Raise the quality of discourse

As 2013 fades into the history books, and optimism about 2014 eases into putting one foot in front of the other for another year, we should probably take a look back at some of the media lessons of the year just finished.

We don’t want to crack anyone’s rose-colored glasses, but in many ways, 2013 was a nadir for journalism. An incredibly large percentage of our national conversation was devoted to things that just didn’t matter to the American democracy or culture: Miley Cyrus’ twerking, Anthony Weiner’s wiener, Rob Ford’s crack—the list is almost endless.

And while those of us in media and our consumers were dining on a high-fructose corn syrup-flavored buffet of empty-calorie stories, the nutrition rich stories were reported superficially and as black or white: NSA spying, the Obama administration’s attacks on whistleblowers, Congress’ dysfunction—again, can’t begin to mention them all.

Fundamentally, both sides of this issue have a single source: Commercialism of news. While many conspiracy theorists blame political bias for the failings in media, it’s market forces that drive coverage. And those forces are not going to change in 2014, particularly since it’s an election year. There’s one particular “force” that seems to be growing, and we’ll see more of it in 2014: We’ll call it the outrage-for-profit model. It’s a true reflection of how behavior in Congress affects culture.

Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty was a recent example of this with his comments in support of pedophilia and against homosexuality. However, it’s easy to recall other examples like the attacks on women last election, Megyn Kelly’s attacks on minorities, or even the way some politicians refer to members of the loyal opposition.

It’s a simple grift, and it works like this: Someone with some kind of celebrity or credentials says something outlandish about a minority group, which is intended to be controversial. The online commentariat attack—predictably and correctly—and the opposing side—also predictably and correctly—respond.

But after the heat-of-the-moment battles, look back at the results. The offensive person or politician is almost inevitably rewarded for their behavior. Those misogynistic electeds got millions for their hate campaigns in 2012. Phil Robertson’s brand is now on guns, and millions upon millions of people who had never heard of his show have received the marketing message.

The luminaries here at the RN&R haven’t come up with a solution to this quandary. Not responding to the haters allows the hate to pass as legitimate discourse, but responding heightens the profile of those who engage in the troll-baiting. One thing we can say with certainty is it can’t be fought with escalation or by fighting hateful speech with similar rhetoric.

Perhaps a simple recognition of the scam is enough to deflate it. Probably, though, the best way to discourage it is not to reward the individuals or media outlets on either side of the political spectrum who use this tactic to create controversy and increase website clicks. We can only hope that some consumers of media in 2014—ours anyway—will stop responding as though hateful speech is legitimate opinion.