A just-released survey on niceness titled “Civility in America 2012” asks people to rank news outlets on an uncivil/civil axis. PBS wins the contest, with 16 percent voting “uncivil” and 67 percent voting “civil.” That spread beats the sneering daylights out of the cable channels: Fox News, MSNBC and CNN are all in the 30-50 uncivil-civil neighborhood.
Yet still! Even as it trounces the field on friendliness, PBS manages to poll a full 16 percent on the “uncivil” side. How did this happen? Who are these people and what are they thinking? Did these folks catch a few episodes of “PBS NewsHour” that I’d missed? Did Gwen Ifill throw a tantrum that went viral somewhere? Could these people have been offended by the story “Dissecting Prose and Squid With Biologist, Poet Katherine Larson.” Or by the story “Will Water Pumps Bring Peace to Ivory Coast? Or by the story “‘OMG! Meiyu’ Introduces China to American Slang, Idioms and Jay-Z”?
It’s possible that this 16 percent lumpenmasse of PBS gripers aren’t concerned with any of the above. Bradley Honan, CEO of KRC Research, the polling outfit that did the survey in partnership with Powell Tate and Weber Shandwick, notes, “We didn’t define what civility meant.” Meaning that PBS haters may have just marked “uncivil” as a way of expressing a more general dislike for the institution. “Some of it may be that there’s content that exists there that they’re not comfortable with,” says Honan, who notes that the survey reached 1,000 adults online — and it’s uncertain how many of those even consume PBS or other outlets in the study.
Folks at PBS appear less fixated on that 16 percent “uncivil” voting bloc than the Erik Wemple Blogger. Says a spokesperson for PBS: “We’re pleased that PBS is identified in the poll as an organization that promotes civil discourse. We know that the public does turn to PBS for programming with depth, integrity and thoughtful analysis that promotes multiple perspectives and respects people’s intelligence, especially in the news and journalism space.”
And Ifill’s comments on the matter clarify why she’ll never make it on the Uncivil News Channel. “This is one of those topics near and dear to my heart,” writes the moderator of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” via electronic mail. “[C]ivility is something we prize on both NewsHour and Washington Week. I always tell audiences that we see more value in light than heat. Sometimes the only way to have a discussion is to have a debate, but the only way to learn something is if the debaters make an effort to listen to each other.”
Ifill isn’t finished, either: “My mom used to call it disagreeing without being disagreeable. I just think of it as a better way of telling the story well. I think any of my WashWeek panelists and any number of our NewsHour guets will tell you that’s what they like about doing the show – the chance to explain why and how, and let the viewer reach his or her own conclusions.”
Did Ifill already say this topic was dear to her heart? If not, here’s some emphasis: “Maybe I will cross stitch some version of this on a pillow.”