The Polarized Polis: Public Debate in the United States - Part 2

Panelists: Amy Gutmann, moderator, John Dilulio, John Jackson, Jr., Kathleen Hall Jamison, Jim Leach, Andrea Mitchell

Amy Gutmann: Whether you're younger or older in this wonderful audience, the floor is now yours. We have a microphone here, so when I recognize you, just raise your hand. Don't speak until you get the microphone. I see somebody over here.

Audience Member: Yes, I want to bring-

Amy Gutmann: You have to hold the microphone close to… And make it brief. That's why I ask, brief question.

Audience Member: Yeah, I would like if you could ... I'm bringing a message from some young people, and they're very interested in honor, and the new kind of leadership that has to do with more economic leadership, instead of political leadership. I simply would like to ask you, would you comment on the notion ... This very abstract code honor, honesty. Would you comment on how it is relevant-

Amy Gutmann: Good.

Audience Member: To today's political life?

Amy Gutmann: Right. How is what might be called traditional ... I hate to say this, that honesty could be called traditional. But how is honesty and honor relevant?

Jim Leach: Well, I would only make two comments. One, all of us in our lives, whether it's public or private want to give much deeper considerations to the old-fashioned value systems that you've implied with the word honor. In politics, there are shortcuts that are not trusted by anybody, that is people are taking stands on an issue they say is a moral issue, implying that they themselves are moral. And actually, it may or may not be a reflection of personal honor, but one of the bizarre things in public life is people are manipulating moral issues for personal ambition, which has nothing to do with honor.

And so, we have to get back to what is the meaning of honor, and honor is leading a life that you have to say is honorable, and that has all the dimensions that applied to the person next door who might be a professor, the person in the other side of the house that might be a plumber, and it's nothing special about people in public life. It's special about the person. And that's what you want in public life is honorableness. More than you want them to be right or left, and it's left out of the dialogue, just like the dialogue of common good is left out. No one is talking about these concepts anymore.

Amy Gutmann:    So let me just say for honesty, that without valuing honesty in our culture and public life, universities would be absolutely dead. If we stand for anything, and we stand for many things, our core value is truthfulness, which is absolutely intertwined with honesty. So, if we haven't spoken directly about that value, everything that this panel has spoken about derives from valuing truthfulness and honesty in life. Yes?

Audience Member: Do I need the mic?

Amy Gutmann: Yes, you do need the mic ... And it's coming to you, right away. And introduce yourself.

Andrew: Alright. Hello, my name is Andrew and I am a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Senior, almost done in May, and my question is about ... Probably Professor Jamieson will be best up to answer this question 'cause it's about corporate influence in the media. Perhaps Ms. Mitchell will also have some comments on this, as well. But, what do you think the effects are of Viacom owning CBS, and General Electric owning NBC, and you know, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation owning Fox News, and all these things 'cause they all have PACs and they all have lobbies and interest in Washington, as representative Leach mentioned, and chairman Leach mentioned that sometimes, those jade people as we all know. So, I was just wondering what you think the effects of those are and maybe you might also elaborate on how in other countries, namely the UK and Canada, they have national news operated by the national government, and that's in demand. People watch that. But here, NPR seems to be pretty minimal on the totem pole.

Kathleen Hall Jamison: Well first, if you don't have any alternative, news will be in demand, so if you control all the channels of communication, you do have some natural advantage in ratings. But I would ask a question back, which is, we had an opportunity when the digital spectrum came open to have democracy channels opened up. Alternative venues for journalism to come available, but through some form of communication that happened behind closed doors in the middle of the night, congress decided as part of another debate that that was essentially gonna be taken off the table, and that the existing corporate structures were going to get that control. Now, would that have happened? And look what we've lost. We lost avenues for alternative journalism. We lost the possibility of having those who will want to try those things out, automatically getting some forms of access.

How did it happen that those who had that power got that public good distributed to them? And that speaks to, I think, a political process of influence that congressman Leach spoke about, that makes it more difficult for people in public life to function without the kinds of resources that come, for those who have large numbers of resources, are cause for concern now that corporations and unions can give unlimited amounts of speech in the form of money or money in the form of speech, and I use the supreme court's locution deliberately.

Amy Gutmann: Andrea, you want to say something about this?

