Barbara and Millie by Al and Marty Sikes

Admiration quickly comes to mind. Barbara Bush was a singular personality and much loved by the public. Inside the walls of the White House, I suspect she was given a wide berth. Her mind was quick and razor sharp and always protective of her husband.

My role in President George H. W. Bush’s administration resulted in periodic visits to the White House, but I was well outside of the day-to-day intrigue. But I have one enjoyable memory best told by my wife, Marty.

We were at the White House for a State Reception for the President of Hungary, Arpad Goncz. As we were going through the receiving line, the President pulled me aside to visit with Hungary’s leader as I was leaving the next day on a diplomatic trip that included Hungary.

As I visited with the Presidents, the line stopped as Marty was face-to-face with Barbara. And now my co-writer continues:

When I realized that I was going to be visiting with Mrs. Bush, I was quickly thinking, what we will visit about! Fortunately, a few days prior to this evening, Al and I had been watching the start of the 1990 World Series game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Oakland Athletics. Mrs. Bush was sitting with the owner of the Reds, Marge Schott, who was known for her controversial behavior. We watched Barbara Bush throw out the first pitch.

As we shook hands, I told Mrs. Bush that Al and I had watched her pitch at the opening game of the World Series. She laughed and then said to me: “You know, of course, they first asked George, but he couldn’t do it, so they asked me. It was actually quite interesting because Marge Schott wanted me to take her dog, Schottzie, with me to the pitcher’s mound and I didn’t want to. Mrs. Schott had been drinking and was very insistent and starting to cause a bit of a scene when I finally thought to tell her, I am so sorry Marge, but I just can’t because Millie (the Bush’s dog – famous for the book Mrs. Bush wrote) loves to watch baseball and is watching the game and will be very jealous.”

Mrs. Bush was so easy to visit with; she put me completely at ease, and I smile every time I tell this story. As we are all aware, she was a very special person – very real and down-to-earth and someone everyone could admire.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

What Price Privacy? By Al Sikes

It was the beginning, 1994. I was in Dallas for a meeting of magazine editors and publishers and met with Jim Clark who was raising capital for a company called Netscape.

Clark had recruited the technology group headed by Marc Andreessen at the University of Illinois. Andreessen and colleagues had invented the first web browser, and Clark was eager to have “content companies” publish on what was then referred to as the World Wide Web.

My job as President of New Media for the Hearst Corporation aligned with what Clark was doing. I was working on digital expressions of what Hearst did so well in the traditional media world.

Hearst invested in Netscape, achieved a very high return on that investment and became a leading “traditional media” company offering digital content.

Netscape had a short-lived run before being bought by AOL. Netscape depended on users purchasing the right to use its browser. Microsoft launched its own browser and, feeling threatened by Netscape, gave it away. Free won, Microsoft blew up Netscape’s business model.

1994 foretold the future of the Internet. In one sense, the unfolding realities in 1994 paralleled George Orwell’s novel 1984. But the developments of 1994 pointed to dominance by a business oligarchy, while Orwell pointed toward an all-pervasive controlling government.

In 1994 newspapers and magazines sold ink on paper for dollars. Today, Facebook and Google sell information, entertainment and social connection for personal information that they convert to targeted advertising inventory.

If I were to write a book, looking back, the title might well be The Seduction of Free. Free search, social connectivity, customer reviews, shipping.

The founders of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, saw the future and with copious amounts of capital delivered it. Each did what it did very well. Now the seduction is over and the morning after is not without regrets.

Rather than speculate about or repeat the lessons of others, my source will be me. One slice of life we all share is health concerns. I have researched cataracts, lower back pain, knee replacement and orthotics over the last few years. Google has a more complete profile of my health concerns than my doctors.

In this Faustian bargain, Google and its peer companies deliver. To use a marketing term: we find ourselves in a sticky relationship. Businesses love sticky relationships–repeat customers are the best. How many of you are leaving your Facebook friends?

Pre-1994 I was in the regulation business (so to speak) as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. This experience compels me to be wary about regulating Google, Facebook, and Amazon. On the other hand, we should understand what is being asked of us and how the information is used. And we should not be deceived or beaten down by pages of small font legalese.

Each company has brilliant designers of customer user interfaces. Put them to work on an interface that reveals the offer to us and presents options. The number of words used should not exceed one hundred and must be in at least 14 point type.

