Quiet rhetoric


PRESIDENT CLINTON's plea to extremists to tone down the rhetoric in public discourse is being echoed with increasing frequency by those on both sides of the political fence.

For example, former President George Bush has dropped his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association to protest its references to federal agents as "jack-booted government thugs."

But, good advice, as an elderly friend often reminds me, "is not needed by the wise and won't be taken by fools."

It seems highly unlikely that even the wisest and best-intentioned advice to "tone down the rhetoric" will be heeded by those who love to stir up their followers or the general public. In fact, President Clinton's advice, which was targeted at talk show hosts who might have inflamed militia followers into bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, has already been interpreted as an attempt to silence opposition and as a threat to freedom of speech.

Some of those who regularly use inflammatory rhetoric know better. For example, Newt Gingrich, a brilliant politician and former college history professor, has labeled the Clinton White House staff as "McGoverniks." He, too, is prone to use such adjectives as "grotesque" and "stupid" to characterize opposing views. That is negative and inappropriate rhetoric.

Talk radio, the choice of many people for news and information, is a hotbed of inflammatory language spewed by callers and hosts. Many such hosts view themselves as entertainers, unleashed from the restrictions placed on real journalists. But while they may let objectivity go out the window, too many such hosts send good taste with it.

Rush Limbaugh has, on at least two occasions, made fun of Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's short stature, which was caused by a medical condition. That is tasteless, crude and negative rhetoric.

Others guilty of using inflammatory rhetoric are some television news commentary programs. Some of these shows follow the same format every week: a lone public official is forced into verbal combat with several journalists. The journalists' combativeness occasionally extends into subsequent round-table discussions which leave many viewers as agitated and polarized as the participants appear to be.

Some may say: "Why not just turn off the television?" For those of us who like to stay informed by reading newspapers and watching television, abandoning the media is not an option. Besides there are still some calm, measured voices of reason in our public discourse and it's a treat when we happen upon one on television. Their thoughts -- regardless of political persuasion -- often help us to clarify our own views on particular issues.

One of my favorite TV journalists is C-Span's Brian Lamb. He asks pointed questions, takes time to hear a response and is eager to have viewers call in to share their thoughts. There's no shouting on his program -- just quiet, informative discussions. He's a model for other journalists -- and public officials too.

Margie Ashe writes from Randallstown.

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