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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: What do you bring to the conversation?

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 20, 2022

Every column has a context affecting the tone and topic. Writing on Wednesday for Thursday morning publication, today’s context is preparation for a panel discussion called “Beyond Politics: Beginning the Conversation.”

Wednesday night I co-hosted a two-hour livestream with Jim Wavada and other community leaders from different points of the political spectrum for a conversation on the media stew creating a toxic context for conversation. The plan was to also share thoughts on addressing homelessness in Spokane.

Yes, that’s the same Jim Wavada who in a recent well-written letter to the editor vehemently disagreed with my conclusions in a Jan. 6 column on the question of riot or insurrection.

We still disagree. We’ve been talking for several years, have disagreed many times and we’re still talking. That’s the point behind the project.

Beyond Politics is the inspiration of Mike Gahvarehchee, an immigrant who made a dangerous hike out of Iran over the mountains to a Turkish refugee camp on his journey to America. After transiting through Italy and then joining a relative in California where he met his future wife, he enrolled at Washington State University to study science and engineering.  They are settled in Spokane, where she practices medicine. In 2015, he started Muneris Inc., a company specializing in panelized construction. It’s a classic refugee to riches American success story.

Like so many immigrants before him, his deep appreciation for American-style democracy is rooted in his context. He knows what the alternative looks like after experiencing the ayatollahs taking control, enforcing a single ideology. It’s why the power struggle between two parties for supremacy is a frightening spectacle. The possibility of destruction of our democracy or major collateral damage from the ongoing fight is real for him.

Gahvarehchee came up with the concept for the forum and proposed it during an interview at the Spokane Talks Media studio with Kent Adams, general manager for the station. Adams recruited me and I recruited Wavada. The goal is to start building bridges while respecting differences.

Our plan called for us to start with a look at what Wavada calls “our poisoned information ecosystem.” Headlines have always been designed to grab attention, but in a click bait era they have the potential to spread damage faster than a tsunami wave after an exploding volcano.

The problem doesn’t always start with an online upstart media outlet jumping to worst-case conclusions over a vague item on a state Board of Health meeting agenda. Not only the source but anything fitting too neatly into your worst fears should be questioned. So should headlines reinforcing your preferred flavor of “I told you so.”

In December 2016, the Washington Post shared a breaking news headline screaming “Russian hackers penetrated US electricity grid through utility in Vermont, US officials say.” For those still dreaming of villainous Russian agents hacking the previous election, it was a tasty story. It was shared. Virally. Which is particularly ironic given another Washington Post article six months earlier, announcing the results of a study indicating over 60% of shares on social media are based on the headline alone.

According to a Jan. 1, 2017, Forbes.com article analyzing this breakdown in editorial caution, it took nearly 11 hours for the story to be put into context and the headline rewritten to reflect the real problem. One isolated laptop was found with Russian malware, and it wasn’t connected to the utility grid. The electrical distribution system was in fine shape but the media ecosystem is still filled with malware from a fake news story gone viral.

If you think you’ve never been taken in by a fake news headline, you’re probably wrong. We asked our panelists to share their thoughts on how we restore our ability to work together on practical problems without being bound by our biases and dragged down by unraked, muck-filled media.

Also on the agenda for the evening was homelessness. It’s an issue which lends itself to sensational headlines glossing over a complex situation. No one organization or individual is the archvillain or has superhero powers, tying up all the loose ends by the end of one movie. It’s more of a long-term franchise with never-ending sequels.

I don’t expect that we were able to reach solutions Wednesday night either, but if it all goes as planned we’ll begin a conversation on both causes and impacts. It is mental health AND property damage, addiction AND public safety, tenant accountability AND affordable rentals. It’s not the kind of problem we can easily buy our way out of or check off a list with a simple solution.

Our reactions to screaming headlines and burning social problems will always be shaped by our personal experiences and belief systems. We find ways to live together in the face of complex problems when we listen to how our lives and the lives of others have been touched. Everyone holds a piece of the truth.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

This column has been updated to correct where Mike Gahvarehchee stayed on his way to the U.S., where he met his wife and what he studied at WSU.

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