This morning, a local model train store took some flak for a Facebook post about a news story that portrayed some railroad workers in a bad light. A well-known railroad employee and rail enthusiast, who felt the store should not comment on the issue, threatened on his own Facebook page to take his business elsewhere. A few hours later, the store apologized and deleted the post.
We live in an environment where the political is personal and vice versa. The political discourse has turned nasty. Many people are thin-skinned about comments or posts that disagree with their views or are critical of positions or politicians they support.
Businesses large and small need to exercise caution and sensitivity in their communications and actions lest they alienate part of their customer base. Last week, conservatives took Nike to task for pulling a product with the Betsy Ross flag after Nike endorser Colin Kaepernick, a controversial figure in his own right, complained that white supremacist groups had adopted the flag for their cause.
On the other side, many consumers won’t shop at Hobby Lobby or eat at Chik Fil A because of the owners’ well-known views on women’s reproductive health and same-sex marriage, respectively. Even though the individual involved no longer runs the company, some people plan to boycott of Home Depot because one of its founders wants to donate a large part of his fortune to Donald Trump.
The message is clear and simple: Keep politics out of business. That can be difficult in jurisdictions where membership in a particular political party is needed to get business. However, there are two sides to every argument and the side that disagrees with you could start to shop elsewhere.
As for the train store owner, I don’t think he was trying to pick a fight with anyone. He thought train enthusiasts would find the story interesting and he encouraged people to engage with it. That they did…in spades.
If you feel the need to speak out on an issue, pick one that is relevant to your business and matters to your customers, e.g. highway safety for a car dealer or access and diversity for a college. And, make sure your digital communications strategy has a policy for how to incorporate the issue into your marketing without alienating any customers.
The 19th Century education advocate and diplomat Townsend Harris wrote: “Open the doors to all. Let the children of the rich and the children of the poor take their seats together and know distinction save that of industry, good character and intellect.”
Harris founded City College of New York, an institution called one of the great experiments of the American democracy and known for many years as the “Harvard of the Poor.” [Disclosure: I worked at City College for ten years.]
In light of the admissions scandals that have tarnished the reputations of several elite universities, Mr. Harris’ message warrants our attention anew. The scandals represent the antithesis of his beliefs.
Bribing coaches and admissions officers, doctoring with test scores and transcripts, and photoshopping students’ faces onto pictures of athletes show the desperate lengths some parents are willing to go to get their children into a top school. Their actions are symptomatic of a higher education system gone awry that unethical people can – and will – game.
As a parent and someone who worked in higher education, it is easy to understand the attraction of elite colleges and universities. They provide a great education. They have excellent faculty, state-of-the-art facilities and vast resources. They offer access to opportunities not available at other institutions as well as to a network of successful – and distinguished – alumni. Finally, they provide a pathway to careers with prestigious organizations in business, government and the non-profit sector.
The result is a self-perpetuating untitled American aristocracy that requires the pedigree of a degree from a top university to gain entry. But if access to those institutions is denied to who lack the means to attend while others can buy their way in, several problems arise.
The pool of persons who can access this economic stratosphere is restricted largely to those who come from privileged backgrounds. They become intellectually inbred since they share common backgrounds, values and beliefs.
Because they draw from this limited pool, the universities that enroll them are not necessarily training the best and brightest; only those with the means to attend. A brilliant, high-achieving student from an inner-city neighborhood or impoverished rural county may be denied access because he or she can’t afford to go.
When this occurs, elite institutions and employers deprive themselves of the multiple perspective a diverse, multicultural population affords. Consequently, they become less attune to the needs of the stakeholders they serve.
Further, as the elite – the one percent, if you will – become separated from the rest of the population and draw a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth, resentment sets in among the lower and middle classes. Populists, fear-mongers and bigots are able to draw on this resentment to advance their positions and pose threats to democracy.
