Brian Karem: The media model is broken. But it can be fixed. Democracy is counting on it.
Join veteran White House correspondent Brian Karem and I as we discuss his Big Idea that the media model is irretrievably broken and must be transformed for democracy to survive. Drawing on his 37 years reporting from the White House, and his new best selling book Free The Press: The Death Of American Journalism And How To Revive it, Karem lists the action items urgently needed to transform media in the US, with relevance to all the democracies. We all need to listen to him.
Hello, I’m Bob Westrope.
I believe these things to be true.
We live in an Age of Abundance, where, for the first time we have the means to eradicate human suffering, want and need.
Our world is in unprecedented danger. Too many issues that must be dealt with simultaneously, from climate change to an all-out assault on democracy itself.
We have years – not decades - to prevail. To make possible a new Age of Wonder.
The root problem is a systemic, global leadership insufficiency.
We can’t rely alone on current systems and structures to address this insufficiency. It’s time for big ideas.
It’s on us to fix it - the BoomXers born from 1946-1980. We have the experience, networks, power, money, time and most importantly the motivation. It’s our children’s world. It’s our legacy.
Join me as I explore the big ideas needed to inspire our generation to action – ideas offered by leading thinkers, doers and activists united by the understanding that we all share one very small and very fragile planet.
Before we start, the BOOM! series of podcasts will be brought to you by several sponsors. Since BOOM! is intended to promote actionable, measurable and meaningful impact, I wanted to make a statement in the acceptance of our first sponsor. That's why I invited Storyminers to be the first to support us.
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Let's get started.
It seems a bit embarrassing to admit this, but one of my earliest memories as a six or seven year old was playing ‘newspaper’ with one of the girls at my end of my street. That we did so under her front porch always inspired suspicious thoughts on the part of her mother, but the only passion I displayed was to create a platform to inform my neighbourhood about what was going on in the world. Even then, the world defined by my street was too small, inconsequential. The real things were happening out there.
I remember in grade one, my parents and teachers talking in hushed and worried voices about war, while we were playing ‘duck and cover’ drills. A year later I remember a teacher bursting into our classroom to whisper something in my teachers ear that made them both cry. Even as a seven-year-old I knew who JFK was. The image of JFK junior saluting the gun carriage carrying his father on our grainy black and white TV still sticks, because I saw him as another child.
In grade three, my teacher instituted the 9 o’clock news, where at 9am, more or less on the dot, one of my classmates would stick their head into a tin-foil-wrapped cardboard box with a cut-out TV screen, and a faux rabbit ear antennae affixed to the top. They were to be the newsreader of the day, and share with us what they had learned on the morning news.
Without exception, my peers viewed this as a grossly unfair hostage taking. The news, such as it was, was hastily and mechanically reported, much as a hostage reads the script given them by their captors. But for me, it was pure joy. My classmates were on the one hand glad when I took over the 9am news and made it my own. Of course, it also pissed them off. But even though cementing my reputation as a dweeb, I loved absorbing everything I could from the morning news and reading from my always-too-long script. Say what you will, but my grade three class was the best informed class in Canada.
Vietnam was of course transformative for a boomer born in 1956. Words like Tet, Danang, Khe San, Tan Son Nhut and Mekong were embedded in my consciousness – as was when Walter Cronkite reported the worst month for US KIA’s – January 1969 with 542 dead. At least 30,000 Canadians joined to fight the US fight, one of them being the son of Canada’s top general. He was one of the KIA’s. Almost an identical number of American resisters fled north for sanctuary. The news was coming faster and faster. Kent State, The Stonewall Riots, Woodstock, The War Measures Act for us Canadians, the Pentagon Papers, the Yom Kippur War. Chaos. Freedom. War.
But it was Watergate and the defeat of America in Southeast Asia that sealed the deal. From Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s first article on August 1, 1972 to Richard Nixon’s ignominious departure just over two years later, and the equally ignominious fall of first Phnom Penh and then Saigon in April 1975, my high school years were framed by the obsessive consumption of the reporting of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Cokie Roberts, Seymour Hersch, David Brinkley, Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl and so many others.
I do recall being inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, fearing even that they might be killed for their reporting. But it was watching Peter Arnett, Martin Bell, Canada’s own Morley Safer and scores of other reporters from around the world, who ,on the frontlines, covered the Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill and My Lai and so much more for those of us at home. Their courage brought the reality of modern war waged without popular support into our living rooms. 63 paid with their lives.
It's funny the decisions we make. My consumption of news led me to conclude, after considering a career in journalism, that I’d rather be a news-maker than a news reporter. The funny part is that I proved to be neither, and went about the life that I made.
Fast forward to today. Day 21 of the war in Ukraine, with two realities confronting us.
One, the defeat of independent media in Russia has turned the Russian people into “zombies” according to the courageous Russian news editor who waved a placard on live television for six seconds that changed her life forever. Theses zombies have thus far given their implied permission for Putin to wage his war of ego and avarice, only just now starting to realize that it is they who are paying the butchers bill with the blood of their sons, their brothers and their fathers, all now complicit in the attempted eradication of their Ukrainian kindred.
The second is that there is a related war in the west, where the battlefield is ephemeral but no less vital, and the weapons are truth and information. In the democracies, a too-small majority of our populations are turning to the so called mainstream media for their real-time, all the time, doom scrolling. The remainder are turning to perversely, an anti-media media eco-system that symbiotically parrots the talking points of the Kremlin. It’s worth noting that best-selling New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has also labelled these citizen’s “zombies”.
There is talk now of a digital iron curtain settling around Russia as it disconnects in every literal sense from the world. I submit that that iron curtain has been in the making for decades, with a great many hands complicit in its making. The coalition of ignorance that feeds and entertains the zombies from San Francisco to Vladivostok share a fear of the future and a fetishization of the past.
As past guest Mike Wittenstein noted, the consumer marketing practices of the past six decades at least, desensitized western consumer electors to the use of weaponized words. As Stephen Hurley noted, our education systems failed to instil in our electors the critical thinking skills that are in fact the first and principal competency expected of them. Olga Lautman then described how bad actors, but especially Russia, exploited the consequent vulnerabilities in the democracies by applying the tools and lessons of their zombification efforts at home. Hence Tucker Carlson’s, Alex Jone’s and Marjorie Taylor Green’s parroting of Vladimir Putin.
