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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published May 23 2012

Civil war of North Dakota politics

GRAND FORKS – Bloggers who take on political figures and issues “sometimes will say something that makes someone angry,” blogger Rob Port of the conservative-leaning Sayanything.com told a forum on “civility in public discourse” at the University of North Dakota on Wednesday.

“That doesn’t mean it’s uncivil,” he said.

Agreeing with him on that and a number of other points: Chad Nodland, a Bismarck attorney and proprietor of the left-leaning NorthDecoder.com.

“People are creating a media (with blogs and other social media) they’re not getting from traditional media,” Nodland said. “Maybe it’s a little crude, hard-hitting … and traditional media fear it.”

UND’s Conflict Resolution Center hosted a panel discussion Wednesday titled “OMG! Civility in the Media: Traditional Journalism, Blogs and Talk Radio,” as part of a weeklong symposium on civility.

Another panel member, WDAZ news anchor Molly Thorvilson, challenged the bloggers, suggesting they get much of their news from traditional media and “inject your opinions into it.” She also criticized a blogger’s calling a Fargo TV reporter the “dumbest” in North Dakota.

“That was my headline,” Port responded, but “I didn’t say she was dumb. I said she was biased, and I stand by that opinion.”

Nodland disputed the notion that he and other bloggers simply take news generated by traditional media – “I like to call it the antique media,” he said – and embellish it with opinion.

“As a licensed attorney, the rules of legal ethics apply to me in all my life,” Nodland said. “I’m probably more careful than anybody in the (old) media.

“What I like to do as a blogger is break stories,” he said, through “old-fashioned digging” and other journalistic efforts.

“I stopped my (newspaper) subscription when I stopped getting journalism from the newspaper.”

Port described himself as a libertarian-leaning conservative and made no apologies for putting an ideological stamp on his blog.

“I don’t think ideology is a bad word,” he said. “I don’t object to bias so much as bias masquerading as objectivity. I wear my biases on my sleeve … and I run a wide-open comments page so you can come in” and criticize or offer a different take.

The Internet “has lowered the bar for entry” into public discussion, Port said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

That drew a remark from Nodland, which in turn drew laughter from the audience: “I’m going to end up agreeing with Rob way too much today,” he said.

The more free-wheeling reporting on blogs reflects broad changes in society, Nodland said, leading to what many perceive as less civility on television, in magazines and elsewhere. “Sometimes democracy is ugly,” he said. “Sometimes free speech is ugly – and I’m OK with that.”

Panelist Jarrod Thomas, a Grand Forks talk-radio host, said the Internet “is still to some degree the wild, wild west,” and he questioned whether bloggers “adhere to the same standards” as traditional media. He predicted the media and the way people communicate will continue to change.

“I hate social media,” Thomas said. “I think it has done more to dumb down conversation, the way we talk to others. … In the past, if people had a problem with you, they looked you in the eye and said, ‘I have a problem with you.’ But that doesn’t happen much anymore.”

Truthful, open, but courteous

During an earlier panel Wednesday, Bismarck attorney Jack McDonald said concerns about civility are not limited to journalism.

“It’s happening all over,” he said.

McDonald works as a media consultant and lobbyist, and he said the Legislature has always had rules to keep its members civil. But life and customs at the Capitol have evolved, he said, as has the larger legal profession – growing through a period he called “the Rambo years,” when lawyers felt they had to appear strong and “bully” opponents.

In response, he said, the state Bar Association adopted “aspirations of professionalism and civility,” to encourage courtesy and candor and discourage the use of “hostile, demeaning or debilitating words.”

The idea, McDonald said, is to “be honest and frank, … to be truthful in an open way, but not discourteous.”

At newspapers, online comments initially were monitored closely, he said, with someone assigned to read them all and act as a gatekeeper. But court decisions have held that if newspapers take such ownership of comments, they also take responsibility for their content – exposing the papers to legal problems.

“So newspapers backed off” on the monitoring, McDonald said, and the tone of some comments became less civil. He cited a story published in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead that drew such harshly personal comments that the newspaper stopped running online comments on stories. The Herald continues to allow comments but not on all stories.

McDonald pointed to changes in political advertising as key to the change in media tone, with candidates employing “very vitriolic” language to score points against opponents and corporate-financed advertising experts designing ads meant to “stir things up.”

“That spreads into the Internet,” he said, with people feeling they have the right to comment “no matter how uncivil, how insidious or nasty,” and often writing “in a big rush” and with no editorial oversight.

Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the political science department at UND, agreed. “If you don’t have to look someone in the eye after making a national ad about them, it makes it a lot easier to be hostile and derisive,” he said.

Jendrysik said the increasingly ideological nature of politics, making more issues matters of life or death, engaged “a lot of people who weren’t mobilized before, and I think that’s a good thing,” but with a downside, “the rejection of compromise.”

Brandi Jewitt, a 2012 UND graduate who served as editor of the Dakota Student and will join the Herald news staff, said that letters to the editor have largely disappeared at the student paper, replaced by often anonymous emails and online comments that rarely offer constructive criticism.

Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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