The Semler matter: thoughts on media

By Don H. Compier

Like many concerned citizens in metropolitan Kansas City, I have been saddened by the divisions opening up since Mayor Mark Funkhauser’s appointment of Frances Semler, a member of the Minute Men organization, to the city’s park board. Recently for the first time I typed “minute men demonstrations” into my computer’s search engine, and found quite a number of video recordings of actual events carried out by this group. I was deeply shocked by the constant stream of R-rated, obscene language uttered by their members and supporters. I couldn’t believe how their words constantly and vilely demeaned and dehumanized persons of Mexican descent, who according to my beliefs are created in God’s image, like all people. In one video I saw and heard them screaming at a playground full of Hispanic kindergardners!

I am worried that I am not hearing the mainstream news media talk about this aspect of the matter very much. Some, like Lou Dobbs of CNN, to say nothing of the Rush Limbaughs on the radio, seem to have decided that their role is to be cheerleaders for the Minute Men. On the whole, our local Kansas City Star has provided balanced coverage, with a number of editorials calling for Semler’s resignation and arguing that the Minute Men are not just an innocent lobbying group concerned about illegal immigration. Yet I have become very disturbed by the overwhelming number of letters printed that favor the Minute Men and often border on hate speech in their own right. I have had some discussion about this with the persons who choose letters at the Star. I am convinced that they have no intent to be biased, but they are committed to printing a selection of all the tons of mail they receive, and have a policy limiting submission to 150 words.

I believe that, unfortunately, this is another example of how we are becoming a culture of the sound byte. We are so busy that time for sustained, civil discussion of issues is something that I, too, find it hard to commit to. The sound byte format favors slogans and angry outbursts and other forms of speech that make our public speech coarser and encourage oppositional debate. Once we get accustomed to this, it is tempting to mistake frequency of letters or loudness of expression for fair representation of the range of opinions. And reporters, like all human beings, must constantly check the biases they inevitably hold. One person I talked to at the Star, whose job was only to assure good process, began to debate the content of my letter. It’s a thin line, but we must continue to insist on as much objectivity in media as possible.

I am becoming convinced that we as advocates for peace and justice must strive to create opportunities for real, relation dialogue to occur. We must offer time for the exploration of the complexities and nuances present in nearly all political disagreements. So as best as I could, given my own passion on immigration issues, I decided today to urge the Kansas City Star to find ways to promote genuine dialogue by printing letters from both sides, no matter what the number of submissions may be. I urged them to rethink the inflexibility of their policy on word limits. I also wrote my senator and my congressman.

I believe that we have to do all we can to make sure that the Minute Men and their supporters don’t monopolize the public airwaves and print. The Hispanic community desperately needs to hear that they are not alone at this very scary time. I remain convinced that the majority of my neighbors in the Kansas City area don’t use or support foul, dehumanizing language. I trust that most of us are decent people of faith. So it’s time for us to take the time and effort to speak up and speak out, to tell our Hispanic neighbors and the world that our great metropolitan community does not support hateful speech. We must declare that our beloved Kansas City area is going to move forward together in racial harmony, and that in our town persons of every ethnicity are very welcome.

Don Compier is Dean of the Community of Christ Seminary

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