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Elements of truth

The demagogues at work.
The demagogues at work.
Various sources including Getty Images and API

In November of 2010, legendary journalist Ted Koppel wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post ostracizing the new “advocacy media” for killing genuine news. He pointed out that we are now fed our “news” by ideological sources ranging from Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, sources that “hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.”

Four years later, our country is more divided than ever, the left blaming the GOP for moving farther to the right while the right claims the Obama administration has a socialist agenda. Reaching across the aisle and compromising, whether right or wrong on a given issue, are seemingly out of fashion.

A couple of years after his WaPo piece, Koppel expanded on his story in a special report for NBC News and included the growing number of what Bill O’Reilly refers to as “assassins,” i.e. those who push an ideological agenda so hard they have to smash their enemies, seemingly to the delight of a sycophant audience.

With the advent of bomb throwers such as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Ed Schultz, the bar for civility seems to have reached a possibly irreparable low but the dangers are somehow less apparent to the millions in the audience of so many hosts who now preach to a choir that prefers to hear a slanted version of the truth. Koppel added, “when our accountants, bankers and lawyers, our doctors and our politicians tell us only what we want to hear, despite hard evidence to the contrary, we are headed for disaster.”

And indeed we are, when our political differences make us not just people who want basically the same things but disagree on the methods, but rather enemies with fundamentally different visions for America. What would have seemed brash and absurd accusations not so long ago, the idea that Republicans want to take us back to the 1950’s and get women back in the kitchen, or that Democrats want to turn the nation into a socialist secular utopia, are now commonly accepted as truth by the faithful.

Koppel referred to this as the “marketing of fear” and clearly the implications have not fully set in. While many on the left don’t believe in “trickle down” economics, the psychology is hard to deny. Inculcation is a proven method of indoctrination. It’s become clear that while the purveyors of cable news and talk radio see dollar signs and sell fear, someone has to buy it. In effect, the marketing has been as effective as any advertising campaign. Unfortunately, the competitors are a lot more contentious and the customers are more ideologically at odds than you’d find between offerings of competing products, even the most virulent Mac vs. PC debates.

When fear is the commodity, those who buy in are left with a need to adopt the narrative themselves. Truth is no longer the bottom line; pushing a partisan agenda is. At that point finding common ground takes a back seat to supporting the lesser of two evils or increasingly, convincing yourself that only your side is really looking out for you, looking out for the little guy or whatever your preferred tenet is while the other side is not only misguided but exclusively less honest, more selfish and inherently evil.

Social media is filled with memes that parrot judgments on complicated issues culled into a picture with a few words, just enough to stir the pot and incite thousands to pass the message along without any inclination to do any fact-checking.

It’s only when you realize, after hearing pundits who never take issue with their side, short of Republicans not being conservative enough or Democrats not being liberal enough, that you’ve already been in conversations with the disciples.

“I know both parties are bought and paid for but at least the Democrats do some good.”

“I’m not at all happy with the GOP but anything is better than another four years of Obama.”

...or the best of all:

“Why should I criticize my side and risk damaging them when the other guys are so much worse?”

Apparently we are now so afraid of the other guys that we’re inclined not to admit the truth about the flaws in our team and rather, defend them without reservation. Has it occurred to the average citizen what it means when the pundits they worship practice the same selective judgment and censorship?

We elect leaders to lead and that starts with helping people find common ground. Our leaders should be adept and doing so and they are nothing of the kind. Perhaps part of that is that they too, have become afraid – not just afraid they will not be reelected, which is nothing new, but also afraid that if they don’t placate the advocacy media then they too will be “assassinated,” just as radio host Mark Levin dealt with David Dewhurst, sending Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate.

The media is not likely to change, particularly when demagoguery has become so profitable. Journalists have been drowned out by businessmen who see riches in mercurial commentary and sadly, the public drinks it up. It will be incumbent on new leadership to find a message compelling enough to convince people that we have more in common than we realize. It will need to be someone who can illustrate that we don’t have to keep putting Band-Aids on things that are broken. Most importantly it will need to be a person who can illustrate how much we actually agree on and propose solutions that build bridges.

Why this has been so difficult seems a mystery until you realize that it hasn’t yet been profitable to find consensus. Special interests certainly don't pay for it. Is there a personality on the air or in politics who can remind us that none of us likes such an absurdly complicated tax code, no one supports unwanted pregnancy and we all agree that people who have worked hard all their lives should be able to retire without struggling to support themselves?

Your fans-in-waiting sit in eager anticipation.

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