End of civility?
Published August 18, 2004

There has been a deluge of recent press coverage of various verbal slipups by figures either political or at least famous. From Dick Cheney to Theresa Heinz, people in the news are finding it hard to hold their tongues. The media is gobbling up this new free speech, while the rest of us are just left cringing. Is this the death of civility, or are we just trampling on its long-cold grave?

The first one to hit the news was Vice President Dick Cheney, who told Vermont Senator Pat Leahy to “go **** himself,” or something to that effect, while the two met on the floor of the Senate chamber. Considering that shots—gunshots, that is, not verbal bullets—have nearly been fired by irate Senators in that same hallowed hall, this is hardly an escalation of hostilities, but it seems somewhat hypocritical coming from the number two man of the Bush Administration, which has made a goal of reducing profanity, sex and violence in the media.

Do I use the same word the Vice President tried out on his Senatorial colleague? Sure, but I also have no problem with the prurient content of television these days. What bothers me is the sheer stupidity of most of the shows out there, but the FCC has so far made no moves to stop that particular trend.

The VP’s supporters charged the bulwarks of growing outrage on the other side of the spectrum and managed to nip the backlash in the bud. Their main argument—and Cheney’s—was that Leahy deserved it. Not exactly an apology, but close enough for government work these days.

The media seemed much more upset when possible future First Lady and billionaire heiress Theresa Heinz told a reporter to “shove it.” There was little doubt about what she had in mind, despite protestations from the Kerry campaign claiming that she’d misspoken. Her target, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Colin McNickle, quite naturally took umbrage.

Considering the attacks on Heinz and Kerry in the Tribune-Review, we might excuse Theresa her slip, though we’d not want to encourage it. There are probably hundreds of public figures from rock stars to presidents who wish they could say something similar to the press on a regular basis. President Bush called a New York Times reporter an a-hole during the 2000 campaign, though admittedly not to the reporter’s face. To the reporters: this is the price you sometimes pay for asking tough questions; to the reportees: this is the price you pay for being famous.

Then we come to that most public of public figures, beloved and hated by millions, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold is bigger than life, and he attracts bigger-then-normal controversy. His most recent gaffe was a joking reference to the state legislature as a bunch of “girly-men.” This is not, perhaps, the best way to win over a person’s vote, especially the women in the legislature, who were justifiably upset that their performance seemed a negative reference point for their male counterparts.

Of course, Arnold was referencing the Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Hanz und Franz, the two bodybuilders who continually threatened to “pump . . . you up!” This may have been too subtle a distinction for some, but Schwarzenegger should think more with his brain and less with his brawn on occasion and remember that he’s the governor of the biggest economy in the United States, an economy that happens to be in the dumps at the moment.

So, what conclusion can we draw from the snafus and badinage on display here? Nothing new, I suspect. The more ubiquitous the press gets, the more non-stories like these will be elevated to headline news—or to Headline News. When you run a 24 hour news station that competes with half a dozen others of the same breed, you need something to keep things interesting, or at least to fill in all that dead air space.

Some might argue that CNN and Fox News and MSNBC might spend their time more actively pursuing real news rather than stories like these. In fact, I think I’d include myself in that group. When you’re in front of reporters all the time, you’re bound to make some mistakes. Isn’t there a war going on somewhere?