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Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles with former Capitol Hill reporter Art Schreiber

Schreiber: I’ll give you a story that the great Everett Dirksen told me. He was a Republican Senator from Illinois. I used to love, with several other reporters, to go to his office after work and get him to tell stories because he was a marvelous storyteller and he had, in my opinion, the greatest command of the English language of any politician I ever covered.

So I go to his office one afternoon and he used to say; “Well, what do you want to know now?” And I said, “Senator, why is it that the President, Lyndon Johnson, is having so much difficulty with Vietnam when he had such confidence and success as Majority Leader when he was in the Senate?”

He said, “Well, I’ll tell you. When Lyndon was the Majority Leader and I was the minority leader, he could have summoned me to his office any time he wanted.” He said, “My phone would ring and he’d say; ‘Ev, I’ve got a problem. I’m coming down.’” And he said, “I would pull out this left hand drawer,” and he had this huge desk in this huge office, pulled out a bottle of bourbon and two glasses and set it on his desk and he said, “Pretty soon, I’d hear a knock at that door back there and I’d yell ‘come in.’” Lyndon would get a big grin on his face and he’d walk up to the desk and he’s say, “Ev, when the bottle is empty, we’ll have a deal.”

Now I don’t tell that story because about the drinking. Yeah, they all enjoyed a few drinks, but the point is that they could make a deal. They didn’t have to drink, but they made a deal and Lyndon Johnson understood the other party. He used to always say to us when we’d talk to him about meeting someone or talking to someone or making a compromise, he would say; “I want to meet them face-to-face and we’ll talk it out.” That went on all the time in politics.

Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with former Maryland Congresswoman Connie Morella (R)

Morella: I represented a very competitive district and so I think that is a healthy thing because immediately it says; reach out to the other side, work together, this is what your constituency wants. Obviously many other members of the Congresses during which time I served felt the same way. We had many examples of spirited debate. We had partisanship, but we also knew that the way to accomplish something was through compromise; respect the differences and a belief that in order to get something done, you needed to have a strategy and a plan and that required both sides of the aisle. So I think that was a sense that members had more than they have now.

Ingles: So basically you’re talking about election reforms as the chief path towards some improvement. So you’re suggesting that because of the nature of elections these days, people are making it to Congress who are not interested in civil political debate, and compromise.

Morella: Right. “Compromise” continues to be a dirty word whereas it used to be the ultimate; this is how you got things done. Right now they’re just thinking about their next election. A two year election cycle is very short. I think it should be expanded on the House side. They’re looking at their primary voters. They know who they are. They appeal to them. Those voters are not saying reach out. They’re not saying look at compromise, look at what’s in the best interest of our great country. So there’s no attraction. They feel you can’t give in. You’ve got to stick with it. Well, then nothing gets done. It becomes a stalemate.

I would also say that another major problem is that members of Congress are going home on Thursday nights and coming back late Monday or Tuesday morning for votes. They’re not moving their families to Washington. They’re going back to their districts, so they have very little time to engage with their colleagues. I would say that they are strangers to each other. They don’t have opportunities to get together with their families or even with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

You can disagree, but you can be friends. A disagreement is healthy and if you can respect your colleague and if you know your colleague, you’ve got a good chance of respecting the colleague. Then you can work out the differences.

So I submit that more needs to be done to get members to know each other, to respect each other and then I think they’ll be able to work better together.

Ingles: What ideas would you have to make that happen?

Morella: I would say the leadership is important on both sides of the aisle. I think they could do a lot more than what they’re doing. Instead of thinking about the next election and how they can make the other party look bad, the American public I think would like the idea that they are looking towards working out solutions. They could have briefings that are bipartisan. They could have lunches and social engagements that are bipartisan where they show up. So therefore their members are going to show up. They could show by their own example the fact that working together is good.

So members of Congress are good people. Give them the opportunities and the appeal of learning who they are, respecting each other, and working together and I think you’ll find more of that happening.

Ingles: It’s hard to imagine though that a candidate running for election these days could win on a platform of compromise and bipartisanship.

Morella: They can work on the issues and they can demonstrate that they can be trusted by the voters, by the constituency to reflect their interests.

