Skip to main content
PBS Public Editor
On Civility
Email share

It’s been a rough week for administration officials who’ve wanted to go out to dinner. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant, the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., by the owner.  The owner said she was responding to a request from her employees, many of whom are gay, who did not feel comfortable with Sanders' presence and what she represented. You can read the full account here.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled at a Mexican restaurant following her defense of administration policy on the separation of migrant families at the border and she left.  White House adviser Stephen Miller was also heckled at another Mexican restaurant but did not leave.

It’s produced a heightened discussion about civility on the airwaves and in the pages of our news organizations, including the PBS NewsHour.

Viewer Patricia Gunkel was unimpressed with the segment:

"June 26 on the PBS Newshour there was a story on civility. A conservative in AZ Chris Buskirk stated as fact that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was not just asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant, but he stated that she and her family were 'chased across the street by the owner.' In a brief bit of research now and from reading the NYTimes and Washington Post that is NOT how the encounter was described. It was her husband and friends not her entire family and I read nothing in the newspaper accounts to suggest she was chased. It sounded very civil, with the request made outside on a deck and she calmly agreed to leave. When I Googled this just now, Fox News was the source of this 'chasing her story' and I believe it is a bold lie. I wonder why the news host allowed this lie to be repeated as fact. I understand and appreciate hearing from both sides, but I do not understand providing lies as facts. Just to say something happened does not make it true, this seems to be the great danger coming from the White House. I was very upset by this and would appreciate your news people addressing this and verifying what really did happen as she left. Thank you"

Michael Cotter from Chapel Hill writes:

"I just watched the panel on civil discourse. Your moderator did a terrible job. He should have cut off the liberal commentator who interrupted the conservative commentator and the argument between them went on much too long. Meanwhile, the only adult in the discussion, Ed Rendell, was trying to put a word in edgewise. Really poor moderation. In addition, in response to the conservative's first response the moderator should have asked specifically about President Trump's use of language that certainly isn't civil discourse. I'm not sure why the NewsHour doesn't challenge conservative invitees as it does liberal ones. This was not one of your finer moments."

And Sam Moyers from Knoxville, Tenn., just thought that segment on civility ended up being uncivil:

"Newshour need to keep it tight on guest interviews with more than one guest. The 7/26 episode on protests against public figures was getting to[o] unruly. If I want to watch uncivil debate I will watch cnn or fox."

I agree with Patricia Gunkel that correspondent William Brangham needed to push back more. Indeed Buskirk’s claim about Sanders and her family being chased across the street by the restaurant owner came on Fox News from Sanders' father, and Fox regular, former Governor Mike Huckabee.  I’ve not seen any other source.

As for the lack of civility of the segment, that didn’t strike me at all.  I think it was pretty "civilized," but what it lacked was much context. And that has been the problem with much of the critique by the chattering classes but not what I expect of the NewsHour.

Some of that context is the current president.  In President Trump the body politic has been convulsed by an unconventional president whose communication strategy more often than not, belies the "civility" the pundits seem to crave.  Though the NewsHour piece hinted at this in the set-up, no one in the conversation was asked to address it seriously.  

The other context they seem to forget is that citizens, politicians and state authorities throughout history have engaged with each other in ways that are far from civil.

In 2009-2010, many Tea Party protests were full of rage aimed at politicians who heard directly from constituents and some of those protests peddled in racist attacks against President Obama.

In 2009, President Obama was heckled as he made a speech about health care.  This time, the venue was the United States House chamber and the heckler was Republican Congressman Joe Wilson.

The '90s were full of conspiracy theories amplified by many on the right that President Bill Clinton was involved in the murder of his old friend and White House aide Vince Foster. Foster committed suicide in July of 1993.  Even a sitting U.S Congressman, Dan Burton, was pushing the theory.  Here’s a good primer.

Pundit and former adviser to several presidents of both parties, David Gergen, made this laughable claim on CNN recently: "I cannot remember a time...the anti-war movement in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement in the '60s and early '70s, both of those were more civil in tone--even the anti-war movement was more civil in tone, but certainly the civil rights movement, among the people who were protesting."

Now that’s a case of historical amnesia that is breathtaking.

The pearl-clutching from the vested interests in the binary world of Republican and Democratic establishment figures ignores the public and what they might be feeling and that’s what has been wrong about the beltway criticism of this moment, not to mention that it's ahistorical.

In the set-up to the discussion on the NewsHour, Brangham references Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ call to the public to “push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore anywhere.” He states:  “Democratic activists have aligned themselves with Waters' strategy, openly confronting some administrations officials who implement or defend the president’s immigration policies.” 

The problem is that Waters was following the public. Her comments came in response to these actions taken by individuals in multiple circumstances, not the other way around.

To me the more interesting question at this moment is why are people moved to heckle or confront their representatives and administration officials? What is moving them to take this action?  I’d like to hear from the individuals who heckled Secretary Nielsen and Stephen Miller.  Heckling is a fine tradition in politics. What were they trying to achieve?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faced a small group who had questions as he was leaving an event on the campus of Georgetown University this week. They were later identified as Georgetown University students and in this video you see them approaching the building as Sen. McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, are exiting.

Secretary Chao could probably have reacted differently in this circumstance. She could have ignored them or engaged them politely. While her gallant defense of her husband (one of the most powerful politicians in America) is noteworthy, there were other ways to respond.

I spoke to one of the students, Quincy, (He asked I use only his first name. The students have been subjected to threats since this incident.) and asked him what they were trying to do. He said they had heard that McConnell was on campus and wanted to take the opportunity to try and approach him about the immigration issue. The location of the event was Copley Hall on Red Square (named so because of the red bricks), a place on campus designated for free speech and protest. 

“We very deliberately approached them not in any sort of crazy or violent way, we really approached them in Red Square asking why they're separating families.  My friends who were in this group are seriously affected by this...It was not something we planned out for weeks…we really just are college students…it was pretty spontaneous.”

All of the students except for Quincy are Latino, some first generation Americans and all first generation college students with roots in Colombia, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

As Quincy told me, his friends were  "people who are seriously affected by the rhetoric – experienced the backlash that comes from all of this in their daily lives." These are a group of young people who constantly hear that their people are criminals. 

A few young citizens seized an opportunity to have their voices heard directly by a lawmaker. As Quincy put it to me: “He (McConnell) came to our campus where we live and study and where my friends and the other guys are affected by this every day.”

It seems to me that all these incidents have been spontaneous, a visceral response from ordinary people given an opportunity to do something.  

Now you can argue about whether it is polite to heckle someone or ask them to leave your business establishment, but I would say this: For politicians and pundits who complain that this kind of behavior is unbecoming, they might ask themselves why people are reacting this way.  And they might want to ask about the effect of the president's particular use of the bully pulpit on our current political discourse, which is amplified and regurgitated daily on air and in social media by surrogates. 

But to me the most important thing is that we are witnessing the action of ordinary citizens exercising their right to make their voices heard as best they can, directly and unfiltered by the media.

That, to me, is the more interesting question to explore. It’s by no means a wave but something is happening.

If the 2016 election and its coverage taught us anything, it’s that the political class (press and politicians) didn’t really have its pulse on the country.  With all this tut-tutting about civility it seems that they still don’t.

Posted June 29, 2018 at 10:44 a.m.