That an existential deficiency in the western media model enabled and amplified these challenges to democracy is clear to everyone. Less than four of ten Americans trust the fifth estate a “great deal” or a “fair amount” according to the most recent Pew research.
There is a no more relevant or expert voice to detail that deficiency than long-time White House reporter Brian Karem, author of the current best selling book Free the Press: The Death Of American Journalism And How To Revive It. He has worked in both newspaper and television as an investigative journalist covering politics, crime, war, refugee and immigration issues, and state and local news. He is the recipient of the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Award, as well as the prestigious Pieringer Award. He served as White House correspondent for Playboy, and retains a seat there still as a freelance reporter. Brian also launched the popular podcast Just Ask the Question in 2018.
Thanks for joining us today, Brian.
Thanks for having me, Bob. Good to be here.
We're having this conversation to talk about your, and your point of view with respect to journalism. But we have to say that today we're doing this within the context of what's going on in Ukraine, and all the escalating tensions around that.
You wrote something interesting in Salon the other day that I thought sets up this whole discussion. So, I'm just going to read something that you wrote, that is, “Biden is grappling with serious issues, and our media are awash and pontificating, pompous peacocks of pallor, cackling like hens and more interested in the sound of their own voices than the gravity of the matters at hand”. You go on to say “no matter how much the Biden administration talks or doesn't talk, many of us in the press just don't get it. Donald Trump didn't care what we thought and blasted out his venom with the ease of a meth-addled preacher on steroids, calling the entire media the enemy of the people, while also relying on it to spread his larcenous lies. Today, the stakes have never been higher, and the potential outcome never more severe. And unfortunately, we don't get it”.
Within that context, what is your big idea? What's your thesis?
My big idea is that we need to bust up media monopolies and restore some of the guidelines and guardrails that made the press, guaranteed its independence, and at the same time, guarantee that it held our leaders their feet to the fire, and we were able to speak truth to power, which we don't do much of today.
You've been a White House correspondent since I think, 1986. That gives you a perspective that's certainly unique. Draw on that perspective, and how it ties to this issue - a broken media model. That's obviously the result of a lot of years of thinking and looking at this. So connect the dots for us.
The first day I walked into the White House press briefing room, I met Helen Thomas. And Helen was my mentor, as was Sam Donaldson. And I remember Sam telling me, as I stood there on that first day, “you look at that first row in the Brady Briefing Room, and there's probably 200 or more years of experience among those people.” And then he pointed at Helen and said, “she's got about 195 of it.” And she said something smart to him, and he said, “hey, Helen, it's okay to have an unexpressed thought” and she said, “Sam, when it comes to you, you have a lot of unexpressed thoughts,” and I knew I was where I wanted to be at that moment. He said, “listen, you learn from all of them, listen to them, ask them questions, learn from all of them.” Today in that first row of the Brady Briefing Room, if there's, I don't know, 50 years of experience, we'd be lucky. The institutional knowledge that we once had, we no longer have, and that's because large businesses have been trying to increase the bottom line, their bottom line, by not investing in the product over the last 40 years, beginning with Richard Nixon, and more importantly, Ronald Reagan. Every president since then, has destroyed the very foundations of free speech and a free press. So, while you used to need to have three to five years of experience working somewhere before you went anywhere, today we're hiring kids straight out of college to cover the White House. And that's a problem. I had someone walk up to me who asked me all kinds of questions. I said, “so, are you an intern?” And this person said, “No, I'm a senior producer.” I said, “how old are you?” And this person said, “24,” I said, “well, how old's the junior producer? 12?” I mean, there is just a complete lack of understanding of the job that we need to do in the White House.
We ask horrible questions in the briefing room. It's like watching kids at school. It's one of the reasons I refuse to sit down. I will stand up and just look him in the eye. Because I don't look up to these people. I look down on these people. And most of the reporters in there are very content in the belief that they are important, that what they do is important, and that they themselves are important. And the fact of the matter is they're replaceable. Nobody would ever know if they're there or gone.
What comes to mind to me is, it suggests just a profound lack of respect. Clearly, if the media organizations are putting in...
Well, Bob, you can't respect what you don't understand. I mean, most of these kids are too young to understand what they should respect. And they are hired by companies that have no respect. The real issue is, when I first got in that Brady Briefing Room, 80% of what you see, read, or hear, was owned by about two dozen companies. Today, a mere handful, five or six companies, own 90% of what you see, read or hear. So in effect, there are media companies in the United State, operating in the United States, that have more power than some countries do at getting the word out. Which is why we have such an American-centric view of the news, and why we don't really understand what's going on in the Middle East, or the Ukraine and the Ukrainian war, or Donald Trump's schmoozing Vladimir Putin, or the intricate problems of politics in China. We don't get it because we don't get it.
It's terrifying. Explain for the people that don't understand the media industry, when you say the model is broken. Talk about that.
Well, I'm a capitalist, I have a book out. It's called Free the Press, buy it as much as you want, buy as many copies as you want. Buy it early, buy it often. But journalism cannot be tethered to capitalism. When it is, that's the model that's broken, and what the guardrails used to help prevent. When journalism is indistinguishable from capitalism, when it is so tethered and entwined, intermeshed with capitalism, what you end up is news that you want, rather than news that you need, because we are all about supply and demand, we will supply you what you demand. If you're going to blame anybody, of course, you can ultimately blame the viewing and reading public for choosing to stay inside their own comfort zones. They tend to look at news that agrees with their preconceived notions of what things are, rather than opening themselves up to vetted facts that expose them to new experiences and show them how things really are. And we can't provide them the vetted facts when there's no investment in the product, and we're playing to the public that wants stuff that is already in line with what they already believe. It's a Gordian knot that we have yet to be able to untie, and we won't be able to until we break up the media monopolies, invest in local community journalism, institute the Fairness Doctrine in some form or fashion again. And then provide a mechanism, a shield law that shields reporters who are doing real investigative work, from going to jail, so, they can protect confidential sources, which are the source of most good investigative reporting.
How did this come about, how did we get here? How did the voices of people like you stopped being heard?
