President Obama gave the commencement speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor today. In the course of his remarks he addressed "today's poisonous political climate" and his prescription for "a vibrant and thriving news business." It was a refreshing alternative to the adversarial ravings that dominate contemporary media.
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The President was characteristically fair and balanced. He began by relating his experience with mail he received from a kindergarten class in Virginia:
"The student asked, 'Are people being nice?' Well, if you turn on the news today - particularly one of the cable channels - you can see why even a kindergartner would ask this question. We've got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story - which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make the most outrageous comments."I have nothing to add to that. The President's remarks perfectly frame a serious deficiency in today's press. Here are some more excerpts that speak to some of the most divisive elements of the media, and particularly the cable news sector that is so riven with rancor and falsehoods.
"Throwing around phrases like 'socialist' and 'Soviet-style takeover' 'fascist' and 'right-wing nut' may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes."
"...this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning - since after all, why should we listen to a 'fascist' or 'socialist' or 'right wing nut?' It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response."On this point, Obama may need to reflect on what he considers a "bridgeable difference." The people calling him a fascist and a socialist are not behaving rationally and have no intention of hashing things out. They are devoted to disseminating their brand of dishonest extremism and are well aware of the potentially violent signals they are sending. This is a blind spot for the President who still believes that he can orchestrate a post-partisan political environment. As he continues he returns to more solid footing and unveils his advice for smoothing America's ruffled feathers.
"Today's twenty-four seven echo chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before."
"Still, if you're someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website."The interesting thing about that last quote is that while the President was able to make a contrasting comparison newspaper to newspaper (New York Times to Wall Street Journal), he was unable to do the same for the radio/TV personalities, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. He had to resort to naming a web site (Huffington Post) for contrast. That illustrates a fundamental ideological imbalance in broadcast media.
In addition to that imbalance, it is also notable that readers of the New York Times are far more likely to have a broader and more diverse range of news sources than Beck and Limbaugh fans. So the president's advice to expand one's range of news sources is less necessary for liberals because they probably already have exposure to conservative media. And the advice is less effective for conservatives because they aren't likely to step out of their right-wing news bubble anyway. There was ample evidence of that in a recent study that showed that 63% of Tea Baggers rely on Fox News as their primary news source, compared to 23% of the population at large. That's a pretty narrow scope of vision. By the way, Fox News, as it often does, chose not to broadcast Obama's speech.
Finally, Obama touched on one of the aspects of the hostility in public debate that has long been a big concern for me:
"I understand that one effect of today's poisonous political climate is to push people away from participation in public life. [...] That's when power is abused. That's when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That's when powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of Washington."What Obama left out is that that's one of the intentions of poisoning the political climate. Most people think that that sort of negativity is just an attempt to shape an argument, albeit a clumsy and distasteful attempt. But in reality the purpose is to turn people off and dissuade them from participating. From a strategic standpoint you can have greater influence (at less cost) if you can shrink the pool of people you are trying to manipulate. Remember that the next time you see a negative campaign ad.
And here's the video: