What We Owe the Mainstream Media

Tone matters. The tone of our politics lately has
been one of two parties in a verbal war. The language of this war is sometimes
hateful, sometimes short-sighted, sometimes revealing. Feelings have been aired
that have festered in the bowels of America. Some of these feelings are more
than a century old, some of these feelings are new and have to do with economic
and cultural change in America and around the globe. Some of these feelings
arise out of people’s quite irrational fears that there are vast global
conspiracies whose goal is to make America unrecognizable. Others arise out of
real change in the economic situation of some Americans. Some have to do with
something as basic as which skin color will prevail in America, as if our souls
resided in the color of our skin. So people have been passionate, and
aggressive, and intimidating, perhaps even letting their passions boil over at
times into borderline or actual violence.
But I have to give most of the media kudos for
keeping cool heads in situations that could easily tip over into chaos. The
media has threaded a careful way through the swollen emotions and the impassioned
rhetoric giving people a calmer platform from which to express their
ideological concerns, giving their ideas credence when they seem to push
humanitarian concerns forward, and perhaps a bit of mild ridicule when ideas
seem too reactionary to contribute to cultural progress.
Often the media reminds us of our nation’s rather
passionate political history. Our politics has often been verbally, and
occasionally physically, explosive. They remind us of the political shambles
our nation was in prior to the Civil War. The rhetorical passion was shouted
daily in our Congress, in our press, and in our streets. On that occasion
people’s passions, unabated by discussion, ended in an brutal war with so many casualties.
There have been other times of great passion in American politics such as in
the years before World War II when isolationists disagreed with those who
thought we would have to go to war against Hitler. It took Pearl Harbor to put
the kibosh on that disagreement and unite us against common enemies. The
sixties and seventies were certainly passionate times in our nation with the
sexual revolution and the cultural revolution and the Vietnam War making
America often appear to be two (or more) different nations. None of us who
lived through the Civil Rights’ Movement will ever forget the passion of those
days, one side with its desire to be treated as equal Americans, the other side
holding on to and expressing years of contempt and prejudice with guns shots
and hangings and the powerful streams of water from the ends of fire hoses, and
so many other hateful things.
Yes, we are a nation of passions and we often find
ourselves once again dividing into two segments of our America who are at
loggerheads with each other and who feel what they feel so strongly that they
would like to actually come to blows over it. But the press sort of operates as
the people who stand between the two opposing groups with their hands against
their chests to keep them physically separated, and it is the press who gives
us perspective on how each of our partisan groups arrived at this impasse.
The way the mainstream press treats extreme speech
as real politics and discusses it as it would more moderate politics keeps our
government from imploding or exploding. They refuse to give any credence to
voices on either side that see the fringes as more in control than the center
is. They have kept their heads, partly by treating it all like entertaining
theater, partly by helping us connect fringe dialogue to its historical roots
to remind us that this stuff did not suddenly crop up out of nowhere, and
partly by refusing to get too hot under the collar which could only help foment
hysteria.
Right now the press is calmly and as objectively as
possible (given that these are human beings who also feel passionate) helping
America hold a normal Presidential election in times that feel anything but
normal. They have a matrix in their brain, a matrix that tells them what
elections have always been like and they are using that historical memory to keep
this election, which could so easily go off the rails, on track. We get
impatient with them sometimes. They seem too moderate, too data bound, too
controlled, and perhaps, sometimes, too stodgy for our heated debates. And yet
this very ability to treat our current situation as normal, as just another
hotly contested moment in the history of our nation, keeps the process ticking
along. We do not really want to break apart our great nation and so, right now,
I am thankful that our media are such nerds, such political geeks that they are
keeping us all somewhat civil and on track to hold a traditional election
according to the rule of law in November of 2016. I think it is called
professionalism.
By Nancy Brisson

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