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Hard Pressed on Every Side

It is an honor to be a conversation partner in this eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse.” An esteemed list of contributors populate the line-up for the next nine inningsmonths (a little baseball joke for our moderator Harold), and I am sure that we will learn much from all of them. But let me be honestly upfront: I do not have a Ph.D. in journalism, communication studies, political science, or government. In fact, I don’t have a Ph.D. at all. What I do have is experience as a political activist in the most conservative county in Iowa. I have also spent 25 years imploring high school and college writing students to use words well—clearly, creatively, and hopefully morally. Given these passions, I do have opinions about how words are used in the American political arena. You may decide if my opinions are worth your consideration.

My assigned task is to respond to the clips from CNN and Fox News—to “analyze the current dismal state of political discourse.” Watching these two videos reminded me of why I spend so little time watching network “news.” There are so many disturbing aspects to these clips that it is hard to know where to begin. Whether these exchanges even fall under the term “political discourse” is up for debate. Merriam Webster defines discourse as a “verbal interchange of ideas.” The CNN clip might fit into that category. But neither clip fits the archaic definition: “the capacity of orderly thought or procedure.” Definitely not.

I will highlight a few of the evident problems in the featured pieces, and, when applicable, connect them to my own experience in local politics.

Problem Number 1: Blurred Lines Between News and Commentary

So, we have these so-called news networks. What does that label mean? In the olden days, the “news” was Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel reporting, as objectively as they could, the events of the day. But today’s “news network” includes not only reporting but much commentary, commentary from invited “expert” guests but also from employees of the network itself.

It is problematic for consumers when it is not clear what is news (presented as objectively as possible) and what is commentary (a certain take or opinion on the news).  In the featured clips, the CNN (Cable News Network) and Fox News logos are constantly on the screen, suggesting that what you are seeing is news. The screen image of the Hannity Opening Monologue looks especially like traditional news reporting with the anchor filling one half of the screen and a squared graphic referencing the featured story on the other side.

The CNN segment looks like a host asking questions of expert guests. But Kate Bolduan is far from being the neutral moderator of yore.

Given the popularity of slanted news programming, the American public must find straight reporting too boring and unstimulating. But I find these blurred lines deeply problematic. They have lead us to believe the cries of “Fake News!” because so much that conveys itself as news is not.

As a writing instructor, I have witnessed a similar problem in the classroom. Writing straight summary is a very difficult task for many students. Without careful instruction and modeling, many young writers cannot capture the heart of a chapter, article, or event without incorporating their own opinion.

For true discourse to happen, we must understand the difference between fact and opinion and own up to what is what. The unwillingness of some members of the Right to acknowledge climate change is a loud case in point. It is sad that scientists need to hold marches in support of their field. And it is deeply disturbing that Sam Clovis, a man who has denied human contributions to climate change and has no degrees in the natural sciences, has been nominated to serve as chief scientist in President Trump’s Department of Agriculture.

Of course, both conservatives and progressives are guilty of presenting misleading information to advance their causes. It is especially understandable that news networks do whatever they can to gain viewers because they are commercial entities. But I don’t have to like their style, and we can choose to get our news elsewhere.

This blurring of news and commentary happens even in local papers. A few years ago, I emailed the editor of my local paper because news releases from our political representatives were appearing on the news pages of our paper when they were clearly opinion pieces and needed to be represented as such. (On the Opinion page. With bylines.) We need to continue to distinguish news from opinion, even when our news sources won’t do it for us.

Problem Number 2: Diversion from the Topic at Hand

The presidential debates of last year’s election showcased each candidate’s ability to swerve away from an uncomfortable question or topic. One practiced move involved ignoring the question and instead highlighting their own party’s achievement on a related matter. Another polished move involved ignoring the question and instead attacking the opponent. The two sides are like fighting spouses coming back at every charge, “Yeah, but YOU. . . .” Both moves make true political discourse or honest debate nearly impossible.

Both the Fox News and CNN segments held examples of avoiding the issue at hand. Fox commentator Sean Hannity quickly dismisses Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer who said that he had information to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign. As Hannity says, “[T]here was no smoking gun.”

Rather than exploring the concerns many Americans had about this meeting, Hannity quickly turns to past perceived improprieties of the Democrats: a DNC operative working with Ukrainian officials to boost Hillary Clinton, money from the Obama state department used by an Israeli political group against candidate Benjamin Netanyahu, and a uranium deal brokered by Clinton with the Russians that was followed by large Russian donations to the Clinton Foundation.

