Posts Tagged ‘speech’

When Grey’s Anatomy Trumps the President

If you were channel surfing in the U.S. last Thursday evening, you might have caught Grey’s Anatomy on ABC or Bones on FOX. It’s what you’d expect on Thursday, right?

Not this past Thursday. Right around the time Bones and Booth were assessing their umpteenth skeletal murder victim, a major presidential announcement was taking place. On the Big Four networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC—it was nowhere to be seen.

What gives?

Americans have grown up with the image of presidents plastered all over their TV screens for reasons both pivotal and not so pivotal. This one clearly falls into the pivotal category: congressional Republicans are predicting dire consequences, and the resulting rift may determine whether the U.S. government gets anything done in the next two years.

If there’s sound reasoning behind the decision not to air the President’s speech, you won’t hear it from the networks. All of them have declined comment. So let’s take a look at some possible explanations:

  1. It was already on Facebook. Media executives may have reasoned that the President’s Facebook video, released on Wednesday, made his Thursday night address redundant. But it’s unlikely: the Facebook video was only 59 seconds long and laid out no specifics.
  2. The networks were obfuscating for Obama or showing their preference for Republicans. Both are variants of the age-old claim of media bias. The fact that opposing pundits see opposing biases in the same event speaks volumes about this alternative. (I wrote about “media bias” more extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.)
  3. It’s sweeps monththe regular period during which networks estimate viewership and, as a result, set local ad rates for the coming months. The sweeps explanation strikes me as both entirely possible and disturbing: in this one instance, at least, the networks that have historically played a major role in delivering news opted for profit over public service.
  4. It’s complicated. This is a variation of points 1 and 2. As disturbing as I find the networks’ decision, it would have been far worse in, say, 1973, when the Big Three networks were the dominant purveyors of news. With the media landscape so fragmented, and Americans getting their news from a myriad of platforms, perhaps the networks decided the impact of their decisions would be relatively minor, shoving sweeps month to the fore.
  5. Univision will take care of it. I hesitate to even mention this one, because it is ugly. I don’t want to believe that any network executive might have said, or thought, “Hey, immigration is a Latino issue, so let ‘their’ network handle it.” To the extent that anyone thought this, it speaks to the persistent “us and them” orientation that entrenches our horrifying racial and ethnic divides.

I am not sure what the real explanation is. I do think, though, that network news still carries some obligation to the public trust—which means the networks owe us an explanation. How disappointing that they have chosen not to provide it.

St. James on Dialogue

How do you engage in dialogue when your tongue is “set on fire by hell”?

The biblical letter of James says quite a bit about the power of speech, none of it good. With the tongue we bless and curse. In our speech is “a world of iniquity.” The tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Worst of all, according to the passage, no one can tame it.

Hyperbole? To an extent—though anyone who has suffered from the destructive power of gossip, slander, or insult can attest to the truth of these words. The question is, once we know how destructive our speech can be, what do we do about it?

After 35 years of studying the Bible, I thought I had the answer nailed. Our job as people of faith was to vet our speech carefully, think before we speak, remain silent when in doubt. It’s hard to argue with that advice: we do want to be precise in our language, so that we communicate our insights clearly and accurately and discuss sensitive issues with care.

But this solution, if it is the only solution, has serious flaws. Most notably, it is too easy to slide from careful speech to an attitude of fear. Aware of the issues our speech can raise, we begin to fear that we can’t get our words right, or that people will misinterpret them, or that they will inflame sensitivities on certain issues. As we distrust our tongue, we distrust ourselves. We might choose to hide ourselves within the bounds of “nice speech,” the kind that doesn’t bring up “politics and religion.”

That may get us through difficult situations without taking flak. But it prevents us from sharing our uniqueness—that one-of-a-kind perspective that just might change someone’s mind or shed new light on a problem.

I think the author of James had something else in mind. Early in the passage, he or she asserts that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect” while freely admitting that “all of us make many mistakes.” In other words, it would be lovely if we could conquer our tongues—but it ain’t going to happen.

So what will work? The author waits till the end to offer this hint: “Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs?” Translated: “out of the mouth the heart speaks.”  We can only say what we are.

The challenge, then, is to change who we are.

This is why I believe our preparation for dialogue must start long before we get to the dialogue table. We need time to change from the inside out: to reorient our heart to openness and compassion, our mindsets toward curiosity, our awareness to the fact that we don’t have all the answers. If we do that, we can approach others with an orientation toward dialogue—with a clear mind and an open heart.

Best of all, we don’t have to keep such a close watch on our speech. When we speak from a good heart, good words tend to come out.

Changing from the inside out is a long process, of course, and taking care with our language is a virtue. But inner transformation can liberate us to share freely, speak boldly, and listen intensely—to participate fully in dialogue and the potential it can bring our world. A powerful message from an ancient sage.

Arizona and an Opportunity for Dialogue…or Not

If you’ve been perusing this blog awhile, you might not expect what you’re about to read.

Like every national tragedy, the horrific shootings in Arizona last weekend have led to instant analysis of the broader picture—especially what this says about us, our laws, and the remedies required. A groundswell of voices is calling for dialogue, for reaching across divides, for “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” More stridently, pundits like Gary Hart have explicitly blamed our toxic public discourse for Jared Loughner’s actions.

Naturally, as someone who cares deeply about dialogue, I would join that groundswell in a heartbeat. Right?

Would that I could.

Look, I am always delighted to see civil, compassionate dialogue get the support it deserves. I think the president hit the right note in his Tucson speech: this tragedy can serve as a catalyst to re-examine our actions and behave more civilly. But precisely because I care about dialogue, I don’t want to connect it causally to the horror in Arizona. Not yet, anyway.

Why not? First consider the evidence—or, more to the point, the lack thereof. We still know precious little about Loughner. What we do know points to serious mental imbalance at the root of his actions. Almost nothing connects him directly with our scorched-earth public discourse. Any connection we make, therefore, is tenuous at best, at least right now, until more evidence comes in.

Consider too our emotional state. Simply put, we are a nation in shock. If you have ever experienced shock, you know it is impossible to think straight. Same deal here.

Authentic dialogue is about clarity, a quest to uncover truth wherever possible, a “listening together” to grasp what the situation is saying to us. By its very nature, this kind of dialogue—whether among friends, between partisans, or across the blogosphere—takes time: time to reflect, time to build on one another’s perspectives, time for new facts to emerge.

Yes, we do need to restore civil dialogue to our public square. The effort to foster it should proceed regardless of any connection with the Arizona shootings. In the weeks and months to come, there will be plenty of opportunity to reflect on that connection. But now is not the time. Better to grieve now and reason together later.