What's The Value Of Extreme Rhetoric?

GUESTS:
David Folkenflik, media correspondent, NPR
Jonah Goldberg, editor at large, National Review Online
Michael Gerson, senior research fellow for the Institute for Global Engagement

On the right, a column predicted a possible military coup to "resolve the Obama problem." On the left, a congressman accused Republicans of wanting people to "die quickly." Tell us: Have you used or overheard this sort of extreme rhetoric in everyday life?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

National debates over health care, the economy, immigration, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can get heated and personal, and a lot of that shows up on cable TV. Here's Glenn Back, the Fox News Channel host, talking about President Obama.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Glenn Beck")

Mr. GLENN BECK: I'm not saying that he doesn't like white people. I'm saying he has a problem. He has a - this guy is, I believe, a racist.

CONAN: And there's plenty of heated rhetoric from the left, too. Here's Ed Schultz, host of "The Ed Show" on MSNBC, on health care.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Show")

Mr. ED SCHULTZ: Hold it right there. The Republicans lie. They want to see you dead. They'd rather make money off your dead corpse.

CONAN: Well, is angry, extreme rhetoric useful in any way? Is it worth listening to? Is there substance once we get past the screaming, and does it affect the way we talk with each other?

Chances are, you've heard this kind of language on your radio or on TV, or you've read it online, but have you heard it elsewhere, in conversations?

Tell us your story. Our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later, Gregory Rodriguez joins us on the Opinion Page to argue that what we need in polarized times to pull the country together is a common enemy.

But first, extreme discourse, and we begin with David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, who's with us from our bureau in New York. David, always nice to have you on the program.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey, great to be back.

CONAN: And has what we hear on the radio and what we see on cable TV news changed, really?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I've got to say, that second cut you played of Ed Schultz at MSNBC sounded more like Foghorn Leghorn than anything I've heard in a long, long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it does seem to me as though we're in a period where there's been, shall we say, accelerating of the heating of the rhetoric. You know, if you think back a little bit to what people are saying about President Obama and some of the claims for health care, there's an intensity there. You know, Glenn Beck is certainly not alone in assailing what he is doing, the idea of a government takeover.

I'm reminded a little bit of when I read years ago, was reading intensely about the New Deal, and there were sort of sweeping changes proposed at that time, the Great Depression. And the rhetoric then in the media and in political discourse was also fairly extreme. People were frightened. People didn't know whether capitalism would endure. People weren't sure if democracy was the right route to take. And there were all kinds of extravagant claims made about what Roosevelt was doing, even as his agenda was, you know, extraordinarily ambitious.

CONAN: And David, I am old enough, I'm delighted to say you are not, to remember the Vietnam War and the demonstrations in those days.

FOLKENFLIK: I've heard rumors about it.

CONAN: You've hear rumors, read about it in your history books, perhaps. But hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? This is not new.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, and one of the most extraordinary things, in some ways, of the past decade has been that we've really been engaging in two wars without significant, major, overwhelming and consistent protests of the kind that you saw at that time. And that may be a topic for another day.

Obviously, there's no draft driving young people to face the same kind of tough choices in the same numbers, but all of which is to say a lot of that's been channeled into, perhaps, our political back-and-forth. And a lot of that gets fought out in the media and particularly in the opinion media, where claims and counterclaims are often mixed with fact, but not necessarily firmly grounded upon it.

CONAN: And the new factor there seems to be Glenn Beck, who moved over from CNN to Fox.

FOLKENFLIK: Beck has been a shooting star in the last couple years on television, and by moving over to Fox - an exceptionally canny move on his part - he is playing to his own political base.

One of the extraordinary things to look at, in some ways, is his ratings. Glenn Beck is on at 5 o'clock in the afternoon here in the East, and that means that he's on the air before people are home from work. Nonetheless, he's getting nearly 3 million viewers a night, which is just about - he's getting more viewers than Sean Hannity is at 9e and Greta Van Susteren is at 10, so that - people are already at home in the evening part of the broadcast. He's on before that, and he's still getting better numbers than they are. That speaks to the degree to which he has energized and electrified a certain small-but-telling niche of the viewing public that says, I want to see this guy.

