I asked three scholars in different fields to each write a letter addressed to leaders in politics, journalism, the media, entertainment, or any other public-facing field with their advice about one thing those leaders could do to improve their own profession, improve politics, or improve society. These are their brief answers.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He is the author of eight books, including David: The Divided Heart, which has been optioned for a movie by Warner Bros. His letter is addressed to newspaper editors. Samuel Abrams is a professor of politics and social science at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He addresses his letter to our country's politicians in Washington, DC. And Dr. Sally Satel, MD, works part-time in a methadone clinic in DC. She is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a visiting professor at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Her letter is addressed to the media.
From Rabbi David Wolpe
Dear Newspaper Editors,
Please make it a standard practice to force-feed your customers voices that radically oppose them. There should be a box in the New York Times reliably written by a fervent supporter of Trump and a box in the Wall Street Journal that comes from the progressive left. The absence of such voices is the strongest statement that you believe them to be illegitimate, not even worth hearing.
If you cannot offer your readers viewpoints that seriously challenge their presumptions, then we are not engaging in public debate but in prejudice reinforcement. The unwillingness to bring in other views does not speak to integrity but to fear. Some talk shows do this – Bill Maher is an example – and are all the stronger for it. Do not coddle us; do not protect us; don’t assume a diminished capacity to withstand strong opposing views.
In an age of increasingly siloed politics, throw the gate open to the barbarians of the other side. The derivation of the word, we recall, is that the Greeks thought non-Greek language sounded like ‘bar-bar.’ Which didn’t mean that other civilizations didn’t have something cogent to say.
From Prof. Samuel Abrams
In the forthcoming months, the United States will have more widely vaccinated its population; travel and being able to see and talk with others face to face should become the norm. Thus, after the socio-political mess of 2020 and the tragedy of January 6, I have to ask you to do something: Travel and leave your comfort zone. The United States has many wonderful shared views and ideas about what it means to be an American, but the nation is deeply diverse and if we are to move beyond the polarized, hostile rhetoric that traumatized and infected our discourse during the most recent election season, it is crucial that you meet as many Americans as you can and understand the lives and views of those who you do not regularly represent and see.
You need to help change the national narrative; to represent the messy middle and work against the narrowing of ideas and policy platforms. You are the elite; you help set the agenda, set the tone and tenor of discourse, and are supposed to represent the real ideals of society and the promise of politics. You have lost your way in the past few election cycles but I know that you can return to your roots. The nation and our democracy are better than what you helped create. You need to be a trusted set of institutions once again.
It is well documented that the media outlets are biased and speak to particular segments of society and that politics no longer caters to the median voter but responds to activist extremes with moderate and reasonable voters regularly scratching their heads wondering where their views are represented. Most Americans have to choose between two red and blue opposites that do not want to compromise and fail to represent the complicated, conflicted, real-life purple middle where trade-offs are necessary. Nothing in life is ever so simple as the extremes make it seem.
You can help lead the way to civility and a world where politics represents the positive potential of our country.
From Dr. Sally Satel
Please apply your general skepticism to areas outside of politics and social events. As someone who is interested in politicized science, I am dismayed by the narratives that many of you, though by no means all, take at face value, as if there are no contrasting or even dissenting views — as if it never occurs to you there is another “side” to some issues. I am routinely disappointed, too, that the complexities of the tradeoffs intrinsic to certain issues are skimmed over.
Take the opioid issue. One evergreen is that predatory drug companies caused the problem of prescription drug abuse. Yes, they played a role, but the enabling ecosystem was large and included drug distributors, the Drug Enforcement Administration, physicians, local barter rings, and the users themselves, drawn to drugs out of despair.
Take the vaping issue. The story is often about harm to teens, with little exploration of the fact that e-cigarettes have been a boon to smokers who could not quit any other way.
Editors should assign health stories to people who can read the scientific literature and who go deeper than the press releases about new papers sent out by universities.
Also, I see the same people quoted over and over again. Get a bigger Rolodex, for heaven's sake.