Defining the news in an era of antagonistic political discourse

Jack Hubbard Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg, a consulting professor of linguistics, and Debra Satz, an associate professor of philosophy, spoke last week about the quality of political discourse.

The rise of adversarial broadcast news talk shows has affected the quality of political discourse in this country, a panel of media watchers said Sept. 22 during New Student Orientation.

Several hundred members of the Class of 2008 packed into Memorial Auditorium last week to listen to Michael Krasny, host of KQED Radio's public affairs program "Forum," lead a discussion titled "Thinking About Thinking: What Is News?" Debra Satz, associate professor of philosophy; Geoffrey Nunberg, consulting professor of linguistics; and Morris Fiorina, professor of political science, joined in the wide-ranging debate on the question of being an informed citizen in a democratic society.

According to Nunberg, the rise of a confrontational "Crips versus Bloods" gang mentality on popular talk shows has had far-reaching repercussions on political life. Satz explained that norms of civility underlie society's ability to make knowledge: If people, rather than issues, are vilified, she said, the quality of knowledge suffers because the reasoning behind an argument never gets aired. "It's only by knowing the best position on the other side that you understand the grounds for your own position," she said. "Shouting down the other guy doesn't only deprive him of a voice, it deprives you of understanding your own position."

Fiorina said the trend toward confrontation in public life is one reason many people are turned off politics. "We'd all rather watch two people having a fistfight in the street; it doesn't mean we want to elect [them]," he said. "What attracts ratings in the media is simply not necessarily what people want to see in their politics."

Panel members discussed the issue of staying informed amid a deluge of competing news interests of varying quality and objectivity. When Krasny noted that Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable channel, topped the list of news sources turned to by students, the audience hooted in agreement. Nunberg responded that many students he knows turn to public radio and quality newspapers, but he also praised Stewart's program as "wonderfully refreshing. He's says things that people are actually thinking, [like], 'What an idiot!'"

Throughout most of the lively 90-minute panel, Fiorina acted as a spoiler, questioning whether it really makes sense for ordinary people to be well informed when, at the national level, voters will have only two realistic choices for president when they go to the polls in November. When he said that statistics reveal that most of the teenage audience-many of whom will be eligible to vote for the first time-will not bother to cast ballots Nov. 2, the audience booed loudly. "I'm not saying this is a good thing," Fiorina replied. "I'm saying this is the way it is."

Satz was more optimistic about the role of students as voters. "There are key moments in the political life of a country when being informed is particularly important," she said. "[It's your] responsibility to get diverse views on a variety of issues."

Nunberg concurred, noting that everyone should be able to exchange views on issues that affect them. "It's crucial to the functioning of a democratic society that we can speak with some authority," he said.

Panel members agreed that deliberative democracy, which envisions transforming democracy by making citizens everywhere broadly informed participants, is probably unrealistic. "Deliberative democracy basically doesn't work," Fiorina said. "People don't want to spend their time deliberating."

Nevertheless, Satz suggested, the media and politicians could become more deliberative as institutions serving the public. "From a point of view of protecting self-interest, people need information," she said. "We will choose better leaders if we expect them to explain things. I think when people are involved, they make better decisions and we get better politics."