January Event – Restoring Civil Discourse After the 2016 Presidential Campaign

The Common Ground for Texans January 2017 event took place in the form of a moderated panel discussion with Mike Ignatowski as moderator. The panel was titled “Restoring Civil Discourse After the 2016 Presidential Campaign”. The three-member panel consisted of executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, Ross Ramsey, Shivers Chair in Communication at The Moody College of Communication, Dr. Roderick Hart, and the chief political writer at the Austin American Statesman, Jonathan Tilove. Many thanks to our panel members and moderator.

There was a very large group at the event and many of them had questions for the panel. I counted eighty nine people early on but more came later. Thanks to everyone who was there, and to everyone who offered a statement and/or question. We appreciate your patience. There was a vigorous but civil back-and-forth between the crowd and the panel. To clarify, in my summary and commentary, I have combined information from the panelist’s opening statements and what was provided in the form of responses to the questions of the audience members.

The panel was initiated with the following quote:

“The great promise of the internet was that it would bring democracies together, giving more people more access to more information, all beyond the control of any single authority. Curious citizens could develop a more nuanced understanding of what was going on; voters would be better informed; we would ferret out the truth from the bottom up and greater freedom would be the inevitable result.

“But somewhere along the way, the democratization of the flow of information became the democratization of the flow of disinformation. The distinction between fact and fiction was erased, creating a sprawling universe of competing claims.”

— “The Problem with ‘Self-Investigation’ in a Post-Truth Era” by Jonathan Mahler in the Dec 27, 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine

Ross Ramsey started things off with a description of a news day timeline. As Mr. Ramsey put it, “You may have one hundred topics, stories or the more interesting but less likely to be true unbelievable tips” to dig through in a typical newsroom on a single day. Editors worked with journalists to distinguish fact from fiction. “A good editor can always spot the hole in a story” separating fully formed ideas backed by quality information from uninformed ideas that have not been shaped into fact based, newsworthy material. Ten stories made print and three of those ended up on the front page. In an internet world without editors or central authorities ensuring the factuality of posts, tweets, blogs, and other data, our best recourse against the deluge of information at everyone’s finger tips may likely be in pursuing and teaching skepticism, listening and patience in our communities. The journalistic adage Mr. Ramsey offered was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” He compared a healthy intake of information to the healthy intake of food. Someone makes a personal choice about what to consume, and if it’s all junk food then their health declines. This analogy leads us to organizations like Sleeping Giants who alert advertisers that their products are showing up on Breitbart. They’ve since convinced hundreds of advertisers to quit paying for ads on the racist and misogynistic fake news site. There used to be a time when you couldn’t get milk and fruit with your happy meal at McDonald’s, but their customers viewed it as too unhealthy and marketing changed the menu. Can that happen here? How difficult is it to ask the public to practice journalistic integrities? Some present at the panel argued that it might be too much to ask. It was clear that engaging others in a conversation about a “healthy news diet” and journalistic best practices was a good way to start restoring civil discourse in 2017.

Dr. Roderick Hart stressed that “Fact is something you pay for; opinion is what comes free.” There was a lot of discussion as to what that meant. Mr. Ramsey pointed out that his employer, The Texas Tribune, is a free publication. Most effectively, Dr. Hart meant that this was how you should start your deductive process when deciding what you’re looking at online or in a piece of printed material…Ask yourself, “Do the people producing this product have a background in journalism or a field applicable to the topic? Are they held to the integrity of their work by a paycheck that only comes when they print facts that can’t be refuted or at the very least well founded possibilities that require public attention because of their extreme likelihood?” Dr. Hart pointed out that Mr. Ramsey does in fact receive a paycheck in this way. He also recommended subscribing to a news source that charges for its services. He backed this as the most likely way to get the good stuff.

He also explained what he called a dangerous digital morality:

  • I can be by myself … online
  • I can “follow” others without their knowing it
  • I can think things I shouldn’t be thinking
  • I can say things I shouldn’t be saying
  • I need not worry about the consequences of my actions

By exercising these beliefs people all over the world have become part of a vast network of trolls. Some of these individuals are behaving badly for monetary and political gain. Many of them turned out to be “addicted to the chemical stimulation” of emotionally charged materials that became part of a larger social-network-based disinformation hub fueling a sort of distributed denial of service attack targeting the truth. Instead of a botnet crashing a major website this was a symbiotic rhythm drummed by the clickers, sharers and the creators of “fake news” overloading the public with dis-information in such a way that it fed bias and arrogance fueling the solipsism and hatred of the “dangerous digital morality”. Many of us segregated voluntarily into the private chat rooms that accommodated our point of view. Dr. Hart suggested the remedy is engaging in conversation with individuals who have dissimilar points of view in order to practice and encourage civil discourse. He explained that in 2016 many Americans were introduced to the black lives in America that are constantly at risk and in danger. We learned about white rural Americans that voted for Trump because they felt defeated and forgotten. He explained this as a positive step towards Americans getting to know what their fellow citizens experience differently from themselves and opening their minds to one other. He emphasized the art of listening empathetically when restoring civil discourse.

Jonathan Tilove spoke around multiple aspects of the present-day political environment involving tweets, news, and the use of language. He revisited Dan Patrick’s tweets from June 12, 2016 and discussed how difficult it was for people to accept his findings that one tweet was in fact NOT a heartless comment on the shootings in Orlando on the same day. What became evident was that there was a fringe of non-believers in every political spectrum that were joining the mainstream. “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!” as Aesop’s morals go. Perhaps we have a reached a point where no one believes an honest man either? Is it so difficult now to identify the truth that an investigative journalist with real evidence is hard to believe? Donald Trump has said he has “the world’s greatest memory” and then denies saying what he has said no matter how much proof there is he said it. Sometimes Mr. Trump says he doesn’t remember saying what he has said even though he has “the world’s greatest memory”. In Aesop’s fable, the villagers responded three times to the shepherd boy’s alarm before they stopped trusting his cries for help. In 2017, maybe they only come once. When the President Elect of the United States is a compulsive liar, who do you trust? The answer is no one. Trust evidence. Trust facts. Trust research. Trust the journalistic process of skeptical, unbiased, patient deduction.

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