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NPR journalist Liasson: U.S. in 'stress test'

National Public Radio political correspondent Mara Liasson discusses "fake news" and the new age of media at the Olafson Ethics Symposium at UND Tuesday. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
(From left) Mara Liasson, Thomas DiLorenzo, Bob Olafson and UND President Mark Kennedy and first lady Debbie Kennedy listen to UND Interim Dean of the College of Business and Public Administration's opening remarks at the 13th annual Olafson Ethics Symposium. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

Americans are too polarized and because of that, the nation is enduring a “real stress test,” the speaker at the annual Olafson Ethics Symposium told an overflow crowd Tuesday evening at UND.

Mara Liasson, who has covered six presidential elections as a correspondent for National Public Radio and Fox News, spoke for more than an hour at Memorial Union during the annual event, designed to provide students and the business community an opportunity to learn the importance of personal and professional ethics.

Liasson told the crowd -- mostly students but also faculty and local residents -- that polarization has led Americans to form tribes that have eroded ethical standards.  

“America is way too polarized, and this is a huge problem,” she said. “You can see it in Congress. There used to be conservative Democrats and liberal to moderate Republicans. Together, the overlap between those two groups made up the center of American politics -- where deals got done and compromises were made. But that center is de-populated now.”

She calls it “the big sort.”

“Americans have sorted themselves out, so they live in more homogenous communities. We now tend to live near other people who look like us, think like us, vote like us and worship like us,” Liasson said. “For all the diversity in America, there is a tremendous amount of self-segregation, and I don’t mean racially.”

Liasson has spent four decades in journalism, starting at a newspaper in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. She joined NPR in 1985 as a general-assignment reporter and newscaster and today is NPR’s national political correspondent. She also contributes to Fox News.

“She’s a real rock-star journalist,” UND President Mark Kennedy said. “She has a 360-degree view and sees all sides of every issue. That’s what a liberal arts university like the University of North Dakota should do. So if you see someone who is both on NPR and also the Fox All-Stars and can cover that degree of range, you know (she) thinks with a 360-degree view.”

She spoke at length about Donald Trump’s presidency and how his public disdain of the media, for example, has added to national discourse. Any news Trump doesn’t like is considered fake news by the president and his followers, which adds to national polarization and further erosion of trust and civility. A more polarized country is more susceptible to the fake news phenomenon, she said.

She asked: “What happens when you push the boundaries as far as they can go?”

“Ethical standards are the way that we express ourselves. Public servants express themselves through their behavior,” she said. “These norms, oftentimes there is very little penalty for breaking them. They aren’t written into law. What I think is happening right now in American politics is that all of these norms and ethical standards are being stretched to the breaking point. … The question is, how far do we want to push the ethical envelope?”

She gave the crowd a list of suggestions to overcome polarization, erosion of ethical standards and political tribalism: Get out of safe spaces; stop talking only to people who agree with you; consume news from different sources; be a better citizen and stay informed about local government; run for office; and join a group -- any kind of group.

“If we lose the ability to solve differences in a civil way, we really will lose our democracy,” she said.