Saturday, January 15, 2011

How Did We Get to this Pervasive Lack of Civility in Public Life?

In the United States, we have always been passionate about politics. And dirty politics entered the scene very early in the history of our republic. So it would be factually incorrect and potentially disingenuous to mourn the loss of perfect civility in our American public life. Nonetheless, many long-time residents of Washington and others have noted a noticeable decline in civility in the past few decades. In Congress, there is now less reaching across the aisle to work in a bipartisan manner. Obstructionism trumps as political opponents look for any edge to prevent the other side from accomplishing anything on their agenda. Anyone who disagrees is vilified mercilessly.

In my observation and in my opinion, this sad trend really began at the grass roots level with conservatives. First, talk radio exploded in the 1990s as an opportunity for disgruntled conservatives to come together to gripe, blame others, and verbally high five each other. The hosts and listeners have often expressed tremendous amounts of anger and frustration, as well as a fair amount of sanctimoniousness. On such talk radio shows conspiracy theories have often received a lot more attention than they have in traditional news outlets (e.g., Bill and Hillary Clinton murdered their friend, Vince Foster, but made it look like a suicide).

During this time, we saw the rise of Rush Limbaugh. Despite his multiple divorces and drug scandal, his “dittoheads” still speak adoringly of him. Mr. Limbaugh has been the predominant icon of talk radio. But others have also achieved a lot of success in that arena including Laura Ingraham, Laura Schlessinger (a.k.a. “Dr. Laura”), Dennis Miller, Neal Boortz, and Michael Medved, among many others.

In the late 1990s, we also saw the advent of the Fox News Channel on cable television. It provided another venue for conservative talk programs. But when compared to talk radio, there was generally less interaction from the audience and more hours of broadcasting. Instead of just an hour or two in the afternoon, the Fox News Channel broadcasts 24/7. Like talk radio, Fox News programs often feature a lot of griping and blaming of others. Many of the programs are marked by a high level of anger and outrage. In its success, Fox News Channel has created celebrity pundits including Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.

Some Fox News celebrities have also been successful in talk radio. Some came to Fox News Channel from talk radio. Others started in television and later branched out to the talk radio format.

Many talk radio personalities and Fox News celebrities have also written books. Some have also toured the country giving “shows” with pricey tickets where the audience is treated to in-person versions of their angry rants with some comedy thrown in for good measure.

During this same period when talk radio and Fox News Channel became staples for many, conservative journalists in on-line news media have also gained a following. They often lack the audience interaction that is the hallmark of talk radio. And they don’t necessarily have the angry tone common to both talk radio and Fox News Channel. But conservative on-line news media have gained notoriety in some quarters for providing attention to conspiracy theories that target liberal persons and institutions.

In the 1990s, we saw the emergence of the Drudge Report, an internet news website that provides links to a variety of other reporting sources. The site provides plenty of access to traditional news stories, but the Drudge Report has also gained prominence in publicizing scandals (or gossip of potential scandals) involving high-profile Democrats. For example, the Drudge Report had the dubious honor of being the first to break the story of Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The site also played a significant role in gaining attention for the accusations of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and in circulating a photo of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in Somali tribal attire. The Drudge Report has also run controversial stories of questionable merit including allegations that Bill Clinton’s aid Sidney Blumenthal beat his wife, gossip that Bill Clinton fathered a child out-of-wedlock, and rumors of an intern scandal when John Kerry was running for president.

In the late 1990s, WorldNetDaily was founded with the stated purpose of "exposing wrongdoing, corruption and abuse of power" with an “unabashedly conservative” viewpoint. See See Faye Fiore, “Raking Up Muck and Rolling in the Dough,” Los Angeles Times (Jan. 27, 2010).
. WorldNetDaily has attracted high profile conservatives including Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Katherine Harris (among many others) to contribute commentaries and columns to the website. However, WorldNetDaily has also become known for its attention to conspiracy theories. It is cited as a significant contributor to the rise of the “birther” movement; as of January 2011, the site continues to run stories about the theory that President Obama is not a “natural born” citizen. WorldNetDaily has also made incredible allegations that the Girl Scouts have a secret “sex agenda”, and have a relationship with Planned Parenthood. The articles of WorldNetDaily often have semi-hysterical headlines that express a fair degree of paranoia (e.g., “Is this the end of America?,” “How to prevent mass murder,” “Cop, unprovoked, shoots Christian on train”). The articles featured on WorldNetDaily also seem to focus disproportionately on the legal status of abortion, efforts to impose prayer in secular settings and attacks on Christianity.

