September 30, 2009
(In)civility and Our Media Moment
I was reflecting again this weekend on an interview segment with President Obama that aired on “60 Minutes” two weeks ago. Close in the wake of the “You lie!” incident, interviewer Steve Kroft noted the shrill level of discourse that has surrounded the debate over healthcare reform. Kroft wanted to know President Obama’s take on this now infamous moment of Congressional heckling – which came to represent the epitome of our national failure to have a sincere, thoughtful dialogue about a high-stakes issue for all Americans.
I was particularly struck by one of Obama’s responses to Kroft, which is why the interview remains top of mind. He said: “How do we make civility interesting?” He cited the “24-hour cable news environment” and noted that the shrillest voices are now the ones most likely to be heard. You don’t have to work in PR or be a student of the media landscape to feel the truth in that observation.
Concerns over civility, or lack thereof, in public discourse have deep resonance in the online space – where the utopian characteristics of the Internet have been perennially counter-balanced by anonymous attack and mob mentality. In the digital space, we often talk of the ratio of “noise to value” or “noise to signal.” I see strong parallels here to Obama’s comment. Yet these issues are equally true on- or offline.
There is no “right” or “wrong” to the current media moment. There is no getting back to some other place or time when civility reigned. And frankly, voices were just as shrill and the attacks just as vicious in your average Nineteenth Century newspaper commentary.
Perhaps more important than the tone of today’s discourse is Obama’s point about what is actually interesting to us now. What does it take, these days, to break through the roiling tumult of data and chatter to gain our attention, either collective or individual? Are the nuances of any given story – those essential shades of grey positioned between the stark extremes of black and white – interesting enough to garner notice anymore? And can those points of nuance be expressed in “conversations” often chunked into exchanges of less than 140 characters per shot?
In watching the segment, I was (and am) energized by how Obama and his communications team framed the challenge of making “the civil” interesting. And beyond just the civil, you can add the “complicated,” the “difficult” and the “nuanced.” How do we as communications professionals engage with our constituencies on a more thoughtful level, but still keep their attention? And still, when appropriate, keep it short.