Criticism of both social and traditional media was a theme that ran throughout the National Issues Forum on “A House Divided” held at the Oconee County Library last Saturday.
Discussion leader Margaret Holt brought up the media even before turning to the first of the three discussion topics, which focused on “dangerous, toxic talk” in the media and elsewhere.
Holt returned to the media at the end of the 99-minute session, asking participants what they would hope any journalists present “would tell the people of the county who weren’t here happened in this forum?”
“I would hope they would paint the picture of what the work of civic engagement looks like,” Jonathan Wallace, one of the discussion moderators and former Georgia House District 119 representative, said. “I think that is what we are engaged in here.”
No professional journalists were present to take up Holt’s challenge.
The local session of the National Issues Forum was sponsored by the Oconee Progressives.
The group also is joining with the congregants of Browns Chapel Baptist Church outside Bishop for an hour-long event called “Long History, New Friends” at 4 p.m. on March 23.
The two groups are inviting everyone in the community to get to know each other through an exercise that involves conversational pairings and discussion of nonpolitical topics.
National Issues Forum
The National Issues Forum is a non-partisan, nationwide network of civic, educational, and other organizations and individuals interested in promoting public deliberation.
|National Issues Forum At Oconee Library 3/9/2019|
Holt told the group that the Oconee County session, officially titled “A House Divided: What Would We Have to Give Up to Get the Political System We Want?” was one of nine scheduled for March around the country.
Holt, a retired University of Georgia Adult Education professor who is active with Oconee Progressives, also moderated a National Issues Forum in Oconee County on immigration a year ago.
The Oconee Progressives formed in 2017 and has community building as one of its central goals.
It also was the sponsor of the National Issues Forum on immigration.
The 12 persons who joined the group at 3 p.m. on March 9 at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville formed a semi-circle. At least two others joined the discussion shortly after it began.
Holt told those assembled that the National Issues Forum is “rooted in the simple notion that people need to come together to reason and talk and to deliberate about common problems, which seems logical enough and seems incredibly difficult for people to be doing in our country right now.”
One of the ground rules, Holt said, is that “It’s as important during the deliberation to listen as it is to talk. Listening is very important. It is also important that no one be silenced. But it is okay to be silent. I’d like to make that distinction.”
The deliberations were to center around three topics, spelled out in a video shown at the beginning of the meeting and available as a trailer HERE.
The topics and background information also is provided in a downloadable document, which Holt referenced as she began the discussion. Participants received a shortened version at the session.
The first topic, presented as an option on that sheet and by the three moderators at the March 9 gathering in the library, was “Reduce dangerous, toxic talk.”
“The problem is that the way we talk is poisoning public life. The ‘outrage industry’ rewards people for saying and doing the most extreme things,” the support document stated.
The second topic, or option, was “Make fairer rules for politics and follow them.”
“The problem is that wealthy, powerful special interests game the political system, making it impossible to find compromise,” according to the document.
The third topic, or option, was “Take control and make decisions closer to home.”
“The problem is that our most important decisions are being made too far away from home,” the document asserted.
Before turning to those three topics, Holt asked the participants if they felt people in Oconee County are concerned about the divisions in the country.
“I think that people have really lost the kind of ingrained ability to listen to people from other sides,” one of the participants said. “Things have gotten very tribal.”
“Right now, the whole country, and our county included, seems to be hung up on whether you’re a D or an R,” another participant said. “It is no longer about serving the people. It is no longer about doing what's best for people. Its about supporting if you are a D or an R.”
Holt then asked if “you see evidence of a house divided in local (news) stories?”
“I think the media today is trying to be so balanced, trying to give all sides of the story,” Deborah Gonzalez, former Georgia House District 117 representative, said.
“It doesn’t really do justice to the people,” Gonzalez added, “because there are some stories that do not have two sides. The truth is the truth. There is no other side to the truth.”
Participants criticized the weekly The Oconee Enterprise for its selection of columns and letters to the editor, saying they reflected this kind of balancing.
