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Kansas State University
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Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"
Landon Lecture
April 4, 2005

Politics and the Discourse Deficit

 

I am delighted to be in Kansas this morning. As the very popular song of the 194Os went, I was born in Kansas, I was bred in Kansas, and when I get married I'll be wed in Kansas. I got wed in Texas, as a matter of fact, but the rest of it is right on the money.

My Kansas roots come right out of the ground here, and they also come out of the bus business. My dad was working for a bus company called Southern Kansas Stage Lines when I was born in Wichita, went on to become Santa Fe Trailways and then Continental Trailways, and he later ran his own very small bus company called Kansas Central Lines. It went north out of Wichita up this way and went to Valley Center, to Sedgwick, to Newton, to North Newton, to Goessel, to Lehigh, and then it went - one run went to the east to Hillsboro, Canada Corner, Marion, Elmdale Corner, Staffordville, Strong City and Emporia, and then at Lehigh we had another run that went off to the west to Canton, Galva and McPherson.

And my brother and I - I was then 12 years old, my brother was two years older than I - what we did to contribute to the company was that how many of you all are either from Wichita or know downtown Wichita? You know where the Eaton Hotel is? It's been restored and all that. Well, that's where our bus depot was, and my brother and I, to help the company, to help the business, we would stand in the middle of the lobby - but there wouldn't be anybody there, because we very seldom had very many passengers - we would stand in the middle of the lobby and yell out those towns that I just did. That was our contribution to the company.

It was great fun for my brother and me, but it was not great fun for my mother and dad. The bus line did go broke, it went bankrupt, literally bankrupt after only one year, and it was not great fun - not a great experience for them. But that was many, many years ago in Kansas and today is today in Kansas. I will have more to say about calling buses later on this morning, and I'm sure that will keep you on the edges of your seats, waiting for that.

I am, indeed, most honored to be speaking today in the name of Alf Landon. It is particularly fitting and proper that I do so, because he was, in fact, governor of Kansas when I was born in Wichita. Now, the record is silent on whether or not he took note of my birth, but so be it, the honor is doubled by the fact that Gov. Landon's daughter, Nancy Kassebaum and her husband, Howard Baker, are both very good friends of my wife Kate's and myself.

The discourse deficit is the very general title I have given to what I have to say this morning. And, as a matter of fact, I'm fairly certain that both Sen. Kassebaum and Sen. Baker would agree with my premise at the very least. And that premise, to put it in its most simple terms is this: Civil, meaningful, intelligent, respectful, nourishing, educational, responsible, enlightened, healthy discourse is not flourishing in our country at the moment.

There has been a coarsening of the exchanges over the issues and ideas of our politics and our government. The noise levels of these exchanges have risen so high it is sometimes almost impossible to hear what is really being said. And the participants in the exchanges grow too willing to question the motives of those who disagree with them. And an end result of this, in my opinion, is a growing inclination among Americans of all ages and persuasions to turn their backs on politics and government at all levels, to essentially put their hands over their ears and to shut it all out as being irrelevant to their lives. And in doing so they are shutting out their opportunity and responsibility to participate in the dialogue that a democracy such as ours requires in order to stay alive, to stay exciting, and to stay vital.

In other words, what I'm talking about here this morning I believe is very serious business. I believe a combination of factors has come together to cause this serious discourse deficit. They are no villains in my view, only causes, and one of them is people like me. Maybe not specifically me, hopefully, but people like me. I'm talking about the people who facilitate and moderate discourse on television, on radio, and the printed press and on the Internet. Some of us need to understand that there are differences between show business and journalism business, between hollering and punditry. That screaming across the field at a football game is just fine, screaming across a television studio is not so fine. We need to keep in mind that the businesses of information and of entertainment are not the same. I tell people all the time, "If you want to be entertained, do not watch the news hour, go to the circus. I'm in a different line of work than the clowns."

In fact, that is one of my guidelines for the practice of journalism. And I have guidelines that are written down, because a few years ago I was asked by a seminar in Aspen whether or not I had, in fact, guidelines that I used in my daily practice of journalism and, if so, would I share them. And here in part is what I sent. Do nothing I cannot defend. Cover right and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story. Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions, no one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously. And finally, I am not in the entertainment business. Those are my guidelines.