It's Richard Nixon who began it, because that stain of a man, that cancer on democracy, teamed with Roger Ailes another Satan's fluffer that, who got together and decided that they needed a news that they liked, because Nixon didn't like the fact that he was being vilified in the press for being a crook. He resigned and got out of office before he could do anything about it. But, Ronald Reagan, when he got in office used Roger Ailes. The first thing they did was conspire to remove the Fairness Doctrine, the very basis for televised news. It's like, you can have the airwaves for 23 hours, but for half an hour, 15 minutes in the beginning, then an hour, and it came into effect during the Truman administration in 1949, you had to turn over those public airwaves and provide information to the public.
When they got rid of the Fairness Doctrine, you got rid of real news and that's what gave us Fox News. So, you create informational silos, and people hear the echo effect of what they already believe inside those silos, and never get outside to see, or read, or hear, what anybody else wants, or needs. And so that was the beginning of it. Multiple ownership breaking down, Ronald Reagan gave a pass to his buddy Rupert Murdoch, who owned a newspaper and a television station in Boston, so he could expand his media empire that was supposedly sacrosanct - you can't own television, and newspaper and radio in the same market - they busted many monopolies up for that. And then, during the Telecommunication Act era that dropped the buyouts, and dropped the requirements, for small media mergers, and then created larger media mergers, which is why I Heart Radio owns most of the radio stations in the country, and they provide crap, and their service is horrible.
In the early 1980s, the unions tried to get together to limit newspaper ownership to 20 newspapers or less, and that was killed by the Reagan administration. You have Alden “Vulture” Venture Capital Group who owns several hundred newspapers, and they look at newspapers as a commodity to sell, not as a public service. So, if you own a couple of hundred newspapers, and each one of those has a reporter in the White House or in the statehouse, you go, well, “what do I need more than one for - they can serve all the newspapers.” The independent voices are reduced, the number of reporters is reduced. And so today on this planet, there's two and a half times the number of people on this planet as the day I was born, and half the number of reporters. There's no better indication of what I'm talking about than Laredo, Texas. When I worked there in the early 1980s, there were two daily newspapers in English, and one in Spanish. There were three television stations that did news in English, one in Spanish, a couple of magazines, and three or four radio stations, that all did news. And that was with 100,000 people in that market. 100,000 people and that much media - 150 reporters easily in that market. Today, there's three times the number of people, or 300,000 people in Laredo, and there's one newspaper, one television station, and a handful of reporters. That is the problem in a nutshell.
The world has not gotten less complicated. The interesting thing is how all of this happened in the context of the evolution of the Republican Party, and it's not to put all of it on Republicans, but...
... no, Democrats are I mean, the Telecommunications Act was passed during Clinton, every president and I mean, every president since Ronald Reagan has contributed to the demise, and that includes Obama, who used the Espionage Act eight times to go after whistleblowers - unprecedented in the history of America. It includes Clinton who passed, who signed the Telecommunication Act. It was Bush who brought us the Patriot Act. Now we get spied upon, and they don't even have to tell you that they're looking at your private records. They just do it. The Patriot Act was a response to 911 and was created by a bunch of bills that had died because they were crap in the Senate, and in the House, and they just revived them because they wanted to show they were doing something against terrorism.
It's a lack of thought, it's malice aforethought, it's premeditated, and big business has been right there with them because they accumulate more power and money by doing it. The first time I was told this was at a newspaper I worked at, and they said, “we're computerizing the newsroom, so that'll save us money. And we won't need as many workers in post-up,” and so I say, “great, are you going to put it back into the product and give us more reporters?” Their response? “What? No.”
So, there's always fewer and fewer reporters. And today, journalism is nothing more than a brand-new Cadillac without an engine.
You wrote the book, at the conclusion of the Trump presidency. How did those four or five years frame your thinking around this?
Well, it was watching the changeover of reporters, the fact that in calling truth to power, we were accused of being self-serving just for doing our jobs. I watched the constriction and saw the fact that there were very few of us left with any experience in that briefing room covering the President. Today many people believe that covering the President merely means showing up at briefings and asking questions of the Press Secretary. And that's not how you cover a President. In fact, I didn't sign up to cover a Press Secretary. They did not get elected. It's the President who got elected. He's the one that's accountable to the people, and he's the one that we need to see and hear from. But there are plenty of people that are happy with not seeing or hearing from the President. There are a lot of people who don't understand what it is that we do. And that includes many people who are in the profession.
Clearly, too many people within the profession...
Yeah, don't get me started.
Well, let's get you started, to the extent that you can talk about it.
Well, if you have people in the in the press briefing room, and they're asking questions about the current situation in Europe and asking, “does this mean we're going to have a permanent presence of troops in Europe?” And they don't understand that we've had that since World War Two? That's a problem. If you have a moron in the press briefing room asking, “do you think this will lead to war,” and there is a war already going on? That's a problem. If you have people who asked 10 or 12 questions, and repeat each other without ever pressing the issue forward, but do so so they can be seen on camera asking a question, so that when they go to do their stand-up, they are seen in their piece asking a question so they look important, that's a problem. When you have people who don't understand nuance of policy, that's a problem. If you have people who are more worried about access, and being on Air Force One, and being in the room with a President rather than actually covering the President, that's a problem.
And there are people who will kiss ass in order to do that, and they don't deserve - they shouldn't be there. We're more worried about the dance between Jen Psaki and Fox and Doocy, rather than understanding that they're both just playing to their crowd. The people who love Jen get to say, “wow, she really stuffed him.” And then the people who love Fox say, “wow, he really stuffed her,” and no one is served. There's no one who listens. There's no one who asks a good follow up question. In the recent briefings I've been in, and I'm still there once or twice a week, even with COVID restrictions, most of the time, there's one, maybe two good questions. And usually, they're from people like Reuters, Steve Holland, who's been there forever and understands nuance, and understands what the Cold War was.
So, you want to get me started. There are children there, actually kids my kids age, in that briefing room, who had absolutely no experience as a reporter before they got into the White House. They think they know everything. And I want to send them to bed without their dinner, because they are absolutely the worst that I have ever seen in the briefing room. And I can say that after 37 years of covering this, this is the absolute lowest I've ever seen the Press Corps in the White House. That being said, I will defend everybody's ability to be there, even the nutbars, they should all be there. When I started out, I worked in community journalism, I covered city council meetings, I covered PTA meetings, I covered high school sports. I got to build sources. I know how to go into a county clerk's office and dig up public information. There are kids today that go into that briefing room who have no clue. They just want to get their seat on Air Force One. “I'm important.” Well, guess what? I've been on Air Force One, and the first time it's pretty cool, the food is always great. But at the end of the day, you're still on the ass end of an aircraft. They come and feed you garbage, like you're a mushroom, stick you in the dark and feed you a lot of crap. And then you get to walk past the roaring jet engine. What is that? Who cares? I can't for the life of me, I mean, it's annoying to even be there. Actually, I'm sure I annoy them.
