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Crass public discourse: Time to push back?

The expected return of Don Imus to the airwaves comes as some see a desire for moderation.

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Her remarks have also cost her vital support in the conservative community. Initially, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly had Coulter on his show and told her: "I don't even care, to tell you the truth" about her comments. Three days later, conservative commentator Bernard Goldberg called Mr. O'Reilly to task on O'Reilly's own show, accusing him of doing "a kissy-poo" interview with Coulter. O'Reilly eventually called her comments "just dumb."

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The conservative media watchdog group Accuracy in Media (AIM) has also made efforts to distance itself from Coulter, calling her the "Britney Spears of the right" last March. "I said Coulter must be a liberal infiltrator whose purpose is to give conservatism a bad name," says Cliff Kincaid, editor of the AIM Report. "She's just hurting the people she claims to represent."

But some media analysts are skeptical that such public reproaches will make much difference – in part, because of the way the media world has changed over the past 20 years.

"There's no doubt that the line of what you can get away with in public discourse has moved," says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project on Excellence in Journalism. "It's moved not simply because there are a couple of personalities that have been willing to challenge it, but a lot because of how the media itself has changed."

The advent of 24–hour cable channel news first fueled the slide into incivility by blurring news and opinion and championing shout fests over reasoned debate, says Mr. Jurkowitz. Then the Internet blossomed into a kind of Wild West where anonymous insults are hurled with little if any regard for their impact. "The amount of unproven, accusatory invective which routinely gets disseminated [on the Internet] has definitely immunized us to what we listen to and hear in the public square," says Jurkowitz.

And with the proliferation of media, that public square just keeps getting bigger with more soap boxes. And that, he and other media experts say, fuels the increasing harshness.

"The impetus for everyone, whether it be TV programmers or advertisers, is that you have to make a lot of more noise to get people's attention," says Ken Auletta, media critic of The New Yorker. "And part of having more noise is having more controversy."

What often gets lost in this shout environment is the media's traditional role as an arbiter or moderator in the public square. "What we have now is this crazy formula that says, 'On the one hand, on the other hand': Too often the press plays it as a ping-pong match," says Mr. Auletta. "Part of our job is to adjudicate the truth, too."

In this highly polarized political environment, where both the right and left are quick to attack journalists that attempt to adjudicate the truth, many news organizations have begun to shy away from such a role, he says. But reviving it, Auletta says, could be an important solution to the disintegrating nature of public discourse: "There's no substitute for good, tough-minded journalism," he says.

[Editor's note: The original version of the subhead implied that Imus's return had been finalized, when actually the details were still being worked out.]