Trump's tweets distract us from America's pressing challenges

Trump's tweets distract us from America's pressing challenges
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If aliens arrived this week after intercepting TV broadcasts, they could be forgiven for debating whether to stand or kneel when they first met the strangely argumentative people inhabiting Planet Earth. That’s how thoroughly the back-and-forth between President Trump and professional athletes dominated the news cycle. Of course, the combustible mixture of sports and politics is not new, as the stories of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Pat Tillman and many others can attest. What is novel about the current moment is the degree to which the national conversation can be swept up in a storm created by a few presidential tweets.

It’s easy to dismiss the current debate as simply part of a new normal. The combination of a hyper-partisan political environment, 24-hour media coverage, and the instantaneous reach of social media have created a perpetual cycle of controversy. They are in serious danger, however, of distracting us from the profound challenges our country faces.

The NFL “kneeling debate” largely overshadowed the fact that 3.5 million of our fellow citizens face an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Tensions with a nuclear-armed North Korea are rising to dangerous levels as a result of repeated weapons tests by Kim Jong Un and bellicose statements flying between Washington and Pyongyang. Arguments on both sides of the manufactured NFL controversy create meaningless sound and fury as the bipartisanship and compromise desperately needed to fix our health care system, our tax code, and our deteriorating infrastructure are nowhere to be found in Washington’s halls of power.

For a 24-hour news industry in constant need of fresh material, the irresistible Twitter back-and-forth between the White House and influential athletes, and, ultimately, a whole sports league, provided attention-grabbing new fodder, the news equivalent of a sugar buzz at the expense of nourishing debate over real and complex issues.

None of these concerns are meant to dismiss the importance of patriotism, free speech, and a dialogue on race issues in this country. But revolutionary changes in mass media have given the president profound new powers to communicate directly with the American people and to dominate the media narrative. That communications revolution and its impact on our political system is worth considering from a historical perspective.

Faced with the dissolution of the union and a bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln used the technology of the telegraph and mass production newspapers to magnify the impact of his eloquent speeches urging resolution in conflict and conciliation in victory. Franklin Roosevelt similarly used the radio to reach the living room of nearly every American with his “fireside chats,” bringing hope during the Great Depression, and helping to mobilize an isolationist nation to defeat fascism and imperialism in World War II.

At the dawn of the age of television, John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE leveraged his good looks and charm to create the myth of “Camelot” and to lead the nation through the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ever since presidents have used television to speak directly to the nation from the White House, consoling us in times of tragedy, bolstering us in times of national renewal, and rousing us to the principles that unite the nation.

For his part, President Trump has shown a canny appreciation of the power and possibilities of the new medium of Twitter. It has given him an unsurpassed ability to speak directly to the American people. To dismiss his “tweets” as intemperate outbursts or merely stream-of-consciousness responses to current events would thus greatly underestimate their impact and reach.

Instead, these statements, in an era defined by identity politics on both sides of the aisle, further politicize American life and distract from the need to address significant national challenges where neither party holds a monopoly on the solutions. As this new media landscape evolves, we need a better understanding of the ways in which these technologies are impacting how we digest information.

From the man and woman on the street casually checking their smartphone, to the newsroom executive trying to prioritize the most important news of the day, to the political and corporate communications directors looking to spin their favored narratives, to the technology executives constantly pushing the technological envelope of communications, we all need to understand how the noise level is constantly being amplified in our self-styled echo chambers. Perhaps more importantly, we should all question the motives of those, both at home and abroad, who are boosting the noise level.

This brave new media landscape holds both great promise and peril. Leaders can harness these technologies to the mission of speaking directly to their citizens without gatekeepers or filters. Free speech can more easily penetrate totalitarian regimes that would suppress it. But the same technologies in the hands of dictators and authoritarians can be used to sow fear and confusion, and to distract with the trivial at the expense of the consequential. We should demand of our leaders that they use these revolutionary advances in communication to solve crises rather than fuel them and to unite rather than divide us.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.