Is it Nov. 8 yet?

Is it Nov. 8 yet?

I like to flip on the news in the morning or after dinner to catch the latest national headlines (easier for my aging eyes than squinting at my phone).

Lately it hasn’t been so pretty.

More than once, I’ve had to shut if off so a) I don’t have to listen to people shouting at each other or b) my kids don’t hear things that probably don’t even come up in high school locker rooms.Blog Photo

As you know all too well, this presidential campaign has included fairly explicit talk of sexual assaults, babies being ripped out of women’s bodies, name-calling and off-color language (the least offensive being “turd”) that news analysts can’t wait to repeat.


When I was younger we used to laugh at the “McLaughlin Group,” a public affairs show aired mostly on PBS. It was hosted by John McLaughlin, a bombastic sort who would pose questions to panelists of varied political views. By the end they’d be shouting each other down. It was parodied by SNL, and Ronald Reagan once referred to it as a “political version of Animal House.”

Now that’s par for the course.

Networks seem compelled to bring on panelists diametrically opposed to each other, instead of rational people who might be able to shed light on an issue. Last week, CNN host Carol Costello had to cut off a segment twice and go to a commercial because the guests wouldn’t stop yelling.

It’s all about “news entertainment,” says Matt Motyl, a University of Illinois-Chicago psychology professor who studies ideology and political discourse.Blog Photo

I covered his talk at the University YMCA last week about how the country’s residential segregation by ideology has contributed to our increasing political polarization. We talked afterward about the growing “outrage” that’s now part of television news.

“It’s grown a lot since the late ’90s, when we went from news to news entertainment,” he said. “They know that outrage sells. So it makes sense if they want to drive viewership to have people who are yelling at each other, even if that means giving false equivalence to issues — like pretending that Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud. You have to have somebody on the other side who argues that it is, and then you have to have somebody say, ‘No, it isn’t.’ When you don’t have any evidence supporting it, all you can do is yell at each other and go back and forth and say ‘You’re wrong,’ ‘No you’re wrong.’ And that’s what our debate has become.”

The problem is, it pays off.

Fox News was the first to adopt that approach and its ratings went “through the roof,” Motyl said. Then MSNBC decided it could satisfy that need on the other end of the spectrum, he said. CNN’s numbers were lagging, so it followed suit.

University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz has found that the approach can boost interest in the political process and the likelihood that people will participate, Motyl said.

“On the other hand it means that we’re yelling at each other and we hate each other,” he said, which is detrimental to the country.

Politics has never been a gentle process. President Obama and Mitt Romney both caught flak for comments perceived as offensive by the other side — Obama’s reference to people in towns that had lost manufacturing jobs who “cling to guns or religion,” and Romney writing off nearly half the voters who are “dependent on government and believe that they are victims.”Blog Photo

But they also had true policy debates, said Motyl, who recently re-watched the 2012 debates. This year, he said, the debates were mostly personal attacks, or at least degenerated into that by the end.

Our 13-year-old daughter watched the most recent debate with us. “What are they talking about?” she asked during the late-term abortion discussion, as I squirmed.

Then came the “You’re a puppet”-“No you’re the puppet” exchange.

“They sound like they’re in kindergarten,” she said.

I talked to her about it later, explaining the high stakes involved and why the conversation had devolved this way.

“It’s sad that they have to go down so far,” she said.

As Motyl says, red and blue America need to find a way to talk to each other, and overcome the divisiveness spread by candidates and talk-show hosts who pander to the worst of our natures.

Motyl formed the nonprofit to help improve political civility, and goes to meetings and conventions with groups of all ideological stripes so he can have real conversations with people about why they think the way they do, in a setting where they feel safe.

“They are way more civil,” he said. “It’s actually a process of dialogue where they’re discussing things, not just ranting about how the other side is evil or ill-conceived.”

It’s very different from public rallies, where people “put on a very different face,” he said. He went to Trump’s appearance at the UI Chicago earlier this year, which had to be canceled after fights broke out among supporters and protesters. Motyl found himself caught in the “no man's land” between the two groups.

The same thing happens on social media or in comments posted on news websites. It’s easy to criticize when you don’t have to interact.

Motyl works with a nonprofit called Village Square, which tries to bring people of different religious or political traditions together to talk once a month. He and other researchers measure changes in attitudes and the little things that help make those uncomfortable conversations easier. Getting to know something about a person’s background and experience first, and finding some common ground, usually helps them navigate trickier political issues even if they’re on opposite sides, he said.

As a reporter, I’ve seen the benefits of that approach. More than once after getting some blistering email, I’ve engaged with readers in a more meaningful way and reached a helpful understanding, or even a working relationship.

It’s not easy, and it takes time. But we have to keep trying, for all our sakes.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, or

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