The 24-hour news cycle and the demise of civil discourse
One wouldn’t think that writing about a recent vacation would lead to brutish e-mails. Yet that is exactly what happened when I wrote last week about a recent trip to New York. Mind you, this is not a complaint about the response to that column. As negative responses go, this one was mild. And I’ve been around this business long enough to know that disagreeable disagreement comes with the job.
It just got me to thinking about the state of discourse in the United States today, and, more to the point, why it has degenerated to the gutter in which it finds itself. It’s something that has crossed my mind often over the past few years. And I always come back to the same thought: The root of the problem lies in talk — or as I more accurately call it — shout radio and the 24-hour news cycle.
The radio and television shouters have made coarse conversation and, even more insidious, ideology masquerading as fact, not just acceptable, but expected.
A couple of examples:
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, the left’s noisiest (I would say gasbag, but since this piece has something to do with polite conversation, I won’t) somehow managed to lay blame for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Dick Cheney. Never mind that the Obama administration’s Interior Department exempted British Petroleum from conducting a detailed environmental analysis of its Gulf drilling operations last year. Olbermann somehow connected some very tenuous dots to trace the spill from BP to Halliburton. And we all know who used to run Halliburton, don’t we?
Not to be outdone, right-wingers have their shills doing plenty of misleading themselves. Examples abound, but I’ve always thought that Fox News’ Sean Hannity using footage of large crowds at one event as a backdrop to another, unrelated event was particularly devious. It certainly led viewers to think that the crowd at a GOP health care rally was much larger than it really was. After the error was made public, Hannity apologized, calling the mistake “inadvertent.” Sure, if we lived in an age when we could believe him. But we don’t, because he, and countless other members of the chattering class have given us no reason to believe anything they say.
We might write all of this off (and plenty of other examples) as Olbermann being Olbermann and Hannity being Hannity. But too many people believe what they hear on the airwaves. And as much as it pains me to say this, more and more people get their news from radio and television, particularly cable television.
Which brings me to the 24-hour news cycle, which is, when you really think about it, an oxymoron. There is no non-stop news cycle. The world we live in is big and complex. But it doesn’t produce 24 hours worth of news every day. Occasionally it does. But 9/11, fortunately, doesn’t come along very often.
Most days there simply isn’t enough news to fill up all of that dead air. So the networks and much of AM radio rely on opinion journalism to fill up the time. What we get most of the time isn’t news, it’s opinion. Most of it isn’t well-thought-out opinion.
I think a producer for CNN, FOX or MSNBC has one of the easiest jobs in journalism these days. Pick a topic, any topic. Find a Republican or a Democrat, any Republican or any Democrat, or any conservative or any liberal, stick a camera in front of them and ask an inane question. That’s it. Nothing more required. You want nuanced observation? Forget it. You want to know the complexity of an issue? No way. Just get one person to say yes and another to say no. One says east, the other west. One black, one white. One left, one right. That’s about as nuanced as you can find on today’s airwaves.
Such a simplistic approach to public discourse can lead to only one thing: A coarser and coarser debate about the issues that we should be taking at least somewhat seriously.
It leads to Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann and every other talking head they represent. Their fatuous debate trickles down, contaminating conversation at every level, until we’re here, divided and polarized, unable to disagree without being disagreeable.