Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Anyone Can Be A Great Federal Communicator

As Federal communicators, the single most important thing we do is not to “say things well.” It is, rather, to ensure that important things are said accurately in the first place.
Of course, most of us do not sit at the table when decisions are made about “important things” to say. But we can ask questions to obtain answers to that question in writing.
The good Federal communicator has to be willing to say, “Forgive me but I need some clarification. What is this program about? How does it connect to the mission?”
The good Federal communicator has to be willing to say, “Maybe I missed the announcement of this initiative. Can someone point me to where I can find it in our strategy?”
This is not to say that you should be lazy, and fail to do the necessary work of research yourself, for example by looking on the Intranet at the most recent strategic plan of your agency. You should be monitoring news clips offered internally at the very least.
It is to say that Federal communication, by its very nature, can easily deteriorate from a mission-driven accountability mechanism to “fluff,” a waste of everyone’s time and money, used improperly for propaganda and hype.
Listen to your feelings. I had a supervisor once, who advised: “If you get that wonky feeling, it probably means that something is wrong.”
By asking questions, you force the organization to stop and consider how it appears to others. The reflection itself is powerful, and you must emphasize clearly and consistently what motivates you. It is not to be a pain in the @#$ (although maybe you are one anyway), but rather to deliver valuable staff work to the agency you serve.
You want to emphasize that the reputation of the agency hinges on the perception of the taxpayer. And that what you don’t want is people coming back later, asking: “How did that program make any sense?”
As a Federal communicator you probably are not high up on the food chain. And you might think you don’t have the right to say anything about anything. In fact, some might call you insubordinate or disloyal for doing so.
Here’s something that might surprise you: Most of the time, people appreciate that you cared enough to really think and ask.  If you are doing your job well, you must be a supportive critic.  It goes without saying that challenging authority appropriately is a job requirement if you are to excel.
You must pay attention to the details. You cannot go by “someone said that someone said it’s OK.” That won’t wash.
If you have access to collaboration technology, I urge you to use it, particularly a shared system where team members can upload documents for background, review and reflection.  Collaboration technology means that everyone’s input is recorded, and a number provided to every task you work on in the shared space.
Of course, technology alone without standards is fairly useless. You probably already know that plain English is a must, and maybe your agency is still struggling with it. But there are many other ways to establish that you’ve provided a product that can be relied upon as reasonably accurate. Here are some criteria to consider:
  • Document creation date (and last updated) date is listed
  • Document describes which law, regulation, statute, policy, etc. requirement is being met
  • Free of spelling and grammatical errors
  • Links to further information are provided
  • Method of determining data is provided (e.g. “accurate” can mean a lot of things)
  • Raw data is provided where possible
  • Reader is offered a way to challenge, correct and/or comment the information being provided
  • Responsive to the issue at hand
  • Supplemental comments are offered where relevant
  • Timely
  • Understandable
You can append these standards to your concurrence sheet—your own invention or the standard one used by your agency. It may seem like a minor bureaucratic procedure, even a nuisance, but the concurrence sheet is one of the most powerful tools in a Federal communicator’s arsenal.
The concurrence sheet is where all the people who signed off on a document must ink their approval. So that later, if there is ever a question as to who agreed and what it was they were thinking, someone can research the matter and find the list of people involved.
Sadly, it is a fact of bureaucratic life that some people don’t like to leave a paper trail. I remember hearing someone say that, years ago: “No paper trail.”
I also remember being at a training session on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), at a different agency.  At one point, talking about how “embarrassment” is not a reason to redact a document, the presenter said, “If you don’t want to be embarrassed about something later, don’t write it down.”
But that was bad advice. You should write down how you made your decision, how you got from Point A to Point B. Doing so can prevent a lot of misunderstanding, and even bad press.
Let’s face it. No matter what your grade level is, you exist in a chain of command and as such your power is limited. However, you can always do three things: Find the written standards, find the written processes, and ask questions when you can’t do either.
In a world where your opinion is a good as mine—where people literally believe they exist in different factual realities from one another—asking “how” rather than “what” can lead get us to a better “what.” It is a way to unify colleagues, in a non-inflammatory fashion, toward the goal of “good communication,” even when they have varying levels of knowledge and power, and diverse opinions about how an initiative should proceed.
I wrote this post because I realize how difficult it’s become to stay motivated as a Federal communicator. The discouragement can be crushing. The pace of change seems to be nonstop.
Nevertheless, the Federal government would be at a loss without you. So keep on doing what you’re doing. It matters. It’s important. Even (and especially) if it’s challenging.
If it weren’t a challenge to communicate well, communication would not be so important.
All opinions are the author’s own. Public domain. Creative commons photo via Pixabay.

How To Rise Above An Idiot

We were sitting at the kiddush and this guy walked up and introduced himself.

"How are you, how are you, Shabbat Shalom!" he said.

The man was fairly elderly--an octogenarian, as it turned out.

We went quickly from the traditional Sabbath hearing about how beautiful love is ("it's like two oranges when one half meets the other") to a very detailed self-assessment as to his vigor.
"I'm in my forties here," he said, patting his chest, "But down here (and at this he gestured just enough to make me gag on my kugel) I am twenty years old."

Now, this is a synagogue, it's a House of God, and although the Holy Ark containing the Torahs was upstairs, only a ceiling separated us from it.

The man continued to talk completely inappropriately and offensively, really offensively, in a way that wouldn't have been okay even outside of a shul.
"I'll take my women only till the age of forty," he said, "and they can't have any scars. Even if it's an appendectomy."

It was completely offensive, so bad that we all kind of looked at each other, half-laughing and half-mortified, not knowing what to do except sit there.

Another stranger had joined our table that day, clearly an accomplished journalist who had spent much of his time in the field several decades ago.
"I was there when James Baker said 'F-- the Jews,'" remember that?"

And at that we all nodded, or at least the people "over a certain age" did, because millennials aren't familiar with the kind of classical anti-Semitism that passed as routine among certain spheres of D.C. for a very long time.

We remembered.

The journalist had lots of stories to tell, and we listened intently. This was almost like a graduate seminar, and we were fortunate to learn from the source.

The vulgar man then turned to the journalist. "So you said you speak Hebrew, huh?"

"Yes, that's right," the journalist said.

"So say something to me."

At that, the journalist began to speak in Hebrew that I could understand. Which is to say, it wasn't the rapid-fire Israeli stuff you hear in Jerusalem. But it was decent ulpan.

"I don't understand a word you're saying," said the vulgar man rudely. "Stop."

The journalist got up from the table, shaken. A thin man, he turned to the buffet, and pretended he was going for a second helping.

"Well, it's time to go," my husband said. "Do you want to go?"

"Uh, yes," I nodded. I have a reputation for verbally slugging assholes, but this wasn't going to be the vulgar man's day in court.

My husband tried to be polite. "I guess I'll talk to you next week."

"Maybe you will and maybe you won't," said the vulgar man. "In the end, I really don't care."

All I could think was, wow.

After the service we went home, and as usual I read the news. All they print are negative headlines, of course, and in particular as you probably have seen there are a lot of headlines about religion and child sexual abuse.

It's gotten so bad that my kids are sending me news clips.

