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3 Questions: Heather Hendershot on the state of US political discourse

Media historian and expert on conservatism considers the end of rational dialog.
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'It's not so much that political discussion on TV used to be so much better than it is today," says MIT media historian Heather Hendershot, "but that there used to be one show that really nailed the best way to discuss politics, and now there are (arguably) no such shows."
'It's not so much that political discussion on TV used to be so much better than it is today," says MIT media historian Heather Hendershot, "but that there used to be one show that really nailed the best way to discuss politics, and now there are (arguably) no such shows."
Photo: Jon Sachs/SHASS Communications

Heather Hendershot, professor of comparative media studies, researches conservative media and political movements, film and television genres, and American film history. She has authored several books, including "Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line" (2016), and recently received a fellowship at the Stanford Humanities Center, where she will work on her next book during the 2019-20 academic year. SHASS Communications spoke with Hendershot about the current state of political media and discourse in the United States.
Q: Your book, "Open to Debate," examined how William F. Buckley's television program offered deeply intellectual and stimulating conversations with and among individuals who had opposing views. To many, it seems the 2016 presidential election ushered in an era of contentious, hyperpartisan shouting matches. Why don’t we currently have the type of thoughtful dialogue that Buckley provided?

A: My 2016 book argues that "Firing Line," a public affairs show that aired (mostly) on PBS from 1966 to 1999, offers a model for civil debate that focused on ideas over emotion. At the same time, the show made space for humor, and people did sometimes lose their cool on the air. In other words, it was an intellectual show but also a lively show. It provokes a bit of nostalgia to revisit this kind of TV, given the current climate of loud and obnoxious cable news arguments, with sound bites getting more airtime than careful discussion.

The nostalgia is warranted, but we should not over-romanticize TV history. The fact is, "Firing Line" was not typical. In the pre-cable days, most public affairs shows were deadly dull, news broadcasts assiduously avoided controversy, and Buckley’s show highlighted intellectuals in a way that was unique.

So it’s not so much that political discussion on TV used to be so much better than it is today, but that there used to be one show that really nailed the best way to discuss politics, and now there are (arguably) no such shows. The situation has spiraled since 2016, but it wasn’t great before then. Could we have a successful version of "Firing Line" today? Margaret Hoover rebooted the show on PBS, with some success, though it doesn’t hit Buckley’s intellectual high notes in the same way.

The bottom line is, you can’t have a show exactly like "Firing Line" because Buckley was such a unique personality. Also, in today’s niche media environment, people don’t all watch the same shows like they used to, and it’s hard to stand out with a new program and turn a profit. Furthermore, TV is expensive. I think podcasts are the future (and the present, for that matter) in terms of making room for smart, spirited political discussion. But it remains hard for them to reach a broad audience holding varying political beliefs — hard to get beyond the echo chamber.

Q: Your current research project examines the media coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention where, you contend, conservatives’ distrust of the news media began to take root. Today, we have conservative leadership responding to nearly any news coverage that they do not like as “fake news.” Are these responses to news coverage similar because these are two similarly tumultuous times in our history, or has our inability to have thoughtful dialogue dissipated these past 50 years?

A:  We have to be careful how we use the word “conservative.” It means different things over time, and we would not all agree on what it means now. Many people who identify as conservatives have left the GOP, because they are disturbed by President Trump’s populism, demeanor, and lack of coherent policy objectives. In a recent Atlantic essay, for example, political commentator George Will is quoted saying that Trump has not “made a contribution to our understanding of conservatism.”

From this perspective, it is Trump and his populist base, not conservatives per se, who call news they don’t like “fake news.” I’m a liberal and have no investment in arguing for the integrity of some pure version of conservatism, but separating families and putting them in detention camps and choosing not to protect our elections from foreign interference do not strike me as “conservative” actions, per se.

That said, attacking the media for “liberal bias” is a familiar conservative tactic. The notion preceded the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but at that point it dominated among segregationists in the Deep South who objected to national news coverage of the civil rights movement. (David Greenberg wrote the definitive essay on this.)

What is unique about Chicago is that it was a moment when the idea that the media was unfair was nationalized: Viewers across America saw TV images of Chicago police beating protesters in the streets, and, in effect, said what they were seeing was not reality, that journalists had chosen not to show the violence of the protesters themselves, and that a more balanced picture would have revealed that police behaved appropriately.

Viewers sent angry telegrams to CBS at 2 a.m., just moments after the network signed off during the convention, and letters to CBS in the weeks following the convention ran 11-to-1 against CBS. Viewers attacked NBC too, but less ABC, which did not air complete convention coverage. Congress commissioned an impartial study that concluded the protesters had sometimes been violent in Chicago, but that what had happened there was a “police riot” in which protesters, journalists, and even passers-by were beaten bloody by cops, many of whom were out of control. The study concluded by releasing an impressive 350 page report.

One takeaway is the obvious point that it is live pictures on TV that resonate most strongly with people, not later reasoned discussions of those images. Other big takeaways for me: This particular attack on the networks was “organic;” it wasn’t organized. And it came from people who self-identified as both conservatives and liberals. Nixon’s genius was to tap into that spontaneous hostile energy and actively, strategically cultivate the idea of liberal media bias. This is one way to trace the lineage of Trump’s “fake news” accusations, though it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Q: If the general public sees mainstream media outlets as blatantly biased, our current polarization will continue. Do you see this intolerance reflected among your students?

A: I don't have a master plan to solve these problems, which I agree are grave, but I do think it is helpful to teach people about the history of journalism so they understand how notions of bias and objectivity have played out over time. A highly readable book on this is Michael Schudson’s "Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers." More recently, there is Matthew Pressman’s book "On Press: The Liberal Values that Shaped the News."

The crux of this question may be the whole notion of “mainstream media outlets.” What does that mean today? There have long been journals of opinion, such as The Nation on the left and National Review on the right, with remaining journalism focused on a mass readership assumed to be a mix of liberal and conservatives. Today, opinion seems louder than reporting, and people gravitate to multiple niche outlets that support what they already believe.

What does “mainstream” mean in this context? It means, in part, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune. These are all outlets that may sometimes exhibit a bias — The Wall Street Journal leans conservative and The New York Times is more centrist. Still, we must adamantly insist that these publications, though they may sometimes frame stories in ways we do not care for, are not simply making things up. Education helps with this, but it’s not going to get through to everyone encompassed by the phrase “the general public.” Belief in the mendacity of mainstream media to many is precisely that, belief. Like religion, it is unfalsifiable.

I take encouragement from my MIT students, who are so consistently thoughtful about these issues. I teach a course in science fiction, for example, and much of it centers on how we use allegory and other kinds of narrative to think through political crises and strategize for a better world. Most of my students have a technical or scientific orientation, so they tend to take a very rational approach to thinking through arguments. Sometimes we hit a very interesting brick wall when we deal with science fiction texts that are as much about affect as argumentation. How do you argue about feelings, which are simply not empirical in the same way that certain facts are?

Often, it is history that helps us sort things out. I teach "The Handmaid’s Tale," both the novel and the TV show, for example, and have written about the show. You can’t sort out all the emotional layers of the novel without a deep history lesson on the politics of the Reagan years, the Meese Commission, Women Against Pornography, Take Back the Night marches, and so on. Our starting point is viewing Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “It’s Morning Again in America” campaign spot, and then we watch the Super Bowl ad for season three of "The Handmaid’s Tale," which is a trenchant parody of the Reagan spot. 

Time and time again, I find in the classroom it is historical understanding that helps us sort through ways of understanding contemporary issues, even if we cannot come up with easy solutions.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand and Maria Iacobo

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