And clearly, you annoyed Mr. Trump. Should all ‘the nutbars’ be there?
I don’t care if the nutbars are there. There have always been nutbars there. There was a guy who was a defrocked minister, I always forget his name, but he was a Presbyterian defrocked minister who was in the White House for a long time. And he'd stand in the back, and occasionally he'd be called on, and he would ask questions about Bigfoot and Area 51. One of my favorite times is when Mike McCurry came out with his big Briefing Book and he called on the guy, who asked “Is it true that you have this alien from the Andromeda Galaxy holed up in Area 51?” McCurry had his big Briefing Book, and he just thumbed through the pages, he's looking like he's going through the pages, and the guy goes, “Mike, Mike, Mike” and Mike says, “hold on, hold on,” and keeps thumbing through the pages. So finally, Mike finds a page and says, “no,” and then continues to the next question. Afterwards, people asked him, “why did you call on that guy? And he said, “because he makes the rest of you look like idiots.”
Today, we all look like idiots. When you start saying ‘no’ to people being there, people want to know why, and then that gives them fuel. What you should do is invite them there and be selective when you call on them. You know what they're going to ask – usually it's going to be something out of left field. I’ve got news for you, most reporters don't really care if they get a question. They're in the White House. Yay! They're happy with that. And most of these small organizations that otherwise have no voice are at the table, and have one, and everyone needs to have a voice. You don't have to call on them. But you shouldn't restrict them from being there.
Our last podcast guest, Olga Lautman was talking about disinformation. She was focused on Russia's role, but clearly the world of journalism that you're describing is not only allowing the insinuation of incredible amounts of disinformation but are amplifying it. Can you talk about that for a bit?
There's a difference between disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is the willful manipulation of news, the ‘alternative facts’ that the Kellyanne Conway’s of the world believe that they can create facts out of thin air. Then, there are those who are engaged in misinformation. They don't know any better and believe this information and spread it. We have a problem with both. How you deal with one will help you deal with the other. With disinformation, you fact check and you call it into question, you point out facts, and you point out where the vetted facts are.
Now, you're not going to convince everyone. COVID vaccinations for example. Or the idiot who thinks that the aliens from the Andromeda galaxy are lizards, and have skin suits, and are actually running the government out of the basement of a pizza place in Washington DC, and dealing in human trafficking and drinking children's blood. Okay, they're gone. You're not going to convince them. But the average person who's sitting at home and is confused, and let's face it, there's a lot of confusion in the news today because of disinformation, if you give them the methods by which to verify facts, you'll get some of them back into the fold and so you'll reduce misinformation by destroying disinformation. And that's what we have to do. We don't do that very well, in the mainstream media, we don't do it well at all.
That's because again, we don't have the experience or the knowledge to do it. If you've got a reporter asking you a stupid question about the presence of troops in Europe, and doesn't understand the history of that, or even the Cold War... I had a reporter, honest to God, I had a reporter say, “Brian, I don't think we can win a nuclear war against Russia.” And I looked at him and I said, “idiot, nobody wins a nuclear war. It's called Mutually Assured Destruction. You launch, we launch, game over, insert new quarter,” and you know, there'll be six people up in the International Space Station asking “what was that boom,” and having no home to come to. That's what will happen to the human population of this planet should we engage in a nuclear war. And there are people who don't even understand that...
That is one of the most terrifying things for me of the last few weeks. It’s as if there is no history, and World War Two and the Cold War weren’t fought, and concepts like Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence strategy didn’t exist. It's like they're discovering their hand for the first time.
It’s like I said, yeah, you're right. It's like my kids. When you have a new infant, they discover their hands. Like three months old, they go, “wow, I didn’t know those existed”. That's what some of the reporters are doing. But by God, they look good in their Gucci loafers!
Well clearly, this is existential, there are a lot of existential challenges...
I have maintained, it's not an existential challenge. It's an honest to God in-real-life-challenge. Existential implies that it's a thought problem. But this is an actual threat against life on the planet. We're a problem, and a part of the problem.
The reality is, it's hard to imagine...
I like reality, by the way.
I think polls right now show that 41% of people ‘like’ reality.
There was a reporter on a well-known network, not a reporter, but a pundit, a well-known name, generally respected. And he talked last week about how disappointing it was, that in this time of crisis, America was so divided. I wanted to reach out and strangle him because it's not an accident. I mean, all of this is connected. The Russians have been involved in undermining and amplifying divisions, and there's domestic actors that are involved in that, lots of people have a hand in it. You really have to wonder if Putin would have made the calculation, for example, with a less divided America, would he have done what he has done? It's a good argument to say he probably wouldn't have done it, because ...
I would say this much, social media has actually stepped up in this last two weeks. And it shows the potential, the real potential for social media.
There is, for example, the Pulitzer Prize that was given to a citizen journalist who recorded the cop kneeing George Floyd. That was an example of an act of journalism by someone other than a journalist. I don’t know if Hitler could have gone as far as he went in the 1940s. Today with social media, because we've defrocked the propaganda, we've actually cut its legs out from underneath it. And the President of the United States did that as well, by being, always it seemed, three or four days ahead, knew exactly where Putin was going, knew exactly what he was going to do. And so we were able to undermine and undercut the propaganda. He's telling people “they're welcoming us with open arms” and, “people that speak Russian in Ukraine are being fought against, and being discriminated against.” All of that was BS. And you were able to see a lot of that because of social media, a very powerful force in this war, which helped the rest of the world side with Ukraine.
Here's reality, folks. This is a peaceful country being invaded for no reason, by a megalomaniac who wants to reinstitute the Soviet Union, which was lost at the end of the Cold War. And now you got Moldova and Georgia saying “hello, we’d like to join the EU. Help”. They're going to be next. And that's why it's a very frightening situation as well. Because if one Russian boot steps foot in Poland, it's all over. And that's the main supply route right now to Ukraine, through Poland. All that humanitarian aid, all the military aid, the main supply route is through Poland. And if Putin gets it up his twisted arse that he wants to make them pay... Folks, you know, there's someone who already said, we're already in World War III. If this escalates any further, this is potentially the end of human civilization. It's that dire. And people want to shake their heads at it and say, “oh no, you're over speaking. You're being dramatic.” No, I'm being realistic.
