Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the National Conversation

Send by email
Dori Maynard
January 10, 2011

We are a nation deeply divided, at times unable to agree about anything - from the role of government, to the rights of citizens, to even whether our president is a US citizen.

But for one brief moment on Saturday, it seemed as if we came together to condemn the violence that took six lives and severely wounded 14 others, including the target, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

And then the toxic talk returned. This time, the rancorous discussion focused on the role, if any, the angry tenor of our national debate played in this tragedy.

To be clear, I have long been concerned about the damaging effects of - what I perceive to be - an out-of-control conversation is having on this country. As someone who grew up in urban areas where guns are not often used for hunting or target practice, I could not fathom how putting targets over congressional districts or urging people to reload rather than retreat, furthered our political dialogue.

While we may never know if Jared Lee Loughner was influenced by what some have dubbed the language of hate, we do know the national conversation has become so corrosive that it is as if it became a suspected accomplice within hours of the shootings.

Yet, even as we talked about the effects uncivil discourse plays in our country, in most cases we had no more of a discussion than what passed for political conversation prior to Saturday.

Even more depressing, except in a few instances, very few people seem to be talking about where we go from here. How do we talk to each other? How do we conduct our national debate? What, if anything, is considered outside the bounds of constructive conversation?

One rare exception was a brief exchange on The Today Show when Ann Curry broke into the co-host chat near the end of the show’s second hour on Monday to remind us all that each of us has a responsibility to nurture a constructive dialogue.

“You know the only thing that stops loss of civility is us...It's our own sense of outrage over what is acceptable and not acceptable,” she said.

Matt Lauer chimed in, noting that journalists also need to look in the mirror when he said: “And when you say ‘us’ there are no saints in the media either. Often times, not only do we parrot these things that are said, we incite them and we like to spur on these types of ferocious debates between people, and maybe that has to stop as well.” 

Both are right.

As citizens it is each of our responsibilities to ratchet down the rhetoric in our own conversations, not so we self-censor but so that we enable ourselves to be heard and to hear.

Obviously, we all have the First Amendment right  to use whatever word we choose. However, as Laura Schlessinger discovered, your choice of words can often overshadow your point. After listening to her N-word-riddled rant several times, I have to admit I still heard the N-word more than I heard any point she may have been trying to make. In other words, do you want your word to be your point or do you want your word to bolster your point? This is all the more important because in this time of polarization we are often talking across the fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography where words and phrases have different meanings and nuances depending on our perspective.

As journalists, I hope we will take the words of Matt Lauer to heart. We have a responsibility to help moderate this national dialogue. Perhaps it’s time  for us to agree that two talking heads screaming over each other cannot really be considered a dialogue. Lauer is right. Anchors need to help their guests have genuine conversations with each other.

In an era of 24/7 news we have the time to dig into the issues. What we haven’t had is the inclination.

This horrific tragedy gives us the opportunity to hit the reset button.

Yes, we clearly are polarized, and as Martin Luther King once said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’

I hope this national tragedy leads us to make the right choice.



The deterioration of the national conversation

Much, if not all, of the commentary on this horrifying event focuses on the culpability of individuals, and overlooks what is really fueling the flame of hate speech in this country. Most Americans don't realize the power sponsors (i.e. advertisers) have over all broadcast content, even the news. It's not that advertisers explicitly advocate hate speech, but they tend to support right-leaning content because it's pro-business, and they support angry rhetoric because it gets great ratings. Now that we have no immediate terrorist threat, that hateful speech is directed at our government, our political candidates, and individual Americans.

The model is simple: Radio and TV networks tell stories and develop programs that please their sponsors, because advertising dollars are their source of revenue. What pleases sponsors programming that get high ratings, and that makes people want to buy things. What doesn't please sponsors is anything that makes them, or corporate America in general, look bad. And the easiest way to increase ratings is by getting people excited, for example by making them angry. 

What most Americans don't know is that major sponsors have actual censorship power. For example, a sponsor will call the network executive and tell them to change the "slant" of their programming (with the implied threat that they will stop advertising). On some shows, certain sponsors screen the show before it airs and routinely exercise their power to censor content. As a result, the networks engage in a great deal of self-censorship. For example, news networks and commentary programs air programming that criticizes "big government," but never "big business."

Obviously you'll never hear about direct or indirect corporate censorship from any on-air commentator. When baby-faced Matt Lauer takes a bullet on the Today show, saying "there are no saints in the media either," he's supporting the illusion that the decisions about how to speak on-air are in the hands of individual news people. Those "journalists" we see on television do not have the authority to decide what to say or even how to say it. They speak the way they do, or someone else would be hired. Matt Lauer can never admit this, even to himself. How could he?

The obvious question is: if advertisers can (and do) censor programming directly or indirectly, why haven't they censored the language of hatred? It is obvious that advertisers actively support shows that sponsor hate speech, otherwise such shows would not survive. Therefore it seems also obvious that the way to restore our national discourse is to pressure advertisers to remove their financial support from shows that promote violence, hatred and division among Americans. 




