be harsh.

Al Roker knows this. So does Anthony Weiner, Ashton Kutcher, Kenneth Cole, and the former Chad Ochocinco: Posting or tweeting with indifference, ignorance or insensitivity can tarnish reputations, perhaps beyond polish.

The Web bristles with examples of questionable social networking behavior, to the extent that a top tip for job hunters is sweeping out offensive material from their networking sites before sending out résumés.

Yet the harsh lessons persist, with no learning evident or behaviors changed. Conners, 66, a 37-year veteran of St. Louis television, sets the latest example.

Conners took a face plant on Facebook last week when he hinted at personal intimidation from the Internal Revenue Service resulting from his televised interview of President Barack Obama in April 2012. During the interview, he issued criticism allegedly passed along from KMOV viewers about the president racking up frequent flyer vacation miles at taxpayer expense.

Conners spoke out only now because he says he was inspired by a recent IRS admission that the agency allowed tougher-than-usual scrutiny of records coming from conservative interest groups seeking tax-exempt status.

On Facebook, Conners, while not revealing his politics, suggested the interview with Obama alone might have brought down scrutiny on himself. He didn’t mention though that his own tax issues predate the Obama interview.

On air a day later, Conners backtracked a bit from his insinuations, but that clarification apparently wasn’t enough. His employer first suspended him, then cut him loose, saying the Facebook post undercut his journalistic credibility and that of the station.

Since then, Conners has defended his intentions on a rival station. His next defense may come in court; Conners has hired an attorney.

I shake my head in dismay.

Three years ago, I was the newly minted president of SPJ’s St. Louis chapter, and as a courtesy to all major media members in the area sent out invitations to either join or rejoin the 114-year-old national society, which among other ideals espouses a Code of Ethics considered to be the standard for behavior among journalists.

The society not only posts this Code online, it has printed copies that the St. Louis chapter offers at most of its monthly meetings. High up in the Code’s wording, it exhorts journalists to “exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” and to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”

Given Conners’ lengthy tenure in television news, one might think he wouldn’t need a reminder. But that’s why SPJ posts the Code and prints the cards; we all need reminding.

Today, journalists toe a thin line between objectivity and subjectivity. The former underpins their credibility; the latter seeps through because media companies urge their talent to blog, post and tweet for the sake of higher readership and ratings.

Undeniably, social media has become a tool for news gathering, but it’s also a window into a person’s thinking.

And there’s another problem. Social media lets users believe they’re staring at a screen instead of a potential audience numbering in the millions. The impersonal nature of digital networking masks a deeper truth: We’re actually staring at each other, face to face.

That’s why Conners might be forgiven for his statements against the IRS, and his transgression dismissed, on a claim of social media ignorance. But he went a step further by concluding his Facebook accusation with the line, “Can I prove it? At this time, no.”

Those perhaps were the worst words he could have written. Proof forms the foundation of journalistic credibility and integrity. Absent proof, Conners’ words amounted to a rant. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is clear on this.

So, I wish Larry had taken me up on my offer to join SPJ awhile back. Then he might have had the Code on a card somewhere within view while he was Facebooking.

I’ll probably send him one anyway. He can still learn something from it.