So a friend of mine, reacting to one of the stories she had seen, posted this in anger:
"Organized religion is organized crime."

And I thought about what she said. Certainly where the world's children are concerned this is true -- they have been trafficked from pedophile to pedophile, not just members of the congregation but to the clergy at the highest levels. Is any religion exempt?

But at the same time, we do have to be careful. And we have to be careful regardless of whether we're talking about religion, government, education, healthcare, or any social institution upon which people rely.

For while all institutions yield corruption, it is a fact that people create these social structures, and we recreate them too.

I don't buy the argument that "nobody has enough power to make a difference." That's just bull.

If you care enough, and you want to enough (and God is with you, of course) there is no end to what you can accomplish, or the miracles you can wreak out of a landscape filled with tasteless octogenarian vulgarians.

There was a great story on VICE News last night, about a woman who decided that she really, really wanted an Emmy. Her name is Megan Amram; she actually made a show about wanting this award and it got her nominated.

At the end of it Megan said something very profound. To paraphrase: "I want young women to know that they can achieve anything they want. They don't need anyone's permission. Just focus on the goal, follow the rules, and surround yourself with people who believe in you."

Don't let one idiot ruin the shul. You make the shul better.

God has given you a lot more power than you realize.


Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. Public domain.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

When Rape Is A Rite Of Passage

“The abuses suffered by Menahem are so widespread the men who lived through them speak about their childhood traumas with a horrifyingly nonchalant, matter-of-fact attitude — as if the rapes against minors had turned into a revoltingly diffused but seldom spoken rite of passage.
The fish rots from the head.
There is a new movie out called “M,” which hasn’t hit Amazon yet so I have to rely on a movie review for the details. But the story of this young man, who grows up to confront the men who raped him as a young child, highlights something extremely important about child sex trafficking in the ultra-religious community: It is the rule and not the exception.
Ultra-religious clergy who engage in child sex trafficking may do so by engaging in any or all of the following behaviors:
  • Setting themselves up as representatives of God, and inserting themselves into religious ritual as authority figures to the child and the parent.
  • Engaging in child sexual abuse directly, and/or trafficking children to other members of the clergy, either directly (by literally taking children to them) or indirectly (by giving known pedophiles jobs around children and maintaining silence to protect their reputations).
  • Setting themselves up as go-to figures for victims, then minimizing or denying the crime when victims come to them.
  • Perpetuating the crime by threatening or marginalizing victims and their families, as well as failing to notify or adequately cooperate with law enforcement.
  • Pretending that child sexual abuse is an isolated crime, and has “nothing to do with our religion,” when in fact they have perverted religious practice so as to ensure close proximity between child and adult, e.g. men sleeping in close quarters in yeshiva environments.
The behaviors of the ultra-religious child sex predator/trafficker are particularly odious and crazy-making for the child because they the child’s natural spirituality by assaulting them using the accoutrements of religion. In the case of “M,” the rapes took place inside synagogue, and now he cannot go there anymore.
The crazy-making actions of the pedophile go so far as to include assaulting the child regularly even as he or she claims to be protecting the child from a dangerous, even predatory world.
Members of ultra-religious sects who sodomize young boys for whom rape becomes “a rite of passage” are the lowest scum of the earth, yet they help themselves freely to the fruits of religious reverence by those who are more secular in nature. Typically they live off the hardworking community in some way, taking advantage of state welfare benefits and dodging the military service that is required of everybody else.
The suffering of Menahem Lang, the “M” of whom the documentary speaks, is the suffering of innumerable other children and adults who must carry with them this “rite of passage” for a lifetime. How many cases of suicide, drug addiction, mental illness and prostitution can be ascribed to surviving child sex trafficking in an ultra-religious community, Jewish or Catholic or Muslim or otherwise?
For the Jewish people, this is nothing less than another Holocaust, and it is a Holocaust wrapped in a Torah scroll.
The Jewish New Year is coming. But we have turned our own communities into Sodom and Gomorrah.
How can we look at ourselves in the mirror?
Menahem Lang, the star of this documentary, drives around the Bnei Brak section of Israel with the filmmaker, as he “grapples with the memory of the countless rapes he suffered as a kid by the hands of Orthodox Jews living therein.”
Such rapes cannot be an accident.And their coverup cannot be accidental either. Lang himself has tried repeatedly to bring forward “the revoltingly tight-lipped attitude toward the abuses committed — and never denounced — inside his community,” not to be welcomed but instead “stirring a hornet’s nest among fellow Orthodox Jews.”
This man is unable to go to synagogue. How will he pray on the High Holidays? What do those prayers even mean? He says to the filmmaker: “You can go into the synagogue, but I can’t. That’s where I got raped: I’m too ashamed to get in.”
Undoubtedly, reading this, some people will clap their hands to their mouths in horror. Some will say, “You see, here’s another case of pedophile rabbis.” Some will equivocate and push away the real issue: “We Jews are no different than the Catholics.”
But who among us will take a good, long look at what it means that “rape is a rite of passage” in Bnei Brak? Who will ask the question as to why and how men are allowed to systematically sodomize little boys and not get locked up in jail for life, if not suffer capital punishment, as I think they absolutely should?
Where is the State of Israel, if sodomy is a “rite of passage” among its so-called ultra-Orthodox community? Why is Israel considered “a haven for pedophiles” by some activists? Is it because the people who wear seemingly religious clothing enjoy some special cloak of protection? Are they treated superstitiously, like an amulet one might wear around one’s neck, as a kind of accessory to the soldiers who train to defend the state against terrorists?
Child sex trafficking is a crime and a plague against the newly born of our planet. We are literally cannibalizing our kids. It’s happening among the religious, it’s happening among the secular, it’s in every religion and no religion whatsoever.
You can’t blame child sex trafficking on just the Satanists anymore.
It’s an outbreak and it is our shared duty as human beings to contain it, punish the offenders, and end it once and for all.
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. This blog is hereby released into the public domain. Screenshot is from the movie review for “M.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Notes on: “Bridging the Gap: Working with the Media”: A Federal Communicators Network/Partnership for Public Service Event

Privileged to attend and learn straight from the media about what federal agencies can do to help them do a better job reporting the facts. Federal Communicators Network/Partnership for Public Service event. Panel introduced by Virginia Hyer, FCN training coordinator. From left: Samantha Donaldson, PPS Director of Communications; Joe Davidson, The Washington Post; Alex Thompson, VICE News; Tal Kopan, CNN; and Tamara Keith, NPR. (Not there representing my agency.) Event was videotaped for public distribution over Vimeo. 