Andrea Mitchell: Well, I think ... I'm glad you brought up the issue of money, which congressman Leach referred to earlier because I think that this is one of the most insidious aspects of our political society, and until we come to grips with that, if we ever can given the supreme court decision, I don't think that we can ever fully understand why a young person should be inspired to go into politics, and I saw them all here during the 2008 campaign, as a trustee, and I would be meeting with them with ... Republicans and democrats, and democrats divided during that wonderful Pennsylvania primary, which was so contentious, and it really energized this campus in extraordinary ways. I'd never seen the campus so alive, in a political debate.

Amy Gutmann: Students were out in the streets, and they weren't protesting, they were-

Andrea Mitchell: They were engaged.

Amy Gutmann: They were absolutely excited.

Andrea Mitchell: But what happens when they reach the entry level? When they've gone from being interns and drivers and junior speech writers and campaign volunteers, and start discovering what it takes to run a congressional race, or other local races? I mean, that is sort of the sinister side of it. I have to say, I've worked for two major companies, both defense contractors, RCA, and now, General Electric. Both owned NBC at various times. RCA was purely a broadcaster, and there was a transition that was a culture clash, at first, with General Electric. Yet, when it came to core values, I have never in 40 years of television felt any intrusion across that firewall. In fact, we bend over backwards, as the corporate parent would be the first to tell you at some point. They had harsher treatment, whether it was polluting the Hudson, or whatever else they were doing, we would bend over backwards and do more stories than the other networks would because we wanted to show that we were, you know, above reproach.

I don't know what the future is gonna be with our new owners, assuming that that goes through. But I just have never had any sense, except in one profound way, which is the cutting of budgets for news broadcast, and that is an important way. That is a big deal when the three networks were no longer owned by broadcasters, and when we were no longer viewing the nightly news as lost leaders, and pouring money in, and wasting a lot of money, by the way. We spent extraordinary amounts of money doing really stupid things, but it didn't matter because nobody wanted us to make a profit. And nobody wanted us to make a profit, not just have great ratings, but make a profit that would subsidize the less profitable sectors of the division, or of the company, rather. So, if entertainment is failing in some ways, you know, the news division has to bail it out, and that's just a completely different metric that no one ever thought of back in the 80s and the early 90s.

So, that is a big change, but in terms of editorial opinion, I can't speak for, and won't speak for some of the other corporate owners 'cause I think you've probably seen a very big difference in certain newspapers and television networks since they were bought by different people. But I really shouldn't speak to that since I'm not inside, and don't know, other than as a consumer, how it has affected the editorial point of view.

Kathleen Hall Jamison: Let me add a footnote. If you close the bureaus in the capitals in which our defense money is being spent, or the countries, you are not going to have coverage of the uses of those dollars in those countries.

Amy Gutmann: Right. Right here on the front row.

Lonny Squires: Hi, Lonny Squires. Two degrees from Penn. My day is not complete unless I watch Andrea at 1:00, and Chris Matthews at 7:00, but I was surprised that nobody mentioned newspaper opinion pages because there's a lot of lack of civility going on in the dueling columnist, also, and I thought you might have some comments on that. And please, let's subscribe to newspapers.

Amy Gutmann: Does someone want to mention newspapers?

Andrea Mitchell: Well, I'm still carrying around newspapers. I mean, for all of the technologies, I still ... I'm tearing newspapers at the end of the day, and posting little notes. So, I am just a complete troglodyte about all of this, but I defer to my younger colleagues here about the role of newspapers, which is-

Amy Gutmann: I think we can say we're all concerned about whether they have a viable financial base, but younger people that I know ... I have gifted my daughter and son-in-law a subscription to the New York Times, but ... Because it's a tradition in my family always to read the Sunday New York Times, but they don't gravitate towards newspapers. And that's a real issue.

Andrea Mitchell: I was just gonna say that the newspapers now are obviously trying to figure out-

Amy Gutmann: It's online.

Andrea Mitchell: How to monetize the web and how to make that work for them, and once some genius comes up with that.

John Jackson, Jr.: Yeah, I tell my students I lecture in the same room that I took Introduction to American Politics in, when I was a student here, and my students are fascinated to hear that the professor, at the end of every lecture, would have to say "please, please, take your newspapers with you." Something I haven't, unfortunately, had to say.

