Communication is hard work in the best of times–and we definitely don’t live in the best of times.

Academics who study communication tend to focus on barriers to understanding like cultural differences and different reactions to “nonverbal” cues and body language. (I await research on how Zoom interactions affect those nonverbal cues…)There’s a whole field of intercultural communication, established back in 1959 by an anthropologist named Edward Hall.

So what–I hear you asking–does any of this abstract scholarly research have to do with the people filling American streets clamoring for justice and change?

A lot, I think. An enormous amount of civic unrest is a result of failure to truly communicate.

A recurring discussion on this blog has focused on the extent to which our inability to understand each other is been rooted in the media environment we currently inhabit. It isn’t simply the propaganda promulgated by talk radio, Fox and Sinclair–it is also the relatively recent, well-meaning but misplaced effort of so-called “Legacy” media to be “balanced,” to be fair, to give even the fringiest points of view a respectful treatment. As a result, even bizarre perspectives have been given a patina of respectability. This emphasis on “balance” plays directly into the narrative of the far Right–and the recent publication of the Tom Cotton op-ed by the New York Times is just one recent example.  Zuckerberg’s cowardly refusal to fact-check Republican lies on FaceBook is another.

Heather Cox Richardson sees signs that such unearned respect may be changing–and that Trump’s sinking poll results are evidence that he and his enablers are losing the benefits of that unduly deferential narrative.

Even more indicative that the national narrative is changing was the announcement yesterday that James Bennet had resigned as the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Bennet ran an op-ed last Wednesday by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton titled (by the Times, not by Cotton) “Send in the Troops.” The inflammatory piece blamed “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” for an “orgy of violence” during the recent protests and claimed that “outnumbered police officers… bore the brunt of the violence.” Neither of these statements is true, and they clothe a false Republican narrative in what appears to be fact. Cotton’s solution to the protests was to send in the military to restore “law and order,” and he misquoted the Constitution to defend that conclusion.

The kerfuffle over this op-ed seems like it’s more than a normal media skirmish. For more than a century, American media has tried to report facts impartially….

Richardson pegs the start of talk radio to the abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine; it was the beginning of a propaganda barrage with which we are now all too familiar:  white taxpayers under siege by godless women and people of color. Fox News Channel wasn’t far behind. Fox’s greatest success was in equating “fair” with “balanced.”  Other media outlets became defensive; in order to protect themselves against charges that they were biased, they accepted the notion that media must show “both sides.”

Richardson thinks Bennet’s resignation over the Cotton op-ed “marks a shift in the media that has been building for months as newspapers and television chyrons increasingly check political falsehoods in favor of fact-based argument.”

If accurate, that is good news. It would be even better if the Left wasn’t–once again–engaging in communicative suicide.

Richardson is hardly the only commentator expressing frustration over the slogan  “defund the police”–a phrase that suggests abolishing police departments. What is actually intended is perfectly reasonable–  proponents want to shrink police responsibilities and decrease police budgets, investing instead in the community resources that have lost money as police budgets have exploded–but it is hard to imagine a stupider slogan or a more welcome gift to a GOP desperately trying to change the subject from a pandemic and massive protests.

They may not be able to govern, but one thing Republicans are good at is labeling, at carefully choosing terminology likely to resonate with the majority of voters who are not obsessively following political news and able to “deconstruct” political phrasing. Remember the “death tax”? Remember when “undocumented workers” became “illegal aliens,” the “social safety net” became “socialism,” and “national health care” became “socialized medicine”?

I think Richardson is right that the media is–slowly– jettisoning false equivalency for fact-based objectivity. That’s good news for “team blue”–and not an invitation to muddy the waters with yet another unforced communication error.

When you mean “reform policing,” say “reform policing,” or something similar. Don’t hand Trump a weapon with which to confuse and mislead. Communicate!


  1. And one more thing…..
    Democrats: PLEASE stop saying “We” when you are speaking of the acts committed by the Trumpsters. “WE” did not do the crazy things. THEY did the crazy things. Every time the Democrats saw WE in front of a crazy Republican act, they take ownership of it. Please stop doing that.