I. Background

Event Title: “Bridging the Gap: Working with the Media,” Partnership for Public Service/Federal Communicators Network joint event, August 21, 2018, Washington DC
Disclaimer: Notes taken by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. Dr. Blumenthal’s attendance and distribution of these notes does not represent her agency or any other organization or entity. All opinions expressed at the event belong to the person expressing them.
Nonpartisan: This was a nonpartisan training event that touched on matters directly at the intersection of civil service and politics. It should be clear that these notes are nonpartisan in nature and that the note-taker is not using them, explicitly or implicitly, advance or detract from any political agenda. Accordingly, notes are not altered or abridged other than to compensate for human limitations associated with note-taking.
Data Quality: Data quality is limited by the author’s ability to transcribe the notes as they were spoken and by the fact that the author’s computer battery died during the question and answer session at the end of the event. Therefore, content is quoted and annotated to the best of the note-taker’s ability.
Free and Open Distribution: This event was videotaped for distribution to the public. These notes comprise the portion of the event that consisted of the panel discussion and most of the Q&A. Names of individuals asking questions have been omitted to protect their privacy. This document is public domain and may be excerpted or republished at will.
· Joe Davidson, Columnist, The Washington Post
· Alex Thompson, Politics and Policy Editor, VICE News
· Tal Kopan, Politics Reporter, CNN
· Tamara Keith, White House Correspondent, National Public Radio (NPR)
Moderator: Samantha Donaldson, Director of Communications, Partnership for Public Service
Welcome: Virginia Hyer, FCN 2018 Training/Workshop Coordinator

II. Panel Discussion

“How are you coping in this new media environment?”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “The appetite of news consumers is absolutely insatiable. People are more interested in political news than ever before. One might call it a healthy obsession or an unhealthy obsession, what’s happening now here in Washington. Good for ratings but also puts incredible pressure on us as journalists. In terms of what communications professionals are doing to succeed. The challenge everyone has right now is getting anything to stick that isn’t related to Donald J. Trump.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “News cycle so relentless. Not only exhausting but also hard to break through. One-off stories that matter outside of Washington — hard to get those to a national audience. Sometimes hard to get to the niche audience because there’s just so much news. Journalists under microscope in this environment. A lot of attention, people interested in getting a journalist doing something wrong. Not only a deluge, amped up even more (by the) increase in pressure not only to keep up, but to continue to get the stories right. How to break through in way that doesn’t sacrifice (the) integrity of (the) story.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “Echo what they said, more pressure to get it right, pressure to keep up with (the) news cycle. Hostility to press. Even if willing to go off record and talk, good number of people in this environment, people calling you a piece of trash. A lot of hostility. Anyone willing to engage and talk an issue out is always appreciated.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “Not sure (there’s) more pressure to get it right, always that pressure, but if you write a story about a report critical of (the) Administration, you will get a lot of flak from readers about how unfair you’re being to the Administration, even if it’s just a straight news story.”
“Tamara, you mentioned ‘stickiness’ of news stories. Do you need a news release? What are you looking for to get through your busy inbox?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “It still has to be newsy. And I think the burden of what’s newsy is only higher and higher. To the point about antipathy towards journalists. There’s a lot of good news stories that won’t get told, it’s just a fact. No space for kudos to agency for doing their job, that’s just what’s supposed to happen. For a lot of you all, it feels like why do we only make news when something goes wrong. Unfair reality of news cycle. Hard to sell an ‘everything went right today’ news story. It has to be different, interesting, hooked into a conversation we’re already having. Did your agency make a bust of a crime that’s new, did you go about it in a different way, did you come up with a creative solution to a regulatory problem? Should be different than what agency does every day. Appetite for something that differentiates. Build relationship with journalist that covers your area and can break it.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “Good news always hard to sell. Press release showing up in inbox not (the) best way to get me to do a story. Started thinking early in the Administration (that) we don’t have to cover every tweet.”
“Alex how about your advice? You’re VICE’s newer media outlet, you have the TV show on HBO, you push the edge in the way you’re covering (news). How would you recommend the guys in the room push the envelope?”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “We’re not remaking the wheel. What sells is new information. One thing we always ask is what can we show viewers. It’s not enough to interview somebody in a conference room. Is there someplace we can go with them where people can see something they haven’t seen before. Can we take pictures (of) what they haven’t seen in print? I would also add that a story is always better with tension. If someone wants something and someone isn’t getting it, anything you guys can do to demonstrate that. Press releases are not — it’s just not the way it goes. You (need to) think when you hit send, a hundred reporters already have it, it’s hard to go to an editor (with that) because a hundred other reporters have it too.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I like a well-crafted press release (laughter) but it clearly is not the only or best way to promote your product. If you do have a relationship with a reporter, that reporter can be prepared and produce a better story out of that. Give the person a heads up, give them time to prepare, that has the advantage of giving the agency a more in-depth story. But I don’t want to pooh-pooh the press release. The downside of course is that everybody gets them. But if well-written, that can provide basis for a good story.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “To what he (Davidson) was saying, a nice off-the-record call we can advance that this is coming down and by the way there’s great sound (?), that would make it more likely that a story is gonna (sic) happen. By the way I’m probably not the right person to call. I cover the White House. Doing that research (who covers what) is critical.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “Not to talk down to you who do this every day, but thinking through where you want the story to go and who you want to tell it. New York Times versus NPR — think about the Times vs. NPR — think about the fact that each of those entities need different things. The New York Times might need a story with a photo or two, a lengthier conversation with background. For air, great visuals (are needed), unless (you have an) incredible story that doesn’t need visuals. You’ll probably need some show and tell, a person who can speak at length. It can really help along the way. As a reporter, agencies come and say, I have a great thing I don’t know how to tell it. If you want to do that legwork and make the pitch great from the beginning. Make it great from the beginning. (If you do this, you will stand a better chance of getting your story covered.)
