Bob Garfield’s career contains multitudes.
He’s written books, he hosts public radio’s “On the Media,” he’s been an advertising critic (disclosure: I worked with him at Ad Age), he’s a playwright and now he’s written a manifesto: “American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves.” (now in paperback!) When he thinks What the Future, he’s looking to get people re-engaged with democracy.
Matt Carmichael: Your manifesto came out in early 2020. Do you feel more or less hopeful than you did when you wrote this?
Bob Garfield: Well, we’re having this conversation either two weeks after Trump lost the presidency or the same day depending on when you consider the matter settled. In the sense that a depraved sociopath who has done irreparable damage to American democracy and the nation’s psyche lost, I guess we’re better off in America than we were on November 1st. But it’s not like he’s going away. It’s not like Trumpism is going away. It’s not like conspiracy obsession is going away. I would say I am marginally less desperate than I was two weeks ago, but you’d need a magnifying glass to see the margins.
Carmichael: You’re in the media. When you say things, how do you avoid accusations of bias?
Garfield: People will say, “Listen to him, he’s biased.” If you’re covering a baseball game and the slugger strikes out five times with the bases loaded and you report that, that is not evidence of your anti-slugger bias, it is an objective reporting of failure. I’m going to say this as plainly as I can. I am not a member of the Democratic Party and I haven’t been for more than 40 years. I’m not a big fan of the Democratic Party, but I believe that the Republican Party has mutated into something genuinely malignant and it has not happened by accident and it has not happened suddenly, and it has not happened in response to an equal and opposite depravity on the political left.
Carmichael: You write that the values of journalism and the values of liberalism overlap. What did you mean by that?
Garfield: What are the values of journalism? Speaking truth to power; shining the light into the dark crevices of government; afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted; watch- dogging the people who are supposedly the stewards of our democracy and of our money; generally documenting the conduct of our leaders and holding them accountable. These are the fundamental aspects of liberalism or progressivism. It’s not an ideology, it’s a mindset. It’s absolutely not political. It is simply about accountability and curiosity, and responsibility to be a proxy for the public.
It’s one thing to spout doctrine or ideology. And it’s another thing to document statements, history, empirical evidence and data and to do so from a critical distance. And if that data, if the testimony of experts and eyewitnesses, if the empirical evidence, if the actual conduct of our leaders is indicting, that is not evidence of journalistic bias, it’s evidence that someone struck out five times with the bases loaded.
Carmichael: Do you think if we still had just three TV networks, two local daily papers, plus, say, Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal as our media landscape, that we would be where we are today?
Garfield: The internet was supposed to cure us of all of that media hegemony. It was supposed to broaden the very narrow perspective which we were permitted to hear and consider. We did not get all of the bandwidth that we would have absent these very minimum number of gatekeepers. But as it turned out, social media took the problem of information hegemony and made it much, much, much, much worse. People are exposed to much, much, much, much less variety of content and ideas than they used to be when we had mere media concentration.
Carmichael: There’s been a pretty broad attack on the very bedrock institutions of our democracy, not just the media, but even in terms of casting doubt on the integrity of our entire election process. Does that trouble you?
Garfield: Well, in the sense of breaking my heart and terrifying me and infuriating me, yes. In any event, what Trump and Trumpism have laid bare is that we, as a society, are not exceptional. It can happen here, and we are as vulnerable to nationalism and racism and anti-intellectual realism and stupidity and mindless cultural war as any society. It’s time to stop being self-congratulatory about the American way, because lo and behold, the American way is a mess.
Carmichael: As we see in our data and where one of our research partners focuses, there is much “hidden common ground,” but sometimes it feels awfully hidden. Do you think we’re truly as divided as we seem?
Garfield: I do. Yeah. I mean, look, there’s hidden common ground. I would argue that it’s really not hidden because the common ground resides mostly in the signage along commercial highways. We all go to McDonald’s. We all go to Muffler King. We all follow the same general pool of pop culture. Ninety-plus percent of us are in the same top four religions. And so as a cultural entity, we have a great deal in common. Unfortunately, that defines us more than core values at this stage. One of the big problems we had when we set about on the Purple Project [a nonpartisan group he founded focused on engagement in the democratic process] was to re-inspire Americans to lean into our core values, the bedrock principles that are the fundamentals of American democracy. We discovered that they weren’t so bedrock after all, that there was a lot of shifting sand.
Carmichael: Such as?
Garfield: For example, we thought that the Statue of Liberty was an uncontroversial symbol for everything we stand for. Nope. We thought voting—the fundamental expression of our democratic system—was non-negotiable and that everybody agreed that we want all Americans to vote. Nope, absolutely not. If we can’t even agree on the vote and on the Statue of Liberty, tell me again where all that hidden common ground is.