Meanwhile, non-elite institutions struggle. Government support for public colleges and universities, as a percentage of revenue, has been falling for decades. Who makes ups the difference? Students and their parents. Not only does tuition climb, but students have to borrow more to attend. To repay their loans, they have to use funds that they could have used otherwise to buy a home, start a family or attend graduate or professional school.
To stay afloat, some public universities recruit affluent students from out of state because they generate more revenue through higher tuition. For every out-of-state student who enrolls, a deserving, in-state student is denied entry.
Higher education leaders must heed Harris’ message if they truly want to support a democracy instead of an aristocracy. To compete in a global economy, we as a nation must ensure that out best and brightest receive the best education possible, regardless of their economic station. We cannot afford for those with limited means to have their futures sidetracked. It denies us, as a society, of their talents and it weakens our democracy.
Elite institutions must adopt a needs-blind admission policy if they haven’t already done so. They need to extend access to achieving students of limited means, not only from urban communities but also from rural communities with high poverty levels. They can work in concert with non-profit organizations like National College Access Network and College Track that identify and support such students.
Realistically, they will continue to admit students from families that can afford to pay the “rack rate ” because they need the income. Surely “highly selective” schools can find enough of these students.
State governments need to step up their level of support for public colleges and universities so they can be affordable and continue to serve “the children of the whole people.” These institutions should to be able to concentrate on serving the in-state populations, which are more likely to remain and contribute to states’ economies by starting careers, families and businesses where they were raised.
When elite institutions can reject nine out of ten students who apply we do not have a shortage of qualified students, we have a shortage of spaces in top-rated schools. America’s elite colleges and universities have great brands than enable them to draw applicants from around the world. Why do they restrict themselves to one campus in one region? Why not tap the market for online programs?
With far more high-achieving high school students than the top schools can enroll and a glut of PhD-holders seeking to join the professoriate, one would think there would be opportunities to extend their brands and open campuses in other regions. If the admissions scandal leads some institutions to rethink their missions by becoming more accessible, at least some good will have come from it.
How can people who are so bright act so dumb when it comes to community and government relations?
I am speaking about Amazon’s decision to withdraw from a plan to establish a satellite corporate headquarters in Long Island City. Had the project come to fruition, it would have generated between 25,000 and 40,000 new jobs that would pay, on average, $150,000 a year, according to the company.
This should have been a slam dunk public relations opportunity for the company and the officials who led the effort to bring it to New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill Di Blasio. But neither Amazon nor the electeds bothered to take two critical stakeholders into account: The people who live and work in the surrounding communities and the politicians who represent them in Washington, Albany and at City Hall.
Residents of Long Island City, Astoria and other neighborhoods adjacent to the site feared Amazon would drive rents so high that they no longer could afford to live there. Also, people were irked by the idea of giving $3 billion in tax credits and other aid to a powerful company headed by the richest man in the world. Further, they were upset by many of Amazon’s business practices, including treatment of its warehouse employees and its opposition to labor unions.
They organized and rose up. Their elected representatives heard them and got on their side. One of them, state Sen. Michael Gianaris, was appointed to a review board that gave him veto power over the project. Not wanting to let good money chase bad, Amazon folded.
What went wrong?
If the politicians thought their tactics would bring Amazon to the negotiating table, they overplayed their hand. Didn’t they read about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos standing up to the publisher of the National Enquirer? That should have given them a clue. Bezos is the ultimate 800-pound gorilla. Sen. Gianaris’ unwillingness to meet with Amazon representatives sent the wrong signal. Now he and U. S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have targets on their backs as job killers.
Cuomo and DiBlasio didn’t bother to get a read on community sentiment, and did little, if anything, to rally support. Even if 70 percent of the population supports something, the remaining 30 percent can get their way if they are fervent enough in their opposition. Afterall, this is New York, where there are more politicians per square mile trying to make a name for themselves and more media outlets looking for a story than anywhere else.
Amazon’s “my way or the highway” approach backfired. They did not engage the community to hear its concerns and work to mitigate them. Rather, they took their toys home because they didn’t want to do business the way it is done in New York.