  2. It’s pretty hilarious!

    How, the mouth gets way ahead of the brain, that’s really called being self-righteous! I have to agree with Patmcc!

    The commercials that enveloped the airwaves should have Trump arguing with himself, using clips of his diatribes from the past 4 years, and even further back, contradicting his own viewpoints! This would be a very powerful narrative which would be impossible to refute. Trump attacking Trump, Trump contradicting Trump, Trump criticizing Trump! No one does it better than Trump!

  3. This makes me think of Marshall McLuhan and “the medium is the message.” Right-wing propagandists get it, and they already get that content and framing are key to controlling the debate. Reagan really was a “Great Communicator”, and not just for the content of his speeches. Carter and Dukakis, not so much. The short-fingered vulgarian is master with Twitter (yes, really- you think all those idiotic mistakes are just that?). The folks running and appearing on Fox get how to use their medium, as do the right-wing radio hosts. The vulgarian’s foreign enablers, along with right-wing extremist groups, understand Facebook, which is why Zuckerberg’s wimpy “neutrality” is so irresponsible (Section 206 protects you either way, Mark, so don’t be such a coward). At the moment, we’re pretty good at slogans, posters, and memes- “defund the police” notwithstanding, but yeah, that one’s a big content mistake, amplified by the various media through which that message (the intended one and the right-wing corruption of it) is communicated, but so far the most effective use of medium by the Left has been the peaceful demonstration.

    I think we have an over-dependence on content because we think a rational, fact-based, well-reasoned argument in itself should be persuasive. We shouldn’t give that up, but we’d better learn how to more effectively use available media to deliver those arguments.

  4. I agree with this whole-heartedly. Mainstream media did a lot of damage the the causes of addressing global warming and vaccinations as well. They insisted they were going to address “both sides.” But, scientists were about 99% in agreement that the earth was warming and that this was mostly being caused by human activity and 100% in accord about the importance of vaccines for public health so there really isn’t another side. In some cases, there might be multiple “sides” on how to address particular issues but the facts of their existence are not in question. This is how science became regarded just another opinion and we are now paying dearly for this.

  5. Copied and pasted from Common Dreams article regarding one of George Floyd’s funeral day police actions, “Police Are Rioting Chap. 442: On the same day, amidst ongoing protests, police committed their 442nd documented – never mind the God-knows-how-many that remain undocumented – act of brutality in response: In Tampa, FL, police shot a protester in the back of the head with a rubber bullet, then opened fire on the nurse and Air Force Medic offering her first aid.”

    Where was the public knowledge of police training that use of rubber bullets was not to be direct shots but at the ground with the rebound to hit A target and not a specific person’s head, face, back, chest or any other part of their anatomy? And especially NOT directly shoot a child with this ammunition with the ability to kill if directly hitting a vital area.

    Rev. Sharpton spoke (communicated) yesterday, eloquently and specifically about the “unlawful” voting situation in Georgia and the fact that Georgia laws allowed this disenfranchisement of its voters, specifically those of color or poverty who live in areas with no way to get to the polls. Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Texas are among those southern states trying to move back in time to full States Rights which brought about the Civil War and are against Constitutional rights. If they succeed by way of Trump remaining in the White House, how long will it be till the Jim Crow years and Sovereignty Commission rule begins?

    James LeBron has organized a group of professional athletes to work to ease this situation before the November election. As Jalen Rose stated, “The system isn’t broken, it was built that way.” Just as southern States Rights led t a war to maintain their system of buying and selling humans as their right due to their white skin.

    “When you mean “reform policing,” say “reform policing,” or something similar. Don’t hand Trump a weapon with which to confuse and mislead. Communicate!”