CONAN: And so to some degree, this is a cable news phenomenon. And is it good business for Fox, and it is good business for what many people say is the other side, on MSNBC?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, MSNBC has found a winning formula for the first time in pretty much its existence, since its founding in 1996. MSNBC has essentially said, we can do on the left what Fox does on the right.

Now, they don't do it entirely. They're not quite as focused at what they do and successful at what they do. Beck is a perfect embodiment of what Fox does in its - what it calls its programming hours; that is, its non-straight-news hours. And you know, many people make the case, somewhat convincingly, that at Fox, the line is more blurred than at most places. But what Beck does is he's able to serve as sort of a daytime fixture, riling people up, getting them talking, making Fox a water-cooler destination for a - you know, remember, these are all niche audiences.

You're talking about 3 and a half million at the best of times, but it's a significant force. It helps influence political discourse. It helps drive certain kinds of news coverage, and Beck has served to create sort of the third leg of the triptych.

You know, you've got Hannity, O'Reilly and now Beck, which are these three very strong, right-of-center - in Beck's case, often right-of-right-of-center - positions.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, who's with us from our bureau in New York, about the extremist rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Where do you hear it besides on the radio or on your TV? And let's begin with Katie(ph), Katie calling us from Fitchburg in Massachusetts.

KATIE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to call up and make a point about a conversation that happens a lot of times in my house. My husband listens to left radio on Sirius satellite, and a lot of times he ends up walking in the door a little more angry, I feel, than he would have.

He says he listens to it because he likes to hear similar points of view of, you know, his take on things, and I feel like we have to do the responsible thing and possibly step away from it because I believe that, same as the folks who are on the right listening to Fox, I think we're walking away with a negative point of view where, if we focused on the positive, things might look a little better.

CONAN: So he is angry with them rather than at them.

KATIE: Correct. And I think that that's - it plays into that whole Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh scenario, and you guys just played a clip of Ed from the "Ed Schultz Show," and he - we first heard him on left radio, and I stopped listening because, you know, I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere. It was just making me angry.

CONAN: All right.

KATIE: So I'm loyal to NPR and feel like it leaves me with the information I need to hear, and without being angry.

CONAN: Katie, thanks very much for the endorsement, and thanks very much for the call.

KATIE: Thank you. Love the show.

CONAN: Thank you very much. And David, there is that aspect of the echo chamber to it on both sides.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I think the caller touches on a great point. You know, the question is, first off, are we only hearing things as a country on the right and left that tend to reinforce our own positions? And the second question is: Do we even have a common set of facts from which we can agree to argue?

CONAN: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, and I think that's really fractured. You know, people - when Fox came out and was very brash and was upsetting the applecart in the news business and particularly taking aim at other news organizations in its coverage - which is, you know, one of its signature moves - people would say, well, isn't this a terrible thing?

And you know, my feeling is it's very hard to argue against the ability of more people to have more speech. The question is, what kind of influence it has both with voters and citizens, and also what kinds of influence it has inside the media itself.

MSNBC, as you alluded to earlier, has hit on a significant measure of success -although not equal to Fox - by presenting itself on the left. And meanwhile, you know, the media landscape is fracturing.

The Web has brought all kinds of new voices into the mix, but it also means that we don't tend to listen to or read the same sources as one another. And a lot of those sources are not as fixed in the pursuit of fact as one might want in order to then start the debate and say, all right, well, what are we arguing about with - you know, what is the death panel? You know, what are the actual facts here?

Glenn Beck had this extraordinary string earlier this year - it's been a few months since he was on this kick - but where he talked about the question of FEMA planning camps in the event of disasters and places for basically dislocated people to live for a while. And he talked about them as concentration camps and you know, was President Obama and his administration planning this? And he even occasionally acknowledged on the air, you know, I don't have facts to prove this but, I don't know this to be the case but - but the rhetoric was extremely alarmist.

It's also, you know, often self-contradictory, and this is not solely something to ascribe to Beck, but you know, it's sort of a confusing rhetoric of Stalin and Hitler and sort of putting Obama at one and the other at the same time, and you know, ultimately just presenting him as a totalitarian - or at least totalitarian inclinations without a kind of legitimacy one might want people of the left and right both to confer on presidents of any party.

