Polite Disagreement and the Age of Polarizing Media (Part I)
By Elias Karmi, Engage Minnesota
Tuning in to radio talk shows and TV political discussions is climbing up my list of stress-causing activities. Here is why: It is one thing to disagree with the other side of the spectrum, but it is quite another to devote an entire show, or sometimes a station, for non-stop vilification, mockery, and public charging against the opposing party.
In a quest for higher ratings, the media are playfully harping the strings of cultural differences within the United States. You have Air America Radio, for example, which never fails at scaring people about a looming conservative agenda that seeks to deprive everyone of their civil liberties — obviously pushing the correct buttons for people with liberal tendencies. On the other side, you also have Bill O’Reilly, already declaring war and naming himself a “culture warrior.” If there is ever a conclusion to this “war” of his, I wonder who could be the loser except America itself.
The other day I was attending a lecture at Dar al Farooq mosque in Dinkytown. The imam (preacher) was discussing how to deal with people of different creeds and ideologies. The conclusion was that we should stand up for what we believe and educate people about it, but it is neither required nor acceptable to condemn another sect by labeling them “disbelievers” or “evil” so long as they carry the same basic tenets. I thought: “This is a principle that America needs to be reminded of.” The right/left dialogue has been reduced to baseless accusations and speculations of ill intention.
Let me propose this for thought: Left-wing pundits fear that conservative rule would, as one of its dreaded goals, eventually eliminate health care for the poor. But when did you hear a single mainstream conservative say that the poor do not deserve to be taken care of? Conservatives and liberals differ on the methodology, but the intention is the same. Looking at the other side, right-wing pundits fear that liberal rule would eventually destroy family values. When did you hear a mainstream liberal person speak out against family values? In reality, many of the fears held by both sides are based on lots of speculation and very little proof.
Fortunately so far, the extreme polarity seems to be limited to the media and we see very little of it in our daily lives, which is only natural because people as intense as Glenn Beck or Al Franken are a minority. It is worth fearing, however, that media stations may slowly undermine public peace with their demagoguery. In a race for better ratings, broadcasters have abandoned the principles of polite disagreement and common etiquette for the sake of wider audiences, more ads, and thereby higher profits. The more vile and disagreeable the programming is, the more it sounds like the good idea in broadcasting company boardrooms.
People praise those who “say it like it is,” but being polite does not necessarily entail being deceitful. A reporter or host can easily be provocative and probing while being appropriate in his or her manners. Nowadays, however, being “courageous” or “strong” is measured by how loud the host yells, how smartly he mocks, or how utterly immune he is to any remote possibility of changing his opinion.
Anything else is viewed as boring, and boring means lower ratings. Lower ratings are dangerous to the life of a media station; so much so that Jim Lehrer of PBS said, describing his work: “It takes a lot of courage to be boring five nights a week.”
What I hope for is that more of the public would get tired of this phenomenon and consciously tune in to more even-tempered discussions, enough to drop the ratings of the pundits to where they would need to change their tone. Because although this phenomenon is relatively new in American history, its damaging effects may eventually become palpable.
–Elias Karmi, Burnsville MN