'Vitriol' Debate Timely, Even Without A Shooting

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Last weekend's shootings in Arizona were followed by much debate and accusation. Many cited a tone of vitriol over the nation's airwaves and websites for helping to inflame the shooter to violence. This week may be a good opportunity to reflect on the quality of discussion and debate in this country today. Host Scott Simon talks with Eric Deggans, television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, about how partisan bickering and finger-pointing has played out in the media following last weekend's shooting in Arizona.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Last weekend's shootings in Arizona were followed by much debate and accusation. Many cited a tone of vitriol over the nation's airwaves and websites for helping to inflame the shooter to violence. Now, to be clear, it is not clear whether the man accused of the Tucson shootings heard or read any of the rhetoric that's been blamed, but this week may be a good opportunity to reflect on the quality of discussion and debate in this country today.

We're joined by Eric Deggans, television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joins us from his newspaper in Florida. Mr. Deggans, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (St. Petersburg Times): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Has heated rhetoric become a format?

Mr. DEGGANS: Oh, yes. It's a format that earns millions of dollars for several people, particularly in cable news, and particularly on talk radio. Contentious political debate is what fuels ratings and what earns big profits.

SIMON: In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, were there some comments about the vitriol that were in a sense vitriolic in themselves?

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah. I'm thinking in particular of Bill O'Reilly, who took on the New York Times saying that they were demonizing conservatives when - and cited a line from a New York Times editorial that actually said that the contentious debate about the healthcare law, the new healthcare legislation, increased death threats against Democratic lawmakers, which was, you know, true.

SIMON: People have observed over the past few years, for example, that, you know, this just didn't happen when 63 million people watched Walter Cronkite every night. But I don't know, hasn't colorful and even intemperate speech been a part of politics and journalism?

Mr. DEGGANS: Sure. I think, though, we have these media platforms that are increasingly bringing this debate into our lives in more intimate ways. We have blogs, we have websites, we have Internet radio, we have satellite radio. You know, we have all these different platforms, and I think people have increasingly surrounded themselves, particularly people who are interested in this stuff, in a silo of media that reflects their opinions back to them.

And we've reached a point where we can't agree on object facts. We can't agree on things that typically we used to be able to agree on, even when we were at our most contentious. You know, you can't necessarily say that this shooting was inspired by political rhetoric, but certainly it's a wake-up call that can make you take another look at what's happening, and take some sort of corrective action.

SIMON: You mentioned Bill O'Reilly. Keith Olbermann over on MSNBC, who kind of baits Bill O'Reilly often on his broadcast, he seemed to own up to maybe using some intemperate speech.

Mr. DEGGANS: What's interesting to me about that is that this fits in with an argument that liberal commentators have been making for a while. So it is easier for Keith Olbermann to say, well, you know, maybe I crossed the line, because that doesn't turn off his audience. And in fact, that will appeal to his audience because he knows that there's a huge segment of his audience who believes that.

So while I agree with him, and I'm glad that he's willing to put that out there on the table publically, it's easier for him to do that because it fits his brand as a commentator.

SIMON: I was interested in something you wrote this week in answer to people that say, look, this is just talk, it's just rhetoric, there's no proof that rhetoric leads to action.

Mr. DEGGANS: Right. Well, what I noticed is that we have an entire free broadcasting media system built on the idea that media images promote specific action. That's the point of commercials on television, the idea that you present a product in an attractive way and it makes people want to buy it. And so if that is good enough to fuel an $8 billion TV commercial industry and pay, by the way, the salaries of Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and everybody else who works on free television, then certainly that notion might be something that we might want to think about when it comes to the kind of really extreme rhetoric that we've seen out there.

SIMON: For a number of reasons, maybe because it simply entertaining, do we exaggerate the influence of cable news outlets? And I ask because just a fraction of the number of people that watch Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer every night, or for that matter tune to NPR, are actually watching the cable news services.

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah, that's true. I do think that we tend to over-emphasize their impact, because us commentators and media people and journalists, we have these cable channels playing in our newsrooms and in our offices all day. But I will also say that these channels tend to be watched by people who are more likely to vote. These channels tend to be watched by people who are more likely to have standing in their community. They set the tone for the debate that filters down into the community in other ways. So it's important to keep an eye on it.

SIMON: So I don't have to tell you, Eric, nothing gets on the air these days without going through focus groups. I don't mean individual remarks so much as formats and approaches to programming and that sort of thing. So is the media just providing what the people want and the people don't realize they're getting effected by or are people constructing this for themselves?

Mr. DEGGANS: Oh, I don't think there's any doubt that the audience has voted, and they prefer, particularly in prime time, on cable news and in talk radio, they prefer these formats where there's this contentious debate. But again, you know, if you let people, I'm sure they would drive any speed they wanted to on the roads, you know. But we all decided sort of as a society that it's important to have speed limits. And I'm not suggesting a law like a speed limit, but what I'm saying is, we all agree that even though we would like to have as much freedom as possible, sometimes it makes sense for us all to observe some limits for the common good.

SIMON: Eric Deggans, television media critic at the St. Petersburg Times and he writes a popular media blog called "The Feed." Thanks so much.

Mr. DEGGANS: This was really enjoyable. Thank you very much.

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