“(Talk about the) relationships you’ve developed, keys to success.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “I’m a big fan of coffee. That helps. I want to know the three things they are thinking about constantly, that their agency is thinking about, that they are trying to communicate. I say these are the subject areas, what we want to know. A lot of reporters, it makes it simpler if you know what those reporters’ three main topics are and vice versa.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “(The) absolute essence of (a) reporter, (the) source, people you come back to over and over again, (the) key to (a) relationship is always trust. You have to trust us as reporters to get (the) story right and not burn you, and we have to trust you, when we ask if you wave me off something, confirm something, you’re not going to burn me. Doesn’t mean we always have to be happy with the same thing. There will be times when (a) reporter will write something you don’t love. (We should) give you a heads up about honestly what a story is going to look like. If I know you’re not necessarily going to be pleased it’s my job within (the) context of (the) story to make that clear with some time to comment. For me, I want to be able to know professionals know what they’re talking about, (and) if they don’t, put me in touch with someone who knows. So frustrating to work with press shops who see themselves as guard dogs. It is so much healthier when if you as a communications professional have to find people within your agency. We can work with you on background. We can work through some of those things. Being able to talk with someone who knows something. Trust, open line of communication, access.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I’d like to echo that. One thing that’s happened is reliance on email statements. It’s sometimes impossible to get through to (an) expert. (The) communications shop thinks you’re satisfied with (an) email statement. (It) can really be helpful to let reporters talk with subject matter experts. Increasingly communications shops (are) reluctant to do that. It’s not the best way for us to do journalism. In some ways (it’s) more efficient. The product is also — 
Tamara Keith, NPR: “I can think of a couple of occasions where I did a story that would have been a lot fairer to the agency, a lot better to the Administration, if I could have actually talked to a human being with context. Instead I was walled off from any human being. You end up with a story that — I know people in agencies are afraid of stepping the wrong way and getting in the wrong place with this Administration. The result of the gun-shyness is stories that are not as good as they could be, not as fair as they could be.”
“Can you think of other stories that have surfaced, advice for how folks can overcome those challenges?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “One challenge of being nascent in an Administration — a lot of shops in town started with career people as points of contact and then slowly have been able to build out their political staff over time. I think a lot of these shops are still getting settled to a certain extent and some ways they’ve been doing things early in the Administration have been finessed — they’re just a different creature — reshaped the way the press shop works. Priorities get hammered out and the whole transition begins to shake into place. Biggest thing I would ask as a journalist of a press shop, there will be stories we won’t like, don’t assume that any intention is untoward. A lot of times we get (a) response to request for comment like, why do you want to know this, what’s your objective, often times we want to do a contextualized story, we have a lot of sources from other places (who have) told us credible things, we’re coming to you, the more you can make an effort to assume journalists (are) not out to catch you, reserving (judgment?)…not everyone (is) on the up and up, the ones you know are making a genuine effort, don’t assume ill intention.
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “Even when get boilerplate statements from agencies, they often come late in the day. The earlier you get the information to the journalist, the more you can shape that story. Stories are shaped along with the reporting. Even as a columnist, where I can express my opinion. Still my column is reported — I don’t necessarily know when I start writing where the story is gonna (sic) end up. It’s shaped by the information I get. If you get it to the reporter at deadline or just after deadline — it’s not gonna (sic) help shape the story.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “Just don’t lie to us. It completely poisons the relationship. There are people who have said, ‘Off the record,” and then waved me off and they were lying. From there on out I will never believe you again. Just don’t do it. If you have to say, off the record, this is really off the record, I can’t not wave you off. Do something. Don’t lie.” (Note from DB: I do not fully understand this last sentence because the jargon “waved me off” is unfamiliar. I think I understand the concept though — if you provide false information the reporter will never trust you again.)
Tal Kopan, CNN: “To the point of wave off. I think facts are really important to build relationships with various agencies. I will say I know you’re probably not going to be able to on the record (to) confirm or deny. But I’m asking you off the record would you guide me. That off the record I wouldn’t wave you off, that’s so crucial. And when you say to me there’s more to this story and it would be irresponsible to run with it, I’m gonna (sic) believe you. That’s the other side. The wave off, don’t wave off, it sounds so silly, but it’s so crucial to have that line of communication.”
“Tamara, how are you using social media to source stories?”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “Nothing makes me crazier than a PR professional saying, ‘Well, we Tweeted it.’ Example — this was in the Obama Administration — (I asked), ‘What time was the meeting?’ (and the answer was) ‘We put a picture on Flickr and there was a clock in the picture.’ Social media is not a complete replacement for actual communication.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “A lot of agencies like to put a picture and a 140-character meeting readout on Twitter. That’s fine, it still helps. Not every agency uses Dataminer (?) to bring the Tweets to them. The most use of Twitter (for me) is seeing what other journalists know and trying to match it. (I’m) not using Twitter for (a) competitive edge. I do follow influencers in that space and see what they’re Tweeting, but most story production that comes out of Twitter is trying to match what people have on there and bringing your own stuff.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “I have found that some people will read a story that I wrote — FCC, FEC — people will follow me and Tweet out a story on their own personal account. (This) creates (a) personal connection. Just like politics, in this business, this is a people business, (a) relationship business. If you lie to us we’ll get mad…we’ll get frustrated with you. If we tell you we’re working on (a) story and (a) reporter isn’t totally honest, that probably ruins (the) relationship with you too. Seeing what certain journalists are working on, what threads they’re following (is important). If you can reach out, that is a helpful way to begin that relationship.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I use social media primarily to promote my column although it’s a way to get information as well. I think communication shops should use all forms (of communication).”
“I want to ask them one more question and then open it up to you for all your questions. If you could name your biggest PR pet peeve.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “Simply not answering questions, or being disingenuous. (Example of) where the public affairs person, it was about an OIG (Office of Inspector General) report, what’s going on in that particular agency. I asked (the) agency for comment and they referred me to (the) OIG. I said it’s OIG, (you’re the) Headquarters program, that’s disingenuous, the agency was the place to discuss its own program. I thought that was being disingenuous. (It) doesn’t generate respect from me for that communications shop. (Also) years ago, folks used to put contact information on the press release. A lot of press releases don’t have contact information — name, phone number, email. Over last several years (I have) noticed that.
Alex anything to add?
Alex Thompson, VICE News: (I’m) always willing to go off the record, (to) talk (about the) story. (The) story will be nuanced, better, closer to the truth. Unwillingness to do it hurts the story. (It’s) frustrating when they’re just unwilling to talk at all.
Tal Kopan, CNN: All previous comments notwithstanding, two. One silly one we always make fun of — “off the record no comment.” Is that a decline off the record? Is that a not respond? I get why it’s done but it’s silly. Tell me what you want the story to say. Just be clear. (Also a) general PR pet peeve is sending me a press release but then not just following up once, but three times and also calling me to make sure. If you don’t get a response, take the hint.”

