Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Going to the wellsprings: Assessing our peace potential

We who study peace hope to influence mass media. At the same time, we must understand how it influences us. It is important to have a realistic grasp on how that media works or we miss the cues and prompts that can help us promote a peace analysis to a much more widespread audience.

Self-styled public intellectual Richard A. Posner (2003) shows that mass media tend to use well known public scholars, sometimes at the expense of missing better experts. “The indolent gatekeepers of the public-intellectual market may prefer having a celebrity intellectual opine outside the area of his expertise to searching for the particular expert on the particular topic,” writes Posner (p. 176), a federal appellate panel member of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (and thus, a JD publicly opining far outside his own field of expertise). While Posner is, in his appellate rulings and in his juridical writings, inimical to grassroots nonviolent peace activists, he makes an excellent and noteworthy point. Mainstream media love famous intellectuals. They must stay in certain bounds, of course, which is why so few mainstream news sources turn to Noam Chomsky, since he will prove himself a greater and more cogent critic of US foreign policy than most mainstream media can abide. Knowing this is also helpful. Pushing the envelope—even when the envelope should be shredded—is tolerable, but when a public scholar strays over that line she is no longer tapped much as a source. When the editor of a mainstream daily gets irate phone calls from a wealthy lobbyist for a point of view or a constituency, or when a newspaper or television network has to field mass numbers of vituperative complaints, that pressure will tend to set up blocks to the intellectual perceived as the problem.

Part of the search for outlets for our public peace intellectuals, then, is a search for outlets that will reach enough readers and listeners to make some difference, if only in the aggregate, but to not necessarily attempt to promote the most radically peaceful points of view to nationally visible mass media, understanding that the more cogent the peace perspective the more pushback it will generate once it rises to that level. It may be more adaptive to stress the notions of radical nonviolence at media markets that don’t elicit such specific notice. The idea, perhaps, is to change social norms and regularize the peace point of view as a background value before sending our public scholars to the most aggressive and hostile fields of struggle. Or, if a peace scholar does attain the platform for a minute that allows her analysis to be broadcast, how can it be employed to nudge our norms instead of provoking derision or seeming to compromise peace values?

Finessing the message at the national level requires a calm and understated affect, one that doesn’t seem either glib or shrill. Grounded in researched conclusions, respectful of all other views but capable of promoting a different perspective, able to put forward a series of points that strike home to people and seem both reasonable and resonant, and clearly open to learning but firm on principle and unflappable when attacked—these requirements are tough ones but are needed. They become more stringent as a commentator moves from writing to broadcast fora and thus is exposed to the necessity to instantly and effectively respond. Those requirements become tighter as one moves from a rural weekly newspaper to a small city daily to large market regional daily to national paper of record. Thus, depending upon one’s self-assessment of those skills, it is advisable to operate in the markets that are doable.

For example, I am personally best in the small markets, where I feel comfortable with regular folks and media professionals who aren’t hostage to radical rightwing lobbyists and who feel free to engage in civil discourse. I like writing for those outlets and the responses are mixed but do not involve national attack organizations. Does this mean I’m less effective? Not really; it means that my self-assessment has helped me determine where I can be most effective. I have a couple of credentials and a reasonable ability to engage in public conversation about matters of war, peace and nonviolence, but I don’t overreach and make stabs at markets beyond the regionally influential. An opinion piece in the (Madison, Wisconsin) Capital Times or The Oregonian is the upper level of my reach. If I were ever invited onto Bill O’Reilly, I’d either seek professional coaching or decline. I would never want to be a strawman for nonviolence, easily overwhelmed and proving the points of the hawks. I’d much prefer to be the informed and persuasive promoter of peace on a local radio program or in a smaller market news service. We can never have guarantees, but if we choose our fields of struggle we can prevail for our peace values more often.
Posner, R. A. (2003). Public intellectuals: A study of decline. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

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