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Commentary: The trouble with mainstream media

A while ago, a student came to see me after she had badly bombed a midterm. Her goal in life is to be an on-air TV personality. Though she is a senior, it was clear that she didn’t really know how to study or take notes, and read only when forced to.

This was a course in the history of journalism, and one of her major mistakes was claiming that the African-American press tried in the 1930’s to turn people against slavery.

Slavery had then been abolished for 70 years. I asked if she knew that the Civil War had led to the end of slavery. She did not, and asked me when the Civil War was.

I said that if I told her, she would forget, and that she needed to look it up and then report back. She thought that was reasonable, and then paused. “What countries were involved in the Civil War? I mean, I know America was one of them,” she said.

Now, that was a bit of an extreme case -- but not as much as you might think. I am not telling you this to attack how history is taught in the public schools.  I’m thinking about the media.

As pretty much everybody knows, traditional mainstream media -- the daily newspaper and the half-hour TV broadcast, are in trouble.

Young people mostly don’t read or watch them. There are a lot of reasons for this, and for the decline of mainstream media in general, and they have been endlessly debated.

But regardless of how you feel about that, I am about to utter heresy here. It seems to me that when we were a captive audience dependent on news packages served up by the mainstream media, people may have been better informed than today.

Anybody can get on the internet today and find vast amounts of information on anything from Faberge eggs to the Fiscal Cliff. But nobody can take it all in. The operating principle behind mainstream news media was this: We would give you a manageable package or digest of today’s news, a selection of what we thought was important on a world, national, state and local level, with some things thrown in that were just plain fun.

Now, on the old days, was that package too heavily weighted with what middle-aged white guys thought was important? Absolutely. Did we miss a lot of cultural stories and often give short shrift to women and minorities? Sure we did.

But nevertheless, those dreadful old newspaper editors and broadcast executives served up a coherent package that provided Americans with common intellectual furniture, and the basis for a common conversation about the issues facing us all.

We are losing that, and this frightens me more than the fiscal cliff. I am not talking about people who listen to public radio, or the politicians and experts I talk with as a journalist.

But we need to be aware that there are millions of Americans who not only don’t know the facts, they don’t have the mental furniture needed to fully participate in the conversation. We are becoming two societies; an educated one with common values and assumptions, and one that isn’t even on the same wavelength.

Which means we may be on the scariest cliff of all.   

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.