Corporate leaders need to recognize they cannot behave arrogantly if they want to get things done. Such conduct will do their businesses more harm than good. I wouldn’t be surprised if people drop their Amazon Prime memberships because of this debacle.
Communities where a business operates are stakeholders whose needs must be addressed, just like those of investors, employees, suppliers, government and customers. That means outreach to leaders and more. It also means holding public meetings not only to make presentations but to listen to community concerns and respond to them when they have merit.
“Amazon’s path in New York would have been far smoother had it recognized our residents’ fears of economic insecurity and displacement — and spoken to them directly,” Mayor Di Blasio wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece.
Corporations aren’t the only institutions that need to work with communities. The City University of New York (CUNY) had to delay appointment of a new president for City College when Harlem community leaders objected to the selection because their “input, insight and influence” were not incorporated into the search process.
Gov. Cuomo certainly knows the value of community relations. Several years after community opposition forced the Long Island Rail Road to shelve plans to add a third track to its main line across Nassau County, he told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to come up with a new plan that addressed community concerns and needs.
In addition to increasing rail capacity, the project eliminates seven grade crossings, adds more than 2,500 commuter parking spaces, improves safety and reduces road congestion and noise pollution. Unlike the original plan, it does not require demolition of any residences.
The MTA and LIRR held more than 100 meetings and hearings to educate the public and listen to its concerns. The strategy succeeded as one village after another dropped their objections. Now that construction is underway, the LIRR keeps stakeholders informed through weekly progress reports and has a community relations team in place to address issues that may arise.
Even though the MTA is a public agency while Amazon is a private enterprise, the strategy is the same. Stakeholders must be recognized and their needs addressed. It may require some additional effort, but if an idea or project has merit eventually opposition will subside and the developer will be able to proceed.
One of the speakers reminded the audience that crises eventually come to an end and life goes back to normal. That may be true, but the fallout from a scandal never goes entirely away. Like with herpes, the sores reemerge from time to time.
I experienced this firsthand when I was public relations director for The City College of New York. In 1951, seven CCNY men’s basketball players were arrested and accused of taking bribes to fix games in a point-shaving scandal. This happened less than a year after CCNY won both the NCAA and NIT national titles, a feat never repeated.
Whenever a new sports scandal arose, AP would send out a list of the biggest sports scandals of modern times and CCNY would always be on it. There was nothing I could do about it even though more than 60 years had passed.
We live in an era rife with scandal: The Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar scandals in the world of higher education; the politicians and celebrities brought down by #metoo era accusations of sexual misconduct; the acts of child abuse and subsequent coverup in the Roman Catholic Church, Donald Trump’s extramarital affairs with a porn star and a Playboy magazine model, etc., etc.
It’s not only about sex. Just ask the governor of Virginia, who was accused of wearing blackface makeup or a KKK hood in a 1984 yearbook photo and is under pressure to resign. Do we know who has skeletons in the closet and when they will erupt?
Other crises beside scandals confront organizations. Disasters, both natural and man-made, strikes, supply chain disruptions, bankruptcies, environmental problems, hostile takeover bids and the loss of the CEO or other key personnel can cause sleepless nights for a crisis communications manager. They can even pose existential threats to the enterprise and/or its leadership.
Public relations careers have been made or broken over crisis communications. Crises thrust the communications chief into the spotlight so he or she better prepared. When bad news happens, the media will be there in a flash. You’d be surprised by how fast a news team can travel from Midtown Manhattan to West Harlem.
Here are some takeaways from the panel discussion:
The crisis communicator’s role is to help the media shape the narrative of the story. However, when he or she doesn’t know the facts, it is best to say so. Then, he or she needs to get them for updates later on. Relationships with trustworthy people within the organization can be of great help in doing this.
