The Digital Journalist
The Uncivil War
September 2004

by Peter Howe

Douglas Adams, the author of "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," once said that he loved deadlines; he especially liked the whooshing sound they make as they go by. I have based my entire writing career on this principle, under the belief that you only write good stuff in a state of deadline-induced panic. I don't know why this is. Maybe the act of writing is so revealing about oneself that it produces an unpleasant feeling of vulnerability - or maybe I'm just lazy. Whatever the reason, the poor souls whose tiresome job it is to check my eccentric grammar and erratic spelling are now used to receiving my column attached to an apologetic e-mail acknowledging its tardy delivery.

This column was late as usual, but the cause this time was somewhat more depressing than my neurotic inability to stick to a schedule. I was most of the way through what I had intended to write when I started watching the Republican National Convention. I was so disturbed by what I saw and heard that I deleted what I had written and decided to start again.

What I found so upsetting about the RNC was the way that its supposed masters seem to have lost control of the junkyard dogs. Speaker after speaker, with very few exceptions, attacked their opponents in a sneering, mean-spirited way that was more reminiscent of school bullies than the kind of mature politicians in whom we can place our trust. Not only was there no respect for their adversaries, but also the mere act of opposition was painted as an act of treason. The keynote speaker, Zell Miller, seemed to be appalled that the Democrats were unpatriotic enough to not allow Bush to run unopposed, when he said, "Now, at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief." I was waiting for him to tell us how many card-carrying communists were in the Democratic National Committee, so reminiscent of McCarthy was the logic.

But the lowest point for me was the glee that accompanied the wearing of Band-Aids with Purple Hearts on them, signifying that John Kerry's war wounds, for which he was awarded three such medals, were insignificant enough to only merit similar medical attention. Not only did it denigrate the contribution that the senator made in Vietnam, but also devalued the award for all its other recipients. This was presumably condoned by a White House whose top echelon of leadership, with the exception of Colin Powell, has zero combat experience. I'd be prepared to bet that the same people who wore the Band-Aids also have "Support Our Troops" stickers on their cars. It seems that the troops of yesteryear are not worthy of their support.

Not only was the level of anger and hatefulness distressing, it was also mystifying. Why, given that the Republicans control the White House, the entire legislature, and most of the higher courts, are they so vindictive? Why, given the pathetically ineffectual campaign waged so far by the Kerry-Edwards ticket, do they feel so threatened?

An uncomfortable thought occurred to me that this volatile situation might have been caused in part by people like you and me - journalists. For so many years I have heard the right wing complain that liberals controlled the press, and used it to pursue a liberal agenda. I always dismissed this because, as far as I was concerned, it wasn't nearly liberal enough, but the fact that Fox News so brilliantly capitalized on this frustration indicates that there was an angry head of steam building up which is finally finding release. While I think that the disregard with which much of contemporary American journalism has treated the concerns and aspirations of the right wing is only part of the reason for such vituperation, it may still be a significant part.

Of course, there have always been outlets for the expression of such views. Nobody in their right mind would ever accuse the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal of being under control of limp-wristed lefties, but much of the right-wing press has been put on the defensive and, therefore, taken more extreme positions, as the result of its conviction that it was swimming against the media tide.

My assumption that this column is being read by a mainly liberal audience probably proves the point, but having made that assumption, the question that remains unanswered is, what to do about this in the future? Neither is this a rhetorical question, because I, for one, simply don't know. I'm not suggesting that Rush Limbaugh should be given a column in Mother Jones, or that Al Gore be forced to drive a Hummer, but if we are to be true to the spirit of democracy, we have to embrace and encourage differing opinions and give them the respect that was so significantly lacking in at Republican National Convention.

Given the deeply divided state of the nation at the moment, we not only have the ability but also the responsibility to neutralize the effects of this fracture and contribute to the creation of an atmosphere of greater tolerance and understanding. Maybe the first thing we should do is to make sure through our work that the nation understands how deeply divided it is, and the dangers that this rift poses to the very institutions that we claim to value the most.

I get e-mails from a friend who is one of the gentlest souls you could possibly imagine, a good person who literally wouldn't hurt a fly. She now ends every e-mail with the phrase "I hate George Bush" attached to the bottom. The problem is that I agree with her; I hate him too, and it is not a healthy situation for any society when its members hate each other. It is particularly dangerous in a democracy.

I was struck recently by a graphic in The New York Times showing the Red and Blue states, and how reminiscent it was of the divide of the country during the Civil War. While I don't expect to hear the sounds of the fife and drum band passing through my quiet Connecticut town, I do think that we have reached a similar level of misunderstanding to that which existed during those times. One of the most important functions of an independent press in a free society is to help its readers or viewers to understand those parts of our national life of which they have had no experience. It may well be that the serious situation facing our country today is partly the result of our failure as writers, photographers and especially editors to perform this role as fully as we should have. Whatever happens in November, it is something that we must correct.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor