Political incivility hits ESPN
In our “post-Crossfire vs. Jon Stewart” world, we might have expected a bit more openness and a bit less vitriol in our public debate. Sadly, as President Obama noted over the weekend at the University of Michigan’s 2010 commencement in Ann Arbor, this hasn’t happened. “Pundits and talking heads shout at each other,” said Obama. “The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story -- which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible.”
This is an old argument, one that The Nation’s Benjamin DeMott examined in “Seduced by civility,” a 1996 essay subtitled, “Political manners and the crisis of democratic values.” The line back then, which hasn’t changed much in fourteen years, was that progressive politics was caught in a stranglehold of cynicism, meanness and counterproductive finger-pointing. Without endorsing it, DeMott explained, “The republic is suffering from rampant intemperateness on the one hand (loss of the inner check on which social intercourse depends) and distaste for associated living on the other. Citizens are shouting too much, as on Geraldo and talk-radio. They’ve forgotten how to listen and respect and defer. Furthermore, the once-vaunted native genius for collaborative, volunteer problem-solving is disappearing down the drain, and people feel the disappearance.” In other words, everyone’s trying to one-up each other.
Now, alarmingly, political incivility is spreading to other realms. ESPN’s popular Around the Horn program, for example, features a half-hour of spirited yammering from four sports pundits who are geographically selected to best represent the entire country. (A common lineup might feature writers from the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Sun-Times.) Billed as “the show of competitive banter,” the journos debate the day’s sports news under the moderation of host Tony Reali. The catch is that Reali gets to distribute points when a participant makes a good point -- and subtract them when someone says something stupid. At the end of the show, the character with the most points gets 20-30 seconds of “face time” to talk directly to viewers about any subject he wants.
The program, which is admittedly entertaining, is also problematic. Conversation, after all, isn’t a royal rumble, but rather a vehicle by which folks can engage each other civilly in order to arrive at a greater truth. With its omnipresent, continuously updated scoreboard on the screen, Around the Horn underlines the flawed mentality that debate exists only to crown a champion and, by corollary, to make losers out of everyone else. As long as shows such as Around the Horn take their cues from contemporary politics and continue to pump artificial competition into something as basic to human function as talking, media will, as Obama says, “play up every hint of conflict” in search of a sexier story.
As citizens and as consumers, we must demand more productive discourse and less discord from our media outlets. Progressivism -- and basic civility -- is at stake.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
| May 3, 2010; 12:59 PM ET
Categories: vanden Heuvel | Tags: Katrina vanden Heuvel
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