Also, each company has brilliant chief financial officers. Put them to work on assessing the market value of their unfettered use of our information. Convert this market value into an offer that allows each prospective user to make a choice. The choice: what price privacy—information or dollars.

And finally, the Congress should in one hundred words or less tell the two antitrust agencies that they would like to see a proposal to update our unfair competition laws. Facebook, Amazon, and Google (now Alphabet) began when venture capital was flowing, raising money in public markets was relatively easy and when the steady erosion of privacy was opaque. Scale and network effects now enjoyed by the big three give them an almost unassailable dominance. Dominance inevitably leads to excess.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Enough by Al Sikes

An article on the eve of the Never Again march in Washington kept quoting students observing that the “system is rigged.” A rigged system would deny their right to speech and petition. But, on one level they are right.

Constitutional freedoms that allow marches, posters and chants also allow people and companies with enormous capital, the same access. Let’s use gun control illustratively.

First the Constitution, in an 18th Century context, protects the right to own a gun. The framers were thinking of the right of people to rise up against concentrated power, as happened in our Revolutionary War.

Now almost 250 years later and generations of gun technology later, an ideology has been successfully shaped by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that has subordinated, implicitly, the freedom to think straight.

Vaclav Havel, the cerebral force behind the Velvet Revolution, showed with absolute clarity how the Soviet system of mind control worked. The Soviets used the phrase “Workers of the World Unite” to give its domination an emotional center. In fact the Soviets subordinated hundreds of millions to the dominant bureaucracy that ruled the Soviet Union and Warsaw Bloc nations. The last thing the Soviet hierarchy wanted was for the workers of the world to actually unite.

In the United States, the NRA has been no less successful with most Republicans and many Democrats. The NRA warps the Constitution by insisting that the right to bear arms (virtually any arms) is absolute. Then they supply the necessary political weapons; money and single issue voters. Regardless of how contorted some of its claims are, millions have signed on for a variety of reasons having little to do with the underlying rationale of protecting Americans from home grown oppressive power.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in a recent Op-ed, said we need to amend the Constitution’s Second Amendment which reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Constitutional amendments are as difficult as reviving a person from cryogenic sleep. What we need are Supreme Court Justices that will yield to common sense, but first they have to be presented with something that makes sense.

The Second Amendment was not intended to make the use of a 21st Century weapon easier than a smart phone. The latter requires either a digital or biometric password and is indelibly linked to its owner. Nothing is more personal than a smart phone; the same should be true of a gun. Personalizing a gun does not guarantee responsibility, but it links irresponsibility with potentially dire consequences and evidence of culpability.

There was a time when I was an NRA member to support their gun safety program. I am a hunter and know the potential for horrendous accidents when a gun is used carelessly.

I also know that today we provide more protection for waterfowl than we do for humans—a lot more. Legally, waterfowl hunters must plug their gun so that only three shells can be fired without re-loading. And there are game wardens in the field to enforce hunting restrictions.

The emotional dial has been moved by frequent mass shootings and youthful leadership. The NRA notwithstanding, I believe the next three years will bring major changes in gun control. My principal recommendation: personalize gun ownership.

I hope as well that the Hollywood types that were so evident during the marches will bring pressure to stop nihilistic video games (I am not optimistic).

Finally, while I believe the Never Again movement is encouraging, it seems inclined to dismiss efforts at compromise. The NRA successes have been sustained by a bi-partisan coalition. Cycles that favor the right or left will not end; bi-partisan laws have continuity.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Reverse the Decline! By Al Sikes

2018 is an election year. Best I can tell the differences of opinion turn on Trump, Pelosi, and guns.

And, lest I forget, Americans are once again watching a spending battle with a government shutdown threat adding drama. This will all be resolved with much more spending buying the votes needed.

As an outsider and used-to-be insider, let me suggest an agenda for the 2018 candidates.

First and foremost, is it possible to renew our civil institutions and if so what must be done?

Citizens give thumbs down to most government institutions. Gallup routinely asks, over a broad range of institutions, a straight-on question about confidence.

In 2017 12% of the respondents said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress; its highest favorability rating was 43% in 1973. The Presidency finds favor with 32%; its highest rating was 72% in 1991 (nice coincidence, I was then in President Bush’s administration). The Military continues to enjoy the highest confidence score at 72%. The news media, newspapers, and television, were off almost half from their previous highs.

