For years, columnists and analysts have observed and lamented the growing polarity in American politics.
Too often, they act like bystanders, pointing out problems but rarely offering more than platitudes in response to societal woes.
We have talked about echo chambers, red and blue voters, and the effects of social media in exacerbating that divide.
However, we have not talked enough about how media industry leaders can and must offer solutions for better conversations that improve human relations and preserve our democratic principles.
The Tennessean Editorial Board has long touted “We stand for civility” as one of the four pillars of our mission. Until 2017, it merely served as window dressing.
It sounded nice and made sense, but there was no real substance behind it.
In late 2017, USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee Editor Michael Anastasi challenged me, as opinion and engagement director for The Tennessean, to focus on a year-long project on civility.
My initial response was: “Does anybody really want civility today?”
After deep reflection, I accepted the challenge and began writing the strategy for the “Civility Tennessee” campaign.
Guests listen during a Civility Tennessee discussion called “Why Aren’t Tennesseans Voting Like They Should” at Lipscomb University Aug. 27, 2018, in Nashville. (Photo: The Tennessean)
We had seen success in past efforts on community listening and in convening the public on a variety of topics, from transit to affordable housing to public education. We envisioned the campaign as taking shape via public events and robust discussion forums on our social media platforms.
This became the purpose statement of the Civility Tennessee strategy: “‘We stand for civility’ is one of the four pillars of The Tennessean Editorial Board’s mission. This campaign seeks to put this mission into action by leading our audiences and the overall community to embrace civil discourse and pledge a commitment to civility.”
However, we also knew from the start that to do this effectively, we would have to accomplish two things:
- Work to redefine civility in a way that would appeal both to people who were tired of the toxicity in politics and also to those whose believed that civility is used as a means to silence dissent.
- Work with trusted partners in the community who would lend their brand equity to make sure this effort succeeded.
To the first point, we found inspiration in the roots of civility: the Latin word “civitas,” referring to the duties of the citizen.
Our aim was to show that we were not calling on people simply to be nice or polite. No, we were calling on them to be good citizens, who embraced, challenged and elevated their community.
Tenn. State Sen. Steve Dickerson talks with Lipscomb University’s Michelle Steele during the Civility Tennessee discussion on voting. (Photo: The Tennessean)
We secured partners in Vanderbilt University, Lipscomb University, Belmont University and the Nashville Public Library for events both large and small that included author Q&As and discussions on topics such as voter turnout and Nashville’s proposed transit referendum.
Despite the challenges of social media, we knew we had to be present in that space and experiment with different types of conversations.
The closed “Civility Tennessee” Facebook group has become a laboratory for tough conversations on a variety of issues.
To date, while some disruptive voices have been encouraged to leave the group, we have not had to ban anyone. We believe that is because we do not admit anyone unless they answer these three questions in the affirmative:
- Do you want to join a group that pledges to be a place for respectful dialogue even on difficult issues?
- Are you committed to modeling civil behavior that will encourage these types of dialogue?
- Will you encourage others to model civil behavior to continue healthy conversations?
We have taken conversations from the social space into the real world, including a book club discussion of Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” at the public library, and a field trip to a school board meeting to emphasize that civic engagement is exceptionally effective and needed at the local level.
The group numbers 330 as of Oct. 18 and is slowly growing. We value quality of engagement over quantity of posts and followers.
Friendships from people on left and right have blossomed in that group and it has become a sounding board for sharing ideas and frustrations, as well as invitations to events.
Civility Tennessee was scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2018, but the popularity of its events persuaded the editorial board to make it a continuous effort — one that is especially important as we enter the 2020 presidential election.
Note: The editorial board comprises Michael Anastasi, Tennessean Executive Editor Maria De Varenne and me.
Origins and events
The soft launch for Civility Tennessee happened shortly before Thanksgiving of 2017.
In a column titled “Is civility in America possible anymore?” I invited readers to submit ideas about how to solve polarity in America.