There is a reason corporate spokespeople use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” when talking about the victims of an incident. An apology can be construed as an admission of guilt if and when the matter goes to trial. The communications director and corporate counsel need to work together to “stay on message.” However, it is OK to push back if counsel impedes telling the organization’s side of the story.
Having good relations with the media people who cover the organization is crucial. Also, when the organization has had positive coverage in the past and has a track record of doing good in the community it can build a reservoir of goodwill that it can draw upon when something bad happens. This is when proactive media relations pay off. Even though reporters may pass on story pitches, they will, at least, be somewhat familiar with the organization and what it does.
Skilled outside public relations counsel can help organizations too small to have a communications staff work with the media both proactively to promote the enterprise as well as in times of trouble. Please get in touch if I can be of help.
I recently attended a networking breakfast near me. It was a well-established group with close to 30 people, some of whom have been in businesses for 30 years or more. One-by-one, we went around the room and delivered our 60-second pitches. Since I was a visitor to the group I got to go last.
What struck me about the group was how well members explained their unique selling propositions and talked about what was happening in their respective markets and what they are talking to customers about. For example, the first speaker, a florist, was excited because Valentine’s Day is coming up and he knew it would generate a lot of business.
An electrician talked about different kinds of electrical heating installations to augment a home or business’ main system on very cold days, like the one we had earlier in the week. Others spoke about interesting challenges they addressed, such as the mortgage broker who used his ingenuity and market knowledge to help a customer with a low credit score get a mortgage.
What they shared in common, besides meeting every week over eggs and coffee, was telling a story that would be of interest to their customers and prospective customers and, hopefully, get them to do business. Only this audience wasn’t customers but, rather, other business owners who could potentially refer business their way.
Social networks and social media like Facebook and Twitter work similarly. If you see a story or tweet you like you can share it with your network or followers by posting it so people who follow you might see it in their news feed. The more relevant content you share, the more influence you will have. This occurs in business networking, as well.
The big difference between a business network and social networking is trust. Business owners and managers vet people before they refer them business or collaborate on a project. A new network member might not see referrals from the network for several months.
Many people who are active on social media do not verify what they view and share. The hundreds of phony Facebook accounts during the 2016 election and the brouhaha over the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial between a group of Kentucky high school students and a Native American activist from Nebraska drive this point home.
More troubling are the hundreds of journalists who don’t properly vet stories that originate off of Twitter and other social media services. It gives credence to the accusations of “Fake News“ the President constantly lobs.
A social media rumor can quickly blow up into a major headache for a corporate communications office or PR agency charged with protecting a company’s reputation. “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” goes a popular saying wrongly attributed to Mark Twain.
While social media can be a great vehicle for sharing content and driving traffic to a website if you can get in front of the right audience, it is not a panacea. Best to also include public relations and communications you control such as direct mail and newsletters in your marketing strategies. If your content is compelling, it will find its audience and even be shared via social media Also, grow and nurture your real network, not just the virtual ones.
This past weekend Newsday reported that the six largest private, non-profit colleges and universities on Long Island as a group lost nine percent of their enrollment between 2012 and 2017. As someone who lives on Long Island and works in higher ed marketing and communications, the story obviously caught my attention.
The news did not surprise me. Long Island’s population is aging, so there are fewer high school students than during the Baby Boom years and the decades that followed. Tuition at private colleges has become unaffordable for most families. In addition, because public colleges in the SUNY and CUNY systems have improved and have lower tuition, they are taking market share.
Newsday’s story did not focus on the causes of enrollment decline. They are old news. Rather, the story emphasized how the institutions are responding to the threat. One school has stepped up its national marketing. Another highlights its mission. Others are adding new programs.
When any business, for-profit or non-profit, sees revenue decline, it needs to bring expenses in line. However, even though cost cutting can keep an enterprise from going under, it is not, by itself, a strategy for growth.
In higher education, reducing expenses and eliminating programs can be a tricky proposition. Sometimes, mission-critical programs do not cover their costs. They are cross-subsidized by surpluses from cash flow-positive programs. In some instances, a department that generates few completions provides classes that are required for other majors.
