People talk to me all the time about how we need more bipartisanship in government and more civility in the media. I agree – on both counts. And I have a glimpse today as to why we don’t have it.
Because when we are presented with the moment when we can take the higher road, think better thoughts about people, tell the better story – we don’t. Case in point – the story this week about the Matheson brothers.
Let me admit to you that I have great personal respect for both Scott Matheson Jr. and his brother, Representative Jim Matheson. Scott was a professor of mine in law school many moons ago. He taught civil procedure and the 1st amendment, and he taught ethics – not in an actual class – but by example. When I heard that he was nominated to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, I was delighted. He may be the best legal mind ever nominated to such a position from this state. And then I heard the next question – did President Obama nominate him just to buy his brother’s vote on health care?
I know the timing. I know the pressure. I’m not quite as naive as I look. But whether you agree with Jim Matheson on the issues or not, has he ever done anything to make anyone believe he is so unethical that his vote on such an important matter, or any matter, could be bought with a job for his brother? There is no question we can’t ask as members of the media, and no allegation we can’t level as political opponents. I get it. But just because we can ask the question, doesn’t mean we should – because when we do, we change the news. We change the discussion. We choose sensation over civility.
I don’t make the decisions about what stories are covered or how they are covered, but I do believe we can lift the tone and the service of our reporting by lifting our intentions. What was our intention in asking if the vote was bought? We knew the answer would be “NO!!!!” So . . . what was our intention? To stir it up. To suggest a scandal, which we believe will lead to bigger ratings than being respectful would. What would our intention have been if we didn’t ask the question? To show respect where respect is earned, to value civility, to lift the level of our discourse, and let the ratings be what they will.
It happens one decision at a time. That’s how the media becomes more civil. That’s how politics becomes more bipartisan. In one difficult moment, someone who is in a position to do so makes the right decision, even if it may lead to uncomfortable justification after the fact. “No, I’m not a wimp. That’s not news. Unsubstantiated malicious suggestion is not news.”
Then the rest of us applaud. That’s our job.
And the snowball begins to pick up steam.