Politics is better than TV.
Partisan media's attack on communal dialogue.
If you watch, listen, or otherwise imbibe any American news media these days, you are bound to have noticed a trend: political media in America has become derogatory, rude, and unabashedly biased. Even major news networks like CNN or Fox News have widely acknowledged left or right-wing slants. If you turn on right wing news, you know what you are going to get, and vice versa. There is no dialogue between sides. Nothing actually gets talked about.
But beyond presenting biased information, the “conversation” hosted by partisan news networks has become unbelievably brash, incredibly insulting, and downright offensive. Campaign ads slander the character of the other candidate, and talk show hosts warn that the country will go to Hell if a certain candidate is elected. Dialogue, if there is any, has become extremely coarsened.
In this climate, it is impossible to agree with certain aspects of one side and with certain aspects from the other. Instead, both sides dig their heels in and denounce the other’s position completely. If you are right-wing you have no soul, if you are left-wing you are an ignoramus, etc, etc, etc. Such “conversation” leaves no possibility for the give and take needed for actual dialogue. There is no opportunity for compromise, for balance, for working things out.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Ted Koppel, a legendary American broadcast journalist of the 60's and 70's, recently explored this coarsening of the dialogue. Koppel interviewed spokesmen on both sides: the inflammatory talk show host, Bill O’Reilly, überconservative pundit, Ann Coulter, and the liberal host, Bill Maher.
With them, he found a horrifying inability to concede. Coulter completely disagreed that there has been any coarsening in the dialogue, claiming that it is only now that truly right-wing voices are being heard. Maher claimed the exact opposite, that his side is “screaming facts and truth” while Coulter’s side, is screaming “their version of truth, which is religious-based nonsense.” O’Reilly defended his own show by saying that he is not nearly as offensive and slandering as many other talk show hosts like him, and that this is simply the way the game is played.
From these terrifying interviews, Koppel concluded that this coarsening of the dialogue is in fact due to the changes in the media industry itself. In Koppel’s day, there were three major televised news networks in America. With so few options, none of these networks could afford to alienate a significant chunk of their audience by presenting an overly biased slant. They tried to be objective, to present both sides of a story. Now, with the advent of twenty-four-seven cable TV, it is not just possible, but incredibly profitable to have a channel devoted to a certain political or ideological stance.
Shows on these channels, and those following suit on AM radio, with sensational hosts like O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, or Bill Maher, make up to $1 billion per channel per year (according to The New York Times). They do so simply by spitting back out what people already believe or bashing the side that their audience already disagrees with. They fulfill the role of entertainment better than they do that of news. They neither educate nor foster dialogue. Instead, they simply reinforce people’s already entrenched beliefs and further remove the possibility of honest conversation.
As usual, I find that poet-farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry provides some perspective on all this mess. In an essay, “The Importance of a Coherent Community,” Berry warns against getting so caught up in a particular cause (or political “side”) that you miss the place where all these causes should actually lead: creating a healthier community.
If you have a commitment to improving life in your own community, Berry writes, you begin to see where diverse, often arbitrarily opposed, causes actually align. Berry concludes that if you want to make a difference, attempt to do so locally. Be responsible and live for justice, for love, for the redemption and renewal of your community right where you are now.
So, in this season of election fever, I suggest a few things to help promote actual, honest dialogue, the hallmark of a “coherent” community.
1.Don’t consume partisan news. Try to choose sources of information that are bipartisan or at least aim at objectivity even if none is truly objective. Check out nonpartisan sites such as “I Side With” or “The Voice of,” to explore the issues and figure out where you stand.
2. Talk about the issues with people who think differently. Among friends, family or strangers, honest and respectful conversation is one of the only ways to grow. And take advantage of being at this university. Whether justice and governance, or faith and culture, we have a unique opportunity to avoid much of the partisanship and actually talk about things.
3. Also, keep sight of the most important things. Whomever you vote into office cannot replace you being you in your community.