    To “reform policing” we must look deep into the state laws, including Indiana, where police brutality is considered the “norm” because they wear a uniform and a badge to allow them to carry weapons and use them at will. Can you imagine what we would be “Communicating?” if it were black cops killing unarmed white people? Remember Nelson Mandela who survived 27 years of South African imprisonment to become President of his country to fight for equality of all South Africans; including their white suppressors. He quietly succeeded in protecting the law that “ALL people are created equal”; a goal this country has not yet reached.

  6. Sadly, if you mention Fox News as propaganda but don’t list MSNBC then you’ve completely missed the point.

    Heather is just appealing to your own biases. The political parties want faithful followers and the media is used to manufacture consent.

    We also need a new “political spectrum” because the right, center, and left, assumes a democratic system which is balanced. We need the spectrum to reflect our existing Oligarchy, not a democratic republic. The power chart we need to picture is an organizational chart where all the power is concentrated at the top and then disbursed in levels.

  7. I’ve been saying it for years. It’s all about the marketing and the Republicans are so much better at it than the Democrats, it makes me want to cry.

  8. Sheila,

    “Don’t hand Trump a weapon with which to confuse and mislead. Communicate!”

    Right. Trump is playing poker with American lives. He’s bluffing. Don’t be scared. CALL him on it. With the RIGHT CARDS, you can’t lose. In other words, “He’s full of shit.”

  9. “They may not be able to govern, but one thing Republicans are good at is ____”. The real answer is winning elections… at all costs. Marketing/labeling is just a piece of that overall effort to win. And winning is the only thing that matters to them and until the democrats realize this, they will be forever wondering in the expanding wasteland of broken politics. This election should only be about giving this President four more years or not. Everything else is just noise. Stop Trump, or not. Why is this so hard to comprehend? No policy matters more than this. No candidate matters more than this. Stop solving problems on paper because it doesn’t matter unless you win. Let’s just win and we can do the paperwork later.

  10. You just have to know how to play the game. It’s very easy to learn. I learned it in the 7th grade at Landon Jr. Sr. High School here in Jacksonville, Florida, which looks to be at the present moment, Trump’s favorite city.

    I wonder why that is? Could it have something to do with evangelical Christianity and Racism?

    I’ll BET THE HOUSE on it that it does.

  11. Our biggest problem isn’t CONNECTING all the dots; It’s COLLECTING all the dots. If you can, then you’re in a position to WIN. If not you LOSE. And I don’t like to lose. Do you?

  12. How about joining me in a WORLD-WIDE BOYCOTT Of JACKSONVILLE!

    Believe me, it works. Back in 2015, the powers to be here in Jacksonville, came up with the grand idea to cut down all the trees in Hemming Plaza, the focal center of downtown Jacksonville, whatever is left of it, in order to keep the African-Americans from using it as a social gathering spot.

    A little persuasion concerning a WORLD BOYCOTT saved the trees, after a VERY SHORT meeting with the Jacksonville City Council.

    Last Tuesday, in the “pre-dawn darkness,” as described in The Florida Times-Union, our Mayor removed the statute of the Confederate Soldier who has been at the center of Hemming Plaza for 100 years. I wonder why he would do something like that? He’s never done anything like it before, if not just the opposite. Is he trying to hide something from the WORD-WIDE PRESS who will probably be visiting Jacksonville in the next few months?

    You have to be a historian of the Nazi-Era in Germany to really understand this beautiful city on the majestic St. John’s River. I grew up sailing on it. There’s also the Intercoastal waterway and Ponte Vedra Beach on the Atlantic Ocean, all in a stretch of less than 20 miles.

    Come visit!

  13. i have to ask, is kayleigh mcenany a bot? seems this conversation didnt mention the so called white,house mouthpiece. ive seen and listen to her, ill save the .. but as i see the new wave of AI becomng of age, did they program her to that job? hard to believe she,or its human when she dictates. like te above topic,no emotion,no face, just words provided by whatever programed her..

  14. jack smith; she is simply a blond, at least a number 8 on Trump’s number 10 requirements for a female to be appointed to a position in his administration. I see her as the source of “typical dumb blond” joke material.