Amy Gutmann: But it has to go online, I mean, I am a child of the newspapers. Everything I read, I still subscribe to the hard copy, but I read them online. And there are bookmarks, and I have them on my
Kindle ... And if I do that, that's gotta ... If newspapers cannot make that a go of it through the web, we're going to see the end of newspapers. I think you just have to accept that. There's not a financial model, other than one that is going to use the web. Over here ... And it's wonderful to see so many students here.

Matt Paulson:    Hi, my name is Matt Paulson. I'm a first year at Wharton. Thank you guys, this has been great. My question ... We talked a lot about the millennial generation today, and the optimism about being almost post-racial and globally-minded, and practical, and progressive. I think that's great, and I think we all share a lot of the optimism, but ... The people that we have exposure to are the people that have access to go to Penn, and when you talk about people that ... The polarizing of debate, a lot of times, the people that are attracted to the extremes are those who may not have those same educational opportunities. So, as you go forward, and the media becomes more fragmented, and there's more artillery for those kind of extreme views, what kind of changes need to happen in the media and in public policy in order to include those who do not have those same educational opportunities, and ensure that we come more together than rather pull more apart?

Amy Gutmann: Great question. Who wants to take that? John?

John Jackson, Jr.: Yeah, I think you make a great point, although I would say that the bifurcation, if there is one, generationally within the sort of millennials, do not ... Elite versus non-elite, or competitors versus non-competitors. I could tell you, the kids at community colleges are doing civic engagement, and are involved in some ways, even in ways that I wish that sometimes ... I think we're ... We may even be a little behind the curve in the competitive sector. It's the kids who, for whatever reasons, and unfortunately, don't make it through high school at all, or only make it through high school and don't have the opportunity to get into college ... The Gates Foundation has been looking at this issue a bit about ... It's a fact of life, you know, I grew up working class in the city, took the 36 ... I can hear the violin music now ... Commuted to Penn, and we interacted ... I mean, here's the thing. It's the narrow casting, right?

Getting to college means you're gonna have a little more marginal propensity to open up your media, right? So that you're not just looking for people who agree with you, or your propensity to do that. What we see, I think, and again Kathleen will know better than I in terms of the data ... Persons who aren't high school educated, or dropped out of high school and so forth, when they expose themselves to media, is this true? They are more likely to expose themselves to ... Or are we all equally guilty?

Kathleen Hall Jamison: I believe we are all equally guilty.

John Jackson, Jr.: Are we? Okay, so forget about that. The real authority has spoken ... I worry a lot about that because you're in a situation where people find other people with whom they already agree to reinforce, and make even more extreme, their opinions, and that is bad news, however old you are, and whether ... You know, whatever your formal education.

Amy Gutmann: Yeah.

Kathleen Hall Jamison: Let me add just one point quickly.

John Jackson, Jr.: Please.

Kathleen Hall Jamison: At firstly, every example we've given here today, with one possible exception, was of a college graduate is engaging in something we decried as inappropriate discourse.

Amy Gutmann: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes? Actually, let me go over here. Yeah?

Jack Solloway: Thank you. My name is Jack Solloway, I'm also an undergraduate here-

Amy Gutmann: Hold it close.

Jack Solloway: Oh, yes.

Amy Gutmann: There you go.

Jack Solloway: I have a question for professor Jackson about the role ... You mentioned the role of trying to reconcile emotion with kind of the technocratic society that, I think, this discussion has been about losing that technocracy. So, how do you feel that we can take commentaries, such as we saw with Sarah Palin, about somewhat violent rhetoric. But then, we look to rhetoric that was in the Vietnam era, the Civil Rights era, that was definitely impassioned and we look to things like SDS, and actual violent acts that took place, but that did bring about the end of the Vietnam war. So, how do we reconcile the emotion and possible lawlessness with positive outcomes?

John Jackson, Jr.: That's a good question.

Andrea Mitchell: Boy is that a good question!

John Jackson, Jr.: I mean, I'm not sure there's an easy answer. I think where we start is we recognize that even though we may be doing the same things we've always done, the nature of the way we interact with one another, and the kind of ... The length with which we can hurl some of our sort of vitriolic commentary, emboldens the fringe, the margins, in ways that, I think, are differently problematic. Again, whether you believe it's the margin on the left, or the margin on the right that's most dangerous for America, I think our job is to try to figure out how do we have a set of dialogues, so, a set of conversations, that actually says the last resort is physical violence, is confrontational sort of, really, self-destructive forms of violent interactivity.

