Civility Is More Than a Strategy: the Importance of Editors

August 26, 2009

For immediate release (565 words)


“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” — John F. Kennedy

There is a call for civility these days in public discourse. No matter that it is a call from those who routinely practice incivility. For in the considered words of Emmylou Harris, “if we don’t get our civility back, we’re in trouble.”

Jill has the facts; Jack doesn’t. It behooves Jack to be uncivil — until, of course, Jill becomes uncivil in return. Then Jack complains about incivility. Jack wins.

The strategy is encapsulated in Rule No. 12 of Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals”:  “Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works (sic).”

This being the post partisan era, however, it should be noted that William Rusher, early publisher of the conservative National Review, recommended incivility in his book, “How to Win Arguments More Often Than Not.” One of his tips was to simply talk over the opposing viewpoint during a television or radio debate. No matter how brilliant the other side, the audience would hear cacophony.

You may already have guessed the remedy for this juvenescence — a disciplined moderator. And in a more complex form, it is the remedy for our first case as well. There was a time, please know, when newspaper editors would have screened out Alinksy’s “direct, personalized criticism and ridicule.”

A favorite newsroom story is the 1950 Florida primary campaign for the U.S. Senate in which George Smathers accused incumbent Claude Pepper’s sister-in-law of “once being a thespian,” which indeed she had been.

Although it is told to belittle the southern electorate, the story verifies that there was in fact a screen in place. Smathers’ disparagement could pass through it only as an obfuscation.

There is no such screen now — not at least at the national level. Unchecked ad hominem attacks are the very medium of today’s political discussion. Ask Sara Palin. Ask Willow Palin. You can call an opponent’s sister-in-law anything you want. You can call her children anything you want.

My generation of journalist holds fault here. We spent our careers arguing for more sporting, even combative, treatment of political stories. We thought it would make public policy and politics more interesting, sexy even. And besides, it spared us the trouble of determining who was right.

We find out the hard way that our readers may have wanted to trust politicians but they needed to trust us.

There was something else we didn’t understand. We thought civility was just masking a fear of offending this politician or that one. Journalists, you see, tend to be compensating introverts. We try to balance profundity with the chance that someone will walk into our office and start swinging.

But perhaps, just maybe, the previous generation of editors was acting out of wisdom. They may have remembered an earlier era when personal attacks had gotten out of hand (read Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee”).

Whatever, the fact is that without conscientious editorship the strategy of an Alinksy or a Rusher trumps all. That means serious political discussion is impossible. That means accountable political representation is a fool’s dream.

It is what troubles American democracy. It is what troubles the chaos that is the new Internet media. And it all reflects a problem larger than mere incivility, a problem identified by my friend George Nash, a historian writing on America politics:

“There are a lot of thoughts out there these days,” Nash likes to say, “but not much thinking.”

Craig Ladwig is editor of the Indiana Policy Review and a journalist for 40 years. He formerly was a senior editor at the Kansas City Star and Knight-Ridder News and a foreign policy aide to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum. He has written on the topic of journalism reform for the Wall Street Journal and Editor & Publisher.


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