NBC's Mitchell Blames Talk Radio & Bloggers for Hate & Lack of 'Reasoned Discussions'

On Friday's Washington Week on PBS, taped at the Aspen Ideas Festival (“Inspired Thinking in an Idyllic Setting”), when asked by host Gwen Ifill about hateful speech in politics and directed at journalists -- “Is that polarization real or is it just people blogging?" -- NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell charged that “the kind of hateful speech that we have seen...in a lot of the blogosphere...goes back, in my own experience, to 1989 when the talk radio shows went crazy about the congressional pay raise.” She then reasoned: “The anti-Washington, anti-bureaucrat bias that was built into that debate was then taken up by cable talk hosts as well and that became the kind of really combative conversation that displaced reasoned discussions about controversial issues."

PBS picked six members of the Colorado conference audience to pose questions to the panel. None came from the right and four were clearly from the left, starting with a woman who wondered: “How can we keep religion out of government and politics?" A man complained: “What's the responsibility of government and the press regarding poor people and why do we hear so little about housing crisis, minimum wage, homeless people and low-wage workers?" That pleased James Bennet, a former New York Times White House reporter who is now Editor of The Atlantic magazine: "It's a great question. I've been wondering what happened to the issue of homelessness in America.” (Partial transcripts follow)

In addition to Mitchell and Bennet, Ifill was joined by Priscilla Painton of Time magazine.

The Aspen Institute touts as its motto, “Timeless values, enlightened leadership,” and is led by President & CEO Walter Isaacson, the former President of CNN and Managing Editor of Time magazine. The July 3-9 “Aspen Ideas Festival: Inspired Thinking in an Idyllic Setting,” promises “a weeklong public celebration of important and intriguing ideas, with scores of top minds offering seminars, lectures, classes, and more.” Indeed, the agenda, which skips over the Washington Week session, lists seminars and lectures on a wide-range of topics from big names ranging from Colin Powell to Laura Ingraham to Wolf Blitzer to James Fallows to Madeleine Albright.

Halfway into to the 23 or so minute discussion held at an Aspen theater and aired as the July 7 Washington Week, Ifill, a former NBC News reporter, proposed:
“I feel like the past few years, and I don't know whether it's technology which has sped this along or not, but that the polarization has been even more distinct than it ever was before and that people who write to disagree with something they think or they've heard I've said or done, don't just say I disagree, they say I hate your guts and I disagree. Is that polarization real or is it just people blogging?”

Andrea Mitchell replied: “I think it's real. And I don't think it reflects the vast majority of Americans but I certainly think it reflects those who take to the Internet and want to respond. And we read your e-mails and we really respond and we take seriously criticism that isn't abusive criticism. But the kind of hateful speech that we have seen, on the floor of the United States Congress and in a lot of the blogosphere, is what seems to dominate. And I do think it goes back, in my own experience, to 1989 when the talk radio shows went crazy about the congressional pay raise which was supported by Common Cause and some other groups in Washington who felt there needed to be a higher-paid salary -- Paul Volker the former Chairman of the Fed and others were arguing for this. But the anti-Washington, anti-bureaucrat bias that was built into that debate was then taken up by cable talk hosts as well and that became the kind of really combative conversation that displaced reasoned discussions about controversial issues.”

The audience questions posed:
Woman: “I would like to ask how can we keep religion out of government and politics?”

Man: “Has there been a parallel in American history when issues normally reserved for the states, such as who can marry and right to die, that has so driven national politics?”
A second man's agenda warmed Ifill and Bennet:
“What's the responsibility of government and the press regarding poor people and why do we hear so little about housing crisis, minimum wage, homeless people and low-wage workers?”

Ifill: “You know I do think, that's a question I'd like James to take on, but I also want to just pop in. I think that's a question of power. Who has the power and who has the microphone and who has the voice. I actually do believe that Americans have more power than they think to force people on these issues, but often don't exercise it. I don't know, what do you think?”

James Bennet: “It's a great question. I've been wondering what happened to the issue of homelessness in America. There was a period ten of fifteen years ago-”

Ifill: “It was solved, didn't you hear?”

Bennet: “I can't square it with the guys I keep seeing sleeping outside our offices in Washington. There was a period when it consumed the attention of the news media ten or fifteen years ago. And part of the answer is obviously welfare reform...”
The next three audience questions:
Second woman, with quite an insight: “I really think that having two political parties divides us as a nation. And I wonder what your thoughts are. I think if we really wanted to be united, we wouldn't have any political parties, we'd all work together and then we'd be the United States of America.”
Third man: “Much as been made of the creative redistricting by Tom DeLay and do you believe there is any possible mechanism for a uniform redistricting or districting in the states so that no group is left unrepresented?”

Fourth man: “What impact blogs have on the political culture. And secondly, which blogs do you track?”
Bennet plugged his own blog on The Atlantic site and Mitchell observed that Hillary Clinton's hiring of a blogging expert shows blogs will be important in the pre-primary season.

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center