So, I think, part of what I would say is we need to try to recognize what is unprecedented and newfangled about the contemporary moment. And how do we begin to recognize what we learned from the stuff we did before, right? So, what worked? And politics is always about rolling up your sleeves at engaging, and I recognize that. And clearly, there's something ... There's a place for kind of full-throated, full-bodied, engaged commitment in a way that can't be silenced. I get it. I feel like I run a classroom in that way, right? Where they're not just in mind, but in body. But, I think, the thing is how do we discipline ourselves enough to know when we've reached the limit? It's diminishing returns at a certain point, and we want to find a way to channel what's most powerful about embodying corporeal, incredibly emotional selves, but use it in a way that allows us to dialogue productively.

I think that's the thing we can't ... And again, we don't know what's gonna happen, but I feel like we haven't caught up to what the new technology allows us to, and I think it makes us jump into spaces and engage ourselves in conversations in ways that usually are more about sort of fetishising the mereness of language, and distracting ourselves from what's most important about the substance of the disputes we have with one another. I actually feel like one of the things about newspapers that's really interesting is, clearly it's ... I mean, the New York Times, flagship newspaper, right? One of the things I always remind my students is, for a lot of folks, it can't even be read because it's so overly partisan, right? So I would argue, you can defend the New York Times or not, but the point being made by a lot of people is there is no outside, right? We're all partisan players. And one tact I try to do is I try to say, well, is there a way that I can disconnect myself from that rhetoric? Can I actually opt-out? Can we opt-out?

I would argue there are a lot of forces out there that won't allow you to opt-out. What you're doing is, in some way, silencing yourself. But, is there a way to enter that fray that says I can recognize the difference between the New York Times and all the news that's fit to print? And try to police a certain notion, a definition of news that says just because the headlines have to be sensationalist, doesn't mean we have to fall victim to the logic of the market, and getting the most fannies in the seats, or most eyes in front of the tube, as the only rationale for what we decide to publish or produce on television. I think the key is to recognize someone has to say enough is enough, and we have to separate out what is entertainment from what we imagine to be the stuff, the data, the facts, the specificity about the past and the present that really is gonna be what we use to bargain our future, and bargain our future for the…

Amy Gutmann: Well, your fannies have been in your seats for a long time and there are more questions, but I'm gonna take one final question, and then we're gonna have a reception. We're gonna all get up and we can continue the conversation. Yes? Why don't you get a microphone?

Beverly: Hi, my name is Beverly and I work at the Annenberg School for Communication. My question is what advice can you give me, as a grandmother that lived through the Civil Rights, the segregated era, and felt so overwhelmed and so proud when President Obama was made the president, to my kids and my grandchildren and other kids. And then, two months later, all of that is gone with signs of him painted like Hitler, and we're telling you can be anything you want, and then it's no ... The only person that ... One of the few people on the news that I don't have to fact-check is Andrea, but I can't keep telling my kids, you know, you gotta listen to Andrea and only Andrea, you know?

You really don't have to fact-check her. She really does give you the news. Where can they get this? What advice can I give them? It was such hope, and it was great. The country seemed united and then, the next thing you know, we're everything but ... What a pig with lipstick on it, or something, you know, so?

Jim Leach: Let me respond real quickly to this-

Amy Gutmann: Excellent final question. Jim?

Jim Leach: I think you can tell your children that we have a president of the United States who could not be more courageous. I know of nobody who has greater reason to snap back and be angry than this president of the United States, of what is said about him, and what people are objecting to, and yet, he responds with total calm, and with total decency. And you can agree or disagree, and all Americans should find something they disagree with this president, but I cannot think of a finer model for a child than to look at this president and be proud.

Amy Gutmann: Hear, hear.

