10/05/2011 06:19 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

Washington's Attack Culture: Does the Media Reflect it or Cause it?

In a Purple America panel discussion held recently in Washington, D.C., two leaders of the civility movement in the House of Representatives very clearly pointed the finger at the sources of the pressure that keeps Washington divided: their party leaders and the media.

Their party leaders pressure them to stay on their side of the aisle, said Representatives Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, and Tim Johnson, a Republican, while the media consistently overlook conciliatory dialogue.

In two separate debates on the House floor in which he and Republican Shelly Moore Capito laughed together and agreed on many points, Rep. Cleaver said they received zero media coverage. If that kind of agreement and behavior is typical of Congress, that's certainly not the picture the media is portraying to the American people. If it's as unusual today as the media would have us believe, then it ought to be news. So why wasn't it?

Several years ago, I asked a major daily newspaper publisher why he did not print more good news. "Stuart, we do," he said. "Don't you read the funnies?" Since then, I've heard TV media people joke about their motto, "If it bleeds, it leads." This would be comical if it the media were not so influential in American culture. 40 years ago, surveys on teenagers revealed that their number one influence was family, followed by friends, school and church. Today, church is no longer on the list, and most teens report that their number one influence is media.

I once read an article in the Chicago Sun-Times that said the real America is very different from the America you read about in newspapers or hear about on the evening news. The article went on to say that every day in America -- the most volunteer-centric country in the world -- people deliver meals on wheels, drive the elderly to their doctors' appointments, and take time out to volunteer to improve their communities. But you'd never guess that from watching the news.

One high school principal told me, "If we have 100 students doing random acts of kindness, we can't get anyone to cover the story. But if we have kids bringing guns to school or a teacher having sex with a student, all the papers and TV news cover the story."

Because of all the bad news and the dearth of good news about teens, community residents in every city in America have a negative view of teenagers, when the vast majority of them are not deserving of this distorted image. In fact, Generation Y, which was viewed in a similarly negative way, is already being hailed as quite possibly the "next greatest generation." That's just one example of how, like a fun-house mirror, a skewed news focus warps our reality, our sense of what's normal and acceptable, and even our national self-image.

So here we are, the American people, caught between a contentious Congress and a dirt-hungry media. How can we reclaim civility, decency and harmony when they are at best unnoticed or worse, ignored? We can vote politicians out of office, but what can we do about the media?

There is no question that media is a pillar of our democracy, and there are many negative stories that are worth covering. But as we debate our nation's future, we need the news media to ask the hard questions, not the sensational ones. Who are we? What do we stand for? How can we do better? Do our nation's laws and actions represent the values and aspirations of its people?

These questions, when addressed as part of a civil, national dialogue, have been asked throughout our history. They have helped us to thrive as a nation, end slavery, improve civil liberties, cultivate the American Dream and become the envy of the world. So instead of letting today's red-meat media take us for a haunted hayride, maybe we should consider Congressman Cleaver's suggestion that we "baptize the media" to "convert" them to a new and more meaningful way of covering news. (Imagine the White House press corps dipping in a baptismal pool. Now that would make news.)

What would news that reflected America's reality look like? For every negative story we saw or heard, there would be one or more positive stories. Instead of "fair and balanced reporting" consisting of two predictable, superficial opposing views, the talking heads would focus on points of agreement. Instead of debates and issues framed in terms of "who won?" and "who blinked?" or "who is most popular?" America's real values system would be the lens through which we evaluate our options.

Our nation has a long history of standing for values like freedom, equality, family and community. It's how we balance them that makes us uniquely American. That takes discussion, negotiation, and compromise. A media for the 21st century would lead the conversation, not the argument.

To find out more about America's values, go to