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The need for open minds

Being a journalist was in many ways harder when I was working for newspapers in the 1970s and 80s. There was no Google, no World Wide Web, no search engines of any kind.

  We relied on land-line telephones, books, and old newspaper clippings kept in what we called the “morgue.”

But one thing was easier: We didn’t have to worry so much about what the public thought, unless we committed a huge, verifiable error, or ticked off the publisher’s best friend.

If people didn’t like something we wrote or said, essentially all they could do is try to call us or write a letter and complain. By the time we got the letter, the story was often old.

Well, we live in a different world these days, one that holds us far more accountable. Anyone can comment on virtually anything I write in a newspaper or say on the radio by just appending a comment at the end of the commentary or story.

They can also broadcast their thoughts to millions via social media. This isn’t always comfortable, but keeps us more honest. I have, on hopefully rare occasions, been caught in an error by alert and knowledgeable readers and listeners.

While this is highly embarrassing, I’m glad they can do that. In many other cases, I’ve had my mind opened to different points of view, or different dimensions of a particular story or issue.

Sometimes, I’ve even changed my mind entirely. And I appreciate people taking the time to intelligently write to me, even when I still end up disagreeing with them.

We journalists often deserve criticism.

However, I also need to turn the tables on our readers and listeners. Much of the time, when I scroll down the comment lists on these broadcasts or various things I write in other media, what I see is people parroting talking points from Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or MSNBC, or some other ideological factory.

Doing that is a waste of everyone’s time.

In some cases, those commenting don’t seem to have even read, much less thought about, what I actually said. Last week, for example, I delivered an essay that noted that ninety-five percent of Planned Parenthood’s work does not involve abortion.

In any event, I noted the federal government does not pay for any abortion related expenses, and abortion itself is a legal medical option. In response, I got a lot of gruesome emails about abortion, and was told on Facebook that I was a, “murderous baby-killing Nazi monster.” That’s not likely to accomplish rational persuasion.

Another commentary about a trade dispute with our fellow NAFTA partner Canada over the right to label beef and pork products with their country of origin provoked several readers to tell me we needed such labeling because they didn’t trust meat from China.

Well, I don’t either, but that has nothing to do with the United States and Canada. In his classic essay “The Idiot Culture,” Carl Bernstein accused the American media of “squandering their power and ignoring their obligations,” to relevance and truth.

These days, dear listeners, we are all part of the media, thanks to modern technology. How about if we all try to keep open minds … and be as honest as we can?

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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