Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Polarization: It's Not Just Fox's Fault

Let's face it. Although I continue to be disturbed at the degree of polarization we are experiencing, when our own side starts shouting down speakers at town halls, biting off fingers and killing abortion protesters, it is time to realize that we are not blameless. Yes, the other side started it with their talk of "death panels" and other such lies, but we, quite simply, are taking the bait and allowing ourselves to be provoked. This has two dangerous effects -- it encourages the right wing's martyr complex, and it escalates the polarization further, and from both sides. This is what we must not do.

I blame the media. For the polarization on both sides. Two excellent Washington Post columns explain the twin problems at work.

One problem is that the public is poorly informed. Obviously Fox News and talk radio tell a lot of lies. That's what Fox News and talk radio do. Nothing we can do about it. But mainstream news outlets have been falling down on the job of explaining what is really going on. By that I mean not just explaining that there are no death panels being proposed (they have at least made the attempt there), but a failure to explain what is being proposed. Andrew Alexander, Washington Post ombudsman, reports that 72% of all the Post's front page articles since the beginning of July have been about the politics, rather than the policy of health care reform. Policy-oriented articles are often too wonky for most readers to follow. Authors tend to assume that readers know what terms like "single payer" or "public option" mean. Alexander proposes that newspapers make policy issues accessible to non-wonks by features like "glossaries explaining basic terms, easily digestible Q&As, short sidebars that summarize complex concepts and graphics that decipher complicated data." He also proposes more stories on what reform means to the average citizen.

Of course, none of this will sway people who automatically discount everything in the "liberal media" and believe only Fox News. But it is a mistake to exaggerate their numbers, and therein lies the other problem. Alexander reports that an article about healthcare systems in other countries was among the most popular items published by the Post. The hardcore Fox crowd would never link to such an article. Columnist E.J. Dionne reports the constant bias toward sensationalism. In fact the angry crowds shouting speakers down, the Obama as Hitler signs, the talk of "death panels," and other such hysteria made up only a small fraction of all such meetings. We should have suspected as much when Obama went looking for such a crowd to work and couldn't find one. Dionne even quotes a network reporter as telling one Congressman, "Your meeting won't get covered unless it blows up."

The result is obvious. While Fox News stokes right wing paranoia with reports of "death panels," mainstream outlets stoke liberal paranoia with tales hysterical mobs shouting down speakers and comparing Obama to Hitler. Liberals denounced such things, in turn feeding the anger and fear of more reasonable protesters who then felt unfairly demonized. And so the polarization grows and the health of democracy suffers.

No one will hear me writing on this obscure blog, but if they did, I would not waste time trying to convince Fox News, talk radio or Republican leaders to be more reasonable. It is obviously not in their nature. But to the mainstream media, I would say, follow Andrew Alexander's advice. Write more about policy, geared to the non-wonk, so that the general public will understand what is being debated. This is not to suggest that everyone who understands the proposed reforms will favor them, only that there will be more room for rational debate. And when debate becomes irrational, follow Dionne's advice. Yes, irrationality is news and deserves to be reported. But give us some perspective. If the vast majority of meetings are not blowing up, show some of them, too, and give us relative numbers. Your bias toward sensationalism is contributing to the polarization that is most deadly to democracy.

And to Democratic leaders. Barney Frank's approach can be tempting. Yes, when people are being irrational, it can be tempting just to mock them. But it will just be met with either counter-mockery or a sense of martyrdom. Al Franken has it right. Rationally engage whoever is engageable, be wonky but not patronizing, treat your constituents like adults. Be Franken, not Frank. And we may cool things off yet.

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