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Angry Words Don’t Help the Public Debate

tom_honig_sThe late New York Times columnist William Safire once predicted the end of a civil public debate by citing a key fact understood by commercial businesses – and ignored by the politicians.

What businesses understand is that there’s no percentage in disparaging the product of a competitor. If a Corn Flakes manufacturer, for example, trashes another company’s similar breakfast cereal, the prospective customer remembers only one thing — that that breakfast cereal is bad.

Alas, political dialogue isn’t like that. What candidates have discovered is that trashing opponents wins elections. While that might be great strategy in the short term, it has disastrous effects down the road. The message that voters remember is this: “They’re all a bunch of crooks.”

That exercise in trash-talking used to be limited to campaigns. Now, it’s 365 days a year. Just look at the poor excuse of a debate over health care, where the real issues went ignored in favor of sound bites, accusations and ultimately rocks through windows.

There’s plenty of blame to go around here. Democrats have accused Republicans of inciting violent protests, and Republicans have accused Democrats of using the violence toward their own ends. Both accusations are probably true – but both parties have set the tone.

There’s anger all around. You don’t just disagree with people. You say they’re evil. Democrats want socialism and Republicans want innocent people without insurance to die. That’s the impression you get from the debate.

Is it any surprise, then, that the general public reacts in anger? In most cases, they’re just parroting what they see on Fox News, on MSNBC or on the blogs.

Don’t think Santa Cruz is immune. Our public debate leaves a lot to be desired. Again, there’s plenty of blame here. How many people actually work at understanding issues, and how many are on talking points?

One of the biggest problems here is how often debate centers on false issues. Take, for example, water. It’s clear that Santa Cruz County, from one end to the other, suffers from an insufficient water supply. One would think, then, that the debate would center on how to get additional water.

Not so easy. Because the fight really isn’t about water—it’s about growth. If you scratch the surface on the debate, you’ll find that some oppose desalination proposals because they’re worried that more water will take away one of the limits on growth at UC Santa Cruz. Same with widening Highway 1. The issue there has little to do with solving the traffic problem. A 5-year-old kid knows that there are too many cars in too few lanes. And most 15-year-olds know that having cars backed up and spewing exhaust isn’t good for the environment.

What’s lurking behind the debate, again, is growth. Some are worried that a widened highway will lead to more people moving here. It’s not about traffic at all.

The next debate—in court and before the Coastal Commission— is about approval of a new, rebuilt La Bahia Hotel in the beach area. You’ll hear plenty of arguments about land use— about how high the new building should be and whether it fits into the neighborhood.

But that’s not what the fight is really about. It’s really a labor issue masquerading as a land-use issue. The union leadership is holding out for 100 percent union labor, while the applicant, Barry Swenson Builder, says that labor representation will be something less than that—and that a key goal is more about local jobs.

These false fronts have long been around, but their impact is growing worse all the time. Here in Santa Cruz and in communities all across the country, people are emulating the debates that they see on television or on the blogs. Take a look at the angry quality of debate in most “comment” sections on various websites—especially the ones that are anonymous.

The nastier the debates are, usually, the less substantive they get. Journalists have long been tempted by the most outrageous claim and the most fiery quote. And let’s face it, it’s more interesting to frame a debate by spotlighting the flame-throwers on each side.

Truth, obviously, is harder to discern.  In a climate of cutbacks at nearly every media company across the country, complex debate and in-depth reporting have become more rare.

What’s left is intentional misstatement and, yes, the trashing of opponents as described years ago by William Safire. Here’s my wish: that people would remember complexity and just occasionally doubt the words of people with whom they agree. Especially the talking points.

Comments (1)Add Comment
Santa Cruz Fact Checker
written by Steve Terry, April 11, 2010
Thanks, Tom, for getting to the core of the issue of the deteriorating state of our political discourse I've thought about this for a long time and have concluded that the politicians are as much victims as the citizenry. There used to be people in journalism that served as quality control for the nation. I'm thinking of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley. Trust is missing in the marketplace of ideas. People feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the information flow and who has the time to check facts or vette the source? The Cronkite era is long gone. No individual can fill that role. The logical replacement would be FactCheck.org or Snopes.com. But their resources are no match for the scope of their mission which is to fact-check for a national audience. At the community level, what could be done is to mobilize a fact-check team (composed of librarians and other trusted resources in the community) to operate as a non-profit Website, link that team to the local news media via their news pages so that people can ask directly of the team their doubts and questions, and get a verification back via email. Those news orgs participating would be able to update their content with the outflow, gain credibility, and the community would have a new metric-making tool that would help measure the public political and social and cultural pulse. In a sense, Santa Cruz would make it's own Cronkite.

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