Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

How Much Media Oxygen Will He Get?

All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers or viewers to keep feeding them news from the swamplands of insurgency politics.

Donald Trump is right to note that most in the mainstream press disliked his administration and him personally. After all, he did make a habit of calling the ‘fourth estate’ the “enemy of the people.”  So they eventually repaid the favor after slowly shedding their regard for his version of the Office of the Presidency.  They rarely took their eyes off the unfolding train wreck of his years in office. Now, as his administration stumbles to its last days, a looming question remains about how much coverage the publicity-craving Trump will receive. My fear is that an odd symbiosis will remain. Trump will be suitably outlandish and stoke more coverage, especially from the cable news networks. There is no way President-elect Biden or Vice President-elect Harris can compete with the arrogance and excess that whets news appetites.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.

In 2016 CNN especially treated even minor Trump primary successes as deserving lavish coverage. Jeff Zuckerman’s network at times simply turned over their air to garish displays of  stunning excess: jaw-dropping expressions of self-regard combined with pitches for Trump Steaks and Wine. I remember commenting to my wife after one of these lavish shows that I hoped there where a few fist fights in the New York control room.  At least some producers should have been furious with their network’s apparent inability to cut away to cover anything else.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.  Zuckerman has heard the criticism before and offered the strange, inverted view that “We wanted access and Donald Trump gave it to us.”  It would be more accurate to note that Trump wanted access and CNN fully obliged. All candidates want free media coverage.

This is old news, but also a cautionary tale. All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers, viewers or the nation to keep feeding them stories from the marginal swampland of insurgency politics. Reporters never want to be told what to cover. But I am sure Trump believes he can continue to create spectacular attacks that trigger coverage.  Conflict is a positive news value.

To be sure, Trump was also good for ratings. But there was a time when networks ran their news operations as “loss leaders,” providing a civic service without necessarily expecting a high return from their news divisions. Now, the cable networks live for high numbers. It’s too bad because the parent companies of Fox (Fox Corp.), CNN (AT & T) and MSNBC (Comcast) have deep pockets. The cable news networks would do better journalism without always trying to pack the circus tent.

There is a difference to providing essential information in a civil society and falling for public relations stunts. CNN might check its impulses against more the sober and balanced editing of other mainstream sources like The Associated Press or Vox News. Cable News needs to begin to act on the premise that they can cover more than one or two stories at a time, some even about public policies that actually matter.

The Havana Syndrome Revisited

It would be nice to go back to a simpler time, when the worst sonic disruptions included playing Barry Manilow music to discourage convenience store loitering.

It figures that when human ingenuity and perversity are combined, the gift of hearing can be turned against us. That’s what happens when we use sound technology to attack others. Scare cannons, screeching loudspeakers, flash bombs and deliberately inappropriate music are just some of the forms of sound used to strike out at others.

A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences alleges that someone used sonic guns to beam radio waves into the American embassy in Havana. In early 2017 Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis held a classified briefing raising the possibility that American staffers were being targeted by a sonic device perhaps mounted on a vehicle. Many had real but vague symptoms. Soon after, he took the precaution of asking embassy personnel to sleep in the middle of their rooms and away from windows. Six months later he would order the evacuation of nonemergency staff and families.

Tear gas, rubber bullets and stun guns all leave marks of their effects on flesh or the psyche. But individuals traumatized by sound will exhibit less external evidence that they have been attacked. Yet, as any viewer of science fiction films can attest, it seems plausible that exposure to high frequency energy could inhibit a person’s cognitive capacities. Most disturbing of all, the research done on a selection of Americans and Canadians in Havana confirmed at least some damage to the bones of the middle ear, and to the inner-ear canals that help an individual keep their balance. Several years ago Michael Hoffer, an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami, found these nearly immobilizing effects in some of the 50 embassy staffers, again suggesting the potential for near total incapacitation.


What gives the latest report some credibility is the known history of Russian use of sonic devices.

Skeptics who have since studied the Havana Embassy episode argue that there are reasons for doubt about claims of a sonic attack. Their most convincing argument is that ultra-high frequency waves do not easily penetrate buildings or dense materials. I haven’t read the latest report, but it is possible the radio waves they allege may have been in frequency ranges that could penetrate hard surfaces. The difference is in the length of the waves. Low frequency radio waves easily pass through solid materials, as any listener of AM radio can notice. Shorter waves such as those in the FM band are more easily blocked, which is one reason you may lose a station if you drive your car behind a mountain. This blocking also explains why a microwave oven is relatively safe if the door is properly closed.

Two alternate theories for the sonic attacks in Havana also can’t be dismissed, though seem implausible to some who have looked at the Havana evidence. One is that local crickets are very loud. Some residents in Cuba say their 6000 Hz pitch can literally drive you crazy. Imagine doubling the loudness of the cicadas and crickets we hear in August in the northeast. There is also the social phenomenon of a “collective psychogenic disorder,” where symptoms of one individual begin to trigger perceptions of the same problem in others. If a condition is top of mind, we tend to look for it in ourselves. There are a lot of people seeking Covid-19 tests because they have linked the effects of their winter allergies to the virus.

Ultimately, what gives the latest report some credibility is the known history of the Russians to use sonic devices, a pattern first noticed when the American Embassy in Moscow experienced high energy waves beamed at the building in the 1970s.  But that was primarily for eavesdropping, not trying to inflict brain or nerve damage.

We may never be able to fully reconstruct what happened in 2017. But we can now place instruments in sensitive locations to recognize high levels of microwave radiation. Incidentally, that would probably include standing for an extended period under the broadcast antennas on top of the Empire State Building. It would be nice to go back to a simpler time, when the worst sonic disruptions included playing Barry Manilow music to discourage teen loitering in front of convenience stores.