In the time of the year when elections come to an end and average citizens suddenly grow tired of the bickering and vulgarization of discourse, a new idea comes along that undermines partisan provocateurs bent on belittling and maligning their opposition. The idea is that civilization flourishes when public discourse is accompanied by respect and charity — both sorely lacking in the aftermath of a divisive election.
Social media is partly to blame for the civility-deficit in the public arena. It’s so easy to lob verbal bombs on Facebook and duck behind your Macbook. Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center survey confirmed this when they found that a majority of social media users are annoyed and aggravated “at the tone and content of the political interactions they witness on these platforms.” A third of social-media participants are worn out by the sheer volume of political content and “more than half describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating.”
But social media isn’t the only culprit. It’s too many activists and academia unwilling to accept the results of an election and a general unwillingness to try to understand what precipitated it in the first place. It’s also a loss of confidence in much of the established media whose failed narrative and predictions led to such disappointment. According to a Gallup poll in September, only 14 percent of Republicans, 30 percent of Independents and 51 percent of Democrats “express trust and confidence in the mass media.”
Even though media angle for market share and citizens speculate on credibility there should be common ground for agreement regardless of political persuasion. Can we agree that measured political discussion and the exchange of ideas are good and healthy for a democratic republic? How about agreeing that when discussion turns to accusation and debate begins to demean and assassinate character, a line has been crossed? Can we agree that intolerance and bigotry toward another’s deeply held moral values is antithetical to civility?
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Consider what recently happened to Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame who refused to divulge their personal beliefs on same-sex relationships. They also attend a church whose pastor believes in a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic. After a suspicious Buzzfeed reporter failed to get the Gaines to reveal their views, she did what any respectable journalist would do and dug up old sermons delivered by their pastor and reported his views. This is a non-story about a celebrity couple’s non views.
Established media’s current fixation on fake news misses their contribution to its proliferation (as if the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News didn’t exist prior to the Internet). It’s their flirtation with gossip and reporting as newsworthy suspicion of others who don’t think like them. It’s missing big stories that gave rise to the Drudge Report and sundry other online outlets. It’s their decidedly political left slant, willingness to become a conduit of malicious news, and their disconnect from practices that make for good journalism.
The Buzzfeed story, which has gone viral, amounts to the same kind of cultural McCarthyism that got another TV show canceled on HGTV in 2014. Jason and David Benham were slated to be the original “Property Brothers” — until someone discovered their conservative views on human sexuality. They paid a high price for simply holding the wrong beliefs.
When such bigotry becomes public, the media should refuse to facilitate such personal destruction. In fact, shouldn’t people of goodwill at every station in society come to the defense of another whose personal beliefs based on their understanding of truth are maligned?
There’s another reason everyone who considers themselves members of the press should be careful to get this right. A McCarthyism of the left that marginalizes and punishes perceived outliers who don’t subscribe to their sexual ethics is just as dangerous as a McCarthyism of the right that targeted suspected communists in the 1950s. Both ruined lives and careers. Both lost credibility.
A healthy media pursues a story with balance, seeks truth and respects personal boundaries. Good journalism recognizes it’s not the public’s right to know the intimate political and or religious beliefs of celebrities unwilling to share those details when their renown intersects neither the political or religious. Neglecting these truths frays an already delicate political fabric of a free people — a freedom the media plays an important role in maintaining.
Richard Nelson of Cadiz is executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center.