I do not have enough information to know whether election interference or other types of illegal deeds happened in the Trump-Russian contact or any of these other situations. All I know is that when the topic at hand is muddled by deflecting to other events, truth-pursuing political discourse is unlikely to occur.

In the CNN segment, host Kate Bolduan tries to get conservative guest Carl Higbie to address accusations that President Trump shared classified information with Russian government officials. Instead, Higbie focuses only on the anonymous sources testifying to what happened in Trump’s meeting. Higbie refuses to move on from that point, saying that if their information is reliable, they should go public.

I can understand the resulting anger and frustration of Bolduan. She vigorously defends the “stellar reporters of CNN” and their need to keep their sources anonymous. Those reporters did follow their profession’s professional code by verifying the information before reporting it. That same code allows for keeping sources anonymous when revealing the sources’ identities may present a risk.

Information would be much harder for journalists (and consequently the public) to obtain if there was the expectation to reveal all sources. As Iowa Republican Senator Grassley said in a town hall in Primghar, Iowa on Tuesday, “I love leaks.” Without leaks, important information about waste, fraud, and other unethical behavior would not come to light--as Bolduan said, “So that the information important to the public can get out.”

By attacking the concept of unrevealed sources, Carl Higbie was chopping at the base of the press, the fourth branch of government: “These stellar reporters of CNN, which I am going to attack right now, and say guess what, I don’t believe them because they are staying anonymous. If they stand behind the story, come out and face the camera.” As a former journalist, my blood boils when I hear these words. Of course, what we do and say when our blood boils makes all the difference.

Problem Number 3: Personal Attacks

Then there was yelling, the default tactic in so many battles. Clearly, there are things that make us so angry that many of us want to yell. The Bible includes the story of Jesus overturning tables in the temple (Mark 11; Matthew 21). The writers do not say that he yelled, but his expression of anger was very clear. But what I have learned as a teacher, a parent, and a political activist is that yelling does not foster healthy discourse. I regret few times when I was angry: there are many situations in which anger is an understandable and even righteous response. But I do regret some instances of yelling, instances that only proved my lack of self-control. Yelling turns conversation into drama (in the worst sense of the word)—a soap opera in which the focus turns from the subject at hand to the actors’ reactions. How far will the enraged person go in his or her language and behavior?

After Higbie attacks the anonymous sources and mocks the CNN reporters, host Kate Bolduan can’t hold it in any longer. She yells, she points in Higbie’s face, and at times she is trying to talk over two or three other people. At this point the show becomes more like the worst of reality TV than news programming.

Even though I strongly disagree with Carl Higbie’s suggestion that a news story is not credible when it won’t reveal sources, I do credit him with staying calm and not returning yelling for yelling.

Guest Keith Boykin, former aide in the Clinton White House, also stayed controlled in his tone. But as he disagreed with Higbie, he used shaming language/personal attacks, which, again, may attract viewers but distract from the issue being discussed. Boykin said to Higbie, “Carl, you’re embarrassing yourself. You’re embarrassing yourself, your party, and your country. You should not be doing this; you are a better person than this. I’m ashamed for you.” This public shaming made me uncomfortable and did not seem professional.

Back to the Fox segment: when Hannity lays out his argument for the hypocrisy of the Democrats and mainstream media who expressed concern over possible collusion, Hannity says, “What a bunch of phonies. What a bunch of hypocrites.” Again, name-calling lowers the level of argument to that of mean kids on the playground.

Whereas many politicians and media personalities have contributed to the current low level of political discourse, one person deserves the most credit, and that is our president, Donald Trump. Back already in December of 2015, David Noise wrote an article with the title, “Political Discourse is Getting Dangerously Anti-Intellectual: Image, Emotion, and Lack of Substance Define Politics Today.” Reading the following paragraph, I remember being shocked as Trump’s insults continued to make headlines:

The simplistic vilification of foreigners is just one aspect of the Trump candidacy’s anti-intellectualism, a characteristic that also reveals itself through the rejection of civility and maturity—with comments about Carly Fiorina's appearance, the mocking of a reporter's physical disability, and a menstrual reference while complaining about another reporter, to name just a few examples. It is a cultural and political milestone that voters have bestowed frontrunner status upon the man who declares his adversaries “losers” and “lowlifes.” Though the realm of politics has rarely been a noble profession in America, this kind of behavior by a leading candidate reflects low levels that few would have previously imagined.

Yet, we elected him. And since this style of political rhetoric has become not only acceptable but also rewarded, others have followed suit. Currently running for office in Iowa’s 3rd congressional district is Democratic candidate Heather Ryan. Due to her repeated profanity and crude name-calling of her Republican opponent, she was not invited to the Polk County Democratic steak fry because it is a “family-friendly event.” How bad is it when we are afraid of exposing our candidates to our children?