Additionally, when a program is eliminated, its share of institutional overhead does not go away. It is spread among the remaining programs, which means their expenses appear to be higher.
Rather than simply eliminate programs, institutions would be better off reallocating resources to programs that can attract more students, according to Robert Atkins, CEO of Gray Associates, a strategy consulting firm focused on higher education. Replacing a weak program with one with that has strong demand can lead to higher enrollment and better cash flow.
Gray offers a Program Evaluation System that its clients use to decide which programs to Start, Stop, Sustain or Grow. It features a customizable rubric that incorporates 40 data points to generate scores for student demand, employment outlook, competition and strategic fit. Using this method to rank its programs, institutional leadership and faculty can identify opportunities for enrollment growth and where to find funds to enter or expand into more attractive fields. Disclosure: Gray is one of my clients.
For Long Island’s colleges and universities, the best opportunities are likely to be in the data and health sciences. Amazon and Google’s plans to add new employees in New York City by the tens of thousands will create huge demand for graduates with technical degrees. In addition, Northwell Health, Long Island’s largest employer announced that it will build a 225,000 square foot R&D center at the Nassau Hub, within sight of the Hofstra University and Nassau Community College campuses.
I’m betting that many of Long Island’s colleges and universities will be ready to meet those employer needs and student demand. Stony Brook University, a public institution, is already recognized as a leading school for science, mathematics, engineering and medicine. Hofstra recently launched a school of medicine, in partnership with Northwell, and an engineering school.
They won’t have the market to themselves, of course. The new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island is within walking distance of where Amazon plans to build. NYU, Columbia and CUNY have all stepped up their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings.
By offering the right programs and building ties with Amazon and other members of New York’s blossoming technology community, Long Island’s colleges and universities can attract well-prepared students from other parts of the country. And, they should remember to mention that the beach is nearby and we have the best pizza and bagels.
“Some folks like to get away, take a holiday from the neighborhood.”
— Billy Joel, “New York State of Mind”
Last Friday, I took Billy’s advice and went “up the Hudson River line,” not on a Greyhound, but on an Amtrak train. Greyhound goes up the Thruway.
A change of scenery can be therapeutic, especially for those of us who work from home. Some days, the only time I get up from my desk is when my dog enters the room to demand to be walked or fed.
I didn’t go for the scenery along the way, though. I’ve taken the train up or down the “Hudson River line” more times than I can remember. I probably know every curve, station and bridge between New York and Albany by now. It was strictly to get away from desk, the house and the distractions of email and the internet.
Since I didn’t care about the scenery and the weather wasn’t conducive to sightseeing anyway, I put my time on the train to good use. I took out my laptop computer, plugged into the outlet next to my seat and spent more than two hours working on a project without interruption. How often do we get to do something like that these days?
Schenectady might not be the most exciting city in upstate New York, but it has one advantage: the station is right in the heart of downtown. There are several restaurants close by. The historic Proctor’s Theatre is a few blocks away and the new casino is a 20-minute walk from the station.
Since I had a five-hour layover, the casino was a good place to kill some time before heading home. It was busy but not crowded. No wow factor, but pleasant enough. A good place to play if you’re really into gambling or just want to take a chance with part of your estate.
The station also was pleasing. I’ve read that it is a vast improvement over the cookie cutter bus depot-like facility that Amtrak built in the early 1970s. The first thing I noticed when I got off the train was glazed stonework lining the stairwell and walls. The waiting room features a high-vaulted ceiling and large, arched windows, making for a comfortable, but not imposing, environment.
Since my train would not leave for more than an hour, I took out my laptop, again, and got more work done.
The trip home was uneventful, although the train was packed with college students heading home for winter recess. In fact, they had to add an extra car at Albany to accommodate all the riders. And, while you can no longer enjoy a fresh-cooked meal in a dining car on the trains in Upstate New York, the hot dog, potato chips and soda I purchased in the café car for dinner were tasty and fresh.
