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. …