What Should Offend People in the Media

04/15/2007 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unfortunately, too many of the people who collectively make up the media in this American moment have not only forgotten how offensive it is to use racial and sexist slurs to insult private citizens on the air, but also how offensive it is when government officials abuse power and corrupt public institutions--how offensive it is when figures in the media routinely abrogate their responsibility to uphold a public trust and how offensive it is when the most powerful people in our political system perjure, undermine, and degrade the very public trust they have sworn to uphold.

In her appearance on Meet the Press Gwen Ifill made a strong case against her colleagues for their silence amidst the Imus scandal--silence in the face of what David Brooks had, just minutes before, characterized as a "culture of meanness" in America.

There is no question that Ifill's comment was eloquent and powerful. I do not want to undermine that. But I have absolutely no patience for Brooks' conclusion that--as a result of the Imus scandal--we should all ponder our complicity in a "culture of meanness." That idea strikes me as a monumental dodge of responsibility by people in the media--a way of trying to make ordinary American citizens somehow complicit in sins of commission and omission of the most powerful people in America.

What is at stake here is not, I would say, a "culture of meanness," but a media industry whose personnel have long since forgotten what is offensive and what is not. That--in addition to the important topics of racism and sexism in America--is the kind of corporate "culture" the Imus affair should lead all of us to lament and discuss.

Imus has been an active agent in the creation of that culture of media that no longer understands what is and is not offensive in our culture--a media that begs for the privilege of playing along with the powerful and then, in its spare time, uses its broadcast reach to attack and demean the accomplishments of private citizens or worse--of young Americans like the Rutgers women's basketball team whose only offense was acting as role models.

Instead of having a conversation about why the media no longer understand what is offensive in their behavior and what is not--a media that has spent an entire news cycle obsessing over whether it was right or wrong to fire a man whose entire career has been built on saying outrageous things and whose value as media talent depends on how much play his name gets day to day.

Imagine if that same media had spent the week wondering out loud as to why they can no longer distinguish between what is and is not offensive in American society.

So I'm glad Ifill gave the answers she did, and how she did it. There should be more media pundits who speak with the force Ifill showed today on Meet the Press. But god forbid Tim Russert would have followed up by asking something like, "Where should we in the media be directing our strong language?" At which point someone around that table could have said: "We should always direct it at people who abuse their power and corrupt public institutions, never at private citizens simply going about their business. Before we give America a lesson in civility, maybe we should remind ourselves of that basic lesson about our own professional responsibility--a lesson that we have long since forgotten."

(cross posted from Frameshop)