Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, talks about the seven "toxins" poisoning American society, during the Knight Media Forum. Photo courtesy of the Knight Foundation.

MIAMI – The list would make Pittsburghers cringe and it certainly wouldn’t land the city on any most livable rankings.

The Post-Gazette firing cartoonist Rob Rogers for criticizing President Trump too often. Donald Trump saying he’s president of Pittsburgh, not Paris, when it comes to climate change. The East Pittsburgh police killing of Antwon Rose. The Tree of Life synagogue massacre.

“In the last two or three years, it has felt to me at times like Pittsburgh is at this weird, eerie vortex of cosmic relevance in our country … ,” Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, said here in Miami to an audience of hundreds of foundation funders, journalists and others. (Heinz provides grant funding for the On Media column.)

“But as I thought about this and as I’ve talked to constituents around the country about how I feel about what’s happening in Pittsburgh, what I hear over and over and over again is, ‘It ain’t just you.’”

Oliphant sees a combination of at least seven “toxins” poisoning civil society — in Pittsburgh, and across the United States. He laid them bare in late February, as a keynote speaker at the annual Knight Media Forum, an event sponsored by the Knight Foundation, a leading supporter of journalism causes. His talk focused on “The First Amendment and Communities: The View From Pittsburgh.”

The answer to combatting this civic putridity, he suggested, starts with investing in mechanisms for public accountability such as journalism, media and the integrity of democratic systems.

Grant Oliphant (left), president of The Heinz Endowments, speaks with Jim DeFede, journalist at CBS Miami-WFOR, at the Knight Media Forum. Photo courtesy of the Knight Foundation.

“We are in a moment of national forgetting in our country. We are forgetting what memory tells us. Memory tells us that we have committed grievous harms against people based on race, against people based on ethnicity, against people based on being somehow differentiated from the majority. We have to atone for that.

“We are forgetting that we pay a price for hateful rhetoric. That poisoning our air and our water comes with consequences for us and for our children and our grandchildren. That we lose every time we ignore science. That we suffer when we ignore each other’s pain. Memory teaches us that we pay the ultimate price for disunity and contempt. Pride is telling us none of that matters, only my group matters, and only this moment matters. So we have to lean in on the side of memory …”

The 7 toxic sins

Here’s what Oliphant laid out for the audience:

  1. Discrimination. “This is simply racism, sexism, the historical and current patterns of inequity that continue to divide our society and that we have not settled for centuries and decades, and that are suddenly relevant in new ways.”
  2. Alienation. “This is the sense that some people have of, ‘I’m being left behind, and not just that, but unworthy others are getting ahead at my expense.’”
  3. Fragmentation. “Simply a retreat into communities of identity.”
  4. Demonization. “This is all about the language we use about how we look at each other, and it’s the language of the enemy within. It manifests on T-shirts that say things like, ‘I’d rather be Russian than Democrat.’ It manifests in language like, ‘We are currently seeing that America is on the cusp of a new civil war.’”
  5. Disinformation and misinformation. “I think we need to coin a new term, which is dis-misinformation.” In a context where everyone lies, you “choose to believe what you want to believe.”
  6. Politicization. “This one is especially toxic to those of us who work in the civic sector. This is the thing that says, ‘Everything is political.’ … When everything becomes political, including the core values of the civic sector, it raises the question of how we operate at all.”
  7. Resignation. “In the context of not knowing where to get your information, not knowing whom to trust, not knowing who’s on your side, not having common meeting grounds for people, people do begin to lose faith in the actual possibility of change.”

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.