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Crass public discourse: Time to push back?

The expected return of Don Imus to the airwaves comes as some see a desire for moderation.

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Shock jock Don Imus – ousted from TV and radio for a racist and sexist remark – is coming back. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter – who has been criticized for anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic rants – never left.

For years, America's public conversation has become increasingly harsh, polarized, and full of what satirist Stephen Colbert famously coined "truthiness" – the preoccupation with a "gut belief," regardless of the facts of a situation.

Now, some experts suggest that the level of the nation's discourse has sunk to a new low, and there's a growing push-back from both the grass roots as well as some in the media – a demand for a more civilized way of conversing publicly. Others aren't so sure a push-back is under way, but say that the more the hard-edged, crass aspects of the media are discussed, the better it will be for the nation – ultimately helping to moderate the tone of public discourse.

"We're caught right now between extreme forms of political correctness on one end of the speech spectrum and crude, hateful incivility on the other," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The solutions are familiar: We need moderation – thoughtful behavior and expression. But we also need better editing and to create communities with certain expectations that you will be responsible."

Mr. Imus's ouster this past April is a case in point. After he made remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team, an Internet-based grass-roots movement by Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, pressured his advertisers and CBS Radio, which eventually fired him. When he potentially returns to the air in December, in a deal still being negotiated with WABC, expect a somewhat chastened shock jock, publicized in a round of high-profile media interviews in the coming months. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph did not give the correct name for Imus's former employer. Also, it implied that his return to the airwaves had been finalized.]


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