    My apologies to all intelligent blonds on the blog and everywhere.

  15. George Lakoff, whose books I have and, incidentally, who earned his doctorate at Indiana University, has devoted much ink to framing or, as I call it, “framing out front,” which frequently wins the issue at hand before the debate begins. Trump is good at framing. Yesterday, for instance, he came up with “radical left wing Democrats” in Seattle and Washington State to divert our attention from his plummeting poll numbers, new peaks of the virus in the offing as a result of our premature get-togethers (which he championed), increasing unemployment, a chaotic Dow, unthinkable increases in both short and long term deficits, millions of jobs that are gone forever, negative Fed and CBO forecasts on the economy’s recovery, threats of martial law etc. etc. etc. – you name it. I think Lakoff would agree that Trump’s overuse of framing out front can (and finally) does become obvious and therefore disregarded by its numb targets, and that that is what we are seeing today. Trump’s daily shockers have lost their shock effect; he has lost his taw.

    Trump has named Seattle as one run by radical left wing Democrats. I disagree, and so does my now deceased wife’s dean at university, who retired to downtown Seattle near the Farmer’s Market, a wonderful landmark of the city. I have been there dozens of times, and agree with the dean that Seattle is one of the few cities in the world with a downtown where I would like to have retired, though fate has consigned me to an Indiana-Florida existence.

    To summarize, I think Trump has lost his early framing advantage to overuse and prevarication and that the ball is in our court – so let’s use it often and aggressively since we have much to target and a long way to go before reaching overuse.

  16. The “Defund The Police” slogan/movement is truly awful and regrettable marketing. I thought that the first time I heard it which was during the protests following George “Perry” Floyd’s murder.

    What the hell? What does that mean? You can’t do away with the police. And, of course, that’s the way Fox and Trump are hyping it.

    But when you actually listen and hear what (most of) the people advocating to “defund the police” actually want are advocating for, it is extremely reasonable, rational and in the long run would be cheaper and more effective than what we as a society are currently doing, which is becoming a police state (which is why, of course, it will be extremely hard to ever actually happen). I would venture that if we could somehow remove all the hyper-politized screaming and name calling back and forth, even many in the law enforcement community would agree with some, if not most of those goals. Cops are asked to do too much because we as a society have chosen to not invest in social capital. They are the front line responders for mental health, domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness, and much more. Most jails and prisons in this Country are repositories largely for the drug addicted and mentally ill.

    I don’t know where the “defund the police” slogan came from or who decided to go with it, but it is indeed unfortunate. It gives Trump and his jack boot cohorts something else to us to try to scare White people with the specter of Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color running wild in the streets and coming to rape their wives and daughters. Unfortunately probably too late to put it back in the box. It will be prominently featured in every Republican dark money campaign ad until the election in November.

  17. David – Bring it on. Let ’em try to sell that frame of horror from their discredited proopaganda bin. It will be seen for what it is and I think it will result in more votes for Democrats and fewer for Republicans come November. Millions (including me) don’t believe a word that comes from the mouths of Trump and his Goebblers and will make it clear if they try their luck with this item on their scare show. Incidentally, it’s too bad that the Republicans have only propaganda and fear shows rather than debates on issues in governing to offer in political campaigns as they make their way to the fate of their predecessor Whigs, i.e., oblivion.

  18. Marv @8:41 —
    “Right. Trump is playing poker with American lives. He’s bluffing. Don’t be scared. CALL him on it. With the RIGHT CARDS, you can’t lose. In other words, “He’s full of shit.”

    No disagreement here, Marv, but keep a keen eye on Stephen Miller, the Cool Constipated White House propaganda mouthpiece lurking among the coven of enablers . Is he paid to write another book, a version of “Mein Kampf? Watch and listen to this creep in a bunch of YouTube clips. Do you think he’s on another payroll or on another planet?

  19. The discussion initiated by Shiela … is about authenticity of communication, right? Abolish pronouns.

  20. If you think “defund the police” slogan is awful, consider that today it is being reported that protesters in Seattle have created a “police-free zone.” Sometimes I think the Trump campaign is paying people on the other side to say and do stupid things to discredit the movement.

