Vitriol and Hate: It’s Not too Late to Change the Media

Civility isn’t likely to return to the public discourse in the wake of the Arizona massacre. But Joanne Lipman says, despite a culture resistant to change, it’s worth a shot.

Vera Rapcsak, foreground, and others hold up signs outside the Tucson office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords she was shot on Saturday, Jan. 8. (Chris Morrison / AP Photo,Chris Morrison

Can we really stop being a nation of haters?

If nothing else, the Arizona rampage provided a conveniently cathartic media moment, a chance to engage in mass handwringing over the vicious political discourse and the media’s role in it. Both conservatives and liberals pledged to back off from the toxic rhetoric, from Fox News architect Roger Ailes ( “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down”) to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann (“I apologize for and repudiate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence”).

Yes, all week, we’ve been hearing that now, finally, civility will make a comeback.

Except that it won’t.

The fact is, vitriol is so ingrained in the culture that it likely will take more than media handwringing—and an even greater jolt to the national psyche—to turn things around. In part that’s because it’s profitable; ranters are a proven draw for cable-TV ratings and Internet clicks. But more than that, the culture is resistant to change.

Some of the most powerful media and political figures—all of them masters of the zeitgeist—had already been trying to lead a backlash against the ugliness. The assault took place exactly a week after Oprah Winfrey launched her new OWN television network, declaring it wouldn’t run any “mean-spirited” programming. New York Times reviewer Alessandra Stanley aptly described it as “a ridicule-free zone” where “cynicism takes a holiday and mockery hasn’t yet been invented.“

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg , meanwhile, last month threw in his hat with No Labels, a new group with members of all political persuasions that says it “encourages fact-based discussions” with the goal of injecting “civility and respect” into political debates. Comedian Jon Stewart has been at the forefront of crusade against hate, all but pleading during his October Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, “We can have animus and not be enemies.”

Perhaps most telling of all, just last week, Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, which practically established snark and nastiness as the métier of the blogosphere, said he is broadening his gossip sites to also include the “beautiful and uplifting.” As he declared on National Public Radio: “People can't live on snark and vicious gossip alone.”

Today’s political-media circus is playing out very much like the Yellow Journalism era of the late nineteenth century did before it.

When even Gawker is asking for a little more civility, you know we’re in deep trouble.

The problem is that historically, the kind of ugly media-political moment we’re in doesn’t resolve itself so easily or peacefully. It doesn’t go away simply because reasonable people ask it to.

Consider this: Conventional wisdom blames the current hate-fueled media on technology—especially the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of 24/7 cable-news pontification channels.

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If that’s the case, then today’s political-media circus is playing out very much like the Yellow Journalism era of the late nineteenth century did before it. That era, too, saw scandal, gossip and hate-mongering rule the headlines, so much so that critics were sure it incited violence and even war.

Back then, new technology also was to blame—though then it was the invention of the color printing press, not the Internet. Back then, there was also a death-match competition for more eyeballs—though it was for penny-newspaper circulation, not television ratings or computer clicks.

Back then, the media was also accused of inventing sensational accusations to inflame hatred. Rival newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were even blamed for starting the Spanish-American War. There’s no proof Hearst actually telegraphed his illustrator in Cuba, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” But he was happy to take credit.

And back then, the media made pop-culture heroes out of swashbuckling populist politicians. Hearst’s favorite, William Jennings Bryan, the unsuccessful presidential candidate and self-proclaimed champion of the “toiling masses,” was a deeply religious anti-elitist who promised to represent the “avenging wrath of an indignant people.” Glenn Beck , Sarah Palin, and the the Tea Party have nothing on this guy.

All of this was just as perplexing then as the current state of play is now. The Harvard Law Review even weighed in on the problem of “recent inventions” and “mechanical devices” that led to the media “overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency.” And that was in 1890—in the landmark article, “The Right to Privacy,” that was co-authored by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

Likewise, today, the sniping and “overstepping” are if anything only getting worse. Despite calls for moderation, left and right are hurling accusations about whose side alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner was on—even though he so far shows no sign of being anything but a lone nutcase. Both sides are arguing vitriolically about—what else—whose rhetoric is more vitriolic.

The rest of us aren’t much better, as a quick dip into Google illustrates far too well. Type “Barack Obama is” into Google, and it helpfully completes the sentence with the most popular searches, which include “a muslim,” “the antichrist,” “an idiot” and “the worst president in history.” Enter “Sarah Palin is” into Google and you’ll find top searches include “an idiot,” “a joke,” “a moron,” and “retarded.”

A century ago, yellow journalism ultimately burned itself out. But the tail end of that era is an object lesson that politicians and the media alike ought to be paying attention to now.

Both Hearst and Pulitzer made a sport of lambasting their political enemies, with Hearst’s New York Journal especially tormenting Republican President William McKinley. The paper ultimately even suggested—twice—that the president should be assassinated. As the paper put it in an unsigned April 1901 editorial: "If bad institutions and bad men must be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” The president was murdered five months later.

Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever fully recovered. Hearst is best known today as the role model for Orson Welles’ tormented “Citizen Kane.” Pulitzer recoiled from sensationalism, ultimately setting up the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in journalism, with the most prestigious category of all reserved for Public Service.

We should be so lucky if our era of political-media ugliness were also to end now. It isn’t too late.

Joanne Lipman founded and was Editor in Chief of Condé Nast Portfolio, the National Magazine Award-winning business magazine and Web site. Previously, Lipman was a Deputy Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal, where she created and was Editor in Chief of Weekend Journal and created Personal Journal. She is a frequent television commentator on business issues.