I’ve read this article by CNN commentator John Avlon several times because I think it is perfectly on the mark about what ails our republic.
(If you are a regular reader of the Clark Report, you know that I believe that competitive redistricting is our only possible solution to an ever-polarizing political landscape. I won’t beat that dead horse here, except to say it stands to reason that we will have politicians who cater less to the lunatic fringe and their own narrow interests when they must win in a truly competitive district.)
Of course, one critique of articles like that above is that there never really ever was civility in politics. As I recall, opponents of Andrew Jackson claimed that he was an adulterer, etc.
However, I think the Avlon article reminds us that the problem is not lack of civility from some quarters, rather the amount of space we give those lacking civility at the table of democratic discourse. After all, now the distance between lie and the public eye is even shorter than when Churchill famously said that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
There is something different: the blog-as-news syndrome. We have lost the old standard-bearer news organizations and returned to the days of Jackson when papers were owned by partisan organizations or industrialists. We are Balkanizing and we don’t seem to care.
I saw the most frightening aspect of that first hand in Bosnia. In support of their political masters, “news” organizations just parroted the party line to the point of tearing that country apart, resulting in over 200,000 deaths.
In American history, we avoided that fate over 100 years ago as the Journalists Canon of Ethics took on greater meaning and newspapers became more professional and independent.
Walter Kronkite is not just a good anchor, he epitomized the way journalists aught to be. But more that that, he epitomized the way editors should be. The best news production was professional, process-driven and introspective enough to admit when it made mistakes.
This is where I think the turning point needs to be. Blogs don’t have editors and fact checkers –and that is bad enough because people take blogs as true news sources. To make it worse, editors at Fox and MSNBC, primarily, have decided to continually blur the line between news and commentary.
Really, you can’t always tell which show is meant to be a commentary show and which is news.
Editors: you need to take back control of the process. Your news readers should be only that, news readers. They are not stars. They should not toss in comments or throw knowing glances at the camera to tell you how they feel about the news. In fact, tear it all down and start over. But this time, re-read the Canons of Journalism.
Only then can we strive to have civility in discourse. Only then can we really protect our democracy.