    Seriously, if Democrats can stay on message, they will win the nation’s suburbs and the election in a landslide. If they start talking about “defunding the police” and “police-free zones,” those suburban voters will pull the Republican lever.

    Not that I’m saying, we shouldn’t be pushing for police reform. Absolutely. When you say you want reform but are saying and doing things that look much more extreme than “reform,” don’t be surprised when the other side successfully labels you as an extremist and your message is lost. Words matter, especially in political discourse.

  21. Liberals in general end up with these manifestos when trying to communicate their ideas. It makes total sense in a way as complex issues can have complex answers.

    The Reactionary Right Wing GOP and the Trumpet has a far different approach: slick marketing slogans, jingles, distortions and even lies.

    If slick marketing slogans, jingles, distortions and even lies do not work, sabotage the electoral process as we have seen recently in Georgia.

  22. Here’s a link to a PDF of a pamphlet written by Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) in 1928 (79 pages but reading even just the first will tell you what it’s about) that outlines the thinking behind all advertising (aka propaganda) since then.

    The ideas it expresses have become foundational to modern business and modern business has become foundational to Republican politics since then. That merger happened on entertainment media when some pioneers demonstrated how lucrative propaganda is in securing an addicted audience. I use Rush Limbaugh as an example but have trouble with the implication that he is smart enough to have done that so I assume he built on the works of others.

    To me those facts present a tough choice for the DNC. Should they emulate the success of the RNC or reject propaganda for what it is, antithetical to the liberal democracy first documented by our Constitution?

    I listen to radio only infrequently in the car and one source is from Sirius Radio service and it’s the audio part of MSNBC television. It’s obviously left biased news reporting but to me by knowing this background it’s not hard to separate the wheat from the chaff and it demonstrates the truth of the Bernays document in terms of how good propaganda can sell even bad products effectively. What it does is describe the product not with truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth but in terms of what strokes potential buyers.

    That’s absolutely as applicable to politics as to business. In fact it created the product known as Donald Trump.

    Of course the term “propaganda” connotes bad things so it is typically referred to now as marketing or brand management or often now, optics. Voila, bad becomes good.

    One of the things that it got us to do is to spend our money on goods and services that capture and hold our attention for hours a day for the express purpose of inflicting propaganda on us.

    I don’t have answers as to how to return to truth based politics or business but I don’t see a good ending to not having those solutions.

  23. “Defund the Police” must have originated with someone who loves Trump and police brutality. It hands Trump a gift-wrapped propaganda tool.

    The one saving grace is that an awful lot of people seem to understand it doesn’t mean what it says. There’s hope.

  24. Ask yourself this one, rather simple, question, “What is the underlying system that allows for this kind of intentional (obscene) spending on Militarized Police forces and the major media outlets?”

    Answer: Corporate politicians (of BOTH parties) who create and sustain a “legal capitalistic system” that benefits them and their peers. It’s about power and money and keeping them both (indeed, growing them, hence Wall Street). It is NOT about party affiliation.

    This exclusive club, who own and operate our basic economic, social and political landscape gain unlimited and exponential power in controlling government, jobs/manufacturing and the military/police machinations (again, Wall Street is THEIR economy, we are left with the crumbs of the “new” economy).

    Make no mistake. Those who sit in this exclusive club of “decision makers” control just about everything we eat, read, see and pay taxes for. Think about it. FOLLOW THE MONEY.

    Again (because it cannot be overstated), this is NOT about political party affiliation. That is theater manufactured by corporate media magnates chasing ratings and profit (journalism? not even…).

    No, this is about WHO has Power/Wealth and who does not. It’s how Biden can enrich himself by helping build outrageous for-profit prison systems during the Clinton era. It had (and has) nothing to do with political party. It is all about economic and political money and power. See?

    Their (the exclusive power/money club) Capitalistic System works VERY well (as it is designed to do) …..for them.

