Want to Change Our National Discourse? Don't Be a Slave to It

Article excerpt

Pundits aren't solely to blame for the vitriol. They're just giving us what we want. New media and the Internet heightened our symbiotic relationship - making everyone a demanding participant and sensational purveyor. To change our discourse we have to be masters, not slaves, to the cycle.

The memorial service for the victims of Jared Loughner in Tucson a couple weeks ago gave me insight into the problem at the heart of our broken national dialogue. It wasn't President Obama's noble efforts to find words that heal. It wasn't the predictable denouncement of the vitriol that seems to have taken over media and political discourse. It was the crowd itself.

At times, the memorial service looked more like a high school football rally, with audience members jumping in their seats, cheering and hollering. Grief looks different for everyone, of course, and there certainly was a need for raw, emotional release on that occasion. But in that crowd, I saw barely controlled chaos and a demanding hunger for the words - the show - people had come to see and be part of. And I immediately recognized that mindset. I've seen it before at the recent town-hall style listening sessions on health care. The raucous attitude seemed to spread like wildfire - the same wildfire that seems to consume cable TV and the blogosphere.

IN PICTURES: Tucson memorial

It's easy to blame the embarrassingly immature vitriol that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin produce for the current lack of civility in public affairs. But those who think that these commentators are compelling the crowd to do their will have it inside out. Ms. Palin, Mr. Limbaugh, and Mr. Beck, as well as their cable counterparts on the left (and there are many), aren't so much leading the crowd as pandering to it. There was a time, when those in the media did, in fact, shape public opinion. Now, due to the perverseness of the Internet and the prevalence of high-tech polling, they merely echo it. And like actual echoes, they are, by definition, an aberration of the real thing.

'The medium is the message'

It was the media visionary Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s who coined the phrase "the medium is the message." Philosophers have written whole books on its meaning. Basically, the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. Mr. McLuhan warned that an ignorance of the pervasive effects of this phenomenon could be detrimental to our culture. …