I think that the constituency can also learn. It’s a learning experience and if it’s done well, and if there is trust in the member of Congress, which I’ve always found is the most important thing. You can disagree, but if your constituents trust you then they’ll understand compromise and they’ll appreciate it and they will learn that this is the way they get something done; working in a strategic network.

Incidentally, the press has a role to play too. We now seem to have a balkanized media. For instance, if you think liberally very much to the left, you have your television stations, your radio stations, your newspapers and network news that you listen to that you’re a student of or a follower of. If you are on the right, you’ve got your TV, your radio, the news on your side. So you’ve got it balkanized; left or right.

In addition to that, you have this social media. Not only social media, but I guess web 2.0 where it’s hard to know what is valid and what is not valid. What is the credibility of some of the blogs, some of the things that go on the internet? Are they true or are they not? So this is another thing that I think has added to the lack of civility in Congress.

Ingles: Well it’s interesting because as human beings I think we’re drawn to what’s familiar and what’s comfortable and if we find ourselves able to only access the sides that make us feel familiar and comfortable, then we may never learn anything that can help us live in a world that has all kinds of people.

Morella: I agree with you. I couldn’t agree more.

You know what of the things I continue to think is important is to get the leadership of both parties to care about this, to know that this really will enhance the image of the parties and the minds of the people.

Ingles: What have you tried to do to do that?

Morella: I’ve been sending letters to members, discussing it with them, and even talking about a work schedule so that members will be in Washington for a period of time and then they get a week off to go home. Some of that is happening. So they could be here, be together and then go back to their districts.

Ingles: Well some of these folks are colleagues of yours from those years in Congress, and maybe friends too. Do they seem interested in it or are they throwing their hands up and saying it just can’t happen anymore?

Morella: Once you’re a member of Congress, when you leave, you still have it in your blood. You’re there because you love the institution.

Alexander Hamilton, there’s a big expression in the Congress about; “Here the people govern.” And so we care about public service.

We just had our annual meeting yesterday and had a number of discussions about the civility project and what more can be done because we care about the institution. I don’t know what more we can do. I hope it changes, but they all care about it. They’re not totally giving up with that.

Ingles: Given what you just said, to see trust in Congress dip to 10% must be emotionally excruciating for you.

Morella: Yes it is and I’m very sorry to see that happen. I always talk to people about what Congress is all about; serving the people. It’s still the best institution we have and all of us have a role to play.

People have a role to play also. The solution I think begins with voters sending to Washington more pragmatic result-oriented members who are willing to compromise to get things done.


Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan (D)

Ingles: What’s your theory about what’s ramped up the incivility in political discourse so much?

Ryan: I think it’s a lot of different things. I think it’s a lot of the economic anxiety that’s out there. I think it always gets pushed on the backburner and we try to blame some other things, but I really do think there’s a general angst in the country of how are we going to make ends meet as a family or as a small business and that anxiety filters out into the public debate and people are looking for reasons to blame or people to blame for that; the level of inequality, the food insecurity, the energy costs, the health care costs or whatever the case may be.

And so I think a lot of times that income inequality is driving a lot of this and then media on top of it that really preys off of that stress and distress and really wedges you into one camp or the other and that kind of evolution over the past few years has really poisoned the political debate.

And then there’s also the issue of the redistricting process that we have in America where districts have become either really, really red or really, really blue and so not many members of Congress have to come down to Washington, D.C. from wherever they’re from in the country and actually look to make compromise. They are more concerned about protecting either their left flank or their right flank in a primary election as opposed to having a general election where they need to appeal to a broader audience and I think that’s hurt it.

Then the gasoline on the fire is; in the last year or so has been Citizens United. So you take the economic anxiety and stress and the cost of just living today in America with the redistricting issues, with the media and with the money in the campaigns and you have a perfect storm of really poisonous political discourse.

Ingles: Isn’t compromise and negotiating across aisle taken now as a sign of weakness in this political climate that often becomes a negative campaign ad during a campaign?

