Can We Have A Civil Debate On Gun Control?
The Newtown massacre continues to raise our nation’s collective ire.
As good an example of this as any is a story from WJLA, ABC News 7’s website in which Virginia governor Bob McDonnell suggests arming teachers as one answer to the nation’s school security concerns, I’m simply offering it as a snapshot of what happens when one solution to a national problem is put forward. The comments that are posted in the wake of the article, as raw as they are, are but a small sample of the vitriol that will be magnified in the state houses, legislatures, and the Congress when and if the issue gets real legs.
If we cannot control our emotions at this level (anonymous as they might seem to be), is there any hope for civil discourse in the wells of the House and the Senate? We’ve already witnessed, and heard, a number of examples in each chamber, from Congressman Joe Wilson’s “Liar!” directed at President Obama in 2009, to Dick Cheney’s 2004 “Go f***yourself,” in a heated moment with Senator Patrick Leahy.
Given that most media websites include comment sections, and, also given that many of those comment areas are loosely moderated or subject to limited censorship, the question is raised: Does the media bear any responsibility for the decline in civility in the public arena? Allowing all but the most vile and hurtful language to propagate not only in comments, but in actual on-air, or in-print stories and discourse must certainly be having some effect on the broader national civil atmosphere.
In their 2010 survey, “Civility in America, a Nationwide Study,” the public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, in cooperation with KRC Research, bolstered the intuitive feeling that civility is on a downhill slide, noting that the decline is evidenced by “…the daily occurrences of cyber bullying, online ‘flaming’ and nasty blog comments, the venomous bickering taking place on some reality TV shows and between TV news personalities and their guests, and the meanspirited mudslinging among politicians and their loyal supporters.”
As far the impact on media-based civility or lack thereof, the survey found that, “News organizations, television, and talk radio are losing their audiences as rudeness and abusive conversations continue. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans report that they ceased watching a TV program or listening to a radio program because of its uncivil tone. And incivility in the media is not limited to broadcast. Although incivility is tolerated more in newspapers and magazines, nearly one in five (18%) canceled a newspaper or magazine subscription because of uncivil content.”
Earlier this year, The Center for Civil Discourse produced “Civility and American Democracy: A National Forum,” with reporters Ellen Goodman, Joe Klein, and Kathleen Parker. Among the topics: “Are the media part of the problem or part of the solution?” and “In the competitive, ratings-driven world of mass media, where is the market for civility?” In her remarks, Goodman said, “It is true, that what Americans hear in politics and in the media leave them feeling like observers at a tennis match—rapidly moving our heads from side to side waiting for an overhead slam rather than a solution to our problem.”
That tennis match is going to go into high gear in just a few weeks. The President will serve his legislative proposals for some form of gun control from the White House side of the net to the far court, where Congressional players and eager pundits are already raising a racket to return Obama’s serve.
Will the media and the Congress keep civil tongues as the debate proceeds—serving as civil examples for social media to follow? If all parties can keep the images of Columbine, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown front and center, we may actually get through this with barely a discouraging word.
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