Another group of causes are the people in politics, in government and in public life. They are not all innocent bystanders and victims in this coarsening. It really is possible for them to refuse to take the bait, throw the mud, shout the insult, promote the smear. There is no oath of office for anyone in public service in the United States of America that contains the following clause: I do solemnly swear that I will distort the records and words and intentions of my opponents, that I will do anything within my power to speak louder and more often than all who disagree with me, that I will remain silent when good people of the other party, the other faction or the other opinion are unfairly maligned by those on my side or with whom I agree. In short, beware of the public official who says, "He/she had no choice to play the scream game of high pitched attack, character assassination or whatever." The choice to be civil is available to one and to all.

I once had a famous public official accuse me of asking him a question that gave him no choice but to repeat on national television an unsubstantiated rumor about another famous public official. I replied with respect, "That's not true, sir," and he replied, "I know, but that's going to be my excuse."

He and others should beware of the respond in kind alibi, the ever popular "He smeared me first" defense, because when you play in the mud, whether you jump in first or whether you jump in second, you get just as dirty.

And finally on the list of causes are the people, the people people, the voters, the viewers, the listeners, the readers, the people who really make the decisions in our democratic society. I think they've got to put their earphones and their remote controls and their newspapers and magazines and books down, as well as their feet. They've got to say to the shouting insulting folks of all types on their side as well as the other side, to "Lower the volume, please, to reduce the insults, to get civil."

A drop in the ratings is a sure way to police irresponsible talk on television or on radio. A reduction in circulation will do the same for those in the print media. I do not accept what some of those in the media say they excuse their excesses an grounds that they're only giving the public what they want. And I also do not excuse those in the public who say they consume the trash because that's all there is out there. In my opinion, not true on either count.

And, by the way, let's not forget the Internet bloggers, the latest practitioners and the latest in the addition to the information flow. They are a welcome addition, in my opinion, but they too need to be subject to the discipline of the marketplace. Irresponsible rumor mongering should not be rewarded either by its consumer users and cheerleaders or by mainline journalists coming along afterward and citing bloggers as an is excuse for passing along information not independently verified. Bloggers are hot now. They're going to get cold fast if at they're not careful with the facts and with the reputations of people, and they will deserve to be so.

Now, do not mistake what I am saying about what I call the discourse deficit. I'm not suggesting that nine-member commissions be formed to solve it, with massive investigations and then recommendations for volume restrictions for talk shows or setting quotas or caps for insults, interruptions or whatever. This is a problem that can be solved by us, us in my line of work, us in the work of politics and government, and us meaning everyone in this auditorium and all other auditoriums in America. We have the power to create it, we have the power to eliminate it or at least to diminish it.

And I know from personal experience we all can do better. I refer to my experience as a moderator of presidential debates. I did my 10th such job last September at the University of Miami with President Bush and Senator Kerry. How many of you all happened to see or listen to that debate? Well, I would hope that you would agree that it was a model of civil discourse. And I wonder if you were as struck as I was about how simply different the tone was from just about everything else that was said and done in the presidential campaign. Neither man got personal. Neither attacked the other's integrity. Neither questioned the other's loyalty, patriotism, faith, honesty and so on. And yet both were involved as the central figures in a presidential campaign that was marked by real nastiness. But none of it came from the candidates themselves when they were looking at each other straight in the eye. No, no. They said their worst things in television ads, campaign sound bites, or more usually they were said by campaign spokespeople or surrogates in real life or on the Internet.

I wonder why we allow candidates to divorce themselves from what is said on their behalf by others. Holding them responsible might help improve the quality of the discourse throughout the campaign, not just in nationally televised debates. If civility is the right thing to do, then why is it not the right thing to do in every aspect of a political campaign. All campaigns, not just presidential, all public discourse, not just political.

On a more personal note I must say for the record there is no harder work than moderating a presidential debate. Not for me at least. I have done hundreds of television programs, live television programs through the years, and the last 30 years in particular, and they're not even in a league with moderating a presidential debate.

