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Hey, who rearranged the intellectual furniture?

Jack Lessenberry

In some ways it was easier to be a journalist back in the old pre-cyber days. Yes, the technology was harder to manipulate and information was harder to get. Yes, some of us actually worked in a world without Google.

But when we did whatever we did, we gave it to listeners, viewers, and readers in what was, essentially, a one-way conversation. We talked and wrote, and you listened and read.

Afterwards, if you had anything to say, you could try to call us or write a letter to the editor, which might or might not appear in print days or weeks later.

Good luck with that. Today, however, most news outlets are multi-media. You can post instant comments, rebuttals, or share new information.

This does help keep us on our toes. I often read the comments that people post on Michigan Radio’s website, and other places where I write. And I have to say that some of them, especially perhaps the intellectually critical ones, have been useful and valuable.

They’ve given me new information, and sometimes made me think, reexamine my reasoning, and show me new ways of looking at things.

Occasionally, they’ve persuaded me I was wrong. However, I have to say that, sadly, too many readers and listener comments aren’t like that. It’s almost as if they came from pre-programmed zombies.

Some seemingly haven’t even listened to or read what they are talking about. Last week one man complained that I hadn’t told listeners how much the special statewide election on the sales tax would cost.

Except that I did, both orally and in print.

I first noticed this back in the nineties, when I was writing about Jack Kevorkian and his assisted-suicide crusade for national publications. Most of the responses had very little to do with what I wrote.

People either said or wrote something along the lines that Kevorkian was violating God’s law, and was evil.

Or they said or wrote that their Aunt Martha had suffered horribly for years, begged to die, and that Kevorkian was a saint for helping folks like Martha get their wish.

Some of this disconnect is probably inevitable, but we appear more and more as a state and a nation to be having arguments in which both sides aren’t speaking the same language.

You can see that daily in the Legislature. The problem is not, as a friend said, that some people think two plus two make four, it's that some think two plus two make lime Jello.

We’ve always had sharp disagreements, but here’s what I think has changed the most in the last generation: For many years, people let their daily newspaper shape the agenda.

They also got a half hour of broadcast national news and a half hour of local news on their televisions at night.

The people deciding what was news everywhere were remarkably alike; middle-aged, mainly male, college educated. Their perspectives were limited, but they told us what to think about, and gave us some common intellectual furniture.

We don’t seem to have that now, or a common purpose or even a common enemy. Sometimes I think if we did, we’d all be much better off.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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