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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Uncivil Wars

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
E-Mail: WillWalsh@aol

As we continue to study, discuss, and think about the media and their impact on society, the question arises of how the media is changing us. That's an odd and a little frightening concept -- that the media DOES change people and the way we think and act, but I fear that it's true. And sometimes the changes are discouraging to see.

The media are turning us somehow into a less civil society. There's more name-calling and less thinking these days. More attacking of people and less attacking of ideas or positions. It's chilling.

Much of the electronic media (TV, radio, film) is "hot." That is to say that they don't deal well with ideas or reason or arguments. Because of the need to keep things moving, the requirement to keep things exciting, they often make their point in a passionate and personal way rather than in a calm detatched manner. And because we're constantly exposed to this, it's changing the way we react to things. We're reacting in a hot and personal manner rather than in a quieter, more thoughtful way.

You may recall the TV clip from a few months ago where Maxine Waters, United States Congresswoman from California, shouted at another Congressman in the middle of a Congressional hearing to "Shut up!"

Or noticed that increasingly on those TV talk shows that guests are slapping each other, pushing and shoving when they disagree. More physical fights are erupting, often set-clearing melees where the host gets to play peace-maker and stage hands separate the combatants. Frankly, it makes for good TV. It's exciting and personal and full of raw human emotion and drama.

A clip might even get shown on the evening news (or certainly on "Talk Soup"). It's good for viewership, but it's also a disturbing trend.

Emotion replaces thought. Name-calling replaces a discussion of ideas.

You can see it even on the national political scene. Whatever you may think of Dole or the Clintons, you must admit that much of what passes for political discussion and debate is now a collection of charges about a person's character. We are talking less and less about ideas and policies these days and more and more about the people who hold them.

I heard Rush Limbaugh the other day call the Clintons "grave robbers." He was trying to make a point about how the White House keeps saying that various scandals were Vince Foster's fault -- that they're trying to blame the dead guy. But he descended into name-calling.

Locally, too, talk show hosts engage in personal attacks on a person's character rather than discuss his ideas. WBZ radio's all-night talk host Bob Raleigh regularly calls director Oliver Stone "swine." This is what passes for thoughtful discourse these days.

On local access TV recently, I saw a talk show where someone accused the town administration of "cooking the books." Now I doubt if the guy who said this was really alleging criminal behavior on the part of local officials. It was merely his way of expressing disagreement (anger? frustration?) with the way things are going in town. But instead of dealing with issues or arguments, instead of discussing calmly a difference of opinion, he made a slanderous charge.

Maybe I'm just sensitive to this because I've become the target of personal attacks as well. A few weeks ago in this column, I had the audacity to suggest that Billerica needed to do more in the area of educational access TV ("Public and educational TV can co-exist," 6/13/96). Shortly thereafter, an impeachment petition appeared at BATV attacking my "ethics and loyalty."

It didn't attack my ideas or suggestions or thoughts -- it attacked me personally. Unwilling (or unable) to thoughtfully discuss a difference of opinion, people have taken to name-calling and personal attacks.

It is chilling and discouraging indeed.

Language -- even the language of the media -- CAN be used to communicate carefully-considered thoughts and ideas as well as thought-less reactions and charges. It's a question of whether we are in control of the media we use every day or whether the media is changing us and the way we react to each other.

Obviously, we need to raise the level of discourse on ALL levels -- we need to be able (and willing) to put aside the "hot" personal language of the media and to treat each other as rational human beings.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.