In the unlikely event that I would ever make a mistake on the news hour, all I'd have to do is essentially look out at the red light and say, "Well, sorry about that, I'll be back here tomorrow night and we'll try to do a little bit better." You screw up something in a presidential debate and you can affect who's going to be the next president of the United States, and you can rest assured that that fact never for a second leaves my consciousness while I am moderating such a thing.

Much has been said about the rules and the formats for these debates. For what's it's worth I believe strongly that any time you can get the candidates on the same stage at the same time, talking about the same issues more or less, this is a good thing for the democratic process. Yes, like most everyone else I wish there were more debates, I wish the rules could be more wide open and flexible, I wish, I wish, I wish, but the bottom line is they are a good thing. And I believe there's no longer any question that they have become a permanent institution of our campaigns for president. No presidential candidate, incumbent or not, can ever again refuse to debate his or her opponent. That's a good thing, one that we should applaud and protect.

And while on the subject of applauding I also believe that the credit for giving the debates and the importance and permanency that they now have goes to the commission on presidential debates under the leadership of its director, Janet Brown. The commission has had to navigate through many difficult obstacles, the most critical being the competing interest of candidates and their handlers. They come ready for combat in what often turns into an understandable contest for any advantage real or imagined in the debate negotiations that precede the debate itself. It's understandable, because only a fool would ignore the obvious fact that the race for the presidency can be decided in anyone of those 90-minute events.

Let me say also for the record that it really does not matter who the moderator is. In fact, that is the first of my personal guidelines for moderating. The others are, this debate is not about me. My job is to facilitate a debate between or among the candidates, not between them and me. This is not an opportunity for me to audition for a bigger and better job on television, or to show how tough I am, or how smart I am, or to play devil's or any other's advocate, to play "got you," to introduce obscure issues that have not been raised in the race up till now, to ask questions that are longer than the candidate's answers, to be cute and clever and entertaining, to show off.

And finally, when this debate is over if people are talking about me or my questions rather than the candidates and their answers, I have failed to do my job as a moderator, because to repeat, this is not about me. I offer these guidelines for anybody moderating anything, by the way, not just presidential debates.

So there you have it, that's essentially what I have to say this morning. I would encourage all of us to be part of the process to bring more of a civilized tone to our public exchange of points and ideas. I know there are some who would say, "Oh, calm down, Jimmy Charles Lehrer of Wichita, Kansas, the hurling of insults and other terrible pieces of rhetoric go back to the founding fathers." That's true. So do murder, armed robbery, treason and embezzlement. Historical precedent, in my opinion, is no excuse for this. Again, and as always, in my opinion.

I was, indeed, born in Kansas and bred in Kansas and I will forever be a sunflower from the Sunflower State. I will do you a favor, I will not sing that song in its entirety, even though I was, in fact, a soprano soloist in the Wichita Bach Boys Choir when I was a kid in Wichita. But right now in my life I pretty much restrict my entertaining to making bus calls.

I told you I grew up in the bus business, and when I was going to that little junior college in Victoria, Texas, in the 1950s, I worked as a ticket agent in the Continental Trailways bus depot, and one of my duties was to call the buses. It was the first time I was paid money to speak into a microphone. Here's what I would do.

"May I have your attention, please. This is your last call for Continental Trailways, 8:10 p.m. Silver sides, air-conditioned Throughliner to Houston, now leaving from Lane 1 for Inez, El Campo, Pierce, Walton, Hungerford, Kendleton, Beasley, Rosenberg, Richmond, Sugarland, Stafford, Missouri City and Houston, connecting in Houston for Huntsville, Buffalo, Corsicana, Dallas, Denton, Ardmore, Oklahoma City, Ponca City, Wichita, Salina, Abilene, Junction City, Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City, all aboard. Don't forget your baggage, please.

Let that be a lesson to all of you students in the audience this morning, that if you learn something early you learn it well and it's totally irrelevant, you'll never forget it.

I am thoroughly enjoying being with all my fellow and sister Sunflowers this morning. Thank you very much.