When I was a teenager, I was impressed that my father read the newspaper every morning, listened to NPR in his car, and watched the evening news every night. He told me that keeping up on current events wasn’t just an interest but his civic duty. He didn’t use those words, but look, it was a long time ago and I’m left with just the takeaway if not the precise quote. Now my dad was born in 1928, a child through the Great Depression, and one year shy of getting to enlist and fight in World War II (he lied about his age and went to work as a postal carrier instead, and they were willing to take him because they needed people). Duty and attachment to our neighbors has certainly shifted from then until today, and barely anyone reads a newspaper anymore. Our media outlets have grown, merged, super-merged, and drifted from the journalistic standards once popularized by people like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. For example, Fox News broadcasts verifiably true stories only twenty-two percent of the time. Rachel Maddow is better, but not much, at thirty-eight percent.
But in addition to the truthiness of mainstream news outlets, we have a problem with how subjects and topics are framed. Take the recent letter by forty-seven Republican Senators to Iran’s leadership, suggesting that their ongoing negotiations with the United States (and several other countries) won’t be worth the paper it’s eventually signed on. The debate frame is set up around whether these Senators are traitors or patriots, whether they should be recalled or heralded. Clearly they’re not traitors, as they didn’t call for the overthrow of the United States, didn’t send classified information to a foreign government for same effect, and didn’t attack the United States. (They didn’t even violate the Logan Act, but that’s another issue.)
What should we be talking about instead? Well, for one, we could be discussing what it means for the majority party in the Senate to publicly disagree with the White House on foreign policy twice within two weeks (first, Netanyahu’s speech, and then the letter to Iran), and what it means about the GOP’s understanding of the authority of the Presidential office. Once we frame the issue in those terms, whole new ideas can be discussed—for example, is there a troubling trend within the GOP evidenced by this letter, this invitation of a foreign Prime Minister to the floor of Congress, the refusal in Alabama by a Republican State Supreme Court Justice to adhere to a Federal court ruling on same-sex marriage, the statement from GOP leader Mitch McConnell to Republican governors that they “refuse” to adhere to the EPA’s new rules coming out this summer, and the right-wing alliance with rancher Clive Bundy who refused to pay for his use of Federal lands? Is there a conscious or subconscious movement in the right wing to not only push against “big government” but against government itself? If so, what do we think about it and what should we do in response?
These dichotomous framings—traitors/patriots, states rights/federal rights—weaken our understanding of our world, our political leaders, and our own agency within the systems that create our society. I can think of a few other current conversations that suffer from reductive logic at the moment, including:
Religious “rights” vs. LGBT rights—First of all, there is a difference between being asked to bake a wedding cake and being asked to treat an infant. We don’t necessarily think of physicians as having a right of refusal unless their own safety is at stake, especially as they have taken an oath to “first, do no harm,” which they could conceivably violate by refusing to treat a patient, given the right conditions. We don’t expect that bakers take any oaths and so it’s not as surprising to some of us if they would decline to bake a particular cake for a particular person. But pitting these situations as a clash of two equal communities with mutually exclusive value systems renders invisible that one has been consistently marginalized culturally and legally and the other has not, no matter an individual’s “feelings” of personal persecution. Further, persons are guaranteed equal protection and guaranteed inalienable basic rights, rights which are not impinged upon by doing one’s job in their chosen profession in the same way they are impinged upon if they are left to suffer and/or die because nobody agreeing with the presumed values of the person in trouble was near enough to help them. What would be a better framing? Well, questioning why some faith communities have become activist-oriented and why that orientation calls them to limit their expertise and skill sets only for like-minded people would be a better starting point.
Gun control vs. the Second Amendment—Another huge red herring issue that feels more critical with every new spree killing and accidental death by gun misfire, people from both camps seem not to be listening to each other anymore. Even Republicans who call for direct voter propositions and initiatives on other issues were happy to see a Federal judge invalidate DC’s recent concealed carry law, and earlier, were happy when DC’s ban against handguns was also stricken from the law. The usual framing is that gun control always gets in the way of good citizens who like guns, that law-abiding people should be allowed to buy even the most lethal, weapons-grade firearms and ammunition available on the market, and that any restriction on either will be a slippery slope toward the government attacking its own gunless population. A different way to frame this hot-button issue? The vast majority of Americans—including 92 percent of gun owners—support background checks on all gun sales. Background checks are a kind of gun control, but if you ask Americans if they support “gun control,” the percentage of support falls below majority status. To talk about gun culture and gun-related deaths, we need to step away from these tired phrases that are easily misunderstood, and communicate more granularly about what guns have meant in our country and who is controlling the conversation (hint: it’s not the 92 percent of us).
Trans people vs. public restrooms—“Bathroom bills” are popping up all over the country at the state level, which tells me this is someone’s concerted effort to score morality political points in the post-marriage equality environment. The framing is, as usual, that there is a safety threat to women if trans women are allowed in women’s restrooms (see above, Deaths Due to Guns), even though the data show us that the physical threat is actually toward trans women, not from them. Some of the bills under debate or in some state of passage would imprison trans people (Florida, Texas) who use the restroom that comports with their gender identity, or fine them, or expel them from school, and even fine schools who support their trans-identified students. So what is a better framing? Well, let’s start with remembering that there’s no evidence for the claims these legislators are making, and that it is a violation of civil rights to prevent people from urinating except in places where it is more likely to be unsafe for them. (Also, there’s a really big enforcement problem with these bills, but that’s another matter.) It would also be a good issue to raise the idea of what transition looks like for trans men and trans women, that some people are gender nonconforming even if their gender identity matches up with their assigned gender, and you know, it’s mean.
It’s not just the news, it’s the integrity of the news outlet, the individual newscasters, the editors behind the scenes who choose how to discuss a given story, and the fact checkers. But on the other side of the relationship is us, all of us. And we can stop listening to the anti-intellectual content that is pouring out of these outlets onto our devices. We can opt for more nuanced conversations and say that we’ve had enough of what mainstream media is serving to us. Because too much is at stake, frankly.