I couldn't agree more, I think that's exactly where we are. A lot of the young people that I know, you know I have a 31-year-old daughter, so her peers, wanted to get into journalism. For most it proved very, very difficult to get into conventional journalism, to get a job at a newspaper - as you point out, those jobs just don't exist. So many of these young people have started newsletters and podcasts, and I'm struck by the passion of what they do, but I don't see any of the checks and balances, any of the peer support environments in which they're mentored and developed. What are your thoughts on that?
There's a part of my book that goes over that. I tried to give guidelines for young journalists, to give them an idea of what you have to be, to be a real journalist. You need those checks and balances. And by the way, you need a newsroom. Because a lot of ideas bouncing around in the newsroom are very important, it's a group think experience and you can't do it by yourself. To be a journalist, you need to at least have a copy editor who's going to look at your copy and say, “well, that's bullshit. Verify this fact, or no, that's not right,” and the commonalities of AP style that allows us to communicate more fluidly and better with each other, need to be adhered to. You can't do that in an environment where you're a blogger. I'm not against them, I'm for them. But they’re not journalists. That's not journalism.
I have mentored many young journalists who come up to me and say, “well, this is what I think.” And I always tell them “I don't give a shit what you think, I barely care what I think. What do you know? What have you vetted as fact? And how do you vet a fact?” And you guide them through that process and teach them where to go to find information and to develop sources. You need hands on experience, you need hands on interaction with people. You need to see them in the face, you need to learn how to read their body language, you need to see what you can't see on TV.
I know how to read upside down, I see an upside-down piece of newspaper on a desk or a memo, which is how I got one of my very first big scoops. It was when Kiki Camarena disappeared in Mexico, a DEA agent who was killed by drug dealers. I got one of the very first stories. I broke that he was missing because I was in a police chief's office, and while I was talking to him I saw a memo, that said “eyes only” so I say, “well, I better put my eyes on it then.” It was upside down, but I could read it, and then I cracked the story.
You've got to be able to do that, you've got to be able to get in front of people. An insatiable amount of curiosity has always brought people to this business, but the inability to pay them, and to treat them decently has chased them out of the business. I saw an ad the other day that said “I wanted to be a reporter. But it meant that I had to work weekends, or sometimes I had to be away from my family during holidays. Join us in PR where the revolution in journalism is.” I'm going, what? That's not a revolution in journalism. That's propaganda, that's not journalism. If you want to be in PR, be in PR, but honest to God, we need more journalists, we need more people asking the hard questions, we need more people digging for the right answers, we need people with an insatiable amount of curiosity. It's a bit of a calling. I can't guarantee you're ever going to make a great deal of money doing this, but you get to be in the front row of history, you get to talk with people, and you're the one that holds people accountable. That's a very valuable job to have.
What's disheartening is that when you look at the generations that have been excluded from the newsroom, and are developing economic models where they can write, they're lacking all the attributes you're talking about, the mentorship and the history of people like yourself. But they're also forced into an economic model, where from day one, it's about branding, it's about the revenue model, which as in all things, drives their approach because they are hungry. It winds up being a meaner model. How optimistic are you about the state of journalism right now?
The title of the book is Free The Press: The Death of Journalism and How to Revive It, so I am hopeful. If we have an honest discussion about journalism and how to make it better, we need to put community journalists first. Most national or international stories start out as local stories. There are vast news deserts across this country where there is no local news. There isn't the local newspaper. Revive them, build from the ground up. If you build from the ground up, the rest of it will take care of itself. I'm talking about tax breaks, low interest loans, incentive loans, to small businesses, instead of the large ones, that will help grow community journalism. I know, people will say they're dead. Yeah, they're dead because we killed them. But if you had valuable, salient, information in newspapers, people would still read them.
One of the insidious ways local, state and federal governments have killed local journalism, is by removing public service or public notice ads, the ads that say, “estate sale,” or “auction,” or, “the city council meeting is this Friday.” They put those on government websites now, taking them off of newspapers. And that's a huge problem, because it used to be that your local salesman, your lawyers, etc., would look at those ads and say, “so and so got a raise, or so and so died, or this is an estate sale.” They would find customers, it helped build communities.
You and I may disagree at a national level, on what is important politically, but everybody wants clean water, clean air, they want to make sure the electricity is on, “and by the way, down the street, what's up with that traffic light?” All that stuff is covered in local community newspapers, they build communities. And newspapers are different than online, you can't replicate what you get in a newspaper online. Online, it's a hard target search. You look for “What did Bob Westrope say today about politics” and you go to that, but you can't see what's in sports, you can't see what's in the comics or local news or what's on the front page, which is what you get with newspapers, and that's why you need them. And until we get that back, and invest in them, we're in trouble.
I live in a small community, which very unusually, is serviced by a decent weekly newspaper. And what's really interesting about it is, having moved from a city to a smaller community, is how talked about that local newspaper is.
If we had 100, or 1,000, or 10,000 people listening to this, that have the experience, the connections and resources - BoomXer’s - and they were passionate about changing the face of journalism as you suggest, what are the specific things you suggest that need doing. You've listed them all in your book, but you can touch on them here?
Well, I would say number one, bust up the media monopolies. You've got to use existing antitrust legislation to break down the ownership and increase the viability of journalism, which I maintain will happen if you do so. As Ben Bagdikian of The Washington Post said, if you want real diversity in news, you have to have diversity of ownership. There are six boards of directors that govern most of what you see, read, or hear. And I guarantee you that most of them are old white guys. And none of them are ‘liberally’ biased. They're all biased towards money. So you got to take that out, that’s the only way to do it. And reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine or some form of it that's applicable over the internet as well. Put minds together to figure out how to do it. Then introduce a shield law, so reporters don't go to jail when they have confidential sources. And finally, back community journalists with a variety of nonprofit models and with tax breaks. Here's an idea, what if you gave people $100 back on their income tax if they subscribe to a local newspaper - that would be a big incentive. Viability for newspapers.
