At the beginning of the Republican National Convention last week, NBC Today co-host Matt Lauer confronted presidential nominee Donald Trump about dialing down the intensity of the passions percolating at the event. “Would you be willing to make a pledge to speak to everyone involved in this convention and say, ‘Please tone down the rhetoric’?” Lauer urged. “Can you say to the people who are going to take to that podium this week, ‘No personal attacks, no vitriol, keep it civil’?”
The irony there is that political journalists themselves, Lauer included, have become as inflammatory as the politicians they lecture about incivility. In the aftermath of last month’s Orlando terrorist massacre at a gay nightclub, for example, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper badgered the increasingly offended Attorney General of Florida interminably about her stance on gay marriage. More recently, Fox News’ Shepherd Smith berated Gov. Bobby Jindal for using the “divisive” phrase “All lives matter.” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who wears her biases as openly as her keffiyeh, hammered away contentiously at British MP Daniel Hannan for nine minutes over the recent Brexit vote.
Then there are the battles royal among the ubiquitous panels of TV pundits. Geraldo Rivera, who is as responsible for creating this toxic atmosphere as anyone, nearly came to blows on-camera last year with The Five co-host Eric Bolling. Don’t forget the mean-spirited partisan commentary from purported political comedians like Joy Behar, Jon Stewart, and Bill Maher. Some of it may entertain, but none of it enlightens and all of it divides.
This is not a new development. Already by 1996, twenty years ago, Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin pointed out in a keynote address that across America and the world, “no one questions the premise that political debate has become too extreme, too confrontational, too coarse.” In 1999 law professor Stephen Carter complained in his book Civility that Americans were losing the ability to debate respectfully.