The message is simply to make time for yourself, and getaway for that holiday. The Bible tells us G-d rested on the seventh day, after Creation was complete. Observant Jews have been doing that ever since Mount Sinai. We’re at our best when we have rested.
I was delighted to learn of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s victory in the Democratic primary in Florida governor’s race. He has had a remarkable career in public service that dates back to 2003, when he became the youngest person elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at the age of 23. I think he is someone who could become an important national figure some day; I wish him luck in what will be a very difficult race.
Gillum’s story reminds me of many of the young men and women I met while working at City College. He was one of seven children. His father was construction worker. His mother drove a school bus. His alma mater, Florida A&M University, played a transformative role in his life. He served as president of the FAMU Student Government Association and was the first student to be a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. He also met his wife there.
On its home page, Florida A&M, which was founded in 1887 and is an HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities), states “What distinguishes Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University from other universities is its legacy of providing access to a high-quality, affordable education to many students who otherwise may never have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams of getting a college degree.”
While it serves a more diverse student body, City College, which is the flagship of the CUNY system, has lived up to “its legacy of access, opportunity and transformation” since it was founded in 1847, 40 years before Florida A&M. Had Mr. Gillum grown up in New York City, odds are strong he would have attended CCNY or one of the 24 other schools and colleges that comprise “the greatest urban university in the world.”
Andrew Gillum’s story, like those of CCNY alums Andrew Grove, Gen. Colin Powell (USA) ret., and countless others who graduated from public college and universities, reminds us of the important role these institutions play in our society and economy. They serve as a bridge between modest beginnings and limitless possibilities.
They are engines of upward mobility. Young men and women who are starting careers as teachers, engineers, accountants, nurses, architects, etc. often enter the middle class the moment they move the tassels on their mortarboards from the right side to the left.
Supporting public colleges and universities is one of the soundest investments a state or city could make. They create strong talent pools for employers, and, since college grads earn higher salaries, the additional tax revenue they generate will pay for the grants. Additionally, research universities can be centers of innovation that lead to entire new industries. Think Silicon Valley.
Yet, in most states, investment in public higher education has gone down while tuition has gone up. In 28 states, tuition generated more than 50 percent of public colleges total revenue for FY 2017, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Since 1987-88, tuition at public four-year colleges and universities has tripled.
In addition, many public universities now recruit heavily from other states. At one time, it was almost as difficult for an out-of-state student to be accepted at a flagship state university as at an Ivy League school. Now, however, schools such as University of Michigan and University of Virginia have sizable out-of-state enrollments. That’s because they pay up to three times what in-state students pay.
What becomes of a school’s public service mission when that happens? For every out-of-state student University of Michigan enrolls a student from Detroit, Flint or Lansing doesn’t get to go. How many will of them stay in Michigan after graduation?
The conversation about public colleges and universities these days revolves more around what their teams do on the gridiron than what faculty and students achieve in the classroom and laboratory. Recent sex abuse scandals have hurt their images.
However, the stories of people like Andrew Gillum remind us that public higher education remains a pathway of opportunity for young men and women who might not otherwise be able to attend college. We need to keep that pathway clear and wide. It’s not only just, it’s good business, too.
Summers are slow on college campuses. After the build-up to commencement, everything seems to come to a crashing halt. Most students return home or take jobs. Faculty and administrators go on vacation. How does one keep an institution’s brand in the public eye during this period?
Take a look around at what’s going on and what makes it different. There are students on campus, but they might be high school students enrolled in enrichment programs or summer workshops. Professors can devote more time to research during the summer break. Find out what they are up to and if they have new papers being published in major journals.
There are stories off campus to tell, as well. Your students might be enrolled in study abroad programs or working in distant lands on projects sponsored by prominent NGOs. They might be conducting field work with a faculty mentor or engaged in an undergraduate research experience at a major university on the other side of the country.