Failing institutions do not achieve lasting accomplishments. When, as a customer, was the last time you had a good experience with a declining business?

Government decisions, to act or not, are made and then harshly judged by the dissenters. Most often they point to soft or hard corruption. The so-called soft side is taking contributions from organizations that have a stake in the outcome.

Advocacy today pivots on grievance. Rarely do advocacy groups offer constructive alternatives.

The Republicans spent years trashing Obamacare and then, even with a congressional majority, could not clearly outline an alternative or pass one. Democrats, having frozen Republicans out of healthcare legislation, were complicit.

Republicans returned the favor in passing recent tax legislation with similar dissonance. But the dissonance that should scare all of us is, I repeat, that Congress, the bulwark against authoritarian government, is favored by 12%

Democracy, even when buffered by republicanism, is inherently fractious; that is okay. Our constitution guarantees free speech and the freedom to petition the government. Importantly, the House of Representatives must stand for election every two years.

This latter protection anticipates a safety valve. I would like to give some unsolicited advice to those who want their hands on the valve in 2019. Build a platform around repairing the institutions of government rather than a litany of promises that will add more debt.

Here is my list:

Get rid of dark money. All contributions should be accounted for within 48 hours of receipt, regardless of source.

Prohibit a Member from receiving a contribution from a person or organization effected by the Committees on which they serve.

End gerrymandering! One of the most debilitating attacks on representative government is gerrymandering. Politicians draw congressional districts that secure partisan advantage regardless of public interest. This manipulation, now made even more precise by computers, has resulted in fewer and fewer seats being truly competitive and blows a big hole in the center of the political spectrum.

Public interest criteria for re-drawing districts should be spelled out, and partisan advantage should not be on the list.

Finally, laws that protect the two-party duopoly should be repealed; concentrated power most often serves its own interests at the expense of customers, or in this case, the voters.

President Trump, who promised to drain the swamp, has mainly substituted crocodiles for alligators. True reformists stand up.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Priests, Politicians, and Samaritans by Al Sikes

The Lenten season is rich with memories both ancient and contemporary—and what vivid recollections. So with some apprehension, let me take you on a brief journey.

The Lenten season at its simplest is: “an annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter,” this year on April 1. Christians are encouraged to prayerfully recall the extraordinary events that led to Jesus being crucified and resurrected.

My most vivid recollections retreat to my childhood and two of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Both stories made an enormous impression on me, and somewhere in the hierarchy of my brain, they will not let go.

Both stories have an overarching theme—concern, care, forgiveness—in what is often an unforgiving world. The Good Samaritan, while walking along a road, was confronted by an injured man who had been pummeled by robbers. Travelers had passed by without offering help, including a priest and a Levite. The Samaritan stopped and helped the injured man.

Regardless of one’s religious background, almost everyone has some familiarity with the story of the prodigal son. The son had abandoned his father, wasted his inheritance and then, only finding degrading work, asked for and received his father’s forgiveness.

I suspect both stories are well known as they are the essence of so many artistic expressions in the visual and performing arts. One of Rembrandt’s most celebrated paintings captures the distraught son being forgiven by his father.

Acts of grace transcend the news; if they were few, they would receive a lot of attention. Yet these acts co-exist today with civil estrangement. And this estrangement is exacerbated by political candidates and activists looking for an edge. The “other” forms much of our identity politics and the exploitative game.

America has unique and admirable qualities, but continued strength requires more than rhetoric. The eagle on the great seal of the United States holds in its beak a ribbon with the motto, E Pluribus Unum. The motto, which is Latin for “out of many, one,” was adopted by the Founding Fathers in 1782.

It can be argued that the motto is too idealistic. It can also be argued that the Samaritan should not have stopped on the road to Jericho. As the story unfolded, the Samaritan bound up the man’s wounds, took him to an Inn and left money for the Innkeeper to care for him—a sacrificial expression of love.

This story does not offer us an easily applied legal template. The parables often tell very personal stories that encourage personal response. Although in this case, Jesus was talking to a lawyer who was asking “who is my neighbor.”

The parables and similar stories from other religious traditions are aspirational or should be. They have, as one writer noted, formed a “thin tissue” of morality—the law above the law.

