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We've lost our intellectual furniture

Jack Lessenberry

Here’s something that we seldom realize, but which incessantly fascinates me. You know that for some time, microbreweries have been all the rage. But in fact, we live in a world full of microcultures, which we like to think are more or less interwoven into whatever passes for mainstream culture.

Increasingly, however, there seems to be less and less of a common thread. During my professional career I’ve come to learn that people who work in news operations, especially editors and managers, are often curiously blind to this. If you are putting together a regular news broadcast, or a newspaper, or report of some sort, you are necessarily trying to impose a manageable order on the world.

Editors don’t think that way at all. They think they are engaged in the business of finding out the most important, interesting and relevant news, distilling it into a manageable package, and delivering it to people so that they can make sense of things.

Newspaper editors and news directors tend to be extremely well-informed and well-rounded people, with a broad grasp of the sweep of events. Except that what they miss is that most people don’t see the world that way. The other night I was at a birthday dinner in an odd restaurant called the Mulefoot Gastropub in a rural area of Michigan’s thumb.

There was a table in back where a group of men were having a long, intense discussion, with faces that reminded me of Hollywood portrayals of the American high command during the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were clearly discussing something very important about which the news seemed to be very bad.

Being curious, I managed to slowly walk by their table on the way to the room set aside for those who, like me, drink large amounts of coffee. Turned out they were talking about the complete collapse of the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen, and what should be done about it.

My guess is that they were only dimly aware of most of what journalists tend to think are the major issues of the day, other than perhaps our crumbling roads. They could, however, just as easily have been talking about breeding Beagles, or quilting. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is far more to life than worrying about who is going to be nominated for president next year.

However, what I worry about is this: Thirty years ago, most of us got a coherent daily picture of reality from a newspaper and from nightly national and local news broadcasts.

Nearly all shared a similar view of what news was. That may have been a flawed and too-narrow view, too heavily shaped by middle-aged white men. But you could assume people had similar sets of common knowledge. You cannot assume that anymore. Only a small minority regularly reads a daily paper or watches a nightly news broadcast. Almost no one under forty does.

That could be part of the reason why we find it so hard to get a consensus on solving any issue. Any successful society needs common assumptions and, to an extent, what I call common intellectual furniture. We’ve lost some of that, due to the decline of mainstream media.

Finding a way to get it back may be more essential than we know.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. 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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