Friday, December 17, 2010

Labels, Learning, and One More Story

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to watch the No Labels launch via webcast since I didn't make the trip to New York. It was impressive to see some major political and media figures express their support for an organization that won't be driven by hyper-partisanship. Anything that lessens name calling, misrepresentation, and pat answers is something I'm in favor of.

It was enlightening to watch the event and then read the response in the media. Some argued it was business as usual. Others said that it was simply Centrist Democrats trying to regain the position they held in the Clinton years. Others complained that by equating name calling on the extreme right (Hitler, socialists, etc.) with those name calling on the left (obstructionists, homophobes) that we weren't condemning bad behavior.

Here's what I've been reflecting on this week. First, there is no value in trying to prove that my behavior is not as extreme as my opponent. If there are assumed norms of proper behavior and I've crossed them in my caricature of the other side, it doesn't really matter HOW FAR I crossed the line. The truth that the other's behavior was more egregious isn't an excuse for my behavior. My response, as hard as it is, should be one of apology and repentance. I'd like to think that would bring about a reciprocal response from the other, but even if it doesn't it's the right thing to do. If I want to see civil behavior, the pressure is on my to demonstrate it. (Think of it as the Sermon on the Mount does Politics.)

Some observers of the No Labels launch recognized that the only Republican speakers participating were moderates, some of whom had been forced out by Tea Party challenges. I think that's a good critique and a movement committed to true engagement of issues must find ways of reaching out to all segments of the political spectrum. They may not want to come, but the invitation needs to be regularly made.

There were several media figures that participated in the event. In watching them, particularly as part of panel discussions, it clarified one of the major issues in cable news today. They think it's about them. On more than one occasion, media figures talked too much, for too long, and kept other voices from being heard. I remember Walter Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America" but I don't remember him as A Celebrity.

This leads me to something my daughter Niki shared with me today. A group called World Public Opinion conducted a study of what people knew about the recent campaign and where they got their information. Not surprisingly, they reported that the 2010 campaign was seen as more distorted than those in the past. Further, they show how much reliable data exists to dispute claims made in the election. Finally, they examined how the source of news correlated with certain incorrectly held views.

This last piece was instructive on several grounds. First, folks who watched Fox News every day were far more likely to hold a number of distorted views (this is correlation, so it could be that folks with distorted views just watch Fox more often). There were some other interesting patterns where people's views moved toward more correct positions (with the same correlation exception -- maybe rapid NPR listeners already know a lot of stuff).

But the amazing data to me was HOW LITTLE DIFFERENCE viewing patterns made. If I were a news executive, I'd be mortified. My best guess is that the media has so bought into the approach of "on the one hand we have A" and "on the other hand we have B" that people think that all data is suspect, that everybody lies, and that I can simply decide what I think is right and then find sources to back me up. This is a major challenge to democracy.  Like it or not,  FACTS EXIST. We may disagree as to what the policy reactions to those facts might be, but we don't get to treat facts as if we're at Old Country Buffet.

Media figures need to return to being humble newspeople making difficult situations easier to understand. If the CBO says that the Health Care Law will reduce the deficit over time, repeat this fact every time anyone says otherwise. Currently, the person doing this better than anyone else is Anderson Cooper. If more journalists would follow his lead, we'd be a healthier society. On the other hand, we have the stories of how Fox executives suggested particular wording in talking about policy in order to create a specific impression. Such behavior should be denounced by professional journalists everywhere.

Enough ranting about the media and how they not only don't understand a group like No Labels but seem to want to make Labels more rigid (makes their job easier). Maybe in this week where compromise actually happened we'll find some new descriptions of reality.

One more Story. It's The Story. Last time I commented on the Holiday Parade, Christian America, and the War on Christmas. I know there's no war on Christmas and having people say Happy Holidays is nothing more than a combination of secular society and consideration for Jews. But it is still interesting that the story of Jesus being born in a stable is part of our overall sense of the Christmas season. People who've never gone to church know about Angels and Shepherds and Magi. Maybe it all comes back to the moment when Linus asks for the lights to come on in the auditorium. But people know the story. They get it mixed up with acquisition and Santa Claus and once in Illinois we saw a pig in the creche (which isn't quite kosher). But the Story remains. Somehow it cuts through all the other stuff this time of year. It's a miracle, really.

To use another line we all know, God Bless Us Every One.

Next blog post in 2011. Have a Marvelous Christmas.

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