All of it can be done, it's putting the minds together and getting them in the same room to talk about it. Then after that, a strict adherence to standards. There are newspapers today that don't have copy editors, they just post it online, and then copy edit it afterwards. Quit with the idea that you have to be first. The person with a cell phone at the scene of the crime is going to be able to live stream this shit way before you can roll your live truck or get your reporter there. They're already there. That's why they've been so effective in Ukraine, because they're there. They don't have to call a newsroom to get there – they’re there! They have the ability to let people know what's going on. Quit worrying about being first, start worrying about being accurate. And make sure you vet your facts. That's your value. It's so skewed to say that we were the first on the scene. “We were the first there.” So what, “you're an idiot, and you got it wrong.” The reason CNN became popular is because they were already there. When the shuttle blew up, they were there. They didn't come afterwards, like everybody else, they broadcast it live. That's the only time that you're going to be valuable for being there first. Otherwise, you better find out what's going on. A huge part of it is adherence to standards of journalism, instead of standards of me first, and clickbait.
I was just thinking about my media consumption of the last two weeks and how, probably like a lot of people, I've been watching CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other groups on the broadcast side, but any of the analysis that I look for, I'm looking in Salon, New York Times, Vanity Fair or The Atlantic, looking for written pieces, some thought, some analysis. What am I supposed to do with this vomiting of information that you get on the cable news side?
To your point, the President came out the other night with the State of the Union address. There was pontificating from pundits before, and pontificating afterwards, telling me what to think on what I just saw? “You know less about what's going on than I do, why am I going to listen to you? Fuck off.” That's when the value for reporters is just merely showing us what's going on. I don't need your opinion there. It's hard to instantly give you an opinion on anything. You need to go back and listen to what was said, read what was said, evaluate the news. And so, like you said, the best opinion pieces, and analysis pieces take more than five minutes to put together. That's why I read those. I don't listen to the pundits on TV. They're in real time, just knee jerk reacting to what's going on, without going through the facts, vetting those facts, and putting the pieces together. No one is that quick. God bless you. If you are, you'd win Pulitzer after Pulitzer. Maybe you'll get a Nobel Prize, but the rest of us are mere human. And so it's what happens. We're so hyper inflated in our news cycle two days later that we say “oh, that's old news.” No, the end of the world is still current. So let's try and deal with that.
Until we've actually ended, the end of the world stories are still relevant.
Nobody will care.
Breaking up the media monopolies. I think about the case here in Canada and in the UK, where we have a significant public broadcaster. I would have to say, certainly in the case of the CBC in Canada, it's under fierce criticism right now in the wake of the trucker protests, for representing a view that challenged the truckers and their motives, where they came from, and suggested that maybe American and Russian money was flowing in to support the truckers. It's drawn vehement reaction from many groups that want to defund the public media. So, the non-profit model...
You need the non-profit model. You need it.
I agree, but going after the monopolies - where are the allies for that? As you look at the landscape right now, who's going to be the one to lead that charge? Aside from you?
Good question. I'm looking for confederates in this fight. There's been some in Congress - some of these pieces are easy enough. Bernie Sanders would probably agree with breaking up the media monopolies, and has said as much in the past, so he'd be the guy that would do that. Number two? Well, Jamie Raskin and Jim Jordan together, co-sponsored a shield law that died. There's bipartisan support for that. Reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine, and getting some of that done, has had some interest over the years. But again, it's getting people to rally behind it, and to understand the importance of it. We are too busy chasing the news of the day to understand that the news of today is a problem, because we don't have the resources we need, or the scope of experience that is required. And many of the problems that we face in this country, the divisiveness, is all fed by our communication. Politics used to be the method by which we solved our problems together, that we agreed on - we all want to go in this direction. Now, somebody thinks you should tack left, somebody thinks you should tack right. But together, politics was the method by which we solved the problem to get where we wanted to go. The language that we used was journalism. When the language is corrupt, it divides the public, and then the politics doesn't work, which is shockingly where we are now. So, if you want to fix one problem, you’ve got to fix the other. You got to start with communication. We have to be able to understand each other. We have to be able to deal from vetted facts. When we don't, it only benefits those whose real interests are narcissistic or greedy or power hungry in nature.
You used the word Gordian some time ago, there's this Gordian knot. Five or six major initiatives or elements to that Gordian knot. They're all interconnected. It strikes me that in this capitalist world we live in, if there was $100 million on the table, and a five year time frame for a bunch of people like you to implement the transformation you describe - that doesn't strike me as a completely lunatic thought.
No, it isn't. And here's the thing that people should realize, and I point this out in the book as well. We are really an imitative society. No one pointed that out better than Edward R. Murrow speaking before the Radio, Television and Newspaper News Directors Association in 1958, as their keynote speaker, when he said, “if we don't solve this problem soon, we will be reduced to doing nothing more than propaganda and slogans.” Hello, that's where we are today! But he also said, if one person stepped forward, we are such an imitative society that if one person stepped forward and was successful, then that would breed others who would do it. We haven't had anybody with the bravery to do it yet. So, $100 million, I'm only asking for 20 to start a network that would do this. So yeah, $100 million, would go a long way to solving the problem.
It's amazing that very few people would disagree - on either side - that there’s a lack of a trusted information intermediary. We're simply not agreeing on things. I've used the word existential; you don't like that. So we'll call it a great big honking challenge, one blocking just about everything else. But with your book we can say, here's a really good starting point – there are great solutions here. They don't need to be the perfect answers. They don't need to be the only answers, but they're a really good starting point. It's about money. And to your point, the people lining up behind you to say, “I want to be part of that challenge”. It's not an impossible challenge. It's something that can be done. And it's something that can be done in the next five to 10 years. It's absurdly silly that it's not happening yet, but we have to make it happen.
Well, I’m doing my damndest!
You sure are. I had looked at your 12 points for new journalists; it's sad that we need a cheat sheet for White House Correspondents, that they have laminated and are using to ask questions of the President. But if we do all what you propose, can you imagine a world where we can effectively deal with the divisions that we're seeing?