Civil estrangement in America preceded President Donald Trump—after all, we fought a Civil War. But, as America, informed by both the Bible and the Enlightenment, guaranteed unparalleled freedom for its citizens, its leaders relied on the recognition and influence of a greater good. Certainly Abraham Lincoln did.

In my lifetime there has not been a moment when the greater good narratives have been more at risk. The political edge has become a hard one—unforgiving, intolerant, and often hubristic. The most egregious development has been so-called evangelical leaders who have yielded to today’s Caesar. They, like all of us who struggle with faith’s calling, need to spend the Lenten season striving to understand the Gospel. They also need to understand that a person cannot be both a political and spiritual leader.

America needs spiritual leaders, not politicians wearing vestments.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Getting Education Right Is Not Optional by Al Sikes

A Valentine Day story in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “Blackstone CEO Gives High School $25 Million in Hope of Inspiring Others.” The gift was to his public school in Abington, Pa. The donor, Stephen Schwarzman.

The school’s superintendent, Amy Sichel, declared “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.”

The article also noted public school gifts of millions from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, and Hip-hop mogul, Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young; it also stated that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had contributed $6.5 billion to support elementary and secondary education over the years.

While living in New York City, I became active in several organizations that provided millions of dollars to enable charter schools and sustain Catholic schools. I also learned a lesson about the power of immovable objects. At the risk of over-simplification, institutional education is not easily moved.

I would like to believe Amy Sichel’s observation: “This gift is going to let us dream and reimagine our schools.” Count me a skeptic. Results will require openness to innovation.

Public school education faces a number of irrepressible forces. Popular culture destabilizes. Families are often fractured and unable or unwilling to engage their children to help assure educational success. Plus, there is a ceiling on the revenue side–taxpayer fatigue.

And public leaders in various executive and legislative branches are often too busy tending to re-election issues to collaborate on that most essential public service: the education of our children. Forming truly collaborative initiatives across organization boundaries and making sure they are at least adequately funded is difficult and time-consuming work.

Schwarzman, in giving $25 million, said he hoped to inspire others to give to public schools. While education is a leading cause for many philanthropists, most of the money goes to higher education. The top five college endowments most closely resemble the annual GDPs of small countries. Statistics compiled by US News and World Report reflects the numbers at the end of the fiscal year 2016:

Harvard University (MA) $35,665,743,000
Yale University (CT) $25,413,149,000
Stanford University (CA) $22,398,130,000
Princeton University (NJ) $21,703,500,000
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $13,181,515,000
University of Pennsylvania $10,715,364,000

The only non-Ivy League schools in the top five are Stanford and MIT—together they attract some of America’s best young scientific and innovative minds.

If you are a development officer at one of the above-noted schools, you relish the fact that each graduating class is likely to produce a relatively large number of adults who will become rich. And on the way, most will send their children to their prep and college alma maters.

The cleavages in education will not go away. But, if America is to have a bright future, public education must get better. There is some light.

The Gates Foundation is concentrating on teacher practice networks “as a model for teachers leading teachers in effective, collaborative opportunities to improve instruction.” Best practices mobility is most likely within, not outside, the institution.

There are almost 6,000 charter schools, and while they have varied successes, the best are innovative and have valuable lessons to pass on.

One of the reasons the US leads the world in higher education is because of competition.

And hopefully, Schwarzman and Gates and others will awaken their peers to the absolute necessity of healthy public schools. But to tap private philanthropy, public schools leaders must develop fundraising skills outside of jockeying for a better cut of tax revenue.

As noted, this is an important and complicated subject that does not submit to easy answers. But, since I’m looking for a concluding paragraph, let me risk oversimplification.

My experience is that students come with their home in their backpack. Unless there is a parent who provides encouragement and help most students will not succeed. If I was a principal or superintendent I would add one class and it would be for the parents.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Inspiration is in the Air by Al Sikes

Inspiration is underestimated. At the seminal level, it is the reason there is a United States of America. It is the reason the Civil War concluded as it did.

Saints were inspired to act sacrificially and we lesser humans can all tell stories about those who inspired us. Never sell inspiration short.

Inspiration writ large is both simple and complex. Historians are able to identify it, but they need time to fully appreciate its immensity. And time is needed to understand how it moved both leaders who stepped up and those who walked along side them.

