Civil Discourse. We Can Do This.

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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  • Philippe Beaufort

    Sir, Thank you!
    I haven’t replied to a post in years due to toxic nature of almost every web/blog site out there. I’ve scanning BD since it’s inception (hey Jim!) and I do like keeping up to date on the region.
    As a public affairs guy I try and get my news from as many sources as possible. But its getting harder and harder to actually find factual news anywhere, left, right or center.
    The major networks have cut all ties to journalism. They only produce infotainment. Thats it.
    Unfortunately, and I’m sure I’ll get blasted for this, the problem is the free market and deregulation.
    How many companies now control 95% of the major media markets? Not many.
    What is the motivation of NBC’s owners to push a left leaning agenda? I don’t think board rooms of GE/now COMCAST are controlled by abortion loving hippy socialist/communist who strive for the downfall of America.
    The only thing that matters to Fox, ABC, NBC, CNN, etc… are the quarterly profits. Do you really think that any of the people that make actual policy decision give a crap about the state of our country?
    Walter Cronkite wouldn’t last a minute under today’s media management. They sure as hell wouldn’t pay for the staff of journalist, writers and researchers Walter had back in the day.
    If Fox News went out of business today, tomorrow night either CNN, MSNBC or any of the other “left leaning” media outlets would fill that “conservative” void in a heart beat.
    So, whats the solution? I don’t know. We may have travelled too far down this path.
    I personally don’t like the idea four or five companies controlling the free flow of information and being able to twist it anyway they want just to get the highest ratings.
    Well I spoke my piece and I think I’ll go dark again.

    Before I do, I’d like to take a minute to stop and think about the Seven Sailors we just lost in Japan.
    As an active duty Sailor who returned from Japan this year, please be thoughtful when you make posts on this subject. Something went wrong and people died, but not one of us was there to know what really happened.
    Thank you.

  • David Obermark

    i will be amongst those condemning the left wing media. My voice will be just as loud condemning the right wing media that has risen in response. Personally I reject where the battle lines have been drawn.

    Unfortunately things are polarized and moderate voices are no longer tolerated.

  • MD Russ

    “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.”

    And you think that Donald Trump and his sycophantic supporters are going to provide that as they groundlessly accuse major news outlets of lying? It is a condition called “projection,” Jay. It involves taking your own worst failings and accusing your critics of the same behavior.

    • Jay McConville

      I know what projection is, I also know I’m not doing it. I specifically called out the left and the right, and I’m not talking about politicians, I’m talking about writers.

      • MD Russ

        I respect your opinion, Jay. But when you start down the road talking about “fake news,” far too many people cannot discriminate between InfoWars and CNN. That is a problem for me. There is a huge difference between editorial bias and outright fabrication. The Trumpsters don’t seem to understand that difference, even as their own Dear Leader spews lies on Twitter.

        • Jay McConville

          I tried to distinguish between the two. Unfortunately there is a grey area where bias becomes fake if the writer is unethical or blinded by partisan desire. For example I have two sources I know hate Trump. They are passing me rumors I pretty much know are baseless. But I have two sources, so I go with it. Is that bias or “fake news?”

          • MD Russ

            Jay,

            CNN reported that the Sandy Hook shootings were possible because “assault weapons” (whatever that means, other than Scary-Looking Guns) can be purchased by civilians. InfoWars reported that the Sandy Hook shootings never happened and the incident was invented by the Obama Administration to further the cause of gun control. I don’t see any grey area between the two.

          • Jay McConville

            Logic: There is black, there is white, and in the middle is grey. National Review is not fake news, Info Wars is. The fact the they both exist does not mean there aren’t those in between them on the honesty spectrum that are more fake than not, or less fake than not. I put CNN in the latter, but they are biased and report rumor. Thus…grey.

        • Chuck Geer

          Unfortunately, Merle, far too many people don’t WANT to discriminate between InfoWars and CNN!!

          “CNN and Snopes are just a bunch of snowflake liberals.” (Yes, I have seen people make statements such as these on Facebook.)

          Frustrating as hell…

  • Chuck Geer

    The “Good Morning America Effect” is the perfect summation of how Donald Trump was elected President. Get a few “experts” who confirm the biases of the audience, and it’s no surprise that Trump was elected. (Sebastian Gorka is a chief example of this, among others.)

  • Jim Portugul

    The media keeps putting microphones in front of politicians that keep telling use that Obamacare is failing. The approved answer to fixing Obamacare is for Mitch McConnell to tell the health lobby to re-write Obamacare, change the title, raise the price, kick sick and old people off, all so Trump can say he fixed healthcare to satisfy the party base.

    Now, the funny part of this is that yes, Obamacare is being destroyed. But, the real issue is not that Obamacare is failing, but that this country is what is failing. We are $20 Trillion in debt, we pay over $320 billion per year in interest on that debt. Every time Janet Yellin raises the interest rate, we pay more in interest on the nation debt. We do not even have affordable healthcare. We spend half a trillion dollars on a failed airplane. (F-35) We say we need like 100 more ships for the navy, but yet we cannot even safely operate the ships we now have. We are a society that loves their illegal drugs. We have not won a war since WWll, not even a drug war. We are mired down in never ending wars.

    That is the problem with the media, it doesn’t report the news.

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