What most Americans don't

What most Americans don't realize is that the left leaning news media, which is virtually all of them, employ the same tactics you did in your well written comment.  "It's not that advertisers explicitly advocate hate speech, but they tend to support right-leaning content...".  You're implying in your subtle way that right leaning content is hate speech.  Then you go on to imply that angry rhetoric and hateful speech directed at our government and political candidates is right leaning content as well.  It's one of the tools used by the media which enabled them to hand the presidency to Mr Obama on a silver platter.  Most Americans don't realize that.  Most Americans don't want real news, they want to be entertained.  They want to have their opinions, steered by the very "news" they absorb, validated and they get that validation from pseudo-news talking heads - the teleprompter readers.  Those teleprompters are loaded with content at the direction of the producers, who as you say, are influenced by their sponsors.  Yes, ratings are king.  Ratings generated by the titillation of controversy.  Titillation requires an ever increasing dose, or it no longer entertains.  And the escalation builds to the point at which no one can hear, or rather no one is able to listen.  Emotion displaces reason.  Rational thought and expression is replaced with dogged determination to stand one's ground - even at those times when we realize for a moment what we're doing, what's happening to us, what we've become.

No apology is necessary for your metaphor.  It is, after all, just a metaphor and your point is understood.  I'm only passing through, and won't be back.  Just wanted to toss in my two cents' worth.  I hope you'll forgive my drive-by shooting, and my metaphor. 

The deterioration of the national conversation

My sincere apologies for the metaphor about "taking a bullet." Within the context of this discussion it was certainly inappropriate.

Nicely done, Dori. I hope

Nicely done, Dori. I hope many people will see your words.

I think reporters are stuck in the old approach -- that news is controversy.

In the digital world, news works best if it's solution-oriented. If we reporters take a solution-oriented approach to news -- i.e., how DO we as a community reduce violence -- then our coverage can focus on what works and what doesn't. With a solution-oriented approach, screaming matches get in the way of solving problems.


the path to civility

The preceeding coments though certainly worthy, fail to deal with the actual path to civility, it is rightly said that the money and politics encourage heat and friction, yet to watch the hundreds and thousands of hours now dedicated to the shooter and the victims, and the so called national debate, is much the same as the thousands of people who slow down to view the seen of an accident though they have just waited in traffic more than an hour because thoose before them have done the same!

 What we have here is a failure to percieve and comprehend the cause of the problem, and that is compounded by the hypocracy of the people, all jumping to discuss and talk about, while failing to actually take the steps necessary to aviod the backlog. If we take the last 20 plus years, be it the oklahoma bombing, the columbine tragedy, the waco fire, the va tech, and yes the arizona tragedy, we will find that nobody in america is taking responsibility for our own, its nobodies job to care about people, and we depend upon the law, to do what we as people aught to be doing for each other long before the law gets involved, if people cared about each other, then we would make it a law that nobody should be alone, in this country, all of theses tragedies happen after many signs were prevelant, and yet even now there are millions of Americans going through private hells, losing homes families and much worse, pray tell what will happen when all of these poor and struggling individuals lose faith and spiral into madness, The problem here is our failure to make it a national law and policiy that we look to care and help every individual be the best citizen they can be, and when there is a problem of any kind for anyone that we have a national agenda to deal with it like any good family would, with love, concern, and paitiance, if we only looked to help each other at the first chance, we would save trillions of dollars, and far more importantly, we would have a much more healthy and productive nation. But then we would all look to keep it moving at accident seens to insure we were being considerate for the people behind us and for the poor folks involved in the accident, who already have enough shame, and trouble let least a million gawkers! the path to civility starts with doing what is right, love thy neighbor as thyself, and act accordingly, the strenght of our nation should be at the foot of each american, helping to insure we all can have life liberty and in fact be able to pursue our happiness thus building better communities citties states and the nation, instead we operate by a law system which say we can only do something when somebody has done wrong, let he who has not sinned cast the first stone!!  the task is to avoid all problems before they start and cover and difuse those that get started not rise them to a level of great national import, that should be reserved for the good and great stories of love and personal triumph, of lives well lived and good deeds done!  forgive misspelling was working quick, peace and blessings upon the full family of man!!! 

James Mcintosh A servant of the lord!


While the hand-wringing and lamentations continue, I keep in mind the time when I was growing up: the 1960s. I contend that by every imaginable measure, we were so much more divided along lines of color, ethnicity and income then than we are now. Major cities went up in flames several times. National guardsmen hit the streets as looters ran through them. Think Los Angeles in 1994 happening multiple times in various urban centers. National figures were gunned down every couple of years. There was ONE show on television ("I Spy") that featured a black actor in a major role. Motown records had to be "covered" by white artists for them to be played on pop radio stations. Homosexuals were deep in the closet, not starring in films and TV while being open about their orientation. Yes, we remain far from a utopian ideal, and we always will, that's called reality. But please remember that we really have come a long way in the past few decades, probably further than we did in the 100 years after the Civil War. The best way to keep progressing? Individuals will have more to do with it than institutions. Don't hate. Don't put up with hateful remarks from others. Be generous. See other people as belonging to one race, the same one you belong to: the human race. I see the diversity among my children's friends and I am optimistic, not pessimistic.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.