    It is time to CHANGE the system. It is killing the planet and us.

  25. Hey Norris: SHEILA is a SHE. (We know that, of course.) And you start her name the same way, with S-H-E, then you add I-L-A. Put them all together and it spells
    S-H-E-I-L-A. Just a little memory tip. We all love to see our names spelled correctly.

  26. Ps- “We also need a new “political spectrum” because the right, center, and left, assumes a democratic system which is balanced. We need the spectrum to reflect our existing Oligarchy, not a democratic republic. The power chart we need to picture is an organizational chart where all the power is concentrated at the top and then disbursed in levels” – Todd E Smekens

    Spot on. “An organizational chart” showing the flow of power and money will PROVE that the conventional paradigm of “the democratic system” is FALSE. Follow The Money. That is where “the party” operates….and it is NOT about a “political party” chart but a Money/Power flow through a who’s who of BOTH “Democrats and Republicans. They are HAVING a party while many really believe that somehow these money/power brokers are “distinct” in political preference. They are not! Call our so-called “democracy” for what it REALLY is: The Money Party.

  27. Watching the clutching of pearls and listening to traditional liberals and moderates react to the slogan “defund the police” has been as predictable as the sunrise. Although there is little doubt that the worst thing about it is that gives the opposition ammunition to pounce – yeah, that’s just PR and COMMS 101. But ask these same people, including this blog’s author, what they would suggest as an alternative you get some academic or corporate-speak phrase that may technically convey a more apt description, but lacks any emotive content and carries all the Motivational weight of unflavored cotton candy. Defund The Police has been amazingly successful as a slogan because it got everyone’s attention and still has it. And it’s driving meaningful conversations, nay, MOVEMENTS in 100’s of US communities where even the WHITE citizenry are demanding not only accountability of the police for their actions but to justify their very existence from the ground up, with the end goal to LIMIT their role and not become the default one-size-fits-all-with-a-badge-and-a-gun provider of community services . Nobody said Defund The Police as a Slogan or brand has to have a long shelf life. It can and should go away as communities move to the next phase beyond protests. NONE of them will be called Defund The Police but whatever they’re called they will be meaningful, actionable and supported by the community including local government. So, put the pearls away and get moving on Defunding The Indianapolis Police Department. Do it.

  28. LABELING! I wish that the NYT would publish this edition (not to mention many others) of your blog as Op Eds.

    Lately I have been troubled by several versions of communications you describe so well. First – somehow, the Left bought, entirely bought, 25 + years of fake labeling of Hillary Clinton – it seems that folks were struck dumb by the ‘feasibility’ of these false accusations and could/would not refute them. An unsubtle version of demanding perfection instead of accepting the good, and a reprehensible failure of responsibility to the greater good.

    Second – we hear many opinions, complaints, second guessing(s) of Obama’s failure to accomplish everything we hoped for from his presidency. But, where is the thunder from our side about the outrageous, racist, evil (but, so far) sadly effective blocking of Obama by the GOP – from what roof tops do these cries ring?

    Third – somehow, right now, it appears that what ever non-majority of US citizens enthusiastically endorse 45, those individuals are holding the rest of their fellow Americans hostage, AND, by the way, the rest of the entire world hostage. (In this instance, it would be fair if the whole world could vote – but that is a fantasy.) It is very true that none of these realities can/could guarantee a positive outcome in November (our positive, ironically, defines negative in the minds of those hostage takers).

    It is enough to cause a person to lose hair – through frustrated pulling, not age…

    Happily, there are hopeful signs – this blog being one, and the slow, slow move toward sensible reporting by ‘heritage’ media and, surely, there must be many others. Even given the proven failure record of the triumph of hope over experience, I persist in hope.

    Best wishes to you all.

  29. “Reform” police is just sane old, same old and means nothing. I read elsewhere “transform” policing. I like that much better.

  30. Perhaps instead of saying “defund” police departments, people should be asking to de-militarize police departments.

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