Seminal acts of inspiration are endlessly studied and reported. NPR notes, “Some 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln — more books ……… than have been written about any other person in world, with the exception of Jesus Christ.”

Simply, an inspiring moment is elemental and frequently visceral. Topically, three stories of the last week stand out.

Hands down, at the recently concluded Olympics there were two moments that literally took the breath away and reminded us of the enormous power of the Olympic spirit and individual motivation.

The first, in a report by Team USA began, “Five years ago, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins did something that had never been done before. The two American women won a cross- country skiing world championship gold medal in the team sprint.”

At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the same two American women did one better. They won the first Olympic medal for the US. women’s cross-country skiing team — and it was gold.

In a final dash to the line, Diggins passed Sweden’s Stina Nilsson with about a meter to go, threw her ski across the line, then fell into Randall’s arms.

“Did we just win the Olympics?” Diggins gasped as she fell to the ground.”

“Yeah!” screamed Randall.

Around them teammates, US. Ski Team staff and fans went wild. “I broke down,” said Luke Bodensteiner, an Olympian cross-country skier back in the 1990s who’s now the US. Ski & Snowboard’s Chief of Sport. “l was on my knees in tears.”

The second moment of Olympic inspiration was described in two sentences by the LA Times: “It was a hockey game transformed into an anthem.”

“The winner’s gold glowed in triumph over ignorance.”

The women’s hockey victory was simply a puck being skillfully placed in the Canadian goal by Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson. The complexity is that the team achieved a stunning conclusion

to “their boycott-threatening fight for pay and benefits equal to the men.” They won the fight for equity and the game.

Inspiration, when paired with leadership, can be an extraordinary force. So let me turn to the third inspiring moment.

Tragedy is often the foretelling of inspiration. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942 foretold America’s entry into WWII and the eventual defeat of Hitler and his poisonous ideology. It took inspired and remarkable public and military leadership to achieve the victories over determined adversaries.

This last week’s school shooting in Florida and the inspired leadership by a handful of students who fight under the NEVERAGAIN banner is, in my view, the kind of inspirational moment that can breakdown untold barriers. It is already having that effect as political leaders reverse their rigid stands on gun control. While the story has yet to go beyond chapter one, the power of the movement is inescapable.

A similar moment of inspiration occurred after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. In the aftermath of the shooting, attention was turned toward Columbia, the State Capitol where the confederate flag still flew in a position of honor. The State’s Governor, Nikki Haley, led a bipartisan collection of peers, a law was enacted and the flag came down.

Reflecting on the remarkable event, Scott E. Buchanan, the Executive Director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, noted: “The South Carolina legislature doesn’t move rapidly on anything, so the fact that this has all come about is remarkable. I think we’ll look back on this in future years and just be astounded.”

Whether in seminal moments or in Olympic contests or in the face of political resistance, never underestimate the power of inspiration and leaders who have the capacity to both understand and lead.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Breaking Takes by Al Sikes

Collusion with the Russians

Social and not infrequently anti-social media have created a cyclonic wind of opinion. It is almost amusing when otherwise clear-eyed people add their names to Russian-created content as they post, forward and retweet. There was a great deal of collusion with the Russians, but it was mainly unwitting.

Speaking of unwitting. Calls for government regulation of social media now populate an assortment of media. First, and of fundamental importance, our constitution guarantees free speech, not just accurate speech. Our only recourse is discernment provoked by skepticism.

Trump and Russia

One of our President’s overarching problems is frequent repetition of an ill-informed view regardless of those pesky things called facts. There is a lot of fake stuff around, a fair amount of which is embedded in the President’s twitter feed.

The origin of the expression “cry wolf” comes from one of Aesop’s Fables, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We all remember the young shepherd amusing himself by calling for help, saying a wolf is threatening his flock when nothing is really happening. Mr. President, you should understand the ultimate risk of devaluing your statements.

Stooge Warning

The only thing worse than blather from politicians on mass shootings is the fact that the media keeps giving them a platform. Surely there are people around with more insight than NRA stooges or those who think gun control alone will solve this societal sickness. Perhaps the press might turn to those that helped start Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Ask them about data capture and analysis plus how to build a relevant database and what information we lack that is needed that might lead to timely actions.

Then you might turn to attorneys who are informed about protective custody laws. Ask them what the public can do when the evidence points to a threatening person who has not yet committed a crime.