Ryan: Yeah, I think it is and I think it’s because the district that people are representing is so very conservative or very liberal and so your base voters have the most power to either elect your or un-elect you and they’re the same people for example, if you’re coming out of a really hard republican district, you come down and call Barrack Obama un-American, socialist, fascist, whatever the case may be, he’s not born in America, I want to see his birth certificate and all of these things, and then all of a sudden Barack Obama has a deal that he’s worked out with Speaker Boehner on, say for example, taxes, that person then can’t be seen as voting with President Obama because he just got done saying he’s an illegitimate President.

So how are you going to go back to your base voters and say hey, well, I had to do what was in the best interest of the country. It becomes very, very difficult to go back to those folks after you’ve demonized each other and that’s why I think we really just need to tone down the rhetoric a little bit so that there’s room for solving some of these problems.

Ingles: Would term limits help any?

Ryan: No. I actually think term limits would make things worse because you would have a bunch of people running around who wouldn’t know what they were doing because it’s so big of an operation just to figure things out. I do think the answer really is redistricting reform providing more balanced districts that are closer to 55/45 than they are 65/35 and that would allow for someone to have to reach across the aisle and have to build some consensus and I think I’m just fundamentally against term limits too because I think if I, as a citizen, like my Congressperson and I want to be able to vote for them and you say that person can’t run anymore, then you’re really disenfranchising me. So I’m fundamentally against that, but I think the core of this issue is the redistricting.

Ingles: How do you make headway on the redistricting issue?

Ryan: Well, we’re doing it in Ohio now. There’s a group that’s putting it on the ballot for what happened in California where you have a citizens board that will redraw the Congressional districts based on having to be contiguous and having to be community based and some other media markets, those kinds of things that really would allow a more balanced approach and having citizens involved so if the Republicans are in charge, they’re not gerrymandering and if the Democrats are in charge, they not gerrymandering and actually have citizens who are saying; this looks like a district that really culturally and through their media markets and the way that the city and the country have grown, this is really a district that makes sense and it may be closer to 50/50 than 60/40 or 70/30 and I think that can end up being very helpful, so we’re passing a constitutional amendment in Ohio to do that and that can be very, very helpful and other states I think need to do that as well.

There’s an opportunity and a momentum gathering around the country and I see it when I’m on the book tour or when I go to different events around the country in the mindfulness community, in the yoga community, of people who are really wanting to get more involved and bring a more peaceful, I think, approach to the public discourse and recognize that they are not going to agree with their Congressmen or anybody 100% of the time and so I’m really hopeful because I’ve been meeting people who are really excited about how we could possibly shift the dialogue in the country to a more sane dialogue and doing that by pushing out things like mindfulness and things like yoga and these things that really ground people and balance their nervous systems and calm their amygdala’s and allow them to be human beings who can have disagreements without having like a lot of personal venom involved in the whole thing.

So I’m hopeful that that is a country that’s not too, too far away and I get a lot of inspiration from the people who are out there trying to now get involved in the system to bring about that change and I think that’s really, really exciting.

Again, I see the marines are implementing mindfulness. We’ve got the corporations that are doing it. We see that the science is really starting to come online in a big way and so the case is being built for us really to move this stuff into these institutions and I think as we do that, we can reconnect with those basic American values of self-reliance and frugality and being a true conservative in the sense of not wasting our resources and really shifting the way our neighborhoods look and our downtowns look and our transportation systems look and what kind of energy use we have.

I think this can all change if this motivated group of people get involved in the political process and I see they are and I want to be a part of that.

Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Western Washington University communications professor
Michael Karlberg and Hakim Bellamy, communications director for the Media Literacy Project

Karlberg: The media system in this country is unique in the Western world in that we’ve handed the entire system over to for-profit ventures who raise most of their money through advertisements which means the actual business model is manufacturing audiences and selling them to advertisers. Within that business model, the necessity, the imperative financially is to try and manufacture the largest and most affluent audiences possible for the minimal cost.

In entertainment, we see the trends towards say reality TV and so forth which reflect this basically sort of minimal cost/maximum audience model which is a form of cheap spectacle.

In journalism unfortunately, it’s suffering from the same sort of imperatives, not because journalists don’t want to do excellent journalism, but because the media, as a business, sort of presses us in that direction.

