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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.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel  | May 3, 2010; 12:59 PM ET
Categories:  vanden Heuvel  | Tags:  Katrina vanden Heuvel  
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Comments

You got it backwards. It's not ESPN becoming coarser: they're dumb jocks...they can be stupid and no one cares...it's political discourse that is degrading into playground shouting matches.
Comparing ESPN to political debate is like comparing demolition derby to Formula 1, except that Formula 1 is taking lessons and the wreckage really means something.

Posted by: joebanks | May 3, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I think you are taking ATH too seriously. The points awarded on that show are given arbitrarily and often are tongue-in-cheek jokes concerning the personality quirks of each pundit. They have no real value and the pundits couldn't care less who wins/loses.

Posted by: ScottP1l | May 3, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

What happens in the media world when a blogger has absolutely no ideas? This blog entry.

You are the sort of person who would put helmets and airbags on chidlren because they might hurt themselves playing. You are sort of person who never finds anything funny. OK, maybe why did the chicken cross the road?

The only appropriate response for this stupid blog is for Around the Horn to compete for points explaining how stupid it is.

Posted by: krush01 | May 3, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

And while we are about discussing civility in discourse, how would you defend your performance yesterday on ABC's This Week, where you, the very unfunny and uncivil Bill Marher and the Reverand Al Sharpgton shounted, whined and interrupted your way through a very uncivil immigration debate.

Perhaps you could try to lead by example.

Posted by: krush01 | May 3, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Unless and until Obama admonishes his supporters and the Democratic Party for the steady stream of race-baiting and racial divisiveness, then his statements are just more empty partisan rhetoric and aren't worth squat. The Democratic Party has an unofficial strategy of racial intimidation (such as: Republicans are racist, Tea Partiers are racist) in an attempt to discourage people from voting for any other candidate. This is despicable but not surprising considering their history.

Posted by: tulsadave | May 3, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Odd that Heuvel would complain about lack of civility when she routinely uses gross distortion, personal attacks, class warfare and race baiting to fan the flames from the Left.

Posted by: Upstater | May 4, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

I agree with most post's here. If you want to start a civil debate, may I suggest you rein a few of yours in. How about an apology to the Tea Party? How about fitting Bill Maher with a muzzle? You try to place all the un-civil discourse at the feet of the opposition while claiming no guilt in perpetuating the discourse is disingenuous.

Posted by: elcigaro1 | May 4, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

"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..."

ATH is not taking cues from politics or the political media. ATH is taking cues from sports. You know...where they use scores and crown winners. Amazing considering they are talking about sports.

Posted by: dlwjunior | May 4, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

"The program, which is admittedly entertaining..."

Says a lot about the person who would find this show entertaining.

Posted by: Gover | May 4, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

ESPN is the least of it. All you have to do is watch Mme Pelosi and Sen Reid and wonder where civility and respect went.

Why should any American be any different than them?

Washington, including Obama, sets the tone.
Just think back to Obama's comments about the Mass Police officers after arresting the black professor from Harvard.

Posted by: mlemac | May 4, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Has the Republic fallen so far that our coarsening political discourse has now sullied even the overheated blathering of sportswriters?

Posted by: Ralphinjersey | May 4, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Seriously? They are paying you to write this. Let me see if I got this right, you were pressed for a deadline, you were procrastinating and flipping through channels and came across ATH. Can't you see these people are having fun? One upping each other on sports knowledge is an age old game. Generally, men who do not wear skinny jeans or have arms the size of pencils get together at bars and argue and kid about sports and go home. Moreover, whether someone stinks at a sport or a coach made a bad decision is subjective and so your claptrap about "higher" truth has no relevance. How would VH restructure ATH? Do us all a favor and stick to whining about how America is really a liberal nation and all that. Leave us jocks alone.

Posted by: Daedulus | May 4, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Who cares about the level of debate on ESPN?

The comments about the panel on ABC's "This Week," on the other hand are right on. What a panel! A comedian, a thugish demagogue who has somehow managed to represent himself as a civil rights leader, and Ms. Vanden Heuvel, who apparently never took lessons in civil discourse from her father.

Posted by: hambya | May 4, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

"We can do better!" So you said on This Week.

I invite you to try. Pull your money out of your investments, out of the bank and start your own company to do whatever BETTER. Invite your friends and like-minded colleagues to likewise invest in your company to do whatever BETTER. Start BETTER energy company. Start a BETTER insurance company. Start a BETTER law firm to represent repressed minorities.

Report your results.

Oh, and by the way, to heck with making a profit on the money you invest. You don't want to be painted as a greedy business person obsessed with the bottom line (profits) or pocketing huge bonuses as your company goes down in flames.

Posted by: onehanded | May 4, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

"We can do better!" So you said on This Week.

I invite you to try. Pull your money out of your investments, out of the bank and start your own company to do whatever BETTER. Invite your friends and like-minded colleagues to likewise invest in your company to do whatever BETTER. Start BETTER energy company. Start a BETTER insurance company. Start a BETTER law firm to represent repressed minorities.

Report your results.

Oh, and by the way, to heck with making a profit on the money you invest. You don't want to be painted as a greedy business person obsessed with the bottom line (profits) or pocketing huge bonuses as your company goes down in flames.

Posted by: onehanded | May 4, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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