Making sure news rhetoric is not ‘out of whack’

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I was casting about vainly for a powerful and appropriate lead to a column about perspective and police-community relations, when what should fall out of cyberspace but, from rock-and-roll reactionary Ted Nugent, the perfect object lesson. Interviewed by a rival publication, Nugent was asked his opinion about the subject, and gave this answer:

“The rhetoric is way out of whack. Ninety-plus percent of police/community relations is simply wonderful — where people obey the law, don’t resist arrest, don’t attack cops and don’t threaten lives, everyone gets along just fine. When the president constantly sides with the worst thugs out there and with the Black Lives Matter terrorists, and the media lies constantly, we the people better get to the truth ASAP.”

Oh, how half-true. And dangerously so.

Nugent could not be more right that we can easily lose perspective if we concentrate solely on the news events about outrageous rarities without remembering the vastly overwhelming body of normal events that are not outrageous. Occasionally, indeed, the rhetoric surrounding such events is “way out of whack.” So, then, how do we put it back in whack? By declaring that the media “lies” “constantly” and the president “constantly” sides with the “worst thugs out there” and with “terrorists” of Black Lives Matter?

Nugent, of course, is Nugent, and if you know anything about him, you know hyperbole is his stock in trade. But his hyperbole in this case perfectly illustrates the tenor of so much political and social discourse. We describe our own view of objective reality in rational, nonjudgmental terms, then overlay it with judgmental oversimplifications that demonize our adversaries and, sometimes, as in this case, exemplify the very behavior we are claiming to condemn.

That behavior is bad enough by thwarting effective discussion. It becomes even worse as it influences susceptible individuals to pursue heroism through escalating acts of violence against the perceived demons, tyrants, oppressors or evil doers.

Simply by its existence, even the most responsible newspaper coverage of sensational events — not to mention that of the most irresponsible broadcast or social media coverage — can and often does distort the influence or prominence of such events. At the Daily Herald, we strive to remain constantly aware of this, and we take it into account when we present sensational stories or stories that reflect issues dominating the public consciousness at any given time. But it’s important to remember that almost by definition, certain occurrences are news precisely because they are “out of whack.” People do not need to read about the ordinary; they know that. It’s the extraordinary that commands attention.

Sometimes it commands attention simply because it’s interesting or entertaining, sometimes because it’s important or indicative of a larger problem. Whatever the case, it’s incumbent not just on us to provide perspective but on readers and viewers as well. “Getting to the truth ASAP,” any serious citizen quickly finds, involves much more than dramatic images and dismissive insults.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.