I read the text of President Obama’s speech in Tucson last night and watched it just this morning. If you haven’t actually listened to it yet, you probably should. It is, as he’s given to from time to time, a remarkable performance–humble and sad, visionary and inspirational, humane, all the characteristics of the Obama that drew us to him during the campaign and all too often get washed out by the noise of daily politics.
From cruising around the blogosphere last night after the speech, I gather that even some of the more conservative punditocracy were praising the speech. I haven’t seen any reactions from Republican members of Congress, but when Charles Krauthammer gives a Democrat the nod, the Democrat must have done OK. So let’s just say, for the sake of conversation, that Obama’s call for renewed civility and decency in our political discourse made a mark on the people with the loudest (that is, the most mass mediated) voices: elected officials and pundits.
Then I made the mistake (or, faced the demon–choose your metaphor) of beginning to read comments sections of stories about the speech. I don’t know if YahooNews draws an especially nasty crowd or what, but it didn’t take 2 minutes from the end of the speech before screeches of “traitor” and “communist” and “worst President ever” and “he wasn’t even born here” showed up. Today, out of the first ten comments, two of them say, “Google FEMA Concentration Camps and find out what Hussein means to do to YOU!” Nobody explicitly calls for his assassination or violence directly against him, but let’s just say that his call for decency seems to have fallen on some deaf ears.
One of my favorite bloggers, Ed at Gin and Tacos, wrote the other day that one of the big problems in our current political scene is that nobody seems willing to call out the crazies. What the hell is wrong with them? How can anybody listen to a neighbor (much less a Congressperson or respected “journalist”) propagate the kind of insanity that we’ve come to take for granted without responding to it? And I’m not just talking about the militaristic metaphors and the “climate of hate” that’s been flying around for the last few days. I’m talking about somebody I defriended on Facebook because they thought it was hilarious when Barack Obama got his lip split playing basketball and said something like, “Damn, I wish I’d learned to play basketball so I could have smashed his face in.” About the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! If one of us peaceniks had said anything of the sort about George W. Bush, we’d have been accused of being TRAITORS (gasp). In fact, some of us did say terrible things about George W. Bush (if there were an emoticon for a raised hand, I’d use it here) and were routinely called traitors. Of course, we were also called traitors when we said nothing at all about GWB, but that’s another story…
Anyway, so my question for now is this. If the big voices in our country got the message last night, and have begun to realize that the way we talk to each other is counterproductive, horrifying, unworthy of us, call it what you will, how do we get that message to the people who really need to hear it–our neighbors and co-workers, the people stockpiling weapons caches in case they need to revolt, the people who hide behind anonymity to threaten others’ safety and well-being, and so on? There’s an argument to make that it took decades of building up to this level of anger and viciousness and that it will, therefore, take decades to build it down. We don’t have time for that. How do we accelerate that process?
I guess another way of asking the question: how do we, as activists, organize in our own communities (physical, virtual, professional, …) to support a more productive, humane discourse? How do we even begin to talk about rebuilding trust, believing that what people who think differently are doing isn’t automatically an attempt to destroy us?
Once trust has been breached, it’s very difficult to rebuild. At least right now, that’s the biggest challenge I see.
The following post on today’s Daily Kos calls for some additional reaction, I think…
Apparently, a couple of genius anchors at CNN are blaming open access to the internet for the Shirley Sherrod “incident” rather than asserting (correctly) that Andrew Breitbart is a lying scumbag, and worse failing to recognize their own complicity in creating the scandal because they (and Fox, and MSNBC, and all the rest of them) didn’t bother to do any verification or fact-checking before they ran the story.
The Daily Kos post handles the first half of that well, reminding readers that Breitbart’s ill intentions don’t mean the internet is bad. But Kos doesn’t address the other half of the problem, which is the reckless way that the MSM took up the story without finding out ANYTHING about it. I’m appalled but not surprised (one of the lingering effects of the GWBush administration is that those emotions are permanently detached in my psyche) that CNN wouldn’t even stop to consider that maybe they made the mistake here–not just taking Breitbart seriously enough to pick up the story, but–up against his history of fabrication and manipulation–running it without taking ANY responsibility for its accuracy.
Or put more directly, “the most trusted name in news” lost any trust I might have had when two of its spokespeople so utterly and completely misrepresented their own culpability in the damage done to Shirley Sherrod, the administration, the NAACP, and so on. That’s not to say none of those groups (except Sherrod, who I find pretty much blameless throughout) have made mistakes of their own. But notice that even Tom Vilsack and the Obama administration aren’t blaming “the blogosphere” for what happened; they realized they screwed up, and owned up to it.
Keep in mind one important factor here. The NEWS outlets are the only group involved in this situation who willingly take on the charge of accuracy in reporting. Sure, the NAACP overreacted and “got snookered” (to use their term). Sure Vilsack (with or without the administration’s urging) flipped out in fear that the administration was going to be pilloried by Fox and their friends. But for CNN’s claim to be “most trusted” is based on THEIR OWN claim that they actually do the work of investigating, checking, and verifying stories before they run them. What else would “trust” be based on? Who cares if they report everything first if it’s wrong? Who cares what anonymous sources come to them when those sources aren’t telling anything resembling the truth?
We expect NEWS to be verified, and CNN is quite simply avoiding their own culpability by pretending that this was anybody’s fault but their own.