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John Hughes

Sticks and stones: the case for civility in American political discourse

Instead of dogmatism and hysterical clamor, we need more of the 'Shields and Brooks' kind of civility in our public discourse in America.

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American democracy is a beacon to millions around the world, but the character of the political system that gets us there must leave many onlookers agape. The presidential election goes on too long and is awash in too much money. The Republican debates have been too numerous, and not a clarification of policy, but of TV sound-bites, posturing, and party fratricide. Let us hope for more civility when the president and would-be president engage in debate after this endless run-up.

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Despite the “gold standard” of the PBS NewsHour and fine reporting by some quality news organizations, my own profession of journalism does not emerge with totally clean hands.

Cable-TV has an enormous appetite for sensation and conflict. Some cable networks have reveled in endless repetition of the gaffes and insults and angry exchanges between the Republican candidates on the debating stage. Some reporters have triggered verbal explosions in response to “gotcha” questions. Heated exchanges may make the headlines but not clarify platforms and policies.

CBS newsman Mike Wallace, in his book “Heat and Light,” deplores the focus on “opinion, gossip and scandal” in the 24-hour news cycle. With the advent of cable, he says, news has become “yammer, yammer, yammer. It’s infotainment. It used to be a race to the top. To a certain degree, news today is a race to the bottom.”

Civil though he traditionally was, Jim Lehrer has sometimes deplored journalistic arrogance. In one tongue-in-cheek commencement address he declared:

“Only the journalists of America are smart enough to know what to do in the economy, health care, and Supreme Court appointments. Don’t believe politicians and government officials…They never tell the truth. We, the journalists…are experts in motives because ours are so pure.”

Whether it be presidents, chieftains of commerce and industry, politicians, journalists, pundits, late-night comedians, or just folks around the dinner table, the discourse would be better with civility.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.


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