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Can't we turn down the sound on election fight?

December 02, 2000

Can't we turn down the sound on election fight?



Weary of it or not, the topic most people are talking about these days is the disputed U.S. presidential election.

What is striking about the talk is the hostile tone.

Everywhere I've been it seems people have staked a personal claim in the election controversy, and they're riled about it.

On one side are supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush who see Vice President Al Gore as a sore loser making frivolous legal challenges to Bush's victory. On the other side are Gore supporters who think Bush is trying to circumvent the recount process of which Gore is lawfully availing himself.

The ability of the new president to effectively govern is threatened by the bitterness of the rhetoric.

Moreover, it's been disheartening to see the usual assortment of professional loudmouths and political demagogues joined by good men with reputations for gravity and decorum. The trickle-down to the masses has set the stage for a collapse of civilized discourse that may be unrivaled in modern political theater.

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Who is to blame for this ugly shouting match?

The buck starts with the two men seeking the presidency.

Since Election Day, neither candidate has effectively acknowledged there is something larger at stake than his personal ambitions. While both men pay lip service to seeing the voters' will done, each has erected obstacles to a full and fair counting of all the votes.

More importantly, neither has seen fit to call in the dogs barking most loudly in his behalf.

Offering half-hearted claims of disassociation from people making reckless and inflammatory statements in their behalf - including accusations of attempted election theft - is hardly a presidential profile in courage.

Elements of the media also share responsibility for the state of affairs.

We in the news business live for the big story, and it doesn't get much bigger than this. But there is a troubling tendency on the part of some in the media to play the role of rabble-rouser.

The electronic media, especially, can be driven by the quest for almighty ratings to turn news into spectacle. Consequently, a potential constitutional crisis has become a source of entertainment for those among the masses who love nothing better than a good fight.

Several weeks before the election, I heard a couple of cable television pundits express hope that the close race might end in a controversy like the one that has developed. What a great story it would make, they said, if there was no clear winner.

The pundits got their story, and we've got one heck of a mess.

Stoking the flames of public ire may make for a good show, but it's awfully irresponsible when it undermines respect for our most hallowed institutions. Whoever emerges as the winner of the presidency is going to have to govern a lot of angry people.

We can't muzzle the pundits and the partisans. Silencing their views, however reckless or repugnant they may be, is a far graver assault on our democracy than even the crisis now unfolding.

But just because they have a right to huff and puff doesn't mean we can't tune the noisemakers out. Our ability to rationally discuss our differences would be better served with the volume turned down.

Dick Fleming is weekend editor at The Herald-Mail.

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