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Gwen’s Take: Toxic Conversations

A few years ago, my friends Mark Halperin, now of Time Magazine, and John Harris, now of Politico, coined the term “freak show” as a catchall for the fever that overtakes those of us in the information gathering business from time to time. “Toxicity,” they wrote in their 2006 political book, “The Way to Win,” “is the new defining trait of modern American politics.”

At the time, I thought Mark and John were being just a little harsh. It’s true that the shouters, tweeters, tabloids, bloggers and talk show hosts can get a little carried away. And certain stories – missing children, celebrity cursing, celebrity weddings, celebrity divorces and any kind of car chase – can occupy more of the nation’s psyche than they deserve to. But freak show?

With the passing of time, however, I am beginning to see their point.

I was on vacation last week – way more than arms’ length away from the Shirley Sherrod controversy – and therefore more equipped than I usually am to watch the freak show take over.

By the time I reengaged, the doctored video that spawned an itchy trigger finger firing and an embarrassing media overreaction had blown up, then faded, and then transformed into yet another “national conversation on race.”

Seems we’ve been here before (see: Clinton race commission, Obama’s Philadelphia race speech, the White House beer summit).

This latest flare-up occupied us until Monday, when an online provocateur known as WikiLeaks dumped 90,000 Afghan war documents online and onto the pages of three mainstream newspapers. It took a few days before we began to notice we’d seen a lot of these headlines before, and that many of them seemed a bit dated.

Both of these stories were worth covering. But taking a deep breath would not have hurt the coverage.

Sometimes even worthy news events can migrate to freak showiness. On Wednesday, a federal judge in Arizona struck down key parts of a tough state law designed to detain and expel people in the country illegally. It took less than 24 hours for the discussion to turn from the political and legal implications of the judge’s decision (and Arizona’s subsequent appeal) to aerial video of protesters being arrested in Phoenix.

What were they protesting? Hardly mattered. The pictures were that good.

All of this brings us back to the “Freak Show” and Shirley Sherrod, who has now pledged to sue the blogger who edited and circulated a videotape of her speech which turned it into exactly the opposite of what she actually said. (Unclear what she’s suing about exactly, but hey.)

At roughly the same time, Ms. Sherrod was discussing her litigious intentions with the National Association of Black Journalists in San Diego, President Obama was on the opposite coast, here in Washington, bemoaning the depths to which we have sunk.

“We’ve all got our biases,” the president observed. “And rather than jump to conclusions and point fingers, and play some of the games that are played on cable TV, we should all look inward and try to examine what’s in our own hearts. We should all make more of an effort to discuss with one another, in a truthful and mature and responsible way, the divides that still exist — the discrimination that’s still out there, the prejudices that still hold us back — a discussion that needs to take place not on cable TV, not just through a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not through political posturing, but around kitchen tables, and water coolers, and church basements, and in our schools, and with our kids all across the country.”

Yes, by all means. Let’s have another national conversation. But only after we take a deep breath first. For a change.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted from the Washington Week website. Follow Gwen Ifill on Twitter.

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