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May 29, 2016

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Jon Ralston:

Validating voters plague the system

I’d like to nip this in the bud.

But I doubt I will have any more luck than previous attempts to squash a phenomenon that has become more relevant every election cycle: the rise of ignorance.

I stipulate up front that I don’t mean stupidity, which can’t be repaired. I refer to the ongoing, metastasizing and, yes, shamelessly exploited epidemic of willful ignorance displayed by voters.

Every campaign season, as if to prove my insanity, I hope that it will get better, that campaigns won’t unload the same awful offal and voters won’t simply get out their pom poms and tune in to see their favorite, like-minded cable TV host interview some like-minded guest.

Illumination? No thank you. Validation? Can’t get enough.

I raise this depressing state of affairs again in the wake of my Monday evening interview with Rep. Shelley Berkley on “Face to Face." It was an occasionally combative, frequently feisty interview with someone I have known for a quarter-century but who has avoided the program for more than a year and especially since The New York Times published a piece raising questions about the propriety of her involvement in nephrology issues since her husband is a kidney doctor — a story that prompted Republicans to file an ethics complaint.

My goal, as it always is, and which is occasionally successful, was to elicit new information, get beyond the talking points, shed light. I don’t want to hear about how Medicare as we know it is about to end or how Obamacare is worse than the bubonic plague. I want that rarest of things: an answer.

Judge for yourself how I did. Or don’t. My problem is too many can’t or won’t.

Don’t be misled into thinking this is about criticism, which I am open to if presented from a knowledgeable vantage point, even if it is unkind. But beyond some appreciative attaboys, some of which appeared to come from those who wished Berkley ill, I received one email (and this is not an isolated case) that struck me as emblematic of what ails the body politic.

It began: “How much longer will it take for you to get a job at Fox News? This audition has gone on too long.”

I retorted in an obnoxious way that was very out of character for me: “Thanks for the kind words. As a matter of fact, I did. I am taking over for Sean Hannity.”

Came the response: “Great. Right-wings hysterics belong over there. NBC viewers should have, at least, an expectation of an attempt to be ‘fair and balanced.’ Good luck.”

First, I can’t imagine how some of my conservative critics — and they are legion — are spitting up their coffee or choking on their toast. As the guy who thinks Grover Norquist’s pledge is inane (we are going to debate this soon on “Face to Face”) and recently embraced a business tax for the umpteenth time in my career, I don’t get called a “right-wing hysteric” too often.

Second, and much more important, it is this visceral “You asked hard questions so you must be hostile to the interviewee” reflexive response that is so, so tiresome and all too frequent after a program — from both sides.

There is no attempt to think through whether the questions are fair or whether the guest is dodging or answering. There is no attempt to unshackle oneself from the partisan restraints and actually weigh the other side. Instead, so many consumers of televised interviews hear what they want to hear as they shut off their brains and see only with their partisan tunnel vision.

I’m not complaining for myself, folks. I get plenty of positive feedback, and I have a producer who is only too happy to keep my ego in check. I am fair and balanced in my view of myself.

But what I can’t fathom, what I can’t get used to, is the gradual checking out of America and a desire to cheer for the home team and revile the visiting team. And if the visitor hits a home run, don’t give credit; insist he was on steroids.

I tried to explain to my antagonist that I often play devil’s advocate, regardless of the guest’s party affiliation or ideological persuasion. But that just enraged him more and he urged me again to go to Fox News for a job.

Alas.

It’s stuff like that that makes me mull a surrender to the culture we have created, one that allows campaigns to push hot buttons and repeat inane messages enough times to activate robotic sycophants — and maybe a swing voter or two.

But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just keep trying to ask good questions and hope someone out there values truth, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, over partisan nonsense.

Arrogant? Maybe. Hysterical? I hope not.

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