“We do not have to accept this divisive time as the ‘new normal,’ and I would challenge readers to write letters to the editor (maximum 150 words) to share your views on this question: ‘How can the United States become more civil?’” I wrote.
I promised to run the letters on Thanksgiving — the first Thanksgiving of the Trump administration —because “Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on what brings us together, and hopefully the advice readers provide will create some enlightening conversations at the dinner table.”
My column grabbed the attention of the NPR radio show “1A,” which invited me to speak about civil discourse with other guests on one of their episodes.
The reader response to my column was enormous and we dedicated an entire page to their ideas.
Three big themes emerged regarding civility:
- Challenge your own views.
- Don’t start unnecessary fights.
- Politicians need to model civility.
We then started laying the groundwork for events and articles over the next year.
Critical to the effort was not just publishing staff columns, but also inviting people to write guest columns and letters in The Tennessean on the subject of civil discourse, human-to-human engagement and the challenges of trying to be a good citizen amid the surge of white supremacy, mass shootings and other ills plaguing our society.
We reached out to local leaders of the nonprofit Better Angels, which unites red and blue voters in deep conversation. They gave us valuable insight into how they bring different people together for civil, productive conversations, and how they encourage them to keep the conversations going.
Participants discuss Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” at a book club meeting convened by Civility Tennessee at the Nashville Public Library on July 28, 2018. (Photo: The Tennessean)
As I continued working on the strategy, we came to consensus on what our values would be:
- To encourage conversations that are civil and respectful, even if they are hard.
- To enhance civic participation in important conversations of the day.
- To help promote voter registration efforts.
- To increase news literacy and enhance trust of The Tennessean and sister publications.
Our official launch was on Jan. 12 with a column I wrote to introduce the effort titled “We are launching Civility Tennessee to restore faith in each other.”
Here is a list of highlights from 2018:
- On Jan. 30, we held our kickoff event hosted by former Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. It was a conversation with Jim Brown, a Nashville-based author whose book “Ending our Uncivil Wars,” was published in 2017. Brown is also the lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses and has been a conservative voice in state politics. We started this effort with him precisely because of the accusations of liberal bias we and other media organizations face.
- On Feb. 22, I hosted a live, interactive video interview with poet Stephanie Pruitt about how to start and continue conversations on race and racism. Pruitt is an African American community leader who has great experience using art to engage people on tough subjects.
- On March 28, Marcel Hernandez, executive director of Be About Change, spoke with me on live video about gun violence. We arranged this conversation because of the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting that had happened the month prior. Hernandez leads conversations with juvenile offenders and has experience talking about gun violence and gun politics with young people.
- On April 10, we organized a public debate on the controversial transit referendum in partnership with the Nashville Public Library and WSMV Channel 4 News. Evening Anchor Tracy Kornet and I moderated the debate between two gentlemen representing pro- and anti-transit plan views.
- Our most-watched live video of the year, which took place May 16, was about sexual assault. Rachel Freeman, president of the Sexual Assault Center, talked about why victims do not report abuse against them for a long time, and YWCA Vice President Shan Foster talked about his group’s AMEND Together program, which helps young men learn to identify and avoid “toxic masculinity” while developing respectful behaviors toward others, especially girls and women.
- On June 6, Tennessean staff members served as conversation facilitators at the Community Iftar, an event organized by the city’s Human Relations Board to engage the Muslim community during Ramadan. The focus of the event was civility and it was inspired by our Civility Tennessee work.
- On July 28, we hosted a book club meeting to discuss Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” at the Nashville Public Library. Fifty members spent a Saturday morning talking about ways to better our conversations in a discussion moderated by me and Lipscomb University faculty member Linda Peek Schact.
- On July 30, Hume-Fogg Magnet High Librarian Amanda Smithfield was my live video guest about how educators can help teach children to be civil. She has been a community champion for civil discourse, organizing monthly pizza luncheons where students are expected to be prepared to talk about community issues of the day.
- The largest Civility Tennessee event of the year occurred on Aug. 27 when we held a panel discussion on voter security, engagement and turnout at Lipscomb University with Secretary of State Tre Hargett, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, state Sen. Steve Dickerson and Shanna Hughey, president of ThinkTennessee. More than 500 people came to watch the discussion and ask questions. The event was broadcast live.