I will widen the scope to include Canada and the rest of the world. It's not just America that's a vastly imitative society, it's the world. After Donald Trump came out, how many people started imitating that SOB? If something good came along, that people could get behind, I think that would be far more imitative. And I think far more, we catch on far better, appealing to the best of human nature, rather than appealing to the worst of human nature. And in being a journalist, I'm appealing to those who want to do the job correctly - the best. You're not wrong, there is an existential challenge. But this goes beyond existentialism, this is dealing pragmatically, dealing with life every day. Some of this isn't new. Bagdikian has pushed it, HL Mencken pushed it, we have had problems in the press since the press began. We used to be tethered to the local politician. In fact, during the revolution, each party or each candidate had its own newspaper that printed its cheat sheets. And that was what newspapers were. Only when we divorced ourselves from politicians in order to get advertising, so we were bound to advertisers instead of newspapers, the so-called sacred cows quit being politicians, and we opened up our coverage to more than politics. It was spot news, it was sports, and nothing, nothing revolutionized news more than the advent of radio, not television, not the internet, nothing. It was radio that hyper inflated the news cycle, that gave us the opportunity to see what it was that journalism could do. That's reflected in Ukraine today. There is a chance here, and I remain hopeful that it's a good chance, but you've got to get people, you've got to make them aware of what it is that the fight is all about first - first to solve a problem, you have to identify it. And we need to identify the problem. Most politicians have no clue. Most people have no clue.
Everyone knows there's something wrong with journalism. You ask people on the right or left, they say “this is screwed. “People on the right say “it's because of all these liberals”, and the people on the left say “it’s because of all these righties.” No, it’s because people are trying to make money off of your opinion. That's the problem. People say, “I know what the problem is,” and I say, “look, I've worked 40 years in this business. I think I have a better handle on it than the guy who just watched a YouTube video.” To me, it's annoying as hell. Would you walk into an operating theater and tell a brain surgeon “I know you've had 30 year’s experience doing this, but I just saw a video on YouTube, and you're doing it wrong.” I mean, there's a level of Hell I don't want to go to and that's the level of Hell, where some guy with a YouTube video lectures me on what I've known for 40 years. It's counterintuitive for some people to understand this, but this is business. And big business and government have conspired to screw you. So, back to your original point, if we got to a point where people could get real news, and vetted news, and trust that news, that would spread not just through the US but carry across the world.
That's been a fascinating, almost hour, now. Last question. What would you like your epitaph to be?
I don't want an epitaph. I want to live forever.
I can live with that! I’ll try again. I said when we first met that you're a freedom fighter. Sam Donaldson was a mentor - one of the good guys - as you would put it. Who are the other good guys out there?
I think my peers will have to be judged by history. I don't think I should judge the people I currently work with, but as far as mentors and people that I think were important to journalism, Sam, Helen, Walter Cronkite, HL Mencken, to some extent Hunter Thompson, Tom Brokaw. Those are people that, put things on the edge and went out and did the extra work. Now, Hunter was, I don't think anybody should do as many drugs as he did. Walter Cronkite was hugely invested in people. People say, “Gosh, why can't we have a Walter Cronkite today?” There's no one. There's no one in journalism today with the gravitas of a Walter Cronkite now. And the reason why Walter Cronkite is important, he did it in I think 1965, he did the Vietnam documentary at the end of which he said it's “obvious in this reporters opinion that we cannot win the war and that we have to negotiate.” And that's when LBJ decided, “well fuck it. I'm not running for office, I lost Middle America.” There's a reason why we trusted Walter, it's the same reason we don't trust news today. Walter Cronkite covered World War II. He started as a beat reporter in radio. He knew what it was to have to go and dig for the news. And he vetted his facts. He was honest in his opinions, and he didn't care whether they were Democrats or Republicans. He gave you an honest opinion. And he was honest in his evaluations. He had opinions, and he let you know them. But he also covered the news and vetted facts that we could all agree upon. We don't have that today. And that's what we need today. Those who know how to vet facts. HL Mencken pointed out in the 1920s, the problems with chain store journalism, and the need for independent journalists - that has not changed in 100 years, it's only gotten worse.
Helen Thomas is the reason why my podcast is entitled Just Ask the Question, because that's one of the very first pieces of advice Helen gave me. She said, Brian, it doesn't matter if they answer it. It doesn't matter what the answer is. Don't be afraid, just ask the question. Because then they cannot deny that it's been put before them. And it's in the public arena. And then it was Sam, who said I’ll teach you how to yell so you can get the question heard. Sam Donaldson was as courageous as a man who ever stood in the White House briefing room and did not hesitate to ask the tough question. You cannot hesitate to ask them the tough question. You have the experience to formulate the question, so it isn't a “gotcha.” But you need to have the nuance of style to do it, and the deftness, and the bravery, which is what Sam had. So those people mean a lot to me. Ben Bagdikian is the light and torch of journalism. Without him, I don't know that I would have been a reporter. I think he was one of my guiding lights in wanting to be a reporter when I was younger, because of the Pentagon Papers. I admire and I wish there were more of that today.
Wow. That was quite the interview, with lot’s to chew on.
Here's my take-aways.
Simply put, Brian’s Big Idea is that the democratic media model is broken. He makes that manifestly obvious. It’s mind boggling to even consider the possibility that there are “morons” in the White House briefing room, with one of the most veteran reporters lamenting that the gene pool of his peers is the “absolute worst” that it’s been in his 37 years there.
I had assumed that the number one journalistic beat in the world would draw the A Team. It’s disconcerting in the extreme to learn that it does not. His reasons as to the how and the why, though focused on the US instance, have broad application across the democracies. Monopoly business models have been especially eviscerating with respect to the media, and governments have relaxed too much the protections that allowed for the media to be amongst the least respected of institutions.
This degrading of the fifth estate has been going on for decades, with governments of all sides culpable in that diminishment. That was a bit hard for this former right-of-centre, now left-of-centre observer to accept, but in the face of his argument, accept it I do.
What resonated tremendously with me was the inexperienced naivete that he described that is evident in the current coverage of the Ukraine war, which evidences a pervasive lack of understanding of history or basic military operations – of, as he frames it, context and nuance. Neither are possible without formative experience and purposeful development, and the wisdom that over time, follows. A lack of incredulity, of guilelessness is accepted rather than the challenging curiosity that is demanded.
It also resonated that he did not release the citizen, the consumer of media, from the social contract. Their job, our job is to have the critical skills to have a decent ability to sift something close to the truth from something that is obviously bull shit. We demand and reward journalism as entertainment, what we used to call infotainment ‘in the day’, an insidious exploitive process that sucks and pulls us down siloized rabbit holes of ours - and others - making. We demand shorter and shorter treatments of problems and challenges that are getting all the time larger, and exponentially more complex. It defies social physics. We abhor clickbait but allow ourselves to be caught every day. We distrust social media more than any other while spending an average of 35 days of our lives each year - using.
