Civil discourse demands honest facts—and sometimes burning words. So let’s rate some talking heads.
Who is helping, and who is hurting, the conversation in our public square? Right and left, they gibber from G-rated to X-rated. Their output runs from plain facts to toxic bigotry.
In January Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was shot in a rampage that left 12 people dead. The Left accused Sarah Palin of inciting hate with a political poster indicating “target” elections with crosshairs.
The Right cried hypocrisy, showing a Democrat poster indicating target elections with bull’s eyes. For a couple weeks, celebrities insisted on a return to civil discourse.
However, a leader’s task is to persuade. A leader’s tools include not only explanation and narration but emotionally high-torque exhortation and accusation. How can we assess our popular pundits, the play-by-play announcers of our public square? Here’s an imperfect rating of some very vocal Americans:
X for frequent bigotry
Fred Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church), Bill Maher
NC-17 for personal attacks and hyperbole posing as logic
Genre: Verbal Thuggery
Mike Gallagher, Keith Olberman
R for aggressive intimidation
Genre: Contentious Debate
Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow
Genre: Enthusiastic Advocacy
Hugh Hewitt, Lawrence O’Donnell
Genre: Biased News
Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews
Genre: Advocacy Through Guest Interviews
Greta van Susteren, Joe Scarborough
Our G-rated folks remind me of vanilla. I really like it, but sometimes it’s a little bland. They are dependable for straight news. They express their opinions by the selection of their guests.
The PG talkers offer news-plus. They emphasize their point of view, but they will compliment people with whom they disagree.
PG-13 commentators are for me the most engaging. They don’t feign objectivity. They enthusiastically advocate their concerns as they relate to current news and trends. If you haven’t heard radio host Hugh Hewitt, picture Tucker Carlson pushing his opinions.
The R-rated spinners are masters of debate. They will exploit any verbal misstep by their opponents. They will stretch a logical argument as far as it can possibly go. Their interviews can be bruising.
The NC-17 loudmouths are too passionate to be journalists. They are, unfortunately, comfortable criticizing both the position and the character of the people with whom they disagree. Self-righteous may be a good label. He’s not the same as Mike Gallagher, but Glenn Beck sometimes represents this category.
X-rated hotheads would be censored or jailed in many countries. They push the margins of free speech in America. The U.S. Supreme Court recently cleared Fred Phelps for his anti-homosexual funeral protests. Bill Maher drips contempt for anyone believes in a divine being. Still, we treasure freedom of speech.
I don’t want all commentators to fit in my G-rated category. Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist certainly didn’t fit there: Jesus told religious leaders, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:23). John the Baptist went to jail and was beheaded because he spoke against a political leader taking his sister-in-law as his mistress.
Fiery discourse has a great heritage.