III. Audience Questions (interspersed with Moderator questions)

“This Administration is perhaps the most visible in terms of politics (affecting representation of the civil service by Administration communications shops), but the Obama Administration was also very tightly controlled. How do you keep politics out? (DB note: This was my question so I am paraphrasing.)
Tal Kopan, CNN: “Make (the) agency available. A lot of what we do is try to cultivate sources who can tell us what’s going on without varnish. To a certain extent (it) is (the reality that) we’re gonna (sic) try to get around that closed door, but moving aside from the (fact that) we’re trying to make news…keep secrets (?)…the more that we can talk to real people, OK we’ll talk on background (on an) ongoing basis…the more you can put us directly in touch with a source…” (DB comment: Agency employees are not allowed to just pick up the phone and call the press, something the reporters did not seem aware of. I mentioned this to Joe Davidson after the event.)
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “In this media environment it is going to be politicized, outlets like Breitbart are going to make the headline…” (DB comment: I did not capture the entire response to this question.)
Tal Kopan, CNN: “We don’t control the headline. Keep that in mind. We can’t control every single way that a story is Tweeted by everyone. Character limits.”
Moderator: Tal, what are the kinds of stories you’re working on or working towards?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “As a beat reporter, (for an) issue-based beat, I really am interested in some of those quirky stories, when we talk about sitting down for a coffee, a lot of these agencies have these really cool sub-functions, I am a beat reporter interested in telling those stories. I had a sit-down with an agency, a subcomponent that does interesting things, you don’t get the good press, here’s what I could envision, because it was an investigative agency it wasn’t possible. (Note from DB: Not sure if this is because investigative agencies can’t discuss their cases in progress.)
Moderator: “Joe, what kind of stories are you looking for for your column these days?”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I always look for stories with people in them. People can really help tell a story. Whenever I can get real-life examples, whenever I can talk to people, recipients of the service or who haven’t been getting the service, I like to get my stories from real human beings I can talk to.”
Moderator: “Tamara?”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “I also really love people. I don’t get to talk to them, I cover the White House, the most high-pressure beat on earth. One area of particular interest for me, though on maternity leave, is the opioid crisis. Every couple (of) months, I get to do a story that gets into that, a people story, agency story, data story. Send your stuff my way on that. (It’s) something I’m really interested in as a reporter.”
Moderator: “Data always makes a great story. When people are pitching you data, what is helpful, with the data sets?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “You want to tell a story. Consider not sending (it) as a PDF. I’ll let others give more fulsome answers. Give it in a form that can be crunched.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “(I) agree. Not gonna (sic) be able to deal with a screenshotted pdf. We have our own format. Our graphics editors need to be able to crunch data as well. Easiest way is to pitch as if you are a news reader. To you what is the most interesting stat. What are you looking for, so if you are pitching it, (it’s) helpful if you are taking topline stats that you find most interesting.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “I will say more fulsomely. I work with some agencies with a lot of data. DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) for example. You can do really great comparative analysis on that data. Often those agencies will help you contextualize it. I will say that while I appreciate agencies that put a lot of raw data out there, (the) problem is when agencies put a lot of data out there, already very curated, already in percentages. (They give you data where you see only) a percent of this case that already meets this criteria. As (a) journalist this makes you suspicious. Why are you presenting it to me with all these lenses? You have to give it in a raw enough form…”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “One thing I look for is trendlines. How things have changed. I want to know how it compares with what happened 5 or 10 years ago. If just a number doesn’t help me much.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “(I remember my) dad saying — figures don’t lie, but liars can figure. When you only give us part of it, (it) makes us wonder what we’re missing.”
“As someone who has great respect for the fourth estate….What would you recommend to combat that (attitude that) if I don’t agree it’s not credible journalism?”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “We just have a responsibility to put the facts out there. To put (them) in context and acknowledge the other side of the story. (The) opioid (crisis), about the elderly and how (the) elderly have a problem with it (is an example). (I got) pushback from old folks, (it) wasn’t from any agency. The elderly thought I was trying to cast them as junkies. (It’s) simply statistics. Because (there was) all this commentary on how people need their medicines, which of course I understand. But it is true that this can lead to drug problems with opioids. Pushback. How do you combat (that)? Well I answered some of these folks. This is just what the (government) report says. (We have a) responsibility to put the facts out there, to try and give more than one side, do the best job we can, we know we’re gonna (sic) get that kind of pushback.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “Number one is a story you can stand behind. If someone’s gonna (sic) tell a story, you better made sure you made it airtight. A lot of institutions not just reporter (?)…layers and layers and layers of review…but can the institution stand by the story. Development in this Administration, don’t recall before, willingness of Federal agencies, not just (the) White House but agencies, to attack individual reporters publicly in (a) way that can escalate the tone of that relationship. I will say it could be (that there is) an opening in that story to get upset, but sometimes (the facts are) not favorable and you see a story getting attacked that actually does stand. To a certain extent it goes with the territory, but I do question the benefit of getting into public fights when you could start with a phone call, and maybe they did start with a phone call. One last thing. Corrections are a good part of journalism, we shouldn’t be afraid to correct, transparency, reporters are not infallible. That all happens and so starting from a place of, let’s talk about the issues we have about the story and assume you’re trying to do good work, that’s always valuable and helpful.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “In terms of what you all can do — you can help us make these stories more airtight. You can help make it more accurate. You can get on the phone and just talk to us off the record. You can help us make them more airtight.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “As journalists, there are differences within our industry — some more publicly combative than others. I work for an organization that just keeps its head down and focuses on) doing more good stories. We’re not interested in a public fight, (we) defend our honor by doing good work.”
(Note from DB: The notes end here, although there were some questions after this. My computer battery died.)

IV. Post-Panel Discussion

After the panel I had the great honor to meet Joe Davidson personally and to share some thoughts. Briefly, I explained to him that Federal employees are not authorized to simply pick up the phone and call the press, and expressed my curiosity that the media panel did not seem to know that.
I shared some thoughts about some of the factors I think get in the way of things. One of them is the common misperception within Federal agencies that public affairs specialists are there to tell a “good news story,” or to stick with “talking points.” I recalled that in 2005 when I joined U.S. Customs and Border Protection, our agency got in trouble with his very own newspaper; we were called the “Ministry of Propaganda” because our new boss at the time had circulated something called “talking points” (for use in “repeating the message”) when we were used to the concept of simply providing information upon request. Nowadays, everybody uses talking points and “key messages.”
Another thing that gets in the way is a lack of standards for Federal communication. I explained to him that the Federal Communicators Network developed a white paper on the subject with the aim of implementing a system akin to that used in the U.K., so that we are all on the same page about how we are supposed to be explaining policy and operations.
A third issue has to do with issues around data. In law enforcement, I have had the experience of professionals not wanting to release data because they feared it would aid terrorists. In another agency the concern was about methodology, and the fact that different experts simply have different ways of counting things.
On the less positive side, there are issues in the civil service and among political appointees (regardless of Administration) about wanting to be represented well.
 I have been part of initiatives aimed at showing how data support agency programs in the sense that we are demonstrating “results.” (Of course, all comments here are general in nature and cross Administrations as I have worked for the Federal government for 15 years.)
From the civil service side, clearly, if one is a senior level career employee running a program, there is a desire for the program to “look good” in the press, and on the executive’s part to look good as well.
Looking at it from the perspective of what might motivate a political appointee, I raised the point that I have seen a perfectly good program in one Administration that fits the priorities of a second Administration (run by a different political party), be de-emphasized, presumably because one doesn’t want to give them credit (politics is about winning). Separately, if one is a political appointee, one is naturally engaged with what the Administration is saying from a political perspective, and that will affect communication priorities about what the agency’s priorities are.
I also expressed my thought that there are other variables affecting what we conceive of as facts. For example, there are conversations we simply do not know about, or matters that may be hidden from view. The intelligence community has information we do not have. And there are factors that influence a newsroom (financial, political, governmental, and so on) which affect reporting to an unknown extent.

V. Personal Reflection

All of these considerations are daunting, but I expressed my hope for the future for two reasons. First, I believe people are more interested in the truth than they are in politics. Second, I believe that most people care about other people. These two factors, combined with my own personal belief in God’s love for us as a Nation, give me tremendous hope and faith that “things will only get better.”
 — Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., August 21, 2018

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain.

Monday, August 20, 2018

You Are Talking To A Scared Five-Year-Old

They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats,/ Who half the time were soppy-stern/ And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man. /It deepens like a coastal shelf. /Get out as early as you can, /And don’t have any kids yourself. - Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse
Today a colleague stopped by my office.

"I see you're letting the gray grow out," she said. "It looks good."

"Oh no," I replied, laughing. "Time to get the Clairol Number Five, I guess."

On the outside our bodies age. On the inside, we rarely feel as old as we look. Sometimes it's 30, maybe 15.

In times of stress, I think it could well be younger than 5.

Why is that?

Because when we have conflict with other people, and they react with the kind of criticism we may have gotten from our parents, a part of us simply regresses. That's a fact.

I remember one time, around preschool age, that my father took us to a company picnic. We set up one of those temporary barbecues outside, and after the hamburgers and hot dogs were finished, my dad dumped out the coals to die out.

Being curious as I always am, I remember walking up to the glowing red coals and wrapping my little fingers around one of them. Oh! The pain!

Nobody actually yelled at me for that -- I think they were too scared out of their wits -- but I think of it when I screw up royally. When others point out how I have screwed up...I shrink back inside my head to "that stupid little girl."