The one encouraging sign in the aftermath of the Florida shooting has been taken by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The students are organizing a March 24 march for Washington, D.C. and other cities to call for stricter gun control legislation.

I am certain they will make good use of social media. I also hope they will call for more than gun control. While gun laws need to be changed, a much more comprehensive approach can result in a dramatic reduction of these tragedies.

And since older people get tongue-tied talking about video games that glamorize violence and desensitize killing, perhaps the students can speak persuasively to those who create the games.

Commodity Presidents

We have just finished celebrating another Presidents Day. Let’s see, were we celebrating Lincoln or Buchanan or Washington or maybe Harrison. In our quest for a long weekend, we have commoditized presidents with few if any references to the extraordinary and principled leadership of George Washington (February 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809) who we used to recognize on the days of their birth.

Wonder what else we can we do to neuter history?

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

End the Debate, Get Serious by Al Sikes

Planes were turned into bombs! New York and Washington were under attack. These facts and the gruesome aftermath awakened America and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

As various post-9/11 inquiries made clear, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies had, to be charitable, misinterpreted signals that an attack was in preparation. In the aftermath of the attacks, with new found resolve and highly focused action plans, America was again safe although not invulnerable.

Periodically questions are asked about both internal and external threats. Often the heads of various executive agencies and legislative committees speak of the hundreds of threats that were discovered and blocked. It is said the details of the intelligence and police work have to remain undisclosed because methods and sources need to be protected. Fair enough.

I wonder how many potential domestic shootings have been blocked. All we know is not nearly enough.

Now, we can all concede that stopping a lone actor is very difficult; witness the suicide bombings that bedevil both police and military around the world. This complexity alone means that all of our intelligence and law enforcement resources must act in intense concentration and coordination if school, workplace and public gathering attacks are to be minimized.

One thing is certain, the next attack is only a week or so away and those who survive will indicate shock that such an egregious act was possible in their community. And then law enforcement and the press will begin to connect the dots and it will quickly become apparent that the shooting or vehicle or knife attack could have been foreseen or at the very least, suspected.

In the Florida shooting case, the New York Times reported: “Almost immediately after Mr. Cruz turned up at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday and, the authorities said, killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle, the disconnected shards of a difficult life began to come together. Students and neighbors traded stories of their experiences with him and wondered if anything could have been done.

Some of the stories fell within the bands of typical teenage mischief-making. But others — including a comment on YouTube Mr. Cruz may have posted last year saying he wished to be “a professional school shooter” — were considerably more troubling. The comment, left under the name “nikolas cruz,” was reported to the F.B.I. by someone who did not know Mr. Cruz, and the agency said on Thursday that it had been unable to determine who had posted it.”

My guess is that if the YouTube post had been made by a person with a Middle Eastern name and the stated intention was to plant a bomb, the FBI would have located the person who made the post.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, predictable arguments underscored how feckless our leaders have become. The lack of better gun control was cited as the problem. Mental illness was a close second. We can agree that if the shooter had been weaponless or stable this would not have occurred. We are, of course, constitutionally barred from emptying America of guns. And, taking signs of mental illness as sufficient evidence to put people into protective custody would fail on both legal and operational fronts.

After the shooting President Trump said several things, but this sentence captured, perhaps, a thin thread of hope: “Later this month, I will be meeting with the nation’s governors and attorneys general where making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority. It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference, we must actually make that difference.”
So what should the public expect—a show of concern without a plan or the intention of concentrated and coordinated work? Or worse, another in a long line of debating moments about guns and mental health? Or just perhaps, the kind of resolve that followed September 11, 2001—an action plan?

America has top flight intelligence resources. They can, if intensely focused, predict and act. But without top rank intelligence, no plan will succeed.

It is hard for me to imagine a more important goal than securing our nation and its schools, churches, workplaces and public gathering spots. It is not acceptable for these all too frequent events to be relegated to debates and calls for prayer. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies can be smart and must be.

And if they need better information on gun ownership, then those that seek to block such access should not hold public office. Social media activists can undoubtedly shine an intense light on the blockers.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Outrage Costs by Al Sikes

Oxygen is life-giving. When somebody remarks that a given person’s dominant personality “takes all the oxygen out of the room” they mean that the others in the room become lifeless.