The Athens Banner-Herald covers Oconee County news only irregularly, and the weekly The Oconee Leader mostly includes sports and features.
Rosy Tucker was moderator for Option 1, and she asked the participants if they feel there is need for regulation of the media to address the problem of “dangerous, toxic talk.”
“I have really strong feelings about what is going on in the media right now,” one of the participants said, “but regulation is not the word that comes to my mind.”
“We have a long history in America of putting up a wide variety of opinions in newspapers and magazines and things like that,” another participant said.
“I think attempting to regulate it is a horrible idea really,” the participant added, “because that kind of goes against the grain of America, that people have a right to say what they want, good or bad. Usually, if it is bad enough, people see that it is.”
“I do feel that something should be regulated like hateful rhetoric or calling for the harming of somebody else for their beliefs or ideas,” another of those at the forum said.
Subsequently, that same participate said “It does seem like the media is being used to shift policy in ways that many of us are not even aware of.”
Wallace introduced the second option or topic by asking participants what “fairer rules for politics” meant to them.
“There are groups that are powerful that are influencing our politicians,” one of those at the forum said. “I always feel like my voice...does not matter because those groups are powerful.”
“It seems like, and this is just my perception,” one of those at the gathering said, “that politicians are able to redraw districts to create the outcomes that they want and that seems really unfair.”
Another participant returned to the media.
“Social media is not all bad,” she said. “Social media is good because it has given everyday people a platform. It has a lot of positive aspects about it. There are also some drawbacks as well.”
Fabiana Hayden introduced the third topic, making decisions “closer to home.”
The participants struggled with the implications of local versus national standards.
I think that the whole reason why the EPA exists to begin with is because it was pretty clear that there was effort that was piecemeal,” one of those present said, referring to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“If there’s no regulation in place, what are we going to leave our kids?” she asked.
“We are one country,” another of the discussants said. “As one country, there are certain things we need to take care of for everybody. There are things that you have to be taking care at a much more local level. The environment doesn’t respect states’ boundaries.”
“I agree that we do need certain national standards,” another of the participants said, mentioning the EPA and the Interstate system as examples.
“But there are so many intrusions in our lives,” she said, “and that they keep getting more and bigger and bigger and, it really isn’t anything that’s for our benefit.
“It’s for somebody making a bunch of money, and I think that we are becoming victims of that whole ‘nanny state--we know what’s good for you, we know what you should be doing in your home, we know what is best for us.’”
Holt brought the discussion to a close by offering some summary comments and questions, including the one about what journalists should have taken away from the discussion.
“As a working mom, I am either working or doing family stuff,” one of those present said on reflection on the afternoon.
“I am not having conversations with people about these issues very often. This is the basis of civic engagement because I definitely will walk out of this room with some ideas that I had not considered.”
“I would like for a reporter to say and acknowledge that the work of civic engagement involves listening and it has to be intentional,” she said. “You have to decide to come.”
“We can agree or agree to disagree in a peaceful way,” another woman said.
Browns Chapel Event
Pat Priest, one of the organizers of the Brown Chapel event on March 23, said I an email message on March 1 that the goal it allow to people “to get to know others in the area in a fun way."
Priest and the Progressives held a similar event last January.
“Attendees and church members will move in turn to new conversational pairings in response to a series of prompts given over a sound system,” Priest said.
Sample questions include “What are some values your parents tried to instill in you--by example or perhaps by repeating a common phrase?” or “If you had one day to live over, which one would you choose?”
The structured portion of the event will last just one hour, but participants can stay afterward to talk to new and old friends, Priest said in her announcement. Light refreshments will be served.
Browns Chapel, 1030 Brown Chapel Road, with strong hisstorical ties to the county’s African-American population, is 121 years old. Reverend J. Ricardo Smith is the church’s 16th pastor, according to Priest’s news release.
Teens are encouraged to attend the event.
I was not able to attend the National Issues Forum at the Library on March 9, but Becky Moore did attend and agreed to set up the camera and record the session for me.
The video below is of that session.