We Can Have Civil Discourse

I could make a lot of excuses as to why it has been many weeks since my last blog. I moved (to Richmond), I started a new company, big changes are going on with my children’s lives, and I’ve been affected by plain old spring and summer laziness. Those are all true, but none tell the whole story. The fact is for my sanity I felt I needed to step back from the negativity that surrounds political discourse these days. My short vacation started as a week, then two, and then before I knew it two months had passed. I do not consider myself to be a political neophyte, as I have been “in the fight” for many years, but frankly, something has changed and I just did not want to be a part of it. Events of the last few weeks have been so toxic, so dishonest, so stressing, that I guess I just wanted to find my “safe space.”

Not being a professional writer I was free to just sit out what I saw going on around me. This “return blog” stands as my explanation, and reflects my new commitment to getting back in the game, if only out of a sense of duty to good discourse. Reasonable people must stay involved, and cannot cede the field to those who have done so much to destroy rational debate in the Commonwealth and the country. Perhaps I’m being self-serving to consider myself reasonable, but while I enjoyed my vacation, it is time to re-engage.

Before I do, however, I thought I would take just one article to comment on what I believe is going on – that being the emergence of a new and toxic culture in the American political media, one that has abandoned all pretext of fairness, reasonableness, and professionalism for a mad world of “click bait” based on anonymous sources and rumor. This cannot be the new normal, and my hope is that others, more talented than I, will continue to fight against the trend to debase all political discourse in search of partisan advantage and ratings.

So what is going on? I think of it as the “Good Morning America” effect. Good Morning America, or GMA, is a morning show that epitomizes a kind of “news” that is not news at all, but merely gossip. It, and a bazillion copycat shows like it, have taken over the airwaves and infected the culture, and have been doing so for decades. As a stand-alone phenomenon, they are harmless…just a little fun in the morning. They deal with celebrity gossip mainly, and as we all have heard, for celebrities any publicity is good publicity. But spread widely and into political culture this phenomenon has debased real journalism and as a consequence our national debate. Political journalism has gone full-over to this new culture, one where entertainment is the objective, not truth, and where ratings matter more than content. Gossip is the medium, and gossip in politics leads to fake news, poor analysis, rumor-mongering and manipulation by dishonest people who wish to gain partisan advantage by any means necessary. This is not something I wish to be a part of.

Much has been said about “fake news.” Some of that news is truly fake, and there are websites that purposefully push completely false stories to garner attention, and in so doing cause acrimony and encourage hate. Other news is not quite as fake as these completely dishonest sites, being merely sloppy, slanted, misleading or misinformed. But the gossip culture keeps them going, and in fact they are extremely popular. In a mad push for ratings, honest discussion is abandoned, journalistic standards are tossed aside, and editorials are mixed with news as a means of enlisting political support for partisan objectives. In this category, I would include the political shows of MSNBC, NBC, CBS and ABC as well as CNN and, yes, Fox News, as well as the Washington Post and the New York Times to name just a few. Preaching to the choir, these outlets rely on rumors and whispers from anonymous sources – without exposing the ulterior motives that should be obvious to any journalist who cared to look. Only one side of an issue is ever discussed, and every issue is “spun” to achieve partisan advantage. No one knows who to believe anymore because few journalists can resist the power, both in terms of impact and ratings, of this gossip culture. Breathless reports that would never have made it onto the pages of a reputable newspaper only a few decades ago are now the norm, so normal, in fact, that we do not even see what has happened.

As a Republican and a conservative I naturally tend to see this played out more in the outlets that support the left, as I know the counter-arguments that are ignored and the alternative explanations for the breathless accounts that pass as news today. That said, the right is also guilty, and my Facebook page fills each morning with slanted articles that upon investigation are far less than indicated in their heavy-breathing headlines.

This gossip-culture, when tied to politics, presents a powerful tool to politicians and political activists, and we are suffering from the impact of that power today. In Virginia’s recent Republican primary, dishonest attacks were spun based only loosely on the truth and spread to a wide audience via social media, which almost turned the election. On the national scene a rumor touted by partisans through a complicit national media for months, based solely on anonymous sources and presented as an unrelenting drumbeat, that being that Trump associates, and maybe the President himself, “colluded” with Russians to throw the recent Presidential election, has contributed to a national schism that has fed violent eruptions across the nation and the unprecedented #resist movement, which seeks to overturn a national election, and very possibly contributed to the death of a radicalized gunman and the wounding of House Majority Whip Steven Scalise and three others. When news organizations adopt the standards and methods of entertainment TV, dealing in gossip and rumor, bad things are bound to happen. Gossip about celebrities is one thing, and GMA and TMZ are in themselves harmless, but when this culture becomes the norm in political writing the results are serious and frightening.

The shooting in Del Ray last week led many to call for a change in tone. Unfortunately, I do not believe that will last a week. What we need is a renewed commitment to honest, thoughtful, objective and respectful debate in our national political media and an end to the gossip and rumor-mongering that has taken over even the most respected outlets. It is time for my vacation to end so that I might contribute, even in a very small way, to a renewed sense of propriety in political journalism. I hope others will commit to doing the same.

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