Democracy, the Press, and Civil Discourse and Disobedience

On June 12, newly elected U.S. Congressman from Montana, Greg Gianforte, was charged with misdemeanor assault and sentenced to community service and a $385 fine and 20 hours of anger management sessions after pleading guilty to assaulting a reporter who was inquiring about his party’s healthcare plan on the night before the election. Two days later, a sixty-six-year-old man, a Bernie Sanders supporter who was angered by the Trump presidency and described as an avid follower of  “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, opened fire on a group of Republican congressmen as they practiced for the annual congressional baseball game. Despite the bipartisan calls for civility that followed, less than two weeks later, President Trump tweeted insults at MSNBC “Morning Joe” news hosts, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, claiming Brzezinski “was bleeding badly from a face-lift” when he saw her on New Year’s Eve—evidently in retaliation for negative coverage of his administration. And on July 2, the president tweeted a short video portraying himself wrestling and punching a figure whose head had been superimposed with the logo for CNN.

What do these recent weeks of troublesome and dangerous encounters between politicians and journalists reflect? Has our society coarsened to the point that we are inured to these incidents? The fact that Gianforte handily won his election a few hours after his assault on the reporter implies there was no penalty imposed by voters. And the president’s behavior, calling nearly all major news outlets “fake news” and attacking the “Morning Joe” hosts and the entire CNN network so quickly after the tragic assault on our nation’s legislators seems to imply we have all become numbed by these actions. Is there such an erosion of faith in the press that we don’t care about the violence and the lack of civility that seems to inspire it?

People are definitely concerned about this increasing lack of civility in the public sphere. Nearly three-quarters of the people polled in a CBS News Poll in June indicated they think the tone of current political debate is encouraging violence. But this concern may be mitigated by the fact that Americans’ trust in mass media has dropped to the lowest level in Gallup polling history. Is it possible people feel so negatively about the press that they do not care if journalists are attacked, literarily or literally?

This is a partisan issue, with both sides having different concerns. With the commander-in-chief regularly calling the world’s most well-known news outlets “fake news” at the same time the nation grapples with the fact that our democracy has been attacked by a foreign power through the use of fake news during the election, it is easy to see why Americans’ attitudes about the news media are deeply divided along partisan lines. Democrats are 47 points more likely than Republicans to support news media’s watchdog role. It feels like our country is losing the ability to trust the very public institutions upon which we must depend in a democracy—not to mention losing the ability to cope with other peoples’ opinions.

Because of these significant societal issues, Wyoming Humanities is proud to announce that we are planning to help our state explore and understand this climate of incivility and distrust of the media over the next year as part of a new initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administrated through our national organization, the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The national program, Democracy and the Informed Citizen, will be conducted by all 56 state and territorial humanities councils, to examine the critical role of journalism and the power of the humanities to enrich understanding of local and national issues and to inspire an engaged citizenry. We will announce programs in partnership with other statewide organizations beginning this fall.

A few years ago, we published Heal Up and Hair Over: A Wyoming Civility Reader, and it was so popular we are now planning to update and reprint the booklet. We were proud to share how Wyomingites need to get along simply because there’s too few of us and we need each other. But our state is not immune from the incivility contagion that has taken hold of the country. It’s time to explore the concept of civility alongside the vitriol that has overtaken our public discourse. We look forward to partnering with our state’s thought leaders to help us all find ways to tone down the rhetoric and really hear what those on the other side are saying. Even Congressman Gianforte is calling for civility after his incident with The Guardian reporter. We can all agree with his recent statement that good things can come out of bad and that it is important to reach out to all parties and hear their voice and be respectful in the ensuing dialogue.

It is our hope that this timely initiative will help Americans, and Wyomingites, appreciate the role the fourth estate plays in preserving our democracy, recognizing that the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment carries with it the obligation that the press should be the watchdog of the people. Because for the electorate to responsibly exercise its constitutional duty to elect representatives to carry out the job of governing they must be well informed about issues that matter and about those elected to deal with those issues. We depend on the press to provide that information.