CONAN: Here's an email to your point from Brian in Binghamton, New York. I can't seem to talk civilly with my spouse about many political subjects. Of late, she watches Fox nearly exclusively all day and night. It's not healthy to receive one-sided information only, especially made to look fair and balanced. How does one reply to a spouse who claims as fact something you know - you believe to be made up but have no proof nor time to investigate yourself? For example, upon entering the house, I am blasted with: Did you know Obama wants to euthanize our elderly? That's the death-panel canard.

Anyway, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Chloe, Chloe with us from Wyndham in New Hampshire.

CHLOE (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHLOE: Back before the election, my mother, in front of my 10-year-old, said how Obama should be assassinated. And we were Obama supporters, and we got very upset, and it caused a huge fight in the family. And when we finally were able to get over it, we agreed not to talk about politics. But they are simply unable to stop doing it, and they both listen to Fox all day. And about a month ago, I came in the house, and they started in on Obama. I said I was going to leave, and the next thing you know, my father threw me out of the house. We were screaming and yelling and, you know, I just don't know what to do about that.

CONAN: I'm not sure I can tell you what to do except maybe try to have a little patience. It sounds like it's difficult, and try to maybe talk about their grandchildren or something, more neutral subjects.

CHLOE: Yeah, it's a problem because at this point, you know, we are sitting on - I think the only person that my father can vent all this anger that he, you know, builds up from Fox is on me because I'm the only liberal he knows. So…

CONAN: Well, Chloe, good luck, and Happy Thanksgiving.

CHLOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And David, that's a point she just made.

FOLKENFLIK: Chilling.

CONAN: It's chilling but indeed, sometimes the facts on both sides may be incorrect. The anger, the anger is undisguised. That's true.

FOLKENFLIK: I think that's right, and it's strong, and yet it doesn't have to be pervasive. You know, our own colleague - well, I can come back to it, but it's a strong anger, and it's now on both sides. You see it now from both the left and the right. The left has - sort of matches at times its anger at the establishment. We saw that during the Bush years, the WMDs disclosure, and the press's failure to hold the administration accountable to that before the war.

CONAN: David, stay with us. We're talking about extreme discourse. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Frank Luntz, the political pollster, likens the country's mood right now to Howard Beale in the movie "Network," the TV anchor who shouted: I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore. Americans, Luntz argues, are angry, and you can hear it in town halls, on TV and radio and online.

We got this email from Stacy, editor at the Prophetstown Echo in Illinois. I cover the local village board meetings for my local weekly newspaper. I've been dismayed by the recent ramp-up of rhetoric at one particular town meeting in recent months. There's been yelling, fighting and interrupting like I've never seen before. I see at the local level the same discourse happening on the national stage. It's too bad, she writes.

Well, we're talking about extreme and angry rhetoric. Is it useful? Does it affect the way we speak with each other? Has it affected your conversations? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. The address is npr.org. Then just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent. And joining us now by phone from his home here in Washington is Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of the National Review Online, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. And Jonah, it's always nice to have you on the program with us.

Mr. JONAH GOLDBERG (Editor-at-Large, National Review Online): Hey, great to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder: As you listen to this rhetoric - and there's plenty of it from both sides - what's the message beneath the anger, or is the message simply anger?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, first of all, I think that this - just to be clear - I think the story is overdone, and I think there is something strange about how when conservative or right-wing or Republican - whatever adjective people want to use - protest gets angry or loud, it's seen as America getting - having this sort of dangerous movement afoot. But there was a lot, a lot of anger at Bush over the last eight years, and those people represented America, too. And it shouldn't take, you know, a right-wing crank like me to point it out.

And you know, there is this desire to somehow have this standard that when sort of middle-American, conservative people rise up and scream bloody murder, it is a dangerous sign of the unraveling of the country. But when left-wing, coastal people get up and scream bloody murder, it's democracy in action or, you know, patriotic dissent, and dissent is the highest form of patriotism. And when conservatives protest, particularly because Barack Obama happens to be black, all of a sudden we go from patriotism - we go from dissent being the highest form of patriotism to dissent being the lowest form of racism. And I think there's a real double standard at work in all that.

That said, look, yeah, I think there's some - there's obviously some coarse rhetoric out there. There are some things that, you know, people like Glenn Beck, who I consider a friend…

CONAN: We should point out you're a regular on his show.