For instance, television; most television journalism has sort of degenerated into just sort of pundits debating from the left and the right which creates another form of cheap spectacle. But even in a lot of the reporting that’s happening then, for instance around the election season it replicates this model. It’s not critical, investigative journalism helping audiences actually understand the facts of the world we live in. It’s more putting microphones in front of politicians or their spokes people in order to construct, again, a cheap spectacle.

Ingles: Hakim?

Bellamy: What’s good business and what’s good governance? There’s a difference even though it seems like the way it plays out and in current sphere that there’s not a difference. That government is about somehow minimizing, like Michael said, resources to maximize output or labor and that shouldn’t necessarily, in our opinion, be the form of government. Yet what happens is, is the government starts to move more and more into a business-like sphere. And media is a business. It starts to move into this media sphere and it starts to take on those attributes of a well-run business versus the attributes of a well-run government.

So what we talk about and see a lot in media criticism and media theory is this idea of media as the fourth branch of government which is an interesting construct, but it creates somewhat of a chicken and egg scenario as though media is responding to our need as a people that have governments as a vehicle for government and I think it’s the other way around. I think it’s actually the buying of government or the takeover of government through this kind of corporate media construct.

So I just wanted to put that out there as an idea because when we start to look at what makes for business and good government, we generally start to see two totally different things and even in a current conversation around government that’s happening with the general election, you hear a lot of this rhetoric about what’s good business, what’s good business, what’s good business and we just assume, as a corporate culture, as a capitalist culture, we assume that that’s what’s good for our country and good for democracy and it’s sometimes just not so.

Ingles: I guess the media would defend their approach by saying; it works. People are watching. They enjoy it. Let’s talk a little bit about why people are drawn to it.

Karlberg: Sure. So if we think about the main ingredients of the kind of cheap spectacle I’m talking about, it’s basically conflict, drama and violence. It’s the equivalent of sugar, salt and fat in junk food. So what we have today is a sort of junk food media and of course it appeals to some real appetites that human beings have the same way that sugar, salt and fat appeals to appetites we developed in millions of years of evolution and it served us well up to a point.

Our attentiveness to violence and conflicts also serve us very well in an evolutionary context, but they don’t serve us well today in a complex, modern, interdependent world where governance actually requires a lot of intelligence and sophisticated ability to think about issues that are complex and multi-faceted. So reducing those issues down to simple oppositional binaries doesn’t serve the public. It doesn’t serve the processes of governance.

Ingles: Well and you mentioned, quoting from your article; “Partisan politics is founded on the assumption that human nature is fundamentally self-interested and competitive.” It’s very easy to see how the media that both of you have described targets that, but evolutionary scholars would also debate whether that’s a complete, correct assumption - pointing out that much of our evolution shows cooperation as another aspect of human nature.

Karlberg: Absolutely. This is a sort of deep, underlying issue. Our political system and our media system are basically founded on these sort of caricatured models of human nature, that we’re just selfish and aggressive animals and all the human sciences now are beginning to demonstrate that that’s not the case. As you said, we’re wired for; competition and cooperation, for egoism and altruism. And which of these potentials is more fully expressed is actually a function, in large part, of our social environment which includes our media environment and our political system.

So we’ve constructed political and media systems based on this sort of one-dimensional view of human nature. The result is that they actually further foster and cultivate our aggressive and competitive sides and set up a sort of negative feedback loop where that’s more and more what we hear and see and so that’s increasingly sort of what we expect and those aspects of our nature become more and more normalized, especially in the public sphere.

Ingles: Let’s look at solutions here and Hakim from Media Literacy’s standpoint, I know media literacy is not just for young people, but there’s a sharp focus on trying to get this kind of thinking into schools to allow for some critical analysis. If you’re addressing a group of high school students about being wiser via media consumers, elaborate a little bit more on what are the cautionary tales. What are you asking them to understand about a world where there’s a Fox News that leans to the right and MSNBC that leans to the left and radio talk shows that are far right, far left. How do you help them understand and what tools of thinking do you offer?

Bellamy: Absolutely. We want young people especially to do kind of the age old posture of youth and it’s to question authority. We don’t want them to disrespect authority of course, but we do want them to say when they’re being told things from any kind of media outlet that you should always do your research and do your homework. And they have more tools than ever at their disposal in order to, really, if they want to, receive diversity and multiplicity of perspectives.

