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Lyons: Twist and shout is theme song for national news stories

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014 11:20 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014 6:49 a.m. CDT

The statement should be fairly obvious, but President Barack Obama was right.

After reading that statement alone, about two-thirds of readers decided whether they might like this column or will most certainly hate it.

It doesn’t matter whether or not I ever voted for Obama, disagree with other things he’s said or am a certified wacky birther. I just agreed with something he said, which is enough for some to form an opinion on what follows.

And that’s the point.

“Listen and not just shout.”

When major events in the news take place such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, people have strong reactions – as they should. An unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a police officer. A town is in chaos.

It is a circus, with clowns pandering to cameras and just plain opportunistic criminals. But it’s not only a circus; it’s a very real story, and a complex one with many layers about race, police response and distrust.

What we shouldn’t do is gear up for ideological battles with limited facts. But this is exactly what many do in 2014. We’ve tailored our newsfeeds to look at major events through the filters we’ve chosen – ideologically driven cable news channels, blogs or websites. They will tell us how we should think.

We shout, but we rarely listen anymore. Listening is hard. Real communication takes effort. Perspective requires knowledge – even wisdom. And acknowledging another person’s point is bizarrely characterized as a form of intellectual weakness.

In any news event, there are many relevant facts to consider. We blame the media focusing on some facts but not others even though this is exactly what news consumers do.

Maybe the fact that Michael Brown was reportedly shoplifting before the shooting and appeared to be intimidating a store clerk wasn’t relevant to you. Why not? For context, there are a few dozen retail thefts a week in McHenry County, none of which resulted in shootings.

The officer also apparently didn’t know about the incident before he confronted Brown. We don’t know much for certain about that confrontation other than Brown was shot six times and unarmed. There’s obviously more to it than that, and the details of that confrontation are critical.

So far, the remaining facts are mostly speculation and unconfirmed rumors, including reports about injuries to the officer. You can blame the media for a lack of facts, but you might want to blame those who have the facts for withholding them, too. You also can find people who will speculate for you if you chose not to do so yourself.

There’s plenty of media reaction to criticize, and we blame the media for the speculation, but which “media” are we angry with? That’s a broad term. Maybe it’s the vast liberal media, whoever they are, or those whose strings are pulled by right-wing corporate-owned tools of the establishment if you prefer.

That would be cool if being informed was that simple, wouldn’t it? I don’t have to listen to a thing that guy says because he works for Liberal Media Network or she has no credibility because the Koch brothers write her news copy for her.

Or maybe you’re even more principled and hate all media in general, which never makes sense because where does the information come from – outlets who make no apologies about how they filter the news? They’re still part of the media.

Oh, you mean the mainstream media? So what’s that? Is it network news that no one watches anymore? Is it the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? Is it CNN or Fox? How about your local newspaper or TV news? It’s just another meaningless buzzword.

Depending on your definition of the media, I’ve been in the media for a few decades. We don’t all think alike. Weirdos of all stripes are welcome. In fact, the only overriding group-think I’ve observed is that most of us are nauseated by group-think.

I’ve never asked reporters how they vote or which party they support, and, frankly, I don’t care. The job is the job. Like any other job, we don’t ask who they love or pray to, either.

What’s asked of reporters when not writing opinion pieces is that they stay open-minded and seek relevant information on the subject they’re writing about and keep their personal opinions in check.

Also part of the media, there are pundits who get paid to form opinions and paid “experts” who play characters on cable news to say what we expect them to say. They should be separated from actual journalists. Nuance doesn’t enter into it. Not often enough.

The us-against-them teams are artificially assembled on radio or cable news for those who need to know who’s on which team before making up their minds. People follow two-dimensional characters such as Rush Limbaugh, Lawrence O’Donnell, Al Sharpton and the list goes on. Black or white? Liberal or conservative? Pick a team and start shouting.

Some politicians play the game, too, playing to an audience with buzzwords, hyperbole and pandering with statements that middle-school children would recognize as pablum that not even the politician himself actually believes.

The shouts, and more importantly who’s shouting at whom, allows us to gather with our respective teