Turning down the volume to hear the nuance

Posted on November 10, 2010 by Janet Coats

My 14-year-old son Sam is a huge fan of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

He records "The Daily Show'' and "The Colbert Report'' on the DVR and watches them after school. He has the Colbert app on his iPhone, which allows him to follow Stephen's tweets each day. On election night, he convinced me to let him stay up late to watch the shows live.

Sam is a pretty sophisticated consumer of news, and he knows that lots of what he hears on these shows is played for fun. He's the son of a newspaper editor, after all; I first realized he knew how to read when he was 3 and in my office on a Saturday. He started reading a story about Elian Gonzalez off my computer screen.

And he's always been interested in politics. What Stewart and Colbert have brought to him is just the right mix of political discourse with a smart-alecky sense of humor that appeals to his teenage love of snarkiness.

His interest in these shows has caused him to begin talking with me more about political issues, and that has led to much more nuanced conversations about the political process, discernment and critical thinking about  different viewpoints, and what my values are as a citizen: civil dialogue, passionate but respectful debate, a desire to find the common ground and reach consensus on ways to serve the greater public good.

It was Sam's interest in Stewart and Colbert that led me to be on the National Mall on Oct. 30 when Stewart and Colbert held their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. My husband and I were in Washington for the Online News Association conference, and we decided to walk down to the mall to try to buy Sam a T-shirt from the event.

But once there -- along with 250,000 other people -- we were trapped. There was no getting off the mall. And so we stayed.

Much has been made about this event -- was it entertainment, was it politics, was it some kind of hybrid of the two that blended those aspects into something different, potentially something more? What made the biggest impression on me was what the event, and the coverage of it, said about the state of media.

In a blog I write with my husband, I said that one thing Stewart said really resonated with me: “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.’’

I wrote: "This is the point some of us have been trying to make for years but it has never been more important to articulate than it is right now. The idea of amplifying conflict, of sounding the alarm over and over and over again about things that are either so unlikely as to be absurd or so insignificant as to be ridiculous, is part of the reason journalism credibility dwells alongside that of car salesmen.

"Like the boy who cried wolf, we wear out our welcome. We make it impossible to discern when we’re just prattling for attention and when we’re saying something important.

"We make everybody – including ourselves – exhausted and cranky. Exhausted, cranky people are not exactly the preferred prototype for a society based on discernment and self-governance."

In the 10 days since the event on the Mall, we've had a mid-term election and with it, all of the analysis and talking heads and just plain noise that come with our elections now. And I've thought over and over again about Stewart's words: "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.''

The challenge for all of us -- as creators, consumers and participants in the news -- is trying to figure out how to maintain some degree of volume control, to shift through the trivial and find the important. Just as Sam and I have found a path to a nuanced conversation about citizenship and democracy through the political satire of a couple of comedians.

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