The Luncheon Society/Salon.com’s Joan Walsh/Palio D’Asti/San Francisco/9.28.09

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joan_walsh_artDoes overheated rhetoric invite and incite dangerous behavior? Is there a causal relationship between the killing of Dr. George Tiller and the rhetoric that originated from the partisan talk-television prior to his death? 

Joan Walsh is troubled that she is best remembered for a 10 minute debate with Bill O’Reilly surrounding Tiller rather than three decades of writing and editorship. It says something profound about the state of basic cable news.  The rationale for CNN, plus a whole host of basic cable news outlets, was to give us more of a global viewpoint. However, we have instead seen the growth of talk television, which is modeled on the growth of talk radio. 

The mission of The Luncheon Society has been to remove the invective from either side of the debate to have far more robust conversation.  There are a number of The Luncheon Society members who I cheer on when I catch them on television.  However, when they are with us, they’re free to expand beyond confines of the “10 second answer,” and the conversations are richer for it. As I ponder this question, I think to last week’s Ken Burns elegant documentary on The National Parks System, hearing the voice of Peter Coyote and seeing Carl Pope, both who have joined us around the table on numerous occasions.  We would be a better country if our national debate mirrored that approach.

Joan Walsh currently serves as the Editor in Chief of salon.com, one of the founding webzines that emerged online during the mid 1990’s. It rode the internet boom upwards and managed to hold on for dear life when their business model imploded. Today, Salon.com is profitable and the writing is well-regarded. Joan Walsh joined Salon.com as its first news editor in 1995, was promoted to Managing Editor in 2004 and became Editor in Chief in February 2005. She has written for The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vogue, and the Nation.  She has published two books, Splash Hit: The Pacific Bell Park Story and Stories of Renewal: Community Building and the Future of Urban America.

Walsh, who appears as a Political Contributor on Hardball with Chris Matthews,  The Ed Show, The Rachel Maddow Show, and CNN’s Reliable Sources, is concerned about what she sees on television. To disagree without being disagreeable is an American virtue.   However, the white heat of the current political rhetoric on cable worries her because she’s seen this before and it rarely ends well.

Anger built upon anger only recedes after we reach a national flashpoint. The militia movement in the 1990’s ebbed only after one of their own detonated a 5,000 pound truck bomb in Oklahoma City that killed 168 and wounded nearly 700.  Radical leftist groups like The Weatherman engaged in their own violent streak, which thankfully resulted in their repudiation. When President Kennedy descended into the madness of Dallas, most were worried about the Minutemen, the Birchers, and other reactionary conservatives, but the bullet that killed him came from a Marxist sympathizer.

However, this summer, protesters showed up at presidential events with loaded automatic weapons. This week, one Newsmax columnist suggested that the military should stage a bloodless coup to rid ourselves of the “Obama problem.”  Worse, a Facebook poll asked whether or not The President of the United States should be killed.

Why has the rhetoric escalated?

  • Change represents a cocktail of fear and anger.  People were up in arms over Civil Rights and fears of Socialized Medicine in 1965. The very people who protested against both now benefit from a greater society and Medicare. Those who protested against President Carter’s decision to expand the amount of National Parks in Alaska now benefit from the growth of tourism. The same could be said about Women’s Rights or any other social movement.  Take a group of people, scare them to death and the results are predictive. Joan Walsh spent a great deal of time with the first series of “tea parties,” that took place on April 15th and discovered that basic anger toward government is real. Anger at bailouts is only a starting point but among many conservatives, there is a belief that Barack Obama is not the legitimate leader of the United States. The brazen nature of racial comments mixed with the appearance of high powered firearms at presidential town halls describes the landscape. 
  • Basic Cable loves a Catfight.  The media has a preference for clear controversies. The verbiage is far more explosive than explaining mere differences of policies.  The current healthcare packages coming out of Congress are a complex series of reforms designed to expand coverage and drive down the costs of healthcare.  It’s complicated stuff.  However, the fake issue of health care death panels, even though the notion has been repudiated, continues to resonate because it is easy to digest and understand.  The same can be said over the controversy of Terry Schiavo in 2006 or the questions surrounding Barack Obama’s citizenship.  
  • Basic Cable Rewards The Bomb Throwers.  Before the advent of basic cable, the power in Congress resided with the workhorses and the show horses were derided as lightweights. Today, those who can craft a quick retort receive equal billing with those who do the legislative heavy lifting. Because there are so many news outlets on the cable dial, they are forced to distinguish themselves from the competition and nothing drives ratings like conflict.  Nothing allows people to share the conflict like You Tube, which has become a “cultural replay button.”  Bill O’Reilly easily shifted over from the tabloid venue of “A Current Affair, to his own show on Fox. Congressman Joe Wilson has transformed a thin legislative resume into a cult hero status for the far right by his outburst during the President’s joint message to Congress over healthcare. This is the shape of things to come.

Where do things go from here? Will the rhetoric escalate? There was a time when the chorus came from the center, which muted the shouting from the outer edges.  There was an outline of a national consensus that ran from the nadir of the Depression until the mid 1960’s.  With one sentence, Walter Cronkite could upend the public support of the war in Vietnam. When he heard Cronkite, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

However, those times are in the past.

Writing in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Tom Friedman sounded the alarm of how overheated rhetoric can create the worst of horrors.

 “I was in Israel interviewing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just before he was assassinated in 1995. We had a beer in his office. He needed one. I remember the ugly mood in Israel then — a mood in which extreme right-wing settlers and politicians were doing all they could to delegitimize Rabin, who was committed to trading land for peace as part of the Oslo accords. They questioned his authority. They accused him of treason. They created pictures depicting him as a Nazi SS officer, and they shouted death threats at rallies. His political opponents winked at it all. And in so doing they created a poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish nationalist as a license to kill Rabin — he must have heard, “God will be on your side” — and so he did.”

Only time will tell if history is repeating itself.

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