We’re Killing Our Democracy

By Joe Registrato, Contributing Editor

When the boss suggested I write a column about how the public’s faith in the media has dropped to an all-time low, I thought right away it might turn into a column about Donald Trump, because the stuff Trump says drives a lot of things you read in the paper these days.

It should be no surprise that huge numbers of people have lost faith in the media, because of a principle familiar to journalists everywhere, which is if you don’t like the message, just shoot the messenger, blame the bearer of bad news for the bad news. My research traces this particular lunacy at least back to the Greek scholar Sophocles, who wrote a play called Antigone in about the year 442 B.C., in which one of the characters observed, “Nobody likes a man who brings bad news.” Shakespeare followed this up in about 1597 in the play King Henry the Fourth, Part II, in which as best I can tell, the Earl of Northumberland told a messenger who brought him news of his son’s death in battle, “Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office, and his tongue sounds ever after as a sullen bell, remembered knolling a departed friend.”

There’s plenty of examples of this absurdity, but it’s really just common sense to hate the communicator of bad news, especially among those whose brains have a hard time distinguishing between the news itself, and the announcer of the news.

So my theory is that because the media is saying bad things about Donald, and the media practices this daily and brutally, more and more people desire to shoot the media directly in the middle of the forehead if possible, and bang, the polls show a huge drop-off in “public trust” in the media. I remember a similar situation when President Richard Nixon was loved by a vast number of voters who thought the media was responsible for the Watergate mess and everybody wanted the newspapers, especially these two pesky reporters from the Washington Post, to please leave their President alone. It was a case of a large number of people who stopped believing “the media” because the media was attacking their hero, who, it turned out, was at least as big a thief and liar and manipulator as even his worst critics accused him of being. And if it wasn’t for the media, which everybody hated, Nixon just might have gotten away with mugging the whole country.

Despite this apparent victory over being wrongly slammed and hated, the media remained the “bad guy” in the eyes of many, and, as I recall, readership nationwide never did recover. Meanwhile, Nixon rode off into the sunset, pardoned for all his various crimes by the man he chose to replace him, Gerald Ford, a decent man who ended up looking bad, at least to some, for pardoning Nixon. Crazy, right?

Americans tend to have a very short memory for this sort of thing, they want to forget when they were tripped up by one of their own heroes, and wish to ignore or forget all the lies he had spread and get on with “making America great again.”

Which brings me to a rather urgent topic I would like to dwell on briefly, and that is this: We are killing ourselves.

Please. Stop what you’re doing and pay attention for one minute.

The unnamed moderator of a 1935 radio show put it this way: “If we persist in the practice of Republicans reading only Republican newspapers, listening only to Republican speeches on the radio, attending only Republican political rallies and mixing socially only with those of congenial views, and if Democrats … follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy.”

That quote was taken from a report by Jill Lepore in the Sept. 19, 2016, edition of The New Yorker called The State of Debate, and it goes on in some detail about how the process of our televised presidential debates have evolved from the first one back in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to the one scheduled for later this month.

The sentiment reminds me of a quote from one of my own personal heroes, Winston Churchill, who said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Also, in my first job as a state prosecutor here in Hillsborough County, more than one of my bosses told me I’d learn a lot more by listening to what others were saying rather than by talking. This is both painfully obvious and painfully true.

In other words, we need to listen to both sides of a debate. We need to listen carefully and analyze what is being proposed, not just rally and yell and cheer for a hero. We don’t need our emotions to be stirred into a frenzy in making a decision about who to vote for; rather, we need to let our brains do some cool calculating in a calm, emotionless environment.

In my opinion, formed by reading newspapers and magazines, and listening to television and cable news reports, nobody is listening to anybody because everybody is talking too much.

Television news, which at one time relied on experts to talk one at a time, now brings in shills and political operatives who find sensible discourse and logical thinking inferior and much harder to accomplish than shouting down and talking over whoever the shill is on other side, leaving the moderator to shake his head and try to regain some control, which invariably is lost in the melee. This sort of discussion, which you can observe anytime on your local cable news station, enlightens no one, but does raise the emotional heat factor by several degrees.

Lepore, in her New Yorker article, made another strong point: “Political argument has been having a terrible century. Instead of arguing, everyone from next-door neighbors to members of Congress has got used to doing the IRL Equivalent of posting to the comments section: serially fulminating.” Lepore points out Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings on the U. S. Supreme Court nominee because they would “rather do battle on Twitter.”

She pointed out that Democrats, unable to get the House to debate gun control, held a sit-in, live-streamed on Periscope. At campaign events, and even at the nominating conventions, protesters have tried to silence other people’s speech in the name of the First Amendment. Lepore wrote: “On college campuses, administrators, faculty and students who express unwelcome political views have been fired and expelled.  One in three Americans declines to discuss politics expect in private; fewer than one in four ever talk with someone with whom they disagree politically; fewer than one in five have ever attended a problem-solving meeting, even online, with people holding views different from their own. What kind of democracy is that?”

What kind indeed. The discussion the American public is engaged in is getting us nowhere. We learn nothing. We consider nothing. We analyze nothing. We only react emotionally.

We’re killing our democracy. It has to stop.

Joseph Registrato's Profile Photo

Joseph J. Registrato is a journalist and lawyer.  He was a news reporter, assistant city editor, city editor and assistant managing editor of The Tampa Tribune from 1971 to 1987.   After graduation from Stetson College of Law, he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1989, and was an assistant state attorney with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office from 1989 through 1991.  He was in the private practice of law for more than twenty years in the areas of family law, criminal defense and appellate practice.  He is now an assistant public defender at the Hillsborough County Public Defender’s Office of Julianne Holt.  He is a U. S. Marine Corps veteran and served in the conflict in the Republic of Vietnam in 1968-1969.  Registrato is a contributing editor of AliveTampaBay.com.

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