Is Bully Journalism Here to Stay?

This is the new normal of bully journalism. Goad, incite, confront and, hopefully, spark a fight. Bully journalism has nothing to do with facts. It's about the ratings. Confrontation sells, for the same reason that a fight in the high school hallway draws a crowd.
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Someday I'll be living in a big ole city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Someday I'll be big enough so you can't hit me
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?
- Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift was writing in response to how mean-spirited the music critics had become, but she could just as well have been referring to the media -- Fox, CNN and CNBC -- that have been moderating the last three Republican debates. As the American public braces for the next Republican brawl, I have one question for the media:

Why you gotta be so mean?

One caveat. I am neither Republican nor Democrat, and my organization, Purple America, is not affiliated with any political party. Our only aim is to advance the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. The media's conduct in the debates not only has impeded civil dialogue, they have proactively advanced conflict and incivility. Even the introduction to the last debate sounded more like the tease to a WWE fighting match than a presidential debate.

Media's tough questioning of political candidates is not new. Nor is Republican anger against the media. Consider this 2008 interchange between candidate Newt Gingrich and CNN's John King:

King: "As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says that you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?"

Gingrich: "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern the country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."

Rep. Ron Paul, also, in 2008: "I think too often all of us are on the receiving end of attacks from the media, and it's very disturbing, because sometimes they're not based on the facts and we suffer the consequences."

I believe that the media plays an essential role in our American democracy, sparking critical questions about who we are and what we stand for, uncovering corruption, and providing critical information to the American people. Were it not for Woodward, Bernstein and The Washington Post, Watergate would not have been uncovered.

Providing factual information in the public interest is the media's mission.

The media that I respect is a public trust. But the integrity of that trust -- riddled by partisanship and non-neutral and biased reporting -- has eroded. No wonder that according to The Gallup Poll, confidence in the media has plummeted to 40 percent.

Along with this decline in trust, the media landscape has changed. Phillip Bump, writing in The Washington Post, acknowledges that, "... the media on the whole has shifted. In a world that's centered on the Internet and its always-changing idiosyncrasies, major outlets (including The Washington Post and Fox News) now mix hard reporting with analysis and opinion more than once was the case."

Bump also refers to journalist Mark Feldstein's statement that, "It's the media's role to goal, prod, even provoke in an attempt to get the truth, just as it's the politician's role to spew out canned sound bites." "The result," Bump continues, "is the infamous media 'gotcha game.'" Sounds to me more like TMZ than NBC...

This is the new normal of bully journalism. Goad, incite, confront and, hopefully, spark a fight. Bully journalism has nothing to do with facts. It's about the ratings. Confrontation sells, for the same reason that a fight in the high school hallway draws a crowd.

For whatever reason, Republicans -- now and in the past two elections -- have borne the brunt of this emerging trend. Although tough questions from the media have been facts of all political life -- and they ought to be -- Republicans have been dealt more questions designed to incite candidates to attack each other. But, the most recent debates represent a new low.

In the 2015 Democratic Debate, moderators put candidates on the hot seat with confrontational questions, but they did not repeatedly choose to pit candidates against each other, sparking conflict.

Take CNN's Anderson Cooper to Hillary Clinton:

Secretary Clinton... plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency... Will you say anything to get elected?

And Cooper to Martin O'Malley:

The current top prosecutor in Baltimore, also a Democrat, blames your zero tolerance policies for sowing the seeds of unrest. Why should Americans trust you with the country when they see what's going on in the city you ran for more than seven years?

Although these are searing questions, the candidates are not prompted to engage in a "cage fight," as Ted Cruz likened it in the last (CNBC-moderated) debate.

The methods in the Republican debates have been noticeably different. Moderators have asked candidates to directly confront the others, making perhaps for entertaining reality television but dismal examples of civility and respect.

Fox's Chris Wallace to Bush and Rubio:

Senator Rubio, when Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for the presidency, he said this: "There's no passing off responsibility when you're governor, no blending into the legislative crowd." Could you please address Governor Bush across the stage here, and explain to him why you, someone who has never held executive office, are better prepared to be president than he is ...

Wallace wants Bush and Rubio to go after each other.

And CNBC's John Harwood to Kasich:

Governor Kasich, you had some very strong words about your fellow candidates and what's happening in your party. Would you comment on that?

There is no question in my mind that this blurring of the lines between factual questions and bully journalism has infiltrated the Republican debates, while media in both the 2015 Democratic Debate and previous Democratic debates in 2008 and 2012 did not similarly incite the candidates. However, once bully journalism establishes a new culture of acceptable reporting, I fear that it will become du jour across the entire spectrum.

Reasonable people can argue that responsible candidates, especially those who want to be president, don't have to take the bait. I agree. While the bully may push their buttons, they still have the ability to choose civility over conflict, positivity over negativity, and statesmanship over pettiness. They ought to be examples of civility and respect.

Still, that doesn't let media off the hook. Responsible media can do better. If they don't, our trust in them will continue to decline, and our culture will continue to coarsen.

Why you gotta be so mean?

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to HYPERLINK " Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to

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