Sed Contra: A Slap in the Face

Deal W. Hudson
January 1, 2001

The postelection saga rents the veil of the media temple. It revealed something we have always known: They’re not on our side! What was different this time was not merely ideological bias but tonal or, to put it another way, emotional bias. When Matt Lauer on The Today Show asked whether one of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’s decisions “passed the smell test,” his animosity felt like a slap in the face. When Katie Couric asked a Palm Beach County election official if she had finished the “essay question” requested by Harris, she made no attempt to mask her sarcasm.

The scorn was so evident on Peter Jennings’s face after a speech by George W. Bush that he had to issue a statement denying his scorn. He explained that it was “an eye of the beholder” issue. That may satisfy his conscience and corporate bosses, but it won’t do for the millions of viewers who are finding their news and commentary elsewhere—on cable, online, and on talk radio.

That usually placid Republicans were crowding the streets of Tallahassee and Palm Beach waving signs and placards should send shivers of fear through network executives. The election debacle has stirred up the conservative grassroots—people who will no longer wait in hope for the media to broadcast their message.

There were notable oases of sanity that only a fairly skillful channel surfer could find. Tim Russert almost saved the NBC morning show with his dispassionate summaries of the daily political box score. Chris Matthews (MSNBC) and Bill O’Reilly (Fox) cut through the left-wing script, exorcising the “will of the people” and “count every vote” mantras with dispatch. Fox’s Brit Hume, Tony Snow, and the “All Stars” seemed to inhabit a different news universe from the rest, making up, in part, for their overreaching on election night. To hear the commanding Michael Barone discuss precinct results in the three disputed Florida counties makes one realize how much intelligence and education are otherwise lacking in television news.

The scorn, sarcasm, and hostility have deeper consequences. It is rightfully said that this election has revealed a growing division between liberal and conservative Americans. And the obvious bias of the dominant media is aggravating this division. Audiences look elsewhere for their news and entertainment; the culture becomes more fragmented, and subcultures are created in which pundits preach to their choirs and the idea of a civil society grows dim. This is not good. We think we are retreating to Candide’s garden, but we are actually moving into a market-created Catholic ghetto of products designed to reassure us and affirm our values.

That sounds like a pretty dismal future to me. What will happen to our republic when we have nothing in common to discuss and embrace except the movies? Are we already there? I think it is still possible to have a political dispute without raising our voices and without recourse to party-approved script. Or has the polarizing virus of the abortion debates already spread throughout our public discourse? Am I wrong in suspecting that the fierce hostility underlying the political climate and the media bias point in that direction?

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama suggests just that, arguing in the Wall Street Journal that the heart of the present culture wars is our view of “sex and the social role of women.” But the issue, as he points out, is more complicated than a standoff between those for and against abortion, for and against the traditional family and roles for women. It has become triangulated with the sin of sounding “judgmental.” At the very moment when a debate needs to take place on the meaning of sexuality, Fukuyama says, “The greatest moral passion of contemporary Americans turns out to be hostility to ‘moralism’ in areas related to sex and family life.”

This is how the media trump social conservatives; journalists’ disapproving faces play on adolescent public fears that religious crusaders want to tell people how to live their lives. For the time being this strategy is working. Fukuyama is right in doubting that we will return to the Victorian era and the acceptable habit of public moralizing. But what happens if moralizing once again becomes respectable?

In other words, what would happen if Oprah started recommending C.S. Lewis? Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the causes of our social breakdown were fairly debated rather than scornfully dismissed by righteous journalists?

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