The media’s role is to inform, and to provide the scaffolding of context for the information that is conveyed. That governments have failed to appreciate that elemental fact and therefore protect the institution means that like most institutions of our time, they are increasingly outdated, obsolescent.
The dual crises of COVID and war have served to remind us that the media – as the conveyors of objective, expertly curated, standards-based truth - are an essential service, an existentially vital service. Yet, increasingly even in Canada and the UK, we leave this foundational institution to the vagaries of the marketplace. And just as a predator can purposefully – if legally – assemble a monopoly position in a market, predators have purposefully – and legally – assembled information exploitation monopolies that produce the fodder for zombies.
Brian’s message – and call to action - is clear. The model has to change. We need a new media model, and we need it now. And he offers a clear set of ‘must do’s’. I’ll address just three here of the many that he details in his book, leaving the first for last.
Let’s start with the Fairness Doctrine. By releasing the media of their responsibility to play the elemental societal role intended of them, of removing the guardrails, the conditions were set that has led us to a world of fake news, deep fakes and memes instead of facts. We must revisit the regulatory environment for both old and new media and discard the dangerously silly notion that the means of conveyance warrants separate and distinct treatment. The nature of that regulation must recognize the power of the commodity truth in the 21st century, and in fact protect and nurture the qualities and mechanisms needed for the conveyance of truth-to-power and truth-to-people, and not, never, propaganda. A tall order to be sure.
It follows then that the consequent protections for this essential service need to be spelled out, including as Brian notes, the freedoms that investigative journalists need to investigate – such as, but not confined to, shield laws. The challenge of course is to do so in the new realities of information warfare and the security laws that are being employed and developed to protect our society’s from both foreign and domestic threats. An even taller order.
Finally, the tallest order. The breaking up of media monopolies and devising what replaces them.
I must confess, I struggle with the concept of breaking up the existing structures. Not from an ethical or philosophical position, but rather a strictly pragmatic one. But I’m all for an active effort to push back on, or at least limit or mitigate these models and thus explore all options to do so. His suggestion to explore ways to nurture and support new, local small-business properties through tax incentives and legislative protections is especially of interest.
But it’s his thesis that we need at the heart of our societies non-profit media held to standards based, self-accountable reporting, and with a nurturing regulatory environment supporting this new eco-system, that resonates most with me. It’s a seductive thought that such a powerful new, innovative complement to the media marketplace could provide a new home, and training regimen for young journalist’s starting out. In the imitative world that Brian describes, these new, agile and effective newsrooms, real or virtual, would provide the example that more and more within the eco-system would emulate.
If the transformation of the media model is an urgent, visceral, existential need, how then do we make it real? Make it happen? Brian’s response was that that was a good question. But I submit, that’s not good enough.
I asked him if he thought 100, 1,000 or 10,000 BoomXer’s could make a concerted effort over five years to run with his ideas to architect and execute a strategy to effect this transformation. Was it realistic, or silly? He thought it quite doable. When I offered him $100 million in fictitious fiat, he responded that only needs $20 million.
Think of what those words mean. A subject matter expert has a roadmap based on 37 years of experience, from the sports desk in Conroe Texas, to the White House Briefing Room. If you’ve made it this far, you almost certainly agree that humanity’s prospects are dimmed almost to darkness if our media are not reinvented and avoid the fate of Orwell’s Russia. And we’ve been told that if we “just put our minds together”, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 of us and ‘just’ $20 million could substantively address the big idea and the call to action he describes - in just five years.
So why the fuck aren’t we doing it? Like all of the other podcasts in this series, an existential solution exists that is on the face of it, practical and doable. All that is required, as my former CTO kept reminding me, is time and money.
I have argued that we must assume that we have just 10 years to manage our way through not only the issue presented today by Brian, but all of the pressing challenges facing us, from climate change to income inequality. And I have argued we have the tested roadmap to scale the solution – the civic movement – needed to architect and execute the transformation of media, while successfully addressing all the existential issues that demand our attention. That roadmap is to be found in the work of Leaders Expedition, the four-year journey where nearly 1,000 members, from over 35 countries, invested 20,000 hours of time their time to the project.
While the outbreak of COVID led to the suspension of that work, the BOOM! podcast and livestreams are meant to elevate, leverage and amplify that mission, by provoking actionable discussions, and challenging BoomXers’ especially to facilitating the solutions that result. To use their time, expertise, connections etc. to make possible a new age of wonder.
As you reflect on these days of conflict and tragedy, see through the pessimism and concern that is absolutely warranted, and look through to that world of wonder, that can be, MUST be made real by 2035, and reflect on what you are prepared to do about it. It’s not naive, it’s not a dream, it’s not a fantasy. It can be. Checkout our site at Boombigideas.com and check out our Mission and Core Assumptions tabs at the top. If you’re interested, click on the LEx Archive to see more information on our work at Leaders Expedition.
For the time being, here’s how I’d like you to follow-up on Brian’s call to action.
First, click the ‘follow’ button wherever and however you are accessing this podcast and please share this podcast with as many of your friends, family, peers and colleagues as you can - and ask them to follow us.
Second, please engage in the community discussions on Boombigideas.com or on LinkedIn.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, imagine a world where the fifth estate is once again a trusted, respected source of news, an arbiter that unifies rather than divides, that provides for stability in an ever more complex world – not chaos. And imagine how you and your peers might leverage your years of experience, your time, your connections in a specific, measurable, accountable, relevant effort to reach the industry influencers, C-Suite decision makers, political leaders and other stakeholders needed to transform media by 2035. To join Brian as a confederate in his vital effort.
Let me be frank. My intent with this podcast series is to mobilize a well-funded global civic effort that leverages the learnings of Leaders Expedition. Let’s call this new initiative The Demos Project. My mission here is to find the founding investors/donors who likewise see a world of wonder as possible and within our grasp and are willing to be the first to fund a civic movement with the scale, scope – and power – needed to prevail.
Sometime soon, I hope we will move from discussion and imagination to action - to connecting, empowering and mobilizing our uniquely positioned and powerful BoomXer community to transform the world we have made. Until then please reflect, engage and spread the world.
We broke it. Let’s fix it.