Mr. GOLDBERG: I am. And he says things that I don't agree with and I can't defend, and then some of them I've criticized, and some of them I haven't. But it's worth remembering that a lot of this isn't new. I mean, people talk about the partisan rancor in this country. Forget - you know, people were killing themselves in duels in the era of the founding fathers. And in the 19th century, you know, congressmen were getting beaten up on the floor of the House with, you know, with walking sticks.

CONAN: Yet, well, we pointed out, yes, there were battles on the floor of the Senate but nevertheless, the upshot to that was a Civil War. Hopefully, we're not headed there.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Sure, no. That's fair. And I think that, you know, that - but I also think that things could get a heck of a lot worse than they are now. I mean, people who talk about how allegedly hate-filled Beck and Limbaugh and these guys are, seem to forget how hate-filled Joe Pine was in the 1970s or how hate-filled Father Coughlin was in the 1930s. And that's a good case in point. Father Coughlin only becomes a sort of poster boy of hate-filled, dangerous rhetoric when he breaks with FDR. But when he was saying all of these nasty things in support of FDR, he was a good guy. So that double standard is very old.

CONAN: The populous who are with me are good fellas, and the ones who are against me are not.

Mr. GOLDBERG: That's right. And look, I don't want to dismiss all of it. I think that things that are indefensible should not be defended, and anyone who threatens violence should be deeply and seriously criticized by reasonable people in all parties, and all of the rest. But I think at the same time that there is a lot of hype to this story line that came all of a sudden when the protest came from the right side of the aisle.

CONAN: Well, that happened with the change of administration, and I think that was probably pretty predictable. But is there a line that should not be crossed? Obviously, advocating violence, we'll go beyond that.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, I think there's a - you know, obviously, you know, advocating violence is the easy one. And some of these are sort of like the famous line about pornography: You know it when you see it.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. GOLDBERG: But there's the larger problem of what to do about it. If someone goes off and says something truly awful - and I can find examples of people across the aisle who have said truly awful things over the last 10 years -therefore what? I mean, are we all supposed to break out into a grand chorus of tsk, tsk, tsk, you know, how dare this happen? I mean, there's only so much hand-wringing will do, and I don't think there are any public policy options to it.

So I think talking - you know, the answer to most free speech problems is more speech. Criticize people who go too far on both sides, and that's part of the debate.

CONAN: And as you look at this debate, I mean, it seems like this is good business on both sides of the aisle, that it helps drum up business.

Mr. GOLDBERG: I think that's right. I mean, part of the issue here is, you know, it's sort of a media story more than it is a woe-betide-the, you know, American-democracy story in that with the Balkanization of the media, everybody is breaking up into niches. And some niches are very, very large in terms of their, you know, the amount of money you can make off of them, but you look at MSNBC. It is decidedly sort of liberal now in the same way that Fox is decidedly conservative. And you look around, there are all sorts of people who are breaking the mold in every which way, blurring the lines between, you know, staid political commentary and opinion and more bombastic stuff.

And I don't think there's anything that we can do about it in this day and age. I don't think everyone should go that way. I think there's still a roll for sort of call-it-like-you-see-it, mainstream reporting and journalism. But you know, in a democracy, you're going to have a lot of different voices. And I think there's a very strange standard that's being applied to some of these people.

I mean, Beck is a - sort of an entertainment guy. He does stand-up comedy. He can be bombastic and over-the-top and all of the rest, and if you want to criticize that, that's perfectly legitimate. But you know, we've gone through almost eight years now of the mainstream, elite media worshiping and lionizing people like Jon Stewart, who blur the lines between serious news and commentary and comedy far more so than people like Beck. The in-house Media Watchdog Program on NPR on the media, the host of the show told the Associated Press that their role model is Jon Stewart.

CONAN: I think in terms of style, not necessarily politics.

Mr. GOLDBERG: That's fine. But in terms of style. But the style is a big part of it. There are a lot of people, when they hear people they agree with cross the line, they say go get them. But when they hear someone they disagree with cross the line, they say how dare he? That's not his place to talk like that. And I think that the problem is that, that's the way it's going to be going forward, and there's really nothing anyone can do about it.

FOLKENFLIK: Neal, if I might pop in for just a moment for a couple thoughts because Jonah, who I know well, is offering, you know, a fairly sophisticated media critique, among other things.

I think part of it is Beck's influence. He does the dance that certainly others do on the left as well, which is to critics, he'll say hey, look. You know, I'm a rodeo cowboy - or a clown, I think is actually what he says. And he says you don't have to take me seriously. I'll cry. I'll rant. I'll rave. I'll say things and you know, if they don't happen to be perfectly true, hey look, it's not like I'm - I have a Ph.D. in political science. I'm not a senator. Nobody elected me, don't worry about it.

To viewers, even though he's histrionic and quite entertaining and quite enjoyable, actually, in person as well, he's kind of asking to be taken seriously. And he's kind of asking them to lend to him a credibility so that he can influence them. And indeed, I think that's shown by some of the protests that he helped to engender and encourage.

You know, that's not a - you know, Jon Stewart is on the comedy channel now. I know CNN might love to have him on its air. But that said, you know, he's in a place where he is fixed as a figure of satire also exploring some factual issues.

Beck is, in some ways, you know, would position himself the same way were he to be here in sort of a meta-way describing himself. But to his viewers, he is talking to them about politics and the dangers, the absolutely dead-serious dangers that he perceives of the administration.

CONAN: Stewart clearly is talking about politics, too, just from the safety of comedy-land.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. And his rhetoric is, you know, in a sense, he's using overheated rhetoric, he acknowledges that, and yet he demands to be taken seriously. It's just, it's a slightly different place.

Mr. GOLDBERG: I agree, David. I agree basically with the point, that there is a distinction between the Fox News Network and the Comedy Channel, although there are many on the left who might disagree. But at the same time, you have Jon Stewart winning Peabodys and being lionized by the Television Critics Association. Frank Rich has written something like 20 columns praising him as vitally important to, you know, democratic discourse. Bill Moyers has - says he's indispensable. I mean, he is embraced by the serious, elite, liberal commentariat in a way that you wouldn't know from the fact that he's on the Comedy Channel. But you can look at other people. I mean, look at, you know, Michael Moore, who I have nothing good to say about. But here is a guy who shared a box with Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention, who was a big influence in Wesley Clark's campaign in…

FOLKENFLIK: But you're talking about him there as a political force and not as accepted by the mainstream media. I'm just saying they've served different roles in the ecosystem here.

CONAN: And I'm saying…

Mr. GOLDBERG: I just think that these distinctions between the niches and the mainstream media are becoming more and more permeable and less easy to define.

FOLKENFLIK: And I think that's totally true.

CONAN: And I think, David, I think we're going to have to stop there.

FOLKENFLIK: Sorry. Sorry.

CONAN: And agree to that point and thank you both. We are speaking on the phone with Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of the National Review Online, and his book is called "Liberal Fascism." And also with us from New York, our media correspondent - NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks to you both.

And David, I know you've got a plane to catch, so we're going to let you go.

FOLKENFLIK: Thank you, Neal.

Mr. GOLDBERG: And thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's bring another voice into the conversation, and that is Michael Gerson. Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, with us by phone from his home in Virginia. Good to speak with you again.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Columnist, Washington Post): Great to be with you.

CONAN: And before, in your previous life, when you worked in the White House, I wonder: Did you pay attention to those critics who were savaging you?

Mr. GERSON: Well, we tried not to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERSON: Sometimes it's unavoidable. But you know, the reality there is people who think that vicious criticisms of the president are new didn't live through those eight years in the White House. You know, this actually goes back to the Clinton administration in many ways, this deep disrespect for the presidency, the questions about legitimacy, all those things. I, you know, I view them from a certain perspective. I think that they're pretty negative and damaging to our public discourse.

CONAN: And what do you do about them? Obviously, you can't mute criticism.

Mr. GERSON: No, not at all. I mean, I think - you know, the question of what you do about it is we have, you know, a certain media reality now in which that people can get almost all their news from a medium - you know, from sources that don't challenge them. That's true of conservatives watching Fox and listening to Limbaugh. It's true of liberals watching MSNBC and online on the Daily Kos. They only can listen - they - if you want, you can listen to people who completely agree with you all the time, feed all your passions and prejudices. I think that that's really bad.

