What this country needs is a down-home Revival (of Debate)

(June 15th, 2008)

The following was published in Dissident Voice and SleptOn Magazine.

Being on the left, I’m not very happy about conservative talk radio. But not for the reasons you might think. Sure, I’m disgusted with the omission, distortion, and outright lies. I’m sad to see so many people taking the bait. Their commercial success translates into millions of people who may think they’re bucking the system with their anger and outrage, but are actually quite content in never at all challenging the hierarchical structure of our society.

All this bothers me. Yet I’m far more bothered by what I see as talk radio’s greater mission. And that is to destroy any sense of real debate in our society. Issues that deserve hours to explore great nuance and detail have been reduced to three minute yelling sessions in between commercials. Guests raising important points are to be shouted down. All opponents are to be insulted. Callers with irrefutable facts are to be hung up on after a few seconds, only to have their words distorted and ridiculed until the next break. Instead of serving its potential function as a vehicle for democracy, the public airwaves have been used to turn our national and local dialogue into something more resembling the Jerry Springer Show.

And it’s not just talk radio. The 24 hour news channels have adopted many of the same tactics. According to Jeff Cohen, an executive told Joe Scarborough when he was starting his show on MSNBC, “If you let someone talk for more than seven seconds on your show without interruption, then you are a failure.”

Even the major networks see it fit to take on the sound bite mentality when discussing complex world events. When asked why Noam Chomsky was never on Nightline, Jeff Greenfield commented, “It is about as sensible to book somebody who will take eight minutes to give an answer as it is to book somebody who doesn’t speak English.” Chomsky later noted that Greenfield had hit the nail on the head, commenting that “the beauty of concision… is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts.”

In other words, if you can’t fit your argument on a bumper sticker, you don’t deserve to be in the discussion.

The reason for this is fairly obvious. An uninformed people are easier to control. They’re easier to sell to, easier to mislead, easier to recruit. All you have to do is trick them into believing they have all the facts, and the rest is ventriloquism.

Am I saying that this is the intention of people like Jeff Greenfield? Absolutely not. But intention doesn’t always translate into consequence. And the handful of media owners in our country, as well as their industry friends, are more than happy with such consequence.

So I say forget about them. In fact, shame on us for ever expecting the powerful to allow us to think freely in the first place. It’s time we bring back the debate. A grassroots revival to awaken us from our intellectual slumber.

It could start with as little as a website. Divided up according to issue and/or geography, debates could be hosted on any number of topics: bills before Congress, major court rulings, current events. Not limited to national and international politics, separate categories could be reserved for more regional and local issues. Most of all, the site would provide a forum for fleshing out issues the mainstream news and talk shows won’t touch.

Not only could debates involve more than two people, they could involve more than just elites and so-called experts. Furthermore, dialogue could range from the fundamental disagreements of political opposites to differences of vision among ideological allies.

Debate format would be agreed upon by the participants and could vary from fixed to informal, the only requirement being that participants give and be given respect and fair time for their contributions. Focus should be kept on the issue, with personal attacks strictly prohibited. The point of such a project would be to give an alternative to the sensational distractions posed by the mainstream media as democratic discourse.

Efforts for promotion could start with guerilla marketing. In addition to websites like Youtube and GoogleVideo, face-to-face debates could be taped for download or distribution to local public access cable channels and viewing parties around the country, not to mention C-Span, Dish Network, and FreeSpeech TV. Added to call-in debates, these programs could provide material for college radio, low-power FM, and internet radio stations. Lastly, prolonged e-mail exchanges would allow for a much longer and in-depth debate format to be read in transcripts.

But why stop there? Why not find bands to play concerts after debates, so to bring out more people? Why not host debate nights at churches, libraries, and community centers? Hell, why not throw debate festivals and conventions for thousands to attend?

In addition to such a project being a great way to make us more aware of different perspectives, it would also assist in improving our critical thinking skills. In fact, I would propose an entire section of the website be devoted to exposing the tricks of false arguments. Things like statistic manipulation, non sequitur and circular logic, deceptive analogies and half-truths. The more skilled an audience is in recognizing distortion and dishonesty, the more glaring the truth will be, and the more stark the credibility (or lack of) of those participating in the debate.

Because isn’t that what we want to get to? Who is telling us the truth? Who is giving us the most honest picture of reality? Equally important, which perspective is this picture coming from? Is it coming from the powerful or is it coming from the powerless? Is it coming from the victim, or is it coming from the villain? Which perspective do we, as responsible citizens, want to view reality from?

See, not only have our mainstream media outlets been guilty of demolishing real debate, they have continued year after year to give voice to some of our most duplicitous analysts and commentators.

So I say let’s get the privileged pundits out of their comfortable network chairs and into the ring. Let’s see how they fare in real showdowns. A format where they can’t rest on their charisma or oratorical finesse. I’m talking about substance. And when claims are disputed, a request would be made for source or documentation, all of which would be exhibited on the website in a subsequent follow-up meant to spotlight the validity of certain controversial statements.

Moreover, after each debate a tally could be kept on how many mainstream media outlets invite that specific debate participant on the air. So if you thought someone disgraced him or herself in a particular exchange, then you can also see which programs reward such disgrace. Conversely, maybe those credible voices not always permitted the same air time could start demanding a bit more attention.

In any case, such a project is needed. Who’s going to run it? I don’t know. Maybe it could be a joint effort of volunteers similar to that of Indymedia and Wikipedia. Who’s going to fund it? I don’t know. I’m sure there’s enough grant money out there to get it started.

I do know that we cannot leave our democratic discourse to the current media demagogues. We cannot allow executives and advertisers to plant flags in our brains. Without an accurately informed public, democracy is worthless. And when our intellectual diets become corporate approved, it’s merely the clever leading the blind.