- On Oct. 23, we held a Q&A with author Keel Hunt at the Nashville Public Library on his latest book “Crossing the Aisle: How Bipartisanship Brought Tennessee to the Twenty-first Century and Could Save America.” Keel is a former journalist, aide to a former governor and community leader who showed how past examples of bipartisanship in the state made Tennessee stronger and economically resilient.
- The last official event of the year was a conversation on Dec. 10 with outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam on higher education. It became a test on civil discourse because at the end of his talk, students began protesting the event, demanding that Haslam grant clemency to convicted murderer Cyntoia Brown. Haslam explained his reasoning regarding the case and while the protests continued, we ended the event without any arrests or violence. He told me on his way out: “Democracy is messy.” A few weeks later, he announced that he had granted Brown clemency.
The year 2018 was also an election year. There were multiple city elections sparked by the resignation of former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who was involved in a sex scandal that cost taxpayers money.
Open gubernatorial and Senate seats encouraged The Tennessean along with statewide community partners to hold a series of forums and debates across Tennessee to inform people about the candidates and what they stood for. The locations ranged from the University of Memphis to Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., to Belmont University in Nashville.
The Tennessean Editorial Board also added a new question to its candidate survey: Will you pledge to be civil?
Civility Tennessee was not without controversy or its detractors.
The summer drama of former presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders getting kicked out of a Lexington, Va., restaurant and the subsequent calls for civility convinced some that “civility” was nothing more than a euphemism for acquiescence.
I wrote a column titled “On civility: don’t be nice, be a good citizen.” That helped reframe for the editorial board and our readers what this campaign was all about.
The alternative weekly The Nashville Scene awarded us one of its annual “Boner Awards,” for the campaign. While their scathing description of our events and mission was not all accurate, the publicity helped elevate the work we had been doing.
2019 and beyond
Since we had not intended to continue Civility Tennessee into 2019, we had not organized an aggressive series of events like we did in the previous year.
However, we made it a point to spread the word about the campaign beyond Nashville.
We took the message to Franklin, Tenn., for discussions with local elected and business leaders; to the University of Tennessee’s Health Science Center in Memphis; and to Minneapolis to address mayors, business leaders and young professionals in six different venues on the value of reframing conversations at the invitation of the regional chamber of commerce and the local Urban Land Institute.
The trip to Memphis — where I had medical students work in small groups around tough topics in their world — encouraged me to write a column on civil discourse and vaccinations. Some of the students could not understand why some members of the public were rejecting the science of immunization and yet it showed that there was much work to be done in effectively informing the public and encouraging physicians to have better conversations with their patients.
For the second year in a row, we included a question about civility in candidate election questionnaires. All of the nearly 100 municipal election candidates who answered the survey said they would agree to be civil.
The principles of Civility Tennessee have helped guide our public forums, including an Oct. 19 town hall meeting that addressed inequities facing public school children.
The campaign received several recognitions in 2019. The USA TODAY NETWORK honored Civility Tennessee with the annual national Transformation Journalism Award and the On Point Purpose Award. We were a finalist for the News Leaders Association Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership and placed first in the editorials and public service categories of the Tennessee Press Association Awards. Editor & Publisher named The Tennessean a finalist in the international EPPY Awards for best use of social media and crowdsourcing. (Note: The EPPY winners will be announced on Oct. 23.)
We are getting ready to amplify our Civility Tennessee efforts as we approach 2020. We recently connected the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, and a new statewide voter registration initiative called Vote Tennessee to work together on engaging voters through guest columns, virtual interviews and events.
Citizens can change the toxic discourse that pervades our society, but it requires work, dedication and discipline. As media leaders, we can use our power of convening and informing to help citizens on this journey. Our democracy needs us more than ever.
David Plazas is director of opinion and engagement at The Tennessean in Nashville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay is part of a body of work on reimagining opinion journalism.