When William Safire died the other day, we lost one of the Elders of journalism and the argumentative arts. We’ve been losing a lot of them lately: Walter Cronkite, Bob Novak, Don Hewitt, Irving Kristol. “The stars seem to be going out one by one,” said Howard Stringer at Cronkite’s memorial.
At a gathering of Safire’s friends and family this week, Bill stories were told with affection, humor, and a bit of awe. He made his way in a profession that was, early on, hostile to the former Nixon speechwriter and PR man. He barreled through with well-marshalled gifts and a heroic work effort. He was a famous lover of words and language whose deepest loyalty was reserved, kept apart, for his wife, children and friends. He took care of those in his ken. And there was the professionalism: He loved journalism, respected what he did, loved helping young ones on the way up, and was so proud of his work that he was only half kidding when he said, “It’s not a column, it’s a pillar.”
Anyway, everyone there knew we’d suddenly lost one of the great ones, the Elders, and there is lately a sense of a changing of the guard.
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Who are The Elders? They set the standards. They hand down the lore. They’re the oldest and wisest. By proceeding through the world each day with dignity and humanity, they show the young what it is that should be emulated. They’re the tribal chieftains. This role has probably existed since caveman days, because people need guidance and encouragement, they need to be heartened by examples of endurance. They need to be inspired.
We are in a generational shift in the media, and new Elders are rising. They’re running the networks and newspapers, they own the Web sites, they anchor the shows. What is their job?
It’s to do what the Elders have always done, but now more than ever.
You know the current media environment. You think I’m about to say, “Boy, what’s said on cable, radio and the Internet now is really harmful and dangerous.” And you’re right, and it is. Some of the ranters don’t have the faintest idea where the line is. “They keep moving the little sucker,” said the William Hurt character, the clueless and unstoppable anchorman, in “Broadcast News.” They’ve been moving the little sucker for 20 years. But it’s getting worse, and those who warn of danger are right.
Two examples from just the past week. A few days ago, I was sent a link to a screed by MSNBC’s left-wing anchorman Ed Schultz, in which he explained opposition to the president’s health-care reform. “The Republicans lie. They want to see you dead. They’d rather make money off your dead corpse. They kind of like it when that woman has cancer and they don’t have anything for us.” Next, a link to the syndicated show of right-wing radio talker Alex Jones, on the subject of the U.S. military, whose security efforts at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh show them to be agents and lackeys of the New World Order. “They are complete enemies of America. . . . Our military’s been taken over. . . . This is the end of our country.” Later, “They’d love to kill 10,000 Americans,” and, “The republic is falling right now.”
This, increasingly, is the sound of our political conversation.
It is not new to call this kind of thing destructive, though it is. It is a daily agitating barrage that coarsens and inflames. It tears the national fabric. But it could wind up doing worse than that.
I see it this way. There are roughly 300 million people in America. Let’s say 1% of them, only 1 in 100, are composed of those who might fairly be called emotionally unstable—the mentally ill, those who have limited or no ability to govern their actions, those who act out, as they say, physically or violently. That’s three million people.
Let’s say a third of them are regularly exposed to political media rants from right or left. That’s a million people.
What effect might “they want to see you dead” and “the Republic is falling right now” have on their minds?
I was once in a small joust with Roger Ailes about violence on television. I was worried about it. He responded, I paraphrase: But there’s comedy all over TV, and I don’t see people breaking out in jokes and laughter on the streets. True, I said, but depictions of violence are different. Violent images excite the unstable. Violent words do, too.
This is why, I think, so many people—I include, literally, every person I know, from all walks of life, and all ages—are worried that our elected leaders are not safe, that this overheated era will end in some violent act or acts.
Stop reading this and ask whoever’s nearby, “Do you find yourself worrying about President Obama’s safety?” I do not think you are going to get, “No.”
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Some conservatives feel umbrage when this is said. “The left equates criticism with violence in order to squelch dissent.” In some cases that of course will be true. But this isn’t debate, it’s more like incitement. And it comes from both right and left.
Democracy cannot healthily endure without free and unfettered debate. It’s our job to watch, critique and question, and, being us, to do it in colorful terms.
But knowing where the line is, matters. Seeing clearly the lay of the land, knowing the facts of the country and your countrymen, matters.
Which gets us back to Safire and Cronkite and Novak and the rest. They knew where the line was. They were tough guys who got in big fights, but they had a sense of responsibility towards the country, and towards its culture. They, actually, were protective toward it. They made mistakes, but they were solid.
Now the new Elders must do the job they once did. Some of them will think they can’t, that the old ones were too big. But it always looks that way. Who thought Walter Cronkite of United Press would become Ed Murrow, only maybe more influential? Who would have thought Bill Safire, refugee from the Nixon White House, could fill the shoes of Scotty Reston? But he did, and more.
Everything has changed since the old ones came up—new platforms, new ways of communicating. Everyone has a mic now, from the guy making YouTubes to the anonymous drunk on the comment thread.
But it’s still possible to set an example, encourage the helpful, stand for the good, pass on the lore, take responsibility.
The new Elders will have to rescue America from the precipice. They’ll have to be mature, think of the collective, of the country as a whole.
If they don’t do it, who will? If they don’t lead through this polarized time, who can? People who are 25 and 30 can’t. They haven’t been around long enough and don’t have the sway. They’re the guests on the broadcasts, not the executive producers. The new Elders are.
And they’ll have obits someday too. Their careers will be captured in eulogies, leaving their children proud, or not. In a way you’re writing your own obit every day. You’re making the lead paragraph positive and constructive, or not.
Someone’s going to sum you up one day. You want to live your professional life in a way that they can write good things.