Who can deny that the quality of political discourse in this country seems to be in serious decline? In the final days of the health care reform debate, national media have reported on various incidents that are disturbing the peace: epithets hurled at members of Congress, threatening voicemails, and bricks thrown through windows of local Congressional offices.
This past week, many public radio programs, from Fresh Air to Democracy Now! to All Things Considered to On The Media have featured interviews with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who tracks extremist movements of all stripes. The conversations surrounded the Justice Department’s bust of an armed and dangerous Christian militia in Michigan that plotted to spark an uprising against the federal government.
What role do media play in fostering such a climate? What role can media play in bringing the temperature down? Public Media Are Not Powerless. Public radio and TV have shown that media can be a force that unites instead of divides Americans. One powerful example is the Not in Our Town project from the 1990s that continues to this day, recently featured in a peer webinar hosted by the National Center on Media Outreach (NCME).
Not in Our Town started as a documentary about how the newspaper in Billings, Montana brought the local community together to stand against anti-semitism. This one beautiful story and single public media project has since birthed a movement to share the stories of citizens fighting hate speech and violence. NIOT’s interactive site, which launches April 6th, invites user-generated content and features a slew of documentaries about courageous acts of ordinary people.
Similarly, Detroit public radio station WDET is engaged in an editorial collaboration with 4 ethnic news outlets: The Arab American News, Latino Detroit, The Jewish News, and The Michigan Chronicle. The project is called Right Wing Extremism. Listeners are invited to suggest story ideas and sources to the 3-person-staffed WDET Newsroom, read the blog, and call in on the Craig Fahle show, which is beating the drum with this special coverage.
“I’ve had some people ask why we’re doing this,” writes WDET General Manager Mikel Elcessor. “This is our mission. It’s just that simple.” Speaking on air this week, Elcessor said, “Hate is not a value that will advance Michigan. [WDET is] stepping up and standing up on this issue, to let people know hate is not a shared value.”