I force myself to listen to a lot of viewpoints, with which I disagree. To that end, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life listening to programs hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and others with similar view points. I’ve also read books by folks like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly. There are only so many hours in the day, so I admit I myself don’t read the Drudge Report very often, but my husband reads it regularly and often fills me in on the latest stories. I force myself to find out what these different media sources are publicizing not because I’m a glutton for punishment, but because I believe in being open-minded, in listening to people and trying to find common ground.

Ultimately, in all honesty, I think most of these celebrity talking heads are in it primarily for the money and may not really care about the issues on which they rant. For example, Glenn Beck has described himself as an “entertainer” and even a “rodeo clown.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has derided Mr. Beck as a “cynic.”: “Only in America can you make that much money crying. Glenn Beck is not aligned with any party. He is aligned with cynicism and there has always been a market for cynics. But we became a great nation not because we are a nation of cynics. We became a great nation because we are a nation of believers." See (Amen, Senator Graham!)

Not everyone shares this opinion. I personally know many lovely folks who listen to talk radio personalities and Fox News celebrities earnestly following their angry rants in agreement. If my neighbors are listening to these folks with enthusiasm, as a good citizen, I should know what is being said. I admit it does sometimes make me queasy. But at times I have found points, with which I agree.

Though I believe conservatives got us started in this trends towards vilification and away from civil discourse, liberals no longer have clean hands in the matter. Instead of having the vision for an alternate approach, most have reflexively jumped on the bandwagon to try to do the same thing as the Limbaughs, the Becks and the O’Reillys but with a left wing tilt.

Air America, a radio network specializing in liberal talk radio programming, went on the air in 2004. It never caught on and ceased operations in 2010. I was always curious about it, but never knew where to find it and frankly never had enough time to look. Presumably folks like me were the target audience of Air America. Maybe liberals and progressives are too busy to listen to talk radio in the day time. Younger generations do tend to be more liberal and/or progressive, and when we are young, we are in a particularly busy season of our lives. In our 20s and 30s, many of us are getting an education, getting established professionally and/or raising children. That makes for busy days and not a lot of time to listen to people rant on the radio.

One alum of Air America, Al Franken, did enjoy a great deal of success after his time on the radio network. A comedian, who wrote and appeared on Saturday Night Live in the 70s, 80s and 90s, he began hosting a program for Air America in 2004. Prior to joining the network, he wrote books combining liberal politics with humor. Who could resist classics like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations? He famously took on Fox News Channel and others with Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Many of us discovered Mr. Franken’s books after he gained attention because of his work on Air America. He then translated that publicity into a (barely) successful campaign for Senate.

Though Air America was not successful, its cable news counterpart has done better. MSNBC was actually founded in 1996. In its early days, the news network featured celebrity conservatives like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. But towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the network was taking more of a progressive tilt and doing better in the ratings. It began to feature left-tilting talking heads like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews.

Again, I assume I’m probably in the target audience of such MSNBC shows, but I rarely watch the network. First of all, I am not a fan of television and our family does not even have cable. As a result, I only have access to MSNBC when I travel. Second, the network’s programming is just not appealing to me. Sure, it is generally less nauseating to listen to Rachel Maddow than Glenn Beck. But to me, MSNBC is only slightly better than Fox News Channel. I’m glad they call out hypocrisies and injustices. But the talking heads on MSNBC are smug, self-righteous know-it-alls. They have a snarky tone that really puts me off. In that respect, the talking heads on MSNBC have a lot in common with the talking heads on Fox News. They just embrace different political views.

I don’t want progressives to emulate the angry talk radio format or the in-your-face propaganda of Fox News Channel. I’d like progressives to take a different approach entirely. Instead of playing that same game, we ought to change the rules and find a better way. The snarkiness, the failure to listen, the default vilification—none of that is helpful to our society.

Matthew 17:5

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, " This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!"

1 comment:

  1. It's a complete fabrication to state that WND was founded with an "unabashedly conservative" viewpoint. In 14 years, WND has never once described itself as such.

    Joseph Farah
    founder and CEO of WND