Is it possible to go over the already distant line of acceptable discussion often nearly crossed by polarizing left and right talkers? MSNBC's Martin Bashir did in an incident that shows us how far American political "debate" has sunk.
But it's not entirely surprising.
It all started when Bashir -- the journalist-turned commentator criticized by analysts for being among the most shrill partisan hosts at MSNBC -- decided to chime in on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's widely criticized comment comparing U.S. indebtedness to China to American slavery. He then read from the diaries of notorious former slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood who had noted one punishment for slaves was to defecate in their mouths. Bashir then delivered this gem of 21st century political vulgarity:
"When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery, she doesn't just prove her rank ignorance," he said. "She confirms if anyone [is] truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, she would be the outstanding candidate."
It ignited a firestorm. The video of his commentary was replayed and embedded far and wide. Bashir apologized, but the controversy continued. Palin accepted his apology and took some more swipes at him and MSNBC. Some (who had not suggested Rush Limbaugh be fired for Limbaugh's comments about law student Sandra Fluke) suggested MSNBC parent-company NBC should pull the plug entirely on the ratings-struggling channel. Bashir had not only crossed the line but shoved political talk to a new low.
MSNBC's "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough called the remarks deplorable and told his viewers about Bashir's apology: "I'm glad that he went out and said it [the apology], and I will guarantee you he didn't write all that by himself."
Indeed: Bashir's comments -- scripted, edited, approved and read on the air -- reflected a mindset.
In the 60s and 70s the late Steve Allen had a show on PBS called "The Meetings of the Minds," and David Susskind had "Open End." If these shows were re-titled to fit today's political culture, they'd have to be called "The Meetings of the Mouths" and "Open Mouth." Attempting to share ideas or convince others with the power of passionate but thoughtful arguments have little to do with today's partisan talk shows. They're about re-affirming like-minded viewers' existing beliefs, emphasizing developments through viewers' pre-existing political conditions, channeling confrontation, frustration, anger and partisanship -- then delivering this demographic package to advertisers.
But you can't just blame ideological talkers.
How many times on any cable channel or broadcast channel if there's a political discussion where both sides get angry, or interrupt each other, or someone makes an outrageous comment, do you see the host get a the-cat-just-ate-the-canary look and say, "We'll have to have the two of you back!" Translation: "That conflict, anger, interrupting was great TV!" If they had coolly discussed policy or indulged in nuance, the host might not be re-inviting.
Meanwhile, weblogs were once considered a wave of the future that would allow citizens to become a citizen journalist with no corporate gatekeepers, and do real reporting, or serious commentary. But blogs have declined as new and "old" media companies created websites absorbing some of the style of the original weblogs and offering blog-like posts and original reporting. Many political blogs are now citizen op-ed pages or partisan blogs actively promoting one party and actively denigrating the other.
Bashir's sin was crossing a way-out-there line that has been pushed by others to a limit a continent away from broadcast or print media limits 20 years ago. We're seeing less the "dumbing down of America," than the "coarsening of America." Bashir took it to its grossest, most juvenile, vilest conclusion -- but he took an "it" that is out there. This "it" has turned some partisan talk show hosts of the right and left into millionaires, and fills the bank accounts of companies employing them. There is lucrative market for packaging partisan anger and providing a tool for lashing out.
Someday perhaps someone will name a dish to serve at restaurants that will define the quality of the serious discussion Bashir and 24/7 indignant left and right partisan talkers sometimes offer. But there's already a "pooh-pooh platter."