Several years ago, a local newspaper received a scurrilous letter to the editor, bashing me, my accomplishments, and my personality. The editor called me and said that she wanted me to be aware of the letter, but that she was not publishing it because she did not regard it as news. She saw it as an attempt to bash, inflame and destroy credibility because of a personal gripe. I told her that I was extremely grateful for her courtesy and for the paper's professionalism.
That was then. Now is now, a new era in which the lines between news and inflammatory words are being blurred. The most recent example of this trend being the reports all over the Internet, on television and in newspapers about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's remarks at a fundraising dinner for Governor Scott Walker, where he said that President Obama "does not love America."
Goaded by the media frenzy, and to justify his remarks, Giuliani dug himself deeper, alleging that Obama "... grew up in a background where at a very early age he was taught communism. He was exposed to that whole movement criticizing America. I think he just looks at us differently."
On Meet the Press, moderator Chuck Todd said that he felt ashamed that the media spread the story and created a "feeding frenzy" of story after story, inflaming side after side to either defend Giuliani, sidestep the issue, or criticize the former mayor. And yet, despite the shame, Meet the Press ran the story, as well.
Four years ago, I interviewed the two co-chairs of the civility movement in Congress, Representatives Emanuel Cleaver (D-Kansas) and Tim Johnson (R-Indiana) on a Purple America television show about how we can get to common ground and greater good. Both said that politics is plagued by the 24/7 news cycle which is more geared to "gotcha reporting" and inflammatory "red meat" than substance. Consequently, they said, politicians play to the appetite and say outrageous things because they know that's the news that will resonate with the media. And that's the news that America gets.
I don't completely buy that argument because it infers that politicians can't exercise a greater sense of decorum or responsibility. It also says that, "It's the media's fault, so that let's everyone off the hook." Our political leaders can do better. So can we, the consuming public.
But, what they were pointing out was that our culture is tolerating, even inviting the "red meat" and rabid reporting that litter our news cycles and affect all of us. The result: incivility that coarsens culture and, more significantly, shows our children how NOT to get along.
Journalist Ron Fournier said it best in "Parsing Patriotism," a recent article in The National Journal: "Ask any parent: Our culture is coarsening. Civility is eroding. The Internet easily reinforces and amplifies hateful language. Nobody wants to live in a country where the singular measure of patriotism is that you agree with me."
Let me add one other point to Fournier's observation. If the civil rights movement hadn't criticized America, we would not have improved as a country. Oftentimes criticism enables a country, a company, or any human dynamic to align more with its values, especially when some of those values are out of whack.
It used to be that we heard negative speech and attack language only on talk radio the likes of Larry Elder and Rush Limbaugh. Now, that's the steady diet that the media doles out to Americans every day, from all news sources. Whether it follows or precedes the hunt for "red meat," it really doesn't matter anymore. Society has suffered and continues to do so.
The Gallup Poll reported last year that, "Americans' confidence in the media's ability to report 'the news fully, accurately, and fairly' has returned to its previous all-time low of 40%." That was before Brian Williams "misremembered" how his helicopter came under attack while he was reporting in Iraq. I'm certain that the number would be even lower now.
Coinciding with this lower confidence in media is the continued evidence, represented in polls by Weber Shandwick and others, that a majority of Americans feel affected by the lack of civility in society and even that they have difficulty talking to their neighbors. Whether this is coincidence or a natural outcome of the coarsening of our media-driven culture, pointing the finger to deflect blame doesn't help the problem. More responsible reporting -- if not more responsible leadership -- will.
It used to be that media prided itself on the likes of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They and their peers of their day set the standard for reporting the news fairly and ignoring the news that had little substance, except to inflame. Reporters would pride themselves on that level of professionalism.
To a certain extent, the train housing this responsibility standard has left the station and will not return unless reporters and editors do what the kind newspaper editor once did for me: pass on the story that should never be.
Until that happens, it falls on you and me not to fall prey to this cultural demeaning by not spreading the scurrilous stories, not viewing people with opposing views as the enemy, and by positively pushing civil dialogue -- even that which is critical of the status quo -- in all corners of our country.
Just as we call out and label hate crimes and bullying, let's call out and label incivility wherever we see it. Unless we do, one day we will wake up in a country where office workers can't talk to office workers, students can't talk to students, and leaders can't talk to leaders.
We're on that slippery slope now, with the media pouring the mud on every day, hastening our decline.
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 www.PurpleAmerica.us Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org