Now, what do you about that? Well, I find myself in the awkward position of being a conservative defender of the traditional media. I think it's a great thing to have an editorial page where you read Charles Krauthammer and you read E.J. Dionne.

CONAN: You've just endorsed the Washington Post.

Mr. GERSON: Right. Well, that's easy for me being an employee. But I do think -you know, I think it's a good thing when newspapers have at least hypocritical standards of…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERSON: …objectivity and fairness. I think it's a good think when you have fact checkers and you have diversity of opinions. These sort of things, I think, that's a real calling. The traditional media plays an important role that's not played by the Internet and cable news.

CONAN: We're talking with former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, now a columnist for the estimable Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Bill(ph). Bill calling us from Chicago.

BILL (Caller): Yes. You gentlemen make a great point. I was talking to your screener about the fact that most of the opinions I run into from my peers tend to be parroting anymore. Well, Rachel Maddow said; well, Glenn Beck said. I'm in the awkward situation of having been a political science major, so I know how the sausage is made. It used to be, opinions were formed from, like your guest was saying, reading several different and differing points of view, watching roundtable shows. I grew up in the days of "Agronsky and Company" in the D.C. area; "McLaughlin Group," where they were nine different opinions on the stage. Now we don't have that, like your guest is saying. Somebody doesn't have to check the facts. They don't have to work anymore.

It used to be, you could go and pick up a copy of the Boston Globe and the Herald Tribune and six or seven other newspapers at your library, read them, and form your own opinion. Now, half the time I run into people who just want to parrot exactly what they heard and haven't given a lick of thought to forming their own opinion.

CONAN: Well, I think Jonah Goldberg does have a point, though - getting back to Michael Gerson - and Bill, thanks very much for the call - that it's not new. And people used to say, did you hear what Will Rogers said the other night?

Mr. GERSON: Yeah. That's true. I think what's new, though, particularly with the Internet and cable television now, is the fragmentation, the ability to essentially live in an informational world entirely of your own creation. And you know, that's a breakdown of many of the kind of mainstream, accepted, traditional sources of information in our culture.

And you know, that's a hard thing to, you know, to say that there's a simple solution to that that's related to both technology and commerce and a lot of other things. But I think there are some big, pretty - I agree with the caller, that there are - you know, we're missing something in our discourse because of it.

CONAN: And is it coarsening, that discourse?

Mr. GERSON: Well, I think the Internet plays a particular role, and I've written recently about the coarsening of our culture. When you read Internet response mechanisms, it's really, you know, an open forum for a lot of hate for anti-Semitism, from vicious anti-immigrant views. These are the sort of things that a newspaper would never have put on the letters-to-the-editor page.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERSON: But now you can find them on mainstream media sites. That to me is, you know, is also a serious problem, it's kind of an incitement. You know, people can read in print some of the most offensive views that wouldn't normally make it into a major media setting.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Allen(ph) in North Carolina. My question is, how do we check on the accuracy of alarmist news reports? Is there a snopes.com for news reporting?

Mr. GERSON: Yeah. I think there are some. There are fact checkers. You know, a lot of newspapers do fact-checking, particularly when it comes to political ads and other things that, you know, but it - this does point to the problem. We used to depend on the profession of journalism. Not people like me, commentators, but journalists - to have professional standards.

CONAN: And it's not that they got everything right all the time. Hardly.

Mr. GERSON: Right. Right. Exactly. But at least when they got it wrong, they were called to account, OK? When you, you know, right now, on the Internet in particular, you don't have fact checkers. You don't even have the profession standards of, you know, of the, you know, of a profession like journalism. And it makes it very difficult to, you know, to determine whether what you're seeing is real or not.

CONAN: And besides, if we didn't have the Washington Post, I don't know how I would find out if what's going to happen to that dinner invitation that Mark Trail is just taking…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Michael Gerson, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. GERSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, a columnist for the Washington Post, senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, former White House speechwriter, joined us from his home in Virginia.

Coming up, for those of you who called to say you're sick of the political rants on both sides, Gregory Rodriguez has a solution to bring the country together. Where, he asks, is Osama bin Laden when we need him? He wonders. Stay with us. The Opinion Page is next. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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