I long for a more excellent way.

One of the hardest things I have ever done is moderated a discussion of public funding for women’s health, an especially dicey subject here in Sioux County, Iowa. This discussion was part of an educational series hosted by the Sioux County Democrats, a series called Plain Conversation. Our topic for this month was chosen because the Republican-held state legislature was threatening to withhold all funding for family planning from any facilities that performed abortions (even though none of the government money went toward the performing of abortions). This change would, of course, halt any money from going to Planned Parenthood.

All three of our guest speakers were employees of Planned Parenthood: two came from Des Moines (four hours away) and one from nearby Sioux City. We asked them to explain what Planned Parenthood does, whom it serves, where its funding comes from, and how family planning in Iowa could change if the Iowa legislature rejected the federal family planning money so that it wouldn’t have to dispense money to Planned Parenthood.

Plain Conversation meetings are open to the public. Planned Parenthood opponents heard about our meeting and decided to attend. Knowing in advance that emotions would run high, our Democratic county leadership carefully planned rules for discourse. Here was my announcement at the beginning of the meeting:

Plain Conversation is a place where we become more educated about a topic affecting government and politics. We ask that you respectfully listen to the speakers who have traveled and given of their time to be here tonight. We will let them share their prepared remarks uninterrupted, and then there will be a time for questions. When that time comes, we ask that people raise their hands and wait to be called on. Then please limit your question or comment to no more than one minute. We in this room may have some differences of opinion, but our goal tonight is to have intelligent, respectful discourse about our topic. Thank you in advance for following these guidelines.

The expectations were clear. And for the most part, these rules were followed. During the Q and A, I tried to go back and forth between the raised hands of conservatives and progressives. A few times I needed to stop people from dominating the floor. Once when a man became angry because he was not allowed to continue speaking (saying, “I know my legal rights!”), I was able to calmly tell him that after speaking to the local police chief earlier today, I knew that I could ask him to leave if he didn’t respect our rules for discourse. Then I proceeded to invite the next person with her hand up to ask a question.

I don’t know if Planned Parenthood representatives had ever been to Sioux County, and if they had, were ever in the same room as committed pro-life conservatives. But during that Plain Conversation, opposing sides had no choice but to listen to each other. They had to hear each other’s questions and concerns and stories. Now I know that some people left angry that night. But that evening proved to me that everyday citizens participating in civic life can attempt to model and even insist on respectful discourse.

Of course, this eCircle intends to be just that: respectful discourse among people who differ. I love how this verse from Proverbs 12:18 says so much in so few words: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Wise tongues--just what the world needs.  

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Reader Comments (1)

Thank you, Kim. There are many things about this initial post that ring true for me, but none more than your assessment of the "Plain Conversation" with Planned Parenthood guests and another participant whose understanding of their own rights seemed to issue them an exemption to your clearly stated rules of engagement. What a poignant example of the much larger predicament plaguing our "polis." Perhaps it's not only "wise tongues" that our world desperately needs, but "wise ears"?

As this latest exercise of respectful discourse gets rolling, the quality of our discipline to hear can't be over-emphasized. It seems to me that the human condition, likely amplified by our privileged western individualism, biases us toward expressing/defending our own rights and voice, too often failing to exercise and strengthen our underdeveloped senses of hearing, seeing, feeling others. So of course we get an endless series of shouting matches (some more "civil" than others), as if talking louder and listening less helps us to be heard. This seems particularly true when the "conversation" attempts to span disparate identities, ideologies, and degrees of social power.

The story of Jesus' response to "a woman caught in adultery" in John 8 reminds me that Jesus chose silence rather than debate, doodling instead of immediate response, and question instead of accusation to turn the tide of this nearly fatal lynch mob (aka the "court of public opinion"?) back to reflect on its own absurd inadequacy to pronounce judgement, or to question the true nature of God's justice as manifest in the Christ. Before it is about any "them" it begins with "us" and our utter & perpetual failure to see, call forth, and be changed by the Imago Dei among us, particularly those counted most wretched.

When Jesus claimed "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), I suspect that what he meant by "truth" is much different than how we typically use the word, and much more in sync with "way" and "life" than our understanding of truth will ever get us. Similarly, Paul exhorting us to "speak (even hear?) the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15) frames that truth quite differently.

Can we do something differently? (At the risk of oversimplifying and over-spiritualizing the most profound truth) - through Christ alone.

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKevin McMahan

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