Come to think of it, it wasn't often that I had an open conflict with my parents. But I always knew that I had gotten into trouble, because the silence in the home was so loud. One way or another we'd resolve it, but somewhere in the back of my mind I thought...this truce is only good until the next time.

It is mathematically impossible to get through a single day without any conflict in your life. Maybe on the job, or with a close friend, or even with a random stranger in the coffee shop whose drink you picked up by mistake. (People get really, really, really pissed about that.)

The point is, when you're dealing with another human being, maybe think about the fact that they might be feeling like a child inside, the more tense the interchange gets.

Have a little empathy.

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. This post is hereby released by the author into the public domain. Creative Commons photo by Counselling via Pixabay.

Should I Trust This Content? Five Things To Think About

As a writer, I spend a great deal of time reading content, reviewing images, and watching video broadcasts.

Notice that I didn’t call any of this “news.” I can’t anymore, I really and sincerely cannot, due to the abundance of discrediting factors out there.

Here are five things to think about when you’re consuming…whatever.

#1. Power Games & Quantitative Distortions

Take a seemingly simple and straightforward kind of information, for example: crime statistics. How easy is it to put a poor person of color in jail for stealing a candy bar? What about a wealthy politician who deliberately votes in ways that harm the community, but benefit supporters? You don’t get contextual information from numbers. Instead, here’s what you hear: “Numbers don’t lie.”

Another problem with understanding crime, of course, is that the true numbers are distorted by lack of reporting and adequate representation to conviction. If victims of a certain type of crime — let’s say human trafficking — are drugged before the crime is committed, threatened afterward, and evidence destroyed, the statistics will of course be artificially low by a significant proportion.

#2. The “Telling” Anecdote

It’s always fun to click on the day’s headlines and see “World Leader X Slams World Leader Y As Evil,” or “Celebrity X Apologizes Due To Hate-Filled Comment.”

Sometimes the headline is even a headline about a headline about a non-news item, as in: “Public Figure X Tells Nighttime Talk Show Host Y What It Was Like To Film Movie Z With Celebrity A.”

And then of course there is a Tweet about the appearance, followed by a discussion of same, and the inevitable Facebook brouhaha…

The discussion around the headlines is pretty entertaining, too. Often I wonder to myself, Where do they find these people? Other times I think, How many lawyers were involved in formulating this response? And yes, I am ashamed to say, I also think, “Wow, that outfit/makeup/hairdo is awful!”

But more compelling than any of this is the question as to why certain anecdotes, stories, happenings, and encounters actually make the news…and which don’t.

Even more engaging, for me, is the question of whether such happenings are actually staged for media attention in the first place.

#3. Hate, Hate, Hate

In an ever-duller and more sterile world of cookie-cutter clickbait headlines, one has to marvel at the inventiveness of headlines that describe Jewish people, like me, as “Khazarian Ashkenaz Chabad Masonic Satanic Zionists,” or some variation thereof.

Over time I have learned discernment. If a news source is there to spew an endless litany of complaints about any “type” of person (and new labels are invented every day), they aren’t giving you fully credible information. While there’s nothing wrong with being angry and critical, that kind of total one-sidedness is a warning sign.

On a related note, I have found that some people employ identity politics as a tactic to gain the support of their readers. There are two ways to do this. The first is exclusionary, “us versus them,” typically through some expression of derogatory sentiment against anyone who refuses to “get with the program.” The second way is inclusive, meaning that the emphasis is on “unity,” but only among those who agree not to ask any truly challenging questions.

#4. Disinformation

“One cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.” — Gen. Douglas MacArthur
Students of marketing know how powerful brands are. There is almost no limit to the amount of money people will spend on the brands they “need” to have in their lives. Conversely, once trusted, it’s very hard to dislodge a brand (or an opinion) from the customer’s mind.

As a citizen, your opinion — amalgamated with the sentiments of millions of others — matters significantly when it comes to assuring the success of any policy, program or initiative. In the United States, the government employed persuasion campaigns for both World War I and World War II, to great success. Numerous campaigns of a similar nature — “See Something, Say Something” against terrorism; “Only You Can Help Prevent Forest Fires” — have followed.

The list of professionals who work in “persuasion-related” sectors and industries stretches far and wide. Although typically they are bound by codes of ethics that forbid deceptive behavior, let’s face it, PR routinely mixes good information with bias, misrepresentations, and even outright inaccuracies in order to “sell” an agenda.

#5. Agenda-Driven “Fact-Checkers”

Sometimes it seems like we live in a gigantic cat-and-mouse game: With every twist and turn of the opinion-makers, the public eventually catches on and adjusts with some new and defensive adaptive behavior. One of these, of course, is the industry called “fact-checking,” not a behavior that most of us would bother with in the past, but now practically de rigeur.

Unfortunately, however, all fact-checkers are sponsored by someone, and that someone more often than not has an explicitly political bent. So one goes to the trouble of finding out if a fact is true…only to learn that “nonpartisan” really is anything but.

Sometimes, one finds that no amount of fact-checking will satisfy the cynics: “You used to be so intelligent,” they say. “That can’t be true — it’s insane!”

This is the world we live in. One where so many of us are on a shared quest for the truth, with bad actors happily blocking the way.


By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. This post is hereby released into the public domain. All opinions expressed are the author’s own. Creative Commons photo by wilhel via Pixabay.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How To Have An Idea

When I was growing up, writing an article was a laborious task. We used electric typewriters that made a loud "clacking" noise and it was virtually impossible to do much more than assemble one's thoughts on index cards and then type them, in linear fashion, paragraph by paragraph.

Today the world of creativity lies at even a child's feet. One need only speak the words, and text magically appears on the screen, ready to be shaped and shuffled at will.

Despite the wide availability of expressive tools, contradictory ("double-bind") messages abound.

Explicitly we are told: "put your thinking caps on," "be creative," "innovate."

Implicitly however, we get the message--particularly at school and at work--that one should not stray beyond the boundaries of "acceptable ideas," and "we all know what those are."

Should we ignore these admonishments, and proceed in ways that challenge the status quo uncomfortably, the "punishments" range in severity and intensity. On the mild side, we may be laughed at: "You can't be serious!" As it gets progressively worse, the creative mind is at turns disparaged, shamed, marginalized, punished, excised, and eventually shunned from the world of "civilized discourse."

Sometimes, worse.

It is for this reason that we must stand together with people who embody creative freedom. This is not to say that we should endorse what it is that they're expressing. It is not even to say that we should include all their creative output in our formal institutional structures (for example, I personally would not include the art of a gifted serial killer in a gallery exhibition).

It is to say that in a world turning duller and duller with conformity, we can find common ground in standing up for the right to simply "think different," as Apple Computer so aptly put it years ago.

We can find common ground in refusing to participate in social discourse that is verbally and at times physically disrespectful, even violent.

We can wonder out loud who benefits when the public falls into falsely polarized black-and-white thinking, and extreme points of view.

We can start to get more concerned than we are about the handful of profit-making companies that can adjudicate and "unperson" us at will: Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and yes, LinkedIn as well.

