I want to put you in a situation, and please, try and see if you can handle it. Imagine I put you in a room with people who do not vote the same way you do. In other words, they’re from the opposite party.
I won’t put you within any party; it doesn’t matter. Just saying that there will be people from the opposite party on the other side of the room is enough. Do you think it’s possible to have a conversation with those folks about politics and social issues without it breaking out into a screaming match or a fight?
Let me admit something. I don’t know if I can do it.
Wait, Luis, you’re supposed to be objective and not take sides.
You’re right. And I don’t. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, but there are issues on both sides that do make me angry, and I find myself wanting to yell at both sides for the fact they sometimes buy into extreme views.
So, can we bring people from both sides together for an open and civil conversation about politics? Civil, in this case, does not necessarily mean it won’t be passionately heated. That was the goal for David Plazas, this week’s guest on The Reporter’s Studio.
In 2016 his editor challenged him, which led to Civility Tennessee. I asked him to better describe what it was about.
David: It was the midterm elections of 2018, and I went to a small rural town in Tennessee to a Rotary Club. It was the start of the campaign. We started the Civility Tennessee project to advance the civil discourse. After giving my spiel, a gentleman stood up and said, ‘why should we trust you?’ He said it was because we had called the election wrong. The man went on to say, ‘You said that Hillary was going to win, and we feel that we can’t trust you.’ I went back to that town to the Rotary Club again in February. It was a wonderful conversation. I had developed enough trust that I could bring up some tough subjects like January 6th. I’ve developed a better language, especially in rural communities where we talk precisely not about hyperbolic language, but we can talk about the fact that there were crimes committed on January 6th and that those criminals or accused criminals need to be punished for that. And often, I’d received a retort. People would say, well, what about BlackLivesMatter in 2020? And I come back and say, what about it? Which case? Which situation? I’d point to articles that showed that there are over 300 people who’ve been accused of crimes, dozens imprisoned stemming from the demonstrations. So there has been justice. But this is one of the things that can be frustrating is there’s kind of a what about ‘ism’ that is dangerous because if we Americans can’t agree on the same facts and we’re in a situation where, like in Florida or Tennessee or Texas, you have these completely different realities. Unfortunately, today’s politics have become so bombastic and personality-oriented that it can be challenging to cut through.
TRS: I get the sense that one of the things we have to be careful about, we as journalists, is listening and talking to people and not talking down to people. We need to be on their level.
David: It goes to the issue of empathy, and it goes to the point of meeting people where they’re at. Research from Pew Center and the American Press Institute shows that only about a fifth of Americans has ever met a journalist. So they’re assuming that the journalist is someone who just has a gotcha mentality that they’re going to try to embarrass them, that is going to look down upon them, especially if they’re not college educated or if they live in a rural community. Because there’s this perception that we are elites who are out to just go after Republicans. But the reality is when we look at journalism across the country, even where there’s a supermajority of Democrats in California, journalists are relentless about scrutinizing power. And it just so happens that in Florida and in Tennessee and in Texas, that supermajority Republican legislators are there, and they’re the ones making the decisions that are having real impacts. I’ve been following one of the things because Florida passed its so-called don’t say gay bill, and now there’s a proposal in Tennessee, and this is catching like wildfire. I asked the question in a recent column, why are we doing this? We already know that there’s a curriculum. We already know that teachers are held to a high standard. What are we doing this? Could it be fear-mongering? Could it be that we are trying to scare people into feeling like it’s dangerous to be in school? And COVID has allowed that mentality to exist because people’s lives were so disrupted. You had issues with kids suffering from learning loss and mental health situations. And so suddenly you can say there’s some boogeyman in school who’s going out to get your kids. So my latest column was about if you’re going to say that – show us the proof. A couple of celebrities went to testify that school libraries were pushing porn on kids. Nobody dared to say, where’s the evidence? When they were asked, they couldn’t substantiate their claims. But no, they’re taken seriously because it fits into the narrative.
TRS: What are we (journalists) doing right, and what are we doing wrong right now?
David: I think what we’re doing right is staying committed to our values of telling the truth, being fair and being accurate, trying to get to the story, and using the power even with limited resources to get at what the truth is. I think what we’re doing wrong, though, is not being present enough in conversations with people in the spaces that they’re in. People can create these assumptions to create this bombastic rhetoric, and we need to be in the spaces where people are. We need to be present, and we need to be accessible. And I don’t think we always are. I think related to that – punditry – is one of my least favorite things because the idea of people screaming at each other to try to make a point is, I think, very dangerous because our democracy is very fragile. It still relies upon people trusting each other and working with each other, compromising with each other. I am a huge proponent of local politics and government, people getting involved in their city council races, going to board meetings, and being informed at that level because there’s more minor controversy over building a sidewalk than funding something for Congress. And you get to know your neighbors.
TRS: I know you’ve heard this phrase – as journalists, it’s not our job to be popular. Is it on us to help people understand who we are – to promote ourselves? Should we be out there doing a PR campaign trying to help people understand this is what we’re supposed to be doing?
David: We found in terms of studies with advertising that usually it takes about 13 times before somebody notices an ad and makes a call. So the question is, we have to be repetitive when it comes to what we do because too often, people don’t know. Frankly, we have so many distractions out there, and I think that sometimes some people are tuned out. The number of people who, over the last two years who I know personally, who tune out the news, they don’t want to watch the news. They also want to know what’s going on. We did a series about affordable housing. And it was a yearlong series where my goal was to help explain the issue and then come up with a couple solutions that are finally being implemented over the last year here in Nashville, and it’s a very tough issue. But it was a very proud moment for me because we were able to gain trust and credibility in the work that we did on a very important issue where people said, you know you, the Tennesseean, and me as a columnist, you were the authority on this particular subject, and we will listen to you when you write about it, and you’re going to help us understand. We may disagree with your approaches, but at the very least, we respect the fact that you’re giving us options to think about.
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