Members of the Greater Scranton YMCA spar in martial arts classes, but some were on the verge of real fights -- right up until the gym removed the cause of their pugnaciousness: cable news.
Yes, the Y in one of the 2016 presidential election's most hotly-contested battlegrounds has banished CNN, Fox News and MSNBC from its television screens because political debates prompted by news coverage on the networks has brought exercisers close to blows. The gym's chief executive, Trish Fisher, told WBRE-TV this week that "there was one [near-fight] that was broken up by another member that was just about ready to go physical, and we've had members step forward saying they've felt a little uncomfortable about the arguments that were going on over the politics."
Scranton is the seat of Lackawanna County, which Hillary Clinton won narrowly last fall with 49.8 percent of the vote, compared to 46.4 percent for Donald Trump. Trump made his final campaign stop in Scranton, en route to winning Pennsylvania. Joe Biden, a Scranton native, stumped for Clinton in his hometown on the weekend before Election Day.
Apparently some voters have not cooled off enough to hit the elliptical while watching Rachel Maddow or Bill O'Reilly without wanting to hit each other, too.
I spoke with Fisher about the decision to turn off cable news — and whether the peacemaking strategy is working so far. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
THE FIX: When did you make the decision to pull cable news programming off your TVs?
FISHER: It was Monday. We had a board meeting last Thursday, and one of our board members brought it up. It became a topic of discussion, and several other board members had witnessed arguments and heated words between some of the members. They said, "Let's talk about this. Do we want to continue this type of thing? Because we're really role models for all the kids coming into the building." We decided to take the proactive approach to this.
What's interesting is, talking to several of my colleagues who are CEOs at other YMCAs since then, they said they haven't allowed the channels for years. We just had a member who decided to call the press about this.
THE FIX: I think one of the reasons the decision struck the media as interesting is because of where you are. Scranton was such a key battleground in the election. I suspect you have a pretty divided membership.
FISHER: It's really a bunch of grown men who can't control themselves, I guess. I have a degree in history, and I was a history teacher before this. I am all about people's right to have open debate. But safety is our number-one priority.
THE FIX: I'm curious where you lay most of the blame for this situation. I could see three plausible explanations: One might be, as you said, that you just have a few adults acting like children. A second could be that politicians are to blame for overheated rhetoric. Or you could blame the media, perhaps, for coverage that provokes anger.
FISHER: I don't know who's to blame. I don't even like the word "blame." This was just a situation that we had to make a decision for the safety of everybody.
THE FIX: Do things feel a bit cooler on the floor this week?
FISHER: Definitely. It was a topic of conversation here Tuesday and Wednesday. People were coming up to me left and right and saying, "Thank you so much for doing this." I must have had a hundred members come up and say, "I totally support you. This decision is great." I've only had three emails and one phone call from people saying they didn't agree with the decision.