So a lot of times, our mechanism for engaging young people is basically showing them all the tools that they have access to and usually that interest right there will do the rest. Especially when we can walk into a classroom and ask them all to pull out their iPhones and they immediately think that it’s a school; they’re going to tell us to shut them off, and we’re like no, we actually want you to play with them here because we want you to find out ways to develop your own skills of digging.

So essentially we’re trying to turn most media consumers into their own newsrooms, their own reporters, investigative reporters and really kind of engage them in this idea of creating media and that was something Michael alluded to earlier. When they see things missing in the media, things that don’t represent them and they can’t find them anywhere at that point, it’s like well, are you going to fill the void?

I think that’s where we get a lot of engagement as far as our approach to media literacy education is through the creation part and once we start showing them that they too can create messages which is part of the education process, once we show them that they can create messages, they understand that all these other messages are just created by people as well.

Ingles: Also, isn’t another key question asking them to ask the question; is there a bias?

Bellamy: Absolutely. Rather than saying; what is this candidate saying in 30 seconds, what are they not saying? There’s a whole lot you can not say in 30 seconds if you’re talking about something as complex as immigration policy. There’s not a lot of educating you can really do in a short news piece or campaign piece. So we first get them engaged in that.

And then of course, yes, we start talking about the techniques of persuasion. That kind of becomes our roadmap for saying; this is what you can use and it’s also what can be used on you by media professionals whether they are managing a campaign or selling a product. These are the techniques and they vary in sophistication and what can you pull out? What can you start to see?

We develop a whole, to use a war metaphor, we develop a whole battalion, a whole army of conscientious media consumer who are then never watching TV in the same way again because they’re watching commercials and they’re like; oh look, they’re doing that. Oh look, they’re doing that. But it really creates an exercise that becomes a practice that becomes a habit. In that regard, we think that we’re creating more informed voters.

Ingles: Well Michael, I asked you at the start, my goal to reflect on whether things have gotten any better. Let me ask you; do you see any sign of hope?

Karlberg: Oh definitely. I think the media justice movement or the media environment movement is really one of the, I think a major movement of the 21st century. You can see early signs of it already. There’s a lot of outstanding work being done around media literacy, media reform, media justice, independent media production, media policy advocacy.

And there’s a growing awareness among educators as well who, even though it’s not mandated in their curricular requirements, they’re often finding creative ways to incorporate it into their teaching.

So I think there’s a lot to be hopeful for in the long-run. In the short-run I think we’re passing through some really difficult times and we need to recognize what’s at stake and the importance of rolling up our sleeves and working towards some rather profound structural changes.


Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Julie Winokur, creator/producer of "Bring it To The Table"

Winokur: My name is Julie Winokur and I’m executive director of Talking Eyes Media which is a non-profit media company that focuses on social justice issues. I’m also the producer and director of Bring it to the Table which a documentary project and web platform that is aiming to break down the political divide.

Ingles: Julie, what were you observing about our political discourse that made you want to take some steps to address the issue yourself?

Winokur: Well, we definitely live in a very divisive political climate and actually the genesis of taking on the subject was far more personal for me rather than a professional pursuit. I have a 17 year old son and one evening at our kitchen table he said to me; “Mom, you are the most intolerant person I’ve ever met.” And I said; “Are you out of your mind? What do you mean? Me intolerant? That’s impossible.” And he said; “Well, when you don’t agree with somebody’s political point of view, you just don’t even listen. You just dismiss it.”

When he said that to me, it really smarted. It did not feel good because I see myself as somebody who is very tolerant and I’m a documentary filmmaker, I’m an inquisitive person, always exploring and trying to empathize with other people’s points of view and when he said that to me, I realized he probably was right; that I was not listening to people whose politics I didn’t agree with.

So I thought; if I’m part of the problem, then most of us are probably part of the problem in a way that we don’t even recognize, we don’t self-identify.

