Of death panels, Hitler, and the healthcare controversy: media literacy, now more than ever

media literacyEighteen years ago, on a brilliantly sunny day, I attended a Fourth of July barbecue in a pleasant suburb a few miles outside of Boston. I was sitting at an umbrella-shaded table by the pool, watching my son splashing happily in the water with the other kids, when one of the guests nearby turned to me and asked me a question that caught me off-guard.  He said, “Why don’t you Jews celebrate the 4th of July?”

“Why in the world would you think we don’t?” I responded (although I will admit that I used much more colorful language than that to convey my astonishment).

It turns out that this guest (a native-born, college-educated American about my age, mind you, not a confused elder or a recently arrived immigrant unfamiliar with U.S. customs) believed that Independence Day was a Christian holiday.  There was of course more, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that there was no convincing him otherwise; he believed unswervingly in the radio talk show host he’d heard it from. It was, as you might imagine, a wholly unsatisfactory conversation.

Not surprisingly, I’ve thought of him these last several weeks as the debate over healthcare reform has raged. I’ve heard his voice in  the ludicrous accusations about death panels and forced euthanasia, in the offensive comparisons to Nazi Germany that have diminished civil discourse.

At a recent town hall meeting on health care a disgruntled citizen, bearing a photo of Obama doctored to look like Hitler, confronted Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank (who happens to be Jewish). She asked him, “Why are you supporting this Nazi policy?” Frank, viewing her with cool contempt, asked, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”, and dismissed her, saying, “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.” (You can view the video yourself to watch their exchange.)

I understand fully the impulse that led Frank to respond as he did. Although 18 years have passed, I still recall vividly that exchange at that long-ago party. I remember how the anger seared when I heard his contemptuous “you Jews”. I can still feel the frustration, the stunned disbelief at his willful ignorance and full-bore stupidity.

But a mediator I know asked me the other day if I thought Frank’s response was appropriate. I had to answer no, it wasn’t. Emotionally satisfying on a primal level, yes. Appropriate, certainly not. The last thing we need these days is more insolence, more incivility, more personal attacks. Frank had an opportunity to educate; instead he chose to alienate. Frank may perhaps be unrepentant, but other members of Congress should heed seasoned public facilitator and dialogue and negotiation expert Lawrence Susskind.  Blogging at The Consensus Building Approach, Susskind proposes a wholly different approach in his post, “How Should You Respond to the Noisy Health Reform Critics?

Although Susskind’s post makes good reading, my primary concern is not in getting people to speak civilly to each other. I’d like that, yes. But I’ll leave that for others to ponder.

I’m far more interested in a bigger and more pressing issue, one we must address before we can have discourse that is truly civil: How do we eradicate ignorance? How can we create a better informed citizenry? One that is capable of thinking critically, of relying on reason and logic, of analyzing and evaluating data, and reaching decisions and making judgments based on sound information, not sound bites? In other words, what can we do to improve media literacy among citizens?

Earlier this week the European Commission issued guidelines calling on European Union member countries to promote media literacy:

Media literacy is the ability to access the media, to understand and to critically evaluate different aspects of the media and media contents an to create communications in a variety of contexts.

Media literacy relates to all media, including television and film, radio and recorded music, print media, the Internet and all other new digital communication technologies. It is a fundamental competence not only for the young generation but also for adults and elderly people, for parents, teachers and media professionals. The Commission considers media literacy as an important factor for active citizenship in today’s information society.

In its recommendations (downloadable in PDF), the Commission observed,

Democracy depends on the active participation of citizens to the life of their community and media literacy would provide the skills they need to make sense of the daily flow of information disseminated through new communication technologies.

Unfortunately, some here in America remain suspicious of “Old Europe” and any of its ideological exports, whether law or policy. But surely (and I say “surely” with only the slightest hint of cynicism) there is nothing controversial about a better educated, well-informed, media-savvy public.

9 responses to “Of death panels, Hitler, and the healthcare controversy: media literacy, now more than ever

  1. John, thanks so much, both for your comment and for the link to Souter’s remarks. Good stuff!

  2. Ruthy Kohorn Rosenberg

    I had same immediate reaction to Barney Frank and then rethought it. Although I don’t think that he could have engaged her exactly because of media illiteracy and ignorance. You tried to engage about July 4 and it didn’t work. It seems to me that there needs to be some sort of push back from everyone who ‘knows’ including politicians and journalists, but I fear that there are just enough people willing to take any opportunity to follow other agendas – power and money. I’m feeling very dispirited about all of this. Thank you for exploring this subject. We need to make it in everyone’s interests to be educated and spread knowledge not ‘ignorances’.

  3. Michael Dallahan

    Thank you for a great read. I share your dismay with much of the rhetoric used in the health care “debate”. Please no more calling each other Nazis and no more references to “death panels”. Unfortunately, fear and anxiety typically trump logic and reason when trying to sort through such difficult issues.

  4. Ruthy and Michael, I appreciate your comments. I have never at any point in my lifetime felt more dismayed by the state of civil discourse, and it’s a relief to know that I’m not alone in my frustration. Thank you for your voices here.

    Unfortunately ignorance is an equal opportunity employer – we can find it and its foot soldiers massed all along the ideological spectrum. And a well-informed and media-literate citizenry seems, sadly, not to be in the interests of those who occupy the bastions of power, wherever it exists. But I agree with the European Commission that democracy depends on it. I like what James Madison had to say: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” Over two hundred years later, and despite all our technological marvels and our 21st century progress, we’re still waiting for the realization of the dreams of the Enlightenment.

  5. Hi Diane, there’s a much simpler answer here and that is based on the Barny Frank “experience”. Anyone in the media, perhaps as part of their PR training, and if in a position of power representing “all people”, should set the example and not “polarize” a situation with their speech or selection of terminology. Frank should have been “neutral” from the start and taken the woman’s remarks in stride. I must say though that it’s not just citizens who watch media that need to become savvy, politics has now “de-volved” into pure chaos with our President now getting sucked into the vortex and unable to stand back from the fray and event his speech is inflaming to many nowadays. Thus, our only option for “us” out in “our world” is to continue to set the example and value all people and opinions so that the environment of civility is established in a moment in order to have rational discussion in subsequent eye blinks in time…this moment creates our past, which influences the future.

  6. Hi, Clayton, always nice to see you’ve been here. I’ve often made the case that everyone needs conflict resolution training, and in particular our elected and appointed officials who would certainly benefit from acquiring some consensus-building skills. There’s a unique role for our profession to play there.

    However, I personally don’t buy the idea that we have to value all opinions. (Just to be clear, I’m not talking about my professional role as neutral – obviously it’s not in my job description to tell a client outright that he’s full of crap – I can however ask probing questions that can have him test reality for himself. I’m talking about my actions as a private citizen.) I just read an interesting criticism of liberalism’s failure to condemn the outrageous public lies and deception that some opponents of health care have disseminated. It’s a little high-strung but provocative enough to be well worth reading. This quote in particular stood out:

    But the secular response to fundamentalism isn’t science, it’s kumbaya, a campfire that requires reason and ignorance to pay mutual respect, a moral cowardice that values pluralism more than it values values.

    I’m with the author of that article on that. I’m weary of the notion that we should somehow be respectful of others’ opinions, no matter how ill-founded or crazy or dangerous. I would frankly like to see more true argument in the public sphere, based on reason, logic, and rationality just for once. We need more vigorous competition in the marketplace of ideas. While I don’t accept the premise that all opinions are equally valuable, I do think that all opinions should be ruthlessly subjected to rigorous examination, testing, and debunking if necessary. We need more honesty in these discussions from all sides – as well as some truth-based condemnation of viewpoints that deserve our opprobrium.

  7. Alasdair Reed

    I am not a citizen of the United States, however it pains me to see the depths to which the whole health care debate has plummeted. and the effect it is having on American society One question that arises to me in relation to situations such as this. Are those involved looking deep enough into the question or issues at hand? and what are the real issues at hand? At a glance, and I will admit my view is a cursory one, it seems that health care is almost a side issue, or even a smoke screen. The arguments here are about
    values and rights. “My right to hold a particular value” eg “The rights of the free market to decide is best” or “Social health policies are good for everybody” and this combination of rights and values are often explosive, especially in a strongly rights driven society such as the US (but not only the US), which also has strongly held values of all stripes. Values are so often adopted unquestioningly , from the family, society, religion and other sources . The questions that may not often be asked is. How do our values serve us? Are they serving us as we would wish?
    An examination of this question could reveal some surprising results on both sides of the political divide, and also prevent the manipulation of people’s adherence to their values for purposes that could be, actually in the long contrary to the spirit of those values.

  8. Alasdair, I appreciate the perspective from someone who is not US citizen. You’ve raised some truly insightful questions that we’d do well to ponder.

    Unfortunately, as is the case with so many debates, too many people, confident they have the answers, have little interest in questions. All the more reason to promote media literacy – we must not only be willing to ask questions, but we must develop the ability to pose smart ones.

    Thanks again for your comment and for taking the time to visit this blog, Alasdair.