Most American journalists and especially pundits have become lifeless — outrage has consumed them. Fighting Trump seems almost the only animating stimulus.

The Afghanistan War— little is said, even less is reported from the field. And the tax bill reporting tended to be binary with the wealthy pitted against everybody else. If Trump was for it then per force it’s inner-workings had to favor the rich. Yes, there are reporters who dig and dig and then write objectively, but you have to search them out.

But, let me return to the now 17-year war in Afghanistan and begin with a simple question. What do we expect from a free press when the nation is at war?

On a visceral level, have more soldiers been killed or maimed because journalistic assets have been misallocated? How many billions of dollars have been spent because our national civilian and defense leaders have not been sufficiently scrutinized?

There are a lot of government programs that defy outcome measurements. War is not one of them. We can ask and answer whether the enemy is diminished. Likewise, we can measure territorial gains or losses. We can also measure the health of our principal ally; how is the Afghanistan government doing today?

Most importantly, any government that chooses to wage war must be held accountable for the why.

But this is not a column about the Afghanistan war, but one about journalism. Suffice it to say, the human and financial costs of the Afghanistan war have been enormous.

We know in retrospect that the press eventually played a large role in ending the Vietnam War. Hard questions were asked and answered and even those who believed in the domino theory—if America lost in Vietnam, Communism would sweep over Southeast Asia—began to disfavor the war.

Wikipedia lists 47 war correspondents who covered the Vietnam War. Peruse the list, and you will find a wide range of print and broadcast journalists. Names like Peter Arnett, Ed Bradley, Bob Simon and David Halberstam are memorable names to those of a certain age.

We certainly know that some journalists dig deep while others shrink from comprehensive reporting and still others can’t leave their biases out of their reporting. And knowing this, it is clear that if only a few journalists cover a subject, the risk of incomplete and/or biased coverage is pronounced.

If there is one subject today that is comprehensively covered, it is Donald J. Trump. The outrage is palpable. The disproportionate weighting is equally palpable. But beyond outrage, one motivation is clear. Trump sells — it is entertainment masquerading as news. It is reality TV on the cheap. Trump’s tweets provide daily fodder — a reporter can grab the days narrative early in the morning. Even reporting from the security zone in Kabul is risky and costly and often encounters the opaque. Why risk life and brain when covering the ever-colorful President is so easy?

Obviously, the White House needs to be covered and especially this one, but what about the outcome of the programs heralded by the White House? Unfortunately, in the Trump era, the storyline is all too often binary. If Trump favors “it,” whatever the “it” is must be wrong.

There has rarely been as challenging a moment for both the nation and news organizations. Most news organizations have seen dramatic staff reductions as conventional media-business models have suffered from digital media competition. And foreign coverage is certainly expensive.

Realities are often uncomfortable. A reduction in resources requires ingenuity. At least to this writer the almost mono-thematic news coverage of Trump does not reflect well on the nation’s assignment editors.

My frustration peaked several Sundays ago while watching Martha Raddatz anchoring “This Week” on ABC. Ms. Raddatz is ABC’s Chief Global Correspondent. She has earned that title in her probing reportage on our Middle-Eastern wars. Yet, Raddatz on that Sunday morning was relegated to anchoring political panels on this and that Trump outrage.

My frustration has nothing to do with the content of Trump’s comportment. It is terrible. But, his constant provocations have become boring. So what if he bashes a critic? So what if he publicly berates a cabinet member? So what if he settles a claim against him by a porn star? Report it and move on.

The content of his Presidency is more important than his considerable personal deficiencies. And no content is more important than what he does or doesn’t do as Commander-in-Chief (CC). The CC has wide-ranging discretion, and his ways and means can place both the nation and its defenders in harm’s way.

I end with this unsolicited advice to the managers and editors who make news decisions. Trump is, if anything, titillated by his dominance of the news cycle. Why else would he serve up the days script in pre-dawn tweets? As you consider news priorities and assignments, don’t forget the ethos of good journalism — help people understand what they need to know.


Footnote: President Trump has decided that the nation’s top intelligence, law enforcement, and judicial institutions are the enemies and many of his supporters seem gleeful when he attacks them. To those who find this conduct appealing, please understand the ultimate price—cynicism. History chronicles the illnesses bred by a cynical public.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.