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Rhetoric focus of N.Y. Times columnist's Martin Luther King Jr. speech

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 | 11:34 p.m. CST; updated 3:58 p.m. CST, Friday, January 28, 2011
The New York Times columnist Charles Blow speaks at Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union on Wednesday. His lecture, 'A Lie Cannot Live: Rescuing Honest Political Debate From Apathy and Disengagement' was a part of the 2011 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at MU.

COLUMBIA — Charles Blow did not mince words Wednesday night when speaking about the status of American political speech, a topic that has made headlines after the fallout from the Tucson shootings on Jan. 8.

“This kind of rhetoric is poisoning our politics,” Blow said.

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Blow, a New York Times columnist, had the nearly 300-person crowd in Memorial Union’s Stotler Lounge on the edge of their chairs laughing, applauding and asking questions.

The media is moving away from serious news topics, and instead, moving closer to sensationalism, Blow said.

“Sadly, many are dangling the shiniest string to survive,” Blow said.

The lecture was organized by the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, an MU organization that works to create diversity on campus, to celebrate the legacy and impact of Martin Luther King Jr.

Blow said early on in the lecture that discussing the impact of Martin Luther King Jr., however, can be very difficult.

“Every time I’m asked to give a speech about him, I’m both excited and a bit frustrated,” Blow said. “He is such a revered figure, so it’s tough to carve off a monumental life in just a small piece.”

Blow cited King's speeches as a measuring stick of great political discourse and a model of citizenry. In comparison, Blow acknowledged that the rhetoric of our time falls very short of meeting King’s standards.

Blow said that today people “cast their political opponents not just as dunces but as devils."

"This is completely at odds with Mr. King’s movement," Blow said. "In this environment, politicians are scaring seniors with the threat of death panels."

Blow spoke about the recent criticism he received upon being one of the few professional journalists to speak out against the media’s manipulation of the Tucson shootings. Blow said he believes that liberals “completely overreached” in trying to make connections between the events that took place and the preceding hot-bed of intense political discussion.

“How morally wrong is that?” Blow said. “It hurts the very idea of calming down our rhetoric.”

Addressing the issue of race, Blow said, "Race has woven itself into this presidency and society in general."

Blow emphasized that the tough criticism President Barack Obama has received is not wholly due to the color of his skin.  Blow noted that there will always be issues, such as the concept of “big government” that Democrats and Republicans will always disagree upon.

Stu Becker, an MU senior majoring in sociology, disagreed with Blow’s assessment of race depictions in America.

“I disagree with how he downplayed race as a factor,” Becker said, who suggested that welfare in this country has become “racialized.”

Nick Batlle, an MU senior majoring in journalism and political science, did not take a stance on Blow’s many positions, but he appreciated the fact that he came to Columbia.

“I think journalism lacks a level of diversity,” said Batlle, noting that Blow is a great representation of what diversity can offer for the profession of journalism.

Race may be a factor in the current era of heightened discourse, but Blow acknowledged that partisan politics is good for business.

“Partisanship makes a lot of money,” Blow said. “I don’t think that half these people barking at the cameras believe what they say.”

For those who missed Wednesday's lecture, Blow will be a guest speaker for the Cross Cultural Journalism class at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in Fisher Auditorium, MU.


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