Crass public discourse: Time to push back?

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

Shock jock Don Imus – ousted from TV and radio for a racist and sexist remark – is coming back. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter – who has been criticized for anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic rants – never left.

For years, America's public conversation has become increasingly harsh, polarized, and full of what satirist Stephen Colbert famously coined "truthiness" – the preoccupation with a "gut belief," regardless of the facts of a situation.

Now, some experts suggest that the level of the nation's discourse has sunk to a new low, and there's a growing push-back from both the grass roots as well as some in the media – a demand for a more civilized way of conversing publicly. Others aren't so sure a push-back is under way, but say that the more the hard-edged, crass aspects of the media are discussed, the better it will be for the nation – ultimately helping to moderate the tone of public discourse.

"We're caught right now between extreme forms of political correctness on one end of the speech spectrum and crude, hateful incivility on the other," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The solutions are familiar: We need moderation – thoughtful behavior and expression. But we also need better editing and to create communities with certain expectations that you will be responsible."

Mr. Imus's ouster this past April is a case in point. After he made remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team, an Internet-based grass-roots movement by Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, pressured his advertisers and CBS Radio, which eventually fired him. When he potentially returns to the air in December, in a deal still being negotiated with WABC, expect a somewhat chastened shock jock, publicized in a round of high-profile media interviews in the coming months. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph did not give the correct name for Imus's former employer. Also, it implied that his return to the airwaves had been finalized.]

The Rutgers women's basketball team has forgiven Imus. But media watchdogs say they'll be on alert. "Don Imus has an opportunity to show the American people that he's learned from this experience, that the bigoted insults he once leveled on a regular basis have no place on the public's airwaves," says Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Media Matters. "It's our sincere hope you can teach an old dog new tricks."

The reaction to Ms. Coulter's latest remarks – that the nation would be better if Jews converted and became "perfected" as Christians – spurred a rash of indignant editorials, as well as debate about whether it would be best to simply ignore her and deprive her of the controversy she thrives on.

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."

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.]

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