A CBS News Poll the other day revealed that a whopping three out of four Americans believe the current tone and lack of civility in U.S. politics and public discussions actually encourages violence among some people.
Sixty-eight percent in that poll also said the tone and civility of American politics have deteriorated in recent years, an opinion that conservatives, liberals and independents were united in holding.
Examples are bounteous and disturbing. A New York City play of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” portrayed the Roman assassination target as President Donald Trump, complete with red hair and a Slavic-accented wife.
A Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer from Illinois began shooting at a morning congressional baseball practice near Washington, D.C. He died in a shootout with security after seriously wounding Rep. Steve Scalise and others.
A Nebraska Democratic Party committee chair was fired when a tape exposed him expressing pleasure over the Scalise shooting and regret that his wounds weren’t fatal.
Many of the most recent incidents involve Trump opponents, who after all feel the most aggrieved following the Republican’s unexpected November upset. But Trump himself has made outrageous comments heightening tensions. These include campaign rally suggestions that supporters punch out any protesters who pop up. Trump even offered to pay their legal costs.
Trump has also called news reporters “enemies of the people,” which could invite retaliation by angry supporters. Trump’s just the latest in a long line of politicians to blame news media for problems they themselves own.
But the president’s hyper-rhetoric about “fake news,” lies and media dishonesty does play into – and feed – a widespread, documented and emotional distrust and dislike of media, especially on the right.
Which raises a question you don’t often see raised in media: Does media deserve some blame for the corrosion of civility and acceptance of violence? And the heightened tensions? It might be inadvertent or instinctively aggressive in a desire to generate the clicks that define success in the lawless world of online journalism.
Journalists’ overheated vocabulary is too often built on combat images: Politicians attack and assail. They charge, accuse, declare war on opponents and launch assaults. They even endure casualties and sometimes surrender to reality.
Like many businesses, journalism seeks routine. In its effort to routinely cover and effectively market today’s political news to Americans with short attention spans, media often shave off nuances and fall victim to preconceived expectations, especially about a rowdy president.
Also importantly, in their eagerness for scoops and clicks, political media use information from unidentified sources. This can add valuable insights to public debate.
But it’s very risky, makes reporters easy prey for competing internal factions or agencies using unverifiable information to settle scores or embarrass opponents, as we’ve witnessed from the beginning of the Trump administration. For instance, that American recorded by unidentified intelligence agencies conversing with a Russian official. That conversation is fine, but it’s a felony for intelligence to identify the American.
None of this enhances trust or cooperation within an administration team, especially one where the chief executive appears so easily distracted and suspicious.
The Eastern and D.C. media that Trump confronts are overwhelmingly of a liberal bent. By education and professional inclination they’re always looking for trouble, which can be an accurate definition of “news.”
It’s not unlike ordinary neighborhood gossip. People don’t whisper about the happily married couple making mortgage payments on time. They gossip about the household that generates all the shouting and slamming doors.
The media’s antipathy toward Trump is, in both word and story selection, more open in today’s journalism than during previous generations. As conservative politicians have long known, reporters’ questions for Republicans usually are more hostile than their ready acceptance of Democratic statements.
Until the late 1900s, however, professional ethics and editing rules dictated those personal proclivities be muted, if not hidden. Some of us took considerable work-pride in masking political leanings, to the point of regularly changing party voter registrations should anyone check.
In the late 1980s senior editors of prominent Eastern dailies began encouraging writers to insert “attitude” not just in documented news analysis pieces but also in everyday reported stories.
Manpower cost-cutting through buyouts has since sharply reduced editorial oversight of story content. And intense competition in online journalism can permit, even encourage exaggerations and biased shortcuts in reporting quality control.
This combines with a critical reciprocity among zealous reporters to find fault with anything involving Trump. A now-embedded willingness of consumers to only believe information that fits their political perceptions feeds the destructive distrust and divisions that play out daily on the pages and screens before our eyes.
And divides most everyone.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.