So I just thought; I’d love an opportunity to go sit in other people’s homes and sit at their kitchen tables and hear what they have to say about their political points of view. That’s quite challenging. It’s not so easy to get entry into other people’s homes and have them speak openly. I thought; you know what? I’m going to bring my table to them. Instead of having them come to me, I am going to go out and I’m going to invite people to sit down and talk to me.

Ingles: So tell us about what you’ve developed - Bring it to the Table.

Winokur: So Bring it to the Table, I’m actually taking a small café table across the country and inviting people to sit down at my table and talk about their political beliefs and the roots of their beliefs. I conduct these conversations on camera so that we can then bring them back into our office and edit them together into some sort of a real sampling and a pulse of what Americans are thinking and talking about and the perspectives that they’re approaching their political points of view.

So we’ve already traveled with the table to the New York Tri-State area which is where I’m based. We’ve taken it down South to Virginia and North Carolina and we’ll be continuing touring through the Presidential election and hopefully beyond.

At these “table talks,” as I like to call them, they’re a chance for somebody to actually sit and speak without feeling confronted, without feeling defensive about what they believe. It’s really intended to be a safe platform where I ask questions and I listen to what it is that somebody identifies as the issues that are most important to them.

And then I try to probe into that; where does that belief come from? What’s happened to you in your life that you’ve witnessed such an experience that might inform your political beliefs?

Ingles: Why is that an important question do you think?

Winokur: Well ultimately people vote based on their beliefs. They absolutely identify with a point of view that fits into their entire world order in a way that they are making sense of their world and so we know, and there’s a lot of research out there that shows that people are not voting based on facts and they dismiss facts that disagree with what they believe. There’s a real issue of cognitive dissonance if somebody hears a negative fact relative to something they hold in positive light.

So that means that we have these entrenched beliefs that are informing how we conduct ourselves politically and that part of the biggest problem we’re facing in America today is the echo-chamber we’re creating by surrounding ourselves only with people whose point of view we agree with and only listening to the news sources that will affirm what we already believe.

So there’s no question that most of us are not examining – the judgments we’re passing on the political discourse right now. So case in point is that I have certain political beliefs, so if somebody on the other side of the aisle comes up with a good idea, I wouldn’t be able to hear it because I’m so predisposed to shut that voice out.

A lot of the attempt of my project is to get people to listen. Listening is something we’re terrible at, at this point.

Ingles: So let’s talk a little bit more then about how you see this helping because when your guests bring it to the table, it sounds like no one is asked to examine what they’re saying, they’re just invited to talk calmly and freely and openly about their point of view. How will all this help?

Winokur: Well, I think that on one level, anybody who participates in the project, I think it’s actually a pretty cathartic experience when they get to sit down and they are asked, in company with a strange in essence, to express themselves and what they believe. It’s not done in a way that there’s – it’s not a charged situation, so they’re not having to defend and they’re not having to prove to me what they believe. So I think for anybody who actually sits at the table or witnesses the table, there is something about it that’s actually very sober and very civilized because it’s this moment of saying; here is what I believe and then trying to peel back some layers about why they believe that, what has informed that and then invariably within our conversation, one of the questions I’ll ask is what, in your beliefs, crosses over to the other side? I would say that 99% of the people who sit at the table have something in their belief system that is contradictory to the political identity that they align with.

So a lot of the process of the conversation is about revealing that we have very nuanced, but also conflicted beliefs and that more often than not, we’re not being adequately represented by the politicians that we’re elected into office because the platforms are not allowing for that kind of nuance or contradiction.

So I think on the one level it’s helping in the sense of, anybody who does partake in the project, I think it’s a very healthy process and a moment of self-examination.

The other piece of it is then the webisodes that we’re putting together is this amalgam of voices so that we can begin to have portraits of Americans speaking on topics in a more nuanced way and being able to be paired up with people who might be across the country or just across town, who have a different point of view, perhaps a more complicated point of view than you would realize if you just looked at them and sized them up and assumed certain stereotypes.

So there was the real-time experience at the table, but then there’s also the online experience at the table which would be being able to watch these videos and then on the next layer to weigh in on what’s being said at the table through social media because we’ll be incorporating Facebook and Twitter as the platforms we use to have the conversation ongoing based on the questions at the table.