To have a real idea, an idea worth having, you must be able to focus in a lucid and sharp manner on whatever it is you care about. But your mind cannot be free to do this when you, personally, are distracted by noise-(literal noise, as in the kind you hear with your ears), or the endless flow of garbage "information" that floods your inbox every day.

Your mind cannot be free to focus on anything if you have no place to sit, and think privately, in peace. We would do well as a society to invest in such places; it is beyond sad that many of us don't even know where the local library is, or why you'd go there.

It goes without saying that we benefit in every kind of way, including financially, from being around creative people. So we must encourage them to be a little bit "crazy," and not just in a token way--like really, leave the Play-doh at home--but in a serious way.

The day we prioritize creativity is the day we turn all corners of this planet into a safe and flowering paradise. We get there by critically reviewing every institution and its operations, asking the question: "Does this place make people free to grow and learn and contribute, or not?"

We get where we need to be as a world by studying the countries and the companies and the schools that generate a maximum return on investment from creativity, and we write down what they do and then we repeat those habits over, and over and over again.

One day, with God's help, we will invent the solutions that permanently end disease, malnutrition, homelessness and more. It will happen because He wills it--speaking through the seeming "brainstorms" of man. By supporting creativity intelligently as a society, we can make this happen faster than anybody ever thought possible.


Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Creative Commons photo by turnitsu via Pixabay.

Human Trafficking Arrests Are Up. Now, It’s Time for Disclosure.

People are impatient for the arrests to begin but they may not realize just how much is underway. Specifically, an analysis of the running list of human trafficking-related arrests at revealed that arrests have jumped 234% in slightly more than a year and a half.

That’s significant.

The anonymous Patriots at Qmap (so named because the site focuses on what #QAnon is telling us about current events) have been collecting headlines about human trafficking related arrests beginning on the day President Trump was inaugurated and continuing through the present. The purpose of this post is to highlight the progress that has been made thus far.

Before we do that, let’s consider briefly how the data is limited:
  • It does not go back in time to compare the current level and quality of arrests with prior years. A number of efforts within the Federal government to combat human trafficking date as far back as 2000.
  • We don’t have the criteria used to determine which arrests were worth including.
  • All arrests count as one unit, but it would be preferable to weight them such that nationwide stings; high-number arrests; child sex trafficking arrests/child pornography arrests; and arrests of authorities get a heavier weighting.
All that said, it seems that the trajectory is extremely positive. 
  • We are only three-fourths of the way into 2018, and if the current trend continues, the number of arrests is likely to go up significantly by year’s end.
  • In April 2018, after a legal war that took many years, against deep-pocketed entities, the online classified ad space/sex market known as was finally shut down by the U.S. government.
Nevertheless, despite these successes, human trafficking remains a horrific crime, deadly and exploding, bringing in an estimated $32 billion per year in revenue worldwide — more than illegal drugs. The plague affects somewhere between 600–800,000 people per year that we know of, 70% of whom are female, 50% of whom are minors. The vast majority, 4 out of 5, are raped over and over and over again as they are victims of sex trafficking.

Screenshot Source: University of San Diego

Already by 2011, Yiota G. Souras, General Counsel and Vice President at The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, testified before Congressthat the past 5 years alone had seen “an 846% increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking to the CyberTipline.”

The NCMEC also estimates that 1 in 7 runaways are probably child sex trafficking victims, and the vast majority of those — 88% — disappeared from foster care, not from home.
Screenshot source: NCMEC
Clearly, a lot more needs to be done; many suspect that “fox is guarding the henhouse,” and that real progress will begin when we uncover the corruption that gives us token progress, but not a full and complete stop to this global disease.

To that end, while victim restitution efforts are laudable, they don’t dismantle the infrastructure that enables child sex trafficking to continue.

Part of this will entail using the best tools we have to deter and disrupt criminals. Right now, in Montana, CIA-trained analysts are using their skills to do just that.

But there is another tactic we have to make use of, and one that people in power tend to avoid because it creates such “messy” situations. This is, of course, the part where we name names: the part where the full force and weight of law enforcement is employed to disclose to us “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” about just how it is that America’s children — along with the precious children of other Nations, all over the world — have somehow become the world’s most lucrative cash crop.


Copyright by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. The author hereby releases this content into the public domain.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

QAnon and the Sociology of Knowledge: Lessons from An Interview Segment On C-SPAN

Here’s a neat partisan hat trick: present your power-enhancing ideology as the default, while portraying anyone who questions you critically as a dangerous political extremist by default.

