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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 01/11/2011

Time to agree on media standards?

By Susan Herbst
Guest Blogger

About this blog: The shootings in Arizona have focused attention on the nature of our political discourse. Susan Herbst, a professor of public policy at Georgia Tech, has taken an in-depth look at the subject in her book “Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics,” recently released by Temple University Press. Herbst recognizes that democracy is by its nature often rude but she also insists there are limits to how uncivil we should be. “Rude Democracy” explores how we can create a more civil national culture. Here, Herbst argues for media professionals to work together on divising rules of discourse.


In my book, I argue that we all — citizens, leaders, pundits — need to have thicker skin about tough political dialogue, but I also advocate for substantive talk simultaneously. A thick skin is worthless unless we have something to argue about, something that matters in the pursuit of democracy and good public policy.

This is why the horrendous shootings in Arizona, aimed at Rep. Giffords and others, are disturbing on so many levels. An unbalanced person aiming to hurt political leaders and citizens is terrifying enough, but just as horrifying is the resulting punditry: We now have a raging argument among talking heads about who is using the shootings to their own partisan advantage. Apparently, even in the shadow of breathtaking incivility, paired with violence, we still cannot get out of our chronic trap: Political discourse has become so vacuous that every single crisis needs to be framed as a blame game.

There is no simple answer to why anyone commits an act of deadly violence, and that is clear from the circumstances. That the Arizona events would be used as a launching pad for more worthless discourse is shameful. We are in a rut that we cannot seem to escape, a post-modern circus of thoughtless Internet garble.

How should journalists and pundits deal with an event like this? For one, they should try to remove it from partisan trappings. After all, plenty of conservative legislators and leaders have received threats, and many quite serious, over a long period. No one can demonstrate that an act of violence like this was due to a particular book or political tract, read by the shooter. It’s the entirety of our political environment that might be causal.

Second, there are ways to be upset and concerned about this, and utilize that concern to reflect on the essential nature of American political discourse as a whole, highlighting our two central problems: We have few rules about what constitutes “evidence” to support one’s views and few seem capable of maintaining a non-hysterical tone, even when they do have conventional evidence.

What if one major, mainstream pundit called for a truce – a summit or proposal imploring all major news organizations to visit their rules of evidence, as well as their commitment to this nation and its citizens. This is possible, even in a country where audience size matters: Fox will still have its audience and so will the New York Times, even if these outlets shift the nature and tone of debate. Are they capable of working, as professional associations around the world so often do, to map their shared ideas about discourse? Professional organizations of independent actors create standards to improve their professions, and do good work. Journalists, and leaders who play to them, can still disagree, vehemently. But they could do it with the kind of seriousness of purpose that would actually serve the audiences they say they care about.

Most worrisome of all in our time is what we teach the next generation of citizens, leaders, and journalists. We cannot escape our spiral without establishing some rules of engagement, that professional people espouse, follow and model for the future. From the ancient Greek philosophers’ tracts to current high school debate, we have many models, some of which I discuss in “Rude Democracy.” We need a visionary pundit or two to lead the charge, and commence the long process of reforming our political discourse. What we have now, on the Internet and television, would make the Founders — experts on how to disagree profoundly, in agreeable ways — shudder.

By Susan Herbst  | January 11, 2011; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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