Beverly: But that's not projected ... And you know it, but that's not projected, you know. They'll say he's cool and calm, but ... So-

John Jackson, Jr.: Can I say something because ... I hear what you're saying, but ... And I think another way to, if I heard the congressman correctly, what this president is doing, I think, is refusing to fight fire with fire. Now, as a result of which he's gonna take on more water than he would otherwise, from time to time. But there's a difference between what he's doing and what previous White Houses have done, both democrat and republican, which is to use the Executive Office of the President as a kind of permanent campaign machine to attack people when they criticize you. Even when you're wrongly criticized, and viciously criticized, there hasn't been that kind of counter attack, in my opinion, I could be wrong ... I think he has raised the bar again, and people can say it's a partisan comment, fine. He's raised the bar again, and I think it's a good thing. And I think that, in some sense here, we have to trust ... I know it's hard when you're talking about your own kids and grandkids, the truth will out.

Amy Gutmann: Andrea?

Andrea Mitchell: I would just say, please fact-check me because we all make mistakes, but I was very struck by the contrast between where we are today and where we were in the 60s, when I was on this campus, by the question about SDS. One of my first assignments at KYW Radio, All News All The Time, here in Philadelphia back in 69, I think, but some historian can correct me on that fact, was getting the call to come to the college president's office and cover the takeover by SDS of a college president's office. I shouldn't ... You know, this is something I shouldn't even mention, but-

Amy Gutmann: Those were the old days when better times ... Let's leave it that way.

Andrea Mitchell: But, when I think about being a freshman here at Hill now ... We called it Hill Hall then, and it was November 22nd, 1963, and that is an arc of my political experience, and then covering the SDS demonstration in 1969, and then seeing the changes covering a really very tough, controversial mayor in the city for ten years, and seeing all of the real raw, naked use of power. We have changed. As ugly as things are now, and as painful as it seems because of the velocity and the anger and the volume of the media and the internet. We are in a very different place. The night Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and I was logging the speech and the events, and then, suddenly, the whole world blew up, as far as we knew it. So, we are in a different place as a society, and that is what congressman Leach, I think, is articulating. There is so much hope, and so much passion, and so much of it is directed towards good and towards progress. And that's simply what we have to inspire these next generations to understand.

Amy Gutmann: John, you have children. How would you respond? What would you say to your children?

John Jackson, Jr.: I mean, one thing I always try to remind myself is often the people who scream the loudest, who are probably the least empowered to do the most harm, I feel like ... And who have in some ways, the most sort of superficial ground to stand on. So I would just say, you know, maintain your critical faculties. Try to separate spin from fact. Don't allow someone else to do it. Don't outsource that, to fact-check that… or anybody else. You do it yourself and-

Kathleen Hall Jamison: Oh no, no. (laughter)

John Jackson, Jr.: Along with fact-check-

Kathleen Hall Jamison: Thank you.

John Jackson, Jr.: But I think to sort of cultivate a sensibility that says, clearly we're inundated, but my job, to be a fully-functional citizen in the contemporary moment is to be able to distinguish between all these various options for what's actually true. And, I think, the more we create young people who have that capacity, and I think they do, the more we can be confident that they're gonna be able to negotiate this terrain. And it's much more dynamic, much more overwhelming than I think anything we've ever experienced before. But I think these folks are gonna be up to the task, and they have the skillset. They have the facility to pull it off. So, I'll just say trust yourself, and really be critical, first, of your own motivations, right? What brings you out into the public sphere? And to try to be careful enough about that to be able to check yourself, as well as checking other people's positions and incentive for doing what they do.

Kathleen Hall Jamison: One of the things that's happened in the media universe is that children are now exposed, in news-consuming households, to images they wouldn't have seen before. Because of the nature of the time-cycle for news, and as a result, the need for parents to contextualize is greater than it's ever been. Here's what I would say to my grandchildren if they saw that. I would say, let me find you a picture of everybody who's at that rally and we're gonna count how many people are holding those signs. Just because you see it over and over again in the news, and you only saw those people in the picture, didn't mean that they represented all the rest, or any of the rest of those people actually agreed with that. And now, let's take a look at the kinds of things that were said when people realized that that was there. So let's go read some of the things that people said about how inappropriate it was.

We're always gonna live in a country, no matter where are, and we have a good country, in which there will be ignorant and hateful people. Sometimes, ignorance and hate go together, but that doesn't mean that we have to believe that they can't be changed, or that they're not under that, someplace, a good person that we can try to reach out to, if the occasion arose. And maybe, if we were able to do that at some point, they might not carry those signs, they might condemn people who do.

Amy Gutmann: Thank you all very, very much. Please, thank the panelists.