Liz Viar, R Tami Amos, I SarAh Frame, R Robin Barnhill, D
Liz Viar, R; Tami Amos, I; Sarah Frame, R; Robin Barnhill, D. Photo by Luanne Rife.

This essay is part of an op-ed project, Cardinal Way: Civility Rules. Its companion piece can be found here. The project is to encourage constructive dialogue on difficult issues. You can participate in the project:

I agree with my colleague that our country is fractured. The national partisan divide has grown so deep and so wide that it has swallowed reasoned thoughtful debate, and has lured ideological lemmings to follow their like-minded friends into the abyss.

I also agree there is little cause to believe that people behaving badly on the national level, who are rewarded for inciteful speech, will suddenly discover consensus-building.

But I do believe most of us want this to change and that we have the power within ourselves to channel our inner Ted Lasso, or as my favorite T-shirt says: Humankind. Be both.

Today, we are launching The Cardinal Way: Civility Rules. It’s an experiment to see if people in our part of Virginia can lower the heat and talk about hot-button issues. Can we listen to each other and respond to different views in a reasoned manner, and perhaps even find common ground or solutions?

Here’s one reason I think it will work. 

Last Election Day, I pulled into the parking lot of my Roanoke City poll with a mission to hurriedly weave between the campaign workers gathered outside. I wasn’t enamored by the choices and planned to vote for the candidates I found least distasteful, knowing all the posturing, finger-pointing, and misleading arguments would soon be packed away to await the next campaign cycle.

But on the way out, I spotted four women having a joyous time talking and laughing as they handed out campaign literature. I asked if I could take their picture for Cardinal News. Absolutely, they said. Turned out two were working for Republican candidates, one for a Democratic candidate and one for an Independent. They hadn’t met each other until that day, and by mid-afternoon they were enjoying each other’s company so much they were planning to get together again.

Here were four women who are so dedicated to their ideology that they volunteered to stand for hours outside in the cold to ask strangers to vote for their candidates. Yet they could become fast friends just by talking with each other. They found commonalities that bridge the partisan divide.

Local newspapers used to provide a forum and set the tone for public debate through their editorial and op-ed pages.  

No matter if a newspaper leaned left or right with its own institutional voice, it welcomed differing views. Certain ethical standards were understood: 

  • Writers had to own their opinions by signing their commentaries and letters.
  • Writers were entitled to believe whatever they wanted, but they were not entitled to their own set of facts.
  • Op-eds based purely on conjecture, that lacked foundational underpinnings, or were proffered simply to incite, landed in the circular file. 

Then along came the Internet and out went all the rules.

We could talk at length about the demise of newspapers and moderated op-ed pages and the rise of social media and forums that encourage people to seek out mirrors reflecting their views rather than windows that open onto independent, fact-based information. But that talk would just lead to the hand-wringing hopelessness that we all feel.

I still believe local news organizations can – and must – lead the people of their communities to ask more from themselves and from their leaders; to hold people accountable for misinformation; and to demand context. The context is key to understanding the complexity of today’s issues. That is one of the fundamental reasons we founded Cardinal News.

We don’t allow anonymous comments, and we don’t accept letters to the editor.

But I have been giving much thought to figuring out how we can provide a space for thoughtful, knowledgeable people to enlighten us with new ideas and concepts and to challenge us to better understand people whose views differ from our own.

The Cardinal Way isn’t meant for one side to score points over another. Instead, it is intended for us to explore various sides of an issue, and to do it in a way that we enlighten rather than repulse. 

I know we will probably have writers whose ideas run counter to every belief I hold dear. But I also know pretending these views don’t exist is foolish, and shunning people who think differently will not allow us to tackle local challenges.

Not everything is political. Nor does every difficult issue need to be contentious. Most of us are not strident ideologues. We may tend to view issues from a conservative or liberal lens but we may also describe ourselves as “independents” or “moderates” or “centrists.”  

In the coming weeks we will bring you essays on issues that matter to all of us: the new makeup of the General Assembly, debate on abortion, housing challenges, to name a few.

We want to hear your thoughts, too. With each issue, there will be an opportunity to tell us what you think, and whether anything you’ve read here has helped to better inform your views.

One closing thought. The Pew Research Center last week released results of its latest survey gauging the public’s trust or mistrust of information from national media, local media and social media. Local news outlets remain the most trusted source among all age groups.

I’d like to think that’s due in part because people are closer to local news; they know if it rings true. I’d also like to think that gives us an opportunity to provide a forum to talk about local issues that matter in a reasoned way.

We can remain paralyzed by the futility of seeking a national fix to our polarization. Or we can come together as neighbors, remember that we are all more than the political signs we plant in our yards, and seek to better understand each other.

Luanne Rife is executive director of Cardinal News.