Summer is also a time when people who normally aren’t around come to visit, sometimes from afar. At City College, each year a delegation led by the mayor of Shimoda, Japan, would come to pay homage to Townsend Harris, the college’s founder, who also was instrumental in opening Japan to trade with the United States. That annual ritual piqued the interest of New York Times reporter Clyde Haberman, a CCNY alum, who wrote a feature story on the pilgrimage.
Most important, highlight the impacts summer programs have. Enrichment programs can steer students, especially those from disadvantaged communities, onto new pathways, such as exploring opportunities in the STEM disciplines. I was privileged to have my first formal journalism training at summer workshops at Ball State University in Muncie, IN, some 700 miles from my Long Island home.
College campuses serve also as laboratories for the visual and performing arts, where projects are transformed from rough cut stones into polished gems. An example is the Williamstown Theatre Festival on the campus of Williams College. Earlier this month, we saw a production there of “The Closet,” a new comedy starring Matthew Broderick, and had the opportunity to give feedback to the writer, director and cast.
Enjoy your vacation. You earned it. But, summer isn’t an excuse for your news feed to become dated. Stories abound. You just have to look for them.
Things might be slow now; but be ready for what’s coming. In just a few weeks the corridors will be a lot noisier and you’ll know “they’re back.”
Last week, Rosanne Barr had her show cancelled because of her racist tweet about a member of the Obama administration and Samantha Bee got into hot water for using the “C-word” to describe the President’s daughter. In both cases, their conduct was deplorable, although not equivalent, as some right-wing commentators have charged.
Arguing which was worse, however, is like debating whether to go to the gallows or stand in front of a firing squad. Both are awful. Since the outcome is the same, such a discussion is meaningless.
The outbursts by these two entertainers – and responses to them – are symptomatic of a larger problem: public discourse has sunk to a such a low level that it no longer seems possible to engage in civilized conversation on important subjects that affect the country’s future. Unless we, as a nation, are able achieve consensus on vital issues such as immigration, gun control, race, climate change and healthcare, we will become increasingly divided and gridlocked. How can we do that when all people do is repeat their side’s talking points?
People whose political leanings bend toward one end of the spectrum or the other no longer hear what the other side has to say. They get their news and analysis inside an echo chamber from outlets like MSNBC, The Atlantic and Daily Kos on the left and Fox News, Breitbart and Drudge Report on the right. Stories from the other point of view are branded as “fake news” and either ignored or attacked.
Often, social media, the great amplifier, is first place people get their news. On Facebook and Twitter we tend to connect with like-minded people and block those who don’t share our point of view. But, how can you formulate a cogent response to opposing views when you haven’t even heard or read them?
In normal times, the President tries to bring people together. It’s part of being a leader. We saw that from George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. We also saw that from New York City’s mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, who recently became a mouthpiece for the current President.
But these are not normal times, and we do not have a normal President. Instead of trying to put out the flames of divisiveness Donald Trump pours gasoline on them. Last year, he called white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., “fine people.” This year, he uses the racially charged term “animals” to describe undocumented immigrants who have entered this country from Latin America.
While he said he was talking only about members of the vicious gang MS-13, as he continues using to using the term it is likely to become more generalized in the minds of his audience. Don’t believe me? Ask Italian-Americans who lived with the stigma of association with the mafia.
Changing the conversation – or at least it’s tone – in this environment is a tall order, but it must happen. We need to find common ground, so people can relate to one another again. Our political system needs reform so that elected officials are no longer beholden to one-issue voters and extremists. We can no longer allow the views of the majority to be marginalized.
We need to change the language, too. Talk about public safety rather than gun control, inclusion instead of diversity or affirmative action, coastal protection instead of climate change, etc. We should be compassionate and just in treating each other but deal harshly with those who break the rules and threaten others.
Regardless of where they stand politically, Americans share core values such as liberty, equality, democracy and individualism. We may debate their meanings and how we allocate resources, but we must never lose sight of what this country stands for.