Booing the Golden Rule: How Adversarial Journalism Is Hurting America

In January of 2005, Crossfire, a long running and popular debate program on CNN, was canceled. Billed as a forum for debate between two hosts, pitting the right wing viewpoint of Tucker Carlson against the left wing perspective of co-host Paul Begala, Crossfire was a notorious example of adversarial journalism -- a style of opinion journalism that relies upon conflict and dialectical opposition.

Crossfire's cancellation followed a guest appearance from Jon Stewart, in which he appeared, ostensibly, to promote his book America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. But when the cameras started rolling, Jon Stewart turned the tables on the shell-shocked hosts, telling Begala and Carlson that shows like Crossfire "hurt America," and that the hosts were "doing theater, when [they] should be doing debate, which would be great." Begala and Carlson sat dumbfounded as Stewart batted away their criticism of his journalistic integrity and dodged questions about The Daily Show and instead continued to confront the duo about the sensationalism and theatrics they used to boil down complex, debatable issues into sets of partisan talking points.

Soon after Jon Stewart called for the cancellation of Crossfire, Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN, announced that the program would be cancelled.

But Crossfire's cancellation was not the end of adversarial talk shows. In fact, many such shows have recently gained popularity. Shows like Hannity, The O'Reilly Factor, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, The Glenn Beck Program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and The Rachel Maddow Show all rely upon the host to develop of a cult of personality and invite guests for a verbal sparring match.

Such shows are so commonplace that they have inspired The Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, which is, ironically, successful because Stephen Colbert has himself created a cult of personality eerily similar to those which he satirizes. Colbert's character always feels he is under attack, and constantly seeks to counter-attack his opponents, real or imaginary. Guests on The Colbert Report are treated with varying degrees of suspicion, derision, and contempt in an all too real portrayal of the dynamic of today's debates, talk shows, and discussions.

While debate is healthy, and the intent behind presenting two sides of each story is to be fair, presenting every issue as an argument between two diametrically opposing views creates a false dilemma for the audience. When polls are released suggesting overwhelming approval for the use of military drones against terrorist suspects, we must wonder whether we can infer that the respondents are expressing approval for this technique, or whether they are responding to the suggestion that we must choose between sending soldiers and sending drones. Aside from creating a false dilemma between two options when many others exists, even asking the question that way implies that the fact that we will be assassinating suspected terrorists oversees is already settled, and now the discussion is just a matter of deciding on the methods.

It was this fallacy that Ron Paul experienced at the South Carolina Fox/Twitter Presidential Debate. Moderator and Fox News anchor Brett Baier misleadingly asked:

In a recent interview, Congressman Paul, with a Des Moines radio station you said you were against the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. You said the U.S. operation that took out the terrorist responsible for killing 3,000 people on American soil, quote, showed no respect for the rule of law, international law. So to be clear, you believe international law should have constrained us from tracking down and killing the man responsible for the most brazen attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor?

Paul said, "Obviously, no," and attempted to clarify that it is his belief that the Pakistani government would have turned over Osama bin Laden to the United States government upon President Obama's request. Paul suggested that the operation that killed bin Laden was disrespectful to the sovereignty of Pakistan, but that he had voted for the authority to "go after" bin Laden.

Ron Paul then followed his explanation with the Golden Rule, a tenet of Judeo-Christian religion as well as a major part of most belief systems, saying:

"My point is, if another country does to us what we do others, we're not going to like it very much. So I would say that maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in -- in foreign policy. Don't do to other nations... what we don't want to have them do to us."

The South Carolinian audience, purportedly a devout group, booed loudly in response.

How does this happen? Why does a supposedly religious, presumably rational audience boo in response to what may be the least controversial statement of all time? The answer is, they weren't, not really. They were booing what they heard: that Ron Paul isn't sufficiently happy that bin Laden was killed. Brett Baier had framed what could have been an interesting and helpful debate about our foreign policy procedures in a manner that stripped the debate of any real meaning, leaving only the skeleton of the question he could have asked. What Baier really asked Ron Paul was not whether he agrees with the administration's handling of the operation that killed the most wanted terrorist in the world, nor what authority the United States has to make unilateral decisions on another sovereign nation's soil without involving them. What he really asked Ron Paul reduces to a question one might easily attribute to Stephen Colbert: "Are you glad Osama's dead, or not? And if not, why do you hate America?"

When the audience booed, they were not really expressing disdain for the Golden Rule. They had not heard what Ron Paul essentially said, which was "I'm glad Osama bin Laden will never spearhead another terrorist attack, but I have some concerns about the way U.S. foreign policy was handled in this and other instances will affect already-tense foreign relations." What they heard was "No, I didn't support killing a universally despised terrorist and avenging the loss of thousands of American lives."

That was no accident. The question was engineered to put Paul on the defensive, and phrased so that the only two options are "I'm thrilled he's dead, and America's foreign policy is beyond reproach" or "We shouldn't have killed him." And by the time Ron Paul tried to build the argument back into a complex and nuanced debate question, the audience had lost focus, conditioned by the talk shows to expect rapid-fire, soundbite answers that are easy to digest. By the time Ron Paul started to say that we should treat others as we wish to be treated, they were too far gone.

But framing arguments as possessing one obviously correct answer and one obviously despicable one is relatively easy to spot. More difficult to discern is the framing of two opposing viewpoints as being equally legitimate. This happens more and more frequently, as viewers begin to expect to see two people debating every news story, right down to whether a recent murder was indeed a terrible story, or the worst story.

This technique is being slyly, perhaps even unwittingly used in a counter-offensive by religious leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have opposed Obama's mandate that institutions affiliated with religious authorities -- meaning, for example Catholic hospitals and schools, not churches -- would have to provide their female employees with health insurance that includes coverage for contraception. In what was perhaps a brilliant campaign strategy, President Obama announced this mandate firmly, thereby forcing the GOP candidates to either alienate some voters by agreeing with him, or alienate others (perhaps the 98 percent of Catholics who use contraception) by taking a moral stand against the mandate.

But the media, ever keen on putting two enemies in the jump circle and throwing the ball in the air, laid the groundwork for the counter-offense. Though there is not really widespread support for the Catholic leadership's opposition to the use of contraceptives, those with views about the immorality of birth control that are considered by many to be extreme were pitted against Obama in a manner which suggest that both sides are equally meritorious, equally reasoned, and equally supported. This was certainly not true before, and is unlikely to become true, but if anyone were uncertain, they may well be swayed by this portrayal of both views as being mainstream.

It is possible that neither the opposition nor the media are doing this intentionally. But it is, perhaps, worse if they aren't, because that means that the expectation of adversarial journalism, characterized by head-butting, screaming, and the slanderous hurling about of prepackaged talking points has infiltrated our system to the point where we can no longer even recognize it.

We are in a pot of contention, and as each of the fabricated opposing sides ratchets up the vitriol, the contentious waters warm. And, America, it's starting to feel pretty hot. We must pay attention and notice the rising temperature so we can jump out of the pot before it is too late, or we will be left no better off than an unfortunate lobster that didn't notice the building heat until it was too late: scalded, defeated, and beyond any hope for recovery.