On August 10, 2018, C-SPAN featured a segment in which host Pedro Echeverría interviewed Ohio State University Assistant Professor Thomas Wood about the so-called “‘QAnon conspiracy theory and what drives some supporters of President Trump to believe in it.” (Click here for the link.)
For those who are not familiar with this phenomenon, QAnon, or Q, is an anonymous provider of news and opinion using an Internet forum to deliver an ongoing series of questions and statements. The posts, which focus on an effort to rid the United States of pervasive corruption, started roughly at the beginning of November 2017 and continue to the present time.
Sociologists of knowledge can find utility in a close read of this interview. It is a case study in the social production of knowledge, specifically the ways in which established institutions maintain their hold on power. Everything about the setup is aligned in such a way as to shame and marginalize the person who would profess to find Q credible.
If it is true that power elites use the process of developing knowledge to perpetuate their social standing, and Q challenges the power status of the Establishment across the board, then one should expect that this phenomenon cannot be examined objectively by any Establishment news source.
To see if such a statement is true, one must leave aside questions as to whether Q is “accurate” or not. Rather, one must confine oneself to examining the “how,” the process of authoritative communication around Q. In this case, we will examine how the C-SPAN segment, while purporting to be an objective, fact-based exercise, is in fact deeply biased.
The first thing to notice is the title: “Thomas Wood on Conspiracy Theories.” Right from the beginning, QAnon is disparaged as a provider of incorrect information. As a thought experiment, imagine a more neutral segment title, like this: “Thomas Wood on Citizen Investigators.
We move on to the subtitle of the segment, which acts to “lump in” QAnon followers with supporters of President Trump, literally: “Ohio State University professor Thomas Wood talked about the ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theory and what drives some supporters of President Trump to believe in it.”
The words “some supporters of President Trump” have a twofold effect.
First, they establish an “us versus them” relationship between the presumed C-SPAN viewer and the person who would be a supporter of the President.
Second, it establishes an equation between the believer in Q and the believer in the President. Yet no data is offered to support such a claim. As Wood himself states, during the segment, there is no national survey data on this phenomenon — your guess is as good as mine; the data is anecdotal.
As an assistant professor at a large state university (Ohio State), as a White male, with his British accent, and occupying a singular podium (not a panel) on a highly respected channel reputed to be politically neutral, Professor Wood’s words are socially privileged. No other panelist is offered as a counterweight; the viewers’ questions do not appear in the transcript.
How does Wood use this power?
Right from the outset, this professor — who studies conspiracy theories for a living, but who seems curiously willing to accept establishment views as axiomatic — denigrates Q without offering any factual analysis of it, stating:
“We have to stipulate this QAnon theory is wildly sort of peculative and broadly implausible on its face.”
Somewhat ashamedly, Wood apologizes for impugning the honor of C-SPAN and the “trained journalists” who presumably cover “real news” as well, stating:
“We have to be a little bit careful when we’re talking about these things…enjoying the imprimatur of C-SPAN, insofar as your regular viewers probably hear about accounts from trained journalists…and they expect to invest in those accounts some degree of factual representativeness.”
Trained journalists.
In his description of what Q is (the host is so befuddled he can’t figure out whether to call Q a person or something else) Wood uses the term “shadowy,” as in “a person who profess to have a shadowy influence in American government,” a term which is not only disparaging but also flatly incorrect. Exaggerating for effect, Wood summarizes Q’s basic premise thus:
“In the coming days and weeks after the prediction was made, cataclysmic events would transpire. And shadowy networks of people who had abused the public trust and abused innocents would be exposed and the American system of government would be revealed to be the plaything of a shadowy network of secret actors.”
Again, there’s that word “shadowy,” and another word, taunting: “plaything.” Wood jumps in and out of his own claims, at once a disinterested student of the theory he studies and a kind of fascinated, but disgusted voyeur into the world they portray.
It’s such a fantastic (meaning out-there) story, says Wood, that it “sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood film.”
You see, Q followers are the type who don’t read much — but they can and do get excited by movies.
Later in the segment, Wood again essentially calls them stupid, noting that he is co-writing a book (as an author, he occupies a privileged place in the conversation) and has classified conspiracy believers as “intuitivist” (as opposed to rationally thinking people), as well as less educated and “more religious.”
Get it? People who believe that Q could be telling the truth aren’t as smart or well-read as those who deride it.
Q followers “enjoy the intuitive appeal of these stories.” Wood compares them to sports viewers to “go to the special corner of their living room and close their eyes” hoping for their chosen team to win.
The professor summarizes Q as a prediction factory, spinning tales that never seem to materialize.
“And amazingly when the prophecies fail, the adherents don’t abandon the theory. They almost cling to it more closely.”
The host asks him about the popularity of this phenomenon, noting the shirts people wore at recent rallies, and Wood’s response is to denigrate the people who attend such events.
“Well I guess first off it suggests something that’s maybe true about the strange people who attend rallies, you know, during midterm elections.”
Yet Wood admits:
“We have no really good nationally representative survey data on the prevalence of this conspiracy theory.”
If he has no survey data, and he hasn’t really read the text closely, then what is the source of Wood’s authority to speak?
As to Q’s perceived popularity, Wood blames the “mere exposure effect,” meaning that since the media is talking about it, people find Q credible.
The only problem with that is, Q went largely underground for about five or six months, gaining popularity without any media attention whatsoever.
Wood offers another explanation for the interest in Q, and that is simple boredom:
“If I had to guess, and this is speculation of course, it’s more a function of the fact that we’re in sort of the dog days of baseball, and football hasn’t started back again, and we’re casting about for things to talk about.”
When a voice of authority speculates, people take the speculation as significant.
Part of the Q phenomenon is a focus on the number 17, as Q is the 17th number of the alphabet and the President has been seen emphasizing this number. To this, Wood scoffs:
“Folks look for any time the word 17 as mentioned. They think that is subtle signaling of insiders that they are adherents or proponents of this narrative…I would invite your more dispassionate audience to think about how wildly implausible numerology is between the American government and the American public.”
What he is saying here is that passionate audience members, meaning people who care a lot, are not to be believed. And dispassionate audience members, meaning people who trust the mainstream media and large-scale numeric surveys, will by default agree with him that all so-called “conspiracy theories” are reflexively inaccurate.
Referring to so-called conspiracy theories, Wood says:
“I study them but I do not mean to disparage anyone that share them.”
Yet most of his interview is spent disparaging both the people and the concepts. He also makes the assumption that people willing to think critically about the news they are given are unwilling to do so if its content does not honor their chosen politician.
Again, those who populate the community of Q followers tend to identify themselves as “Truthers” or “members of the truth community,” and frequently allude to their desire to know truth regardless of where it comes from.
Wood seems not to be aware of how wedded he is to the social order. He uncritically vaunts journalists as “rigorous,” despite the increasing and well-known trend away from editorial independence and toward symbiotic media-journalistic or political-journalistic pairings (e.g. severe partisanship in one direction).
His method of dismissing a charge is simply to restate it without context, e.g. regarding healthcare, that “large numbers of Americans are suspicious of natural cures or chronic diseases are being suppressed by drug companies for financial interests.”
No kidding!
It is almost as if Wood does not think corruption can possibly exist, which would be a surprising conclusion for a political scientist — one who studies the dynamics of power — to make.
But what of the actual content of Q’s claims? Wood is quick to dismiss them:
“Qanon is only one of these conspiracy narratives that gets trialed in online forums, and most of them fizzle quickly.”
For a devotee of numbers, Wood is oddly unable to provide any examples of either predictions or narratives that have not panned out.
As to journalists investigating the claims? Why waste the time?
“The audience would agree that it is not the responsibility or a good use of time to hang out on these forums and take every wildly, fanciful claim at face value. It is a matter of professional judgment. They have to wait until they observe some circumstantial evidence that large numbers of people are adhering to these stories and their exposure effect is offset by a correction effect.”
The claim and its response are circular: It can’t be true because it’s a conspiracy theory. It’s a conspiracy theory because it can’t be true.
At one point the host shows Wood a video related to Q, and he has to admit that he is impressed:
“Very effective videographers and narratives in this community.”
But at the same time, it cannot be true unless a “real” journalist blesses it — he advises people to go to “news media outlets and inform yourself.”
Otherwise, he advises:
“There’s online communities where you can enjoy describing the conspiracy theory to your heart’s content.”
Presented with a concrete claim that has nothing to do with partisanship, but rather the possibility that government is operating in a way that’s non-accountable to citizens, the host interrupts the person asking the question multiple times as if to “clarify.”
Finally, forced to respond to the question of why an agency might drag its feet in producing requested documents, Wood can only say:
“I am sort of a little bit skeptical about the extent to which conspiracy theorists connect the happenings of American government and use them for the factual support for these conspiracy theories.”
His justification for this attitude is that many pieces of paper are requested and delivered without any fanfare.
Is there anything positive to say about Q? Well, says Wood, maybe the ignorant people who believe it will actually learn something:
“Americans are becoming more interested in government and hopefully, as folks seeks out information about their preferred theory, we can improve the public awareness of how a federal government works.”
Overall, watching the segment, it is quickly apparent that Wood, a celebrated professional student of conspiracy theories, is not very familiar at all with the nuances of what Q has said. In fact, his skill lies in reducing individuals to psychological archetypes, based on their willingness to think critically about the socially produced facts handed to them by the authorities.
The reaction to this phenomenon has indeed been fierce. And informally, it does seem that all agree its message is widely resonating, even if people have a difficult time naming a specific reason why.
Is Q a psychological operation, a mind control game played well to control the susceptible masses easily? Or does it represent a genuinely effective revolution against the standard class-preservation tactics of mainstream social institutions?
Only time will tell. But from a sociological perspective, at the end of the day, the Q phenomenon may be more important for the reaction to it than for the content it conveys.
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. Not written to promote any political party or perspective. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Creative Commons photo via Pixabay.