From Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future
Before Ray Suarez moved to television’s “The News Hour,” he did a noontime interview/current issues show on National Public Radio. I enjoyed it immensely and tried not to miss it. Ray would choose a topic—often a front-page concern but as frequently something not yet widely on the social radar screen. His guests represented the whole of the political spectrum, including its extremes, but rarely were they ideologues. Ray pushed his guests with hard questions and didn’t accept formulaic answers. There were always surprises. I never failed to learn something from the show and it was clear that Ray, too, was often stretched by where the interactions led.
When Ray left, the noon slot at my local NPR station was taken over by a different but similar format show hosted by a highly intelligent man with a more traditional approach. The commentator chose whatever topic was front-page news. He interviewed the usual suspects with the usual polar political positions and the predictable back-and-forth fireworks ensued. I’m sure many people—including public radio executives, as the show has remained on the air—consider his program as good or better than what it replaced. The emotion-laden format always left the impression of great significance. And certainly it represented “balanced” reporting—the common measure for good journalism.
But I felt a huge loss. Only later did I realize fully how deep a loss it was and why. Now I recognize that the difference was that Ray Suarez’s program worked as mature journalism and at a level that is as yet uncommon to see.
This achievement was most obvious with issues that were highly charged politically. While in times past knee-jerk partisanship has driven effective political process, today it not only gets in the way of asking the right questions, it also with growing frequency undermines the successful functioning of government. I think of how often partisan bickering concerned with little more than political advantage erupted in the midst of the 2008/2009 financial collapse. Thomas Friedman put it this way in his New York Times column: “We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century financial crisis, and yet we’ve actually descended into politics worse than usual. There don’t seem to be any adults at the top….”
Our ability to govern wisely in times ahead will depend on our ability get beyond partisan squabbling and think and lead in more complex and nuanced ways. None of the most critical policy issues before us can be effectively addressed from the isolated positions of either the political Right or the political Left (nor any better from some point of simple compromise). When we confront today’s challenges, we need more encompassing perspective just to grasp the questions involved—or even to recognize that significant questions exist—much less to answer them. It is a conclusion we will look at closely (both by examining particular issues—terrorism, health care reform, rethinking economic structures, and more—and by looking deeply at the underpinnings of current changes.
This is not at all to call for greater agreement or niceness in debate. Indeed it is to advocate for greater courage and forthrightness. But it very much is a call for greater maturity of debate. That means an expanded ability to see the big picture and a greater capacity to accept and engage the immense complexity of the questions that we confront. It also means that we must employ a degree of creativity and collaboration than before now has not been needed, or, I would argue, really possible. Today’s newly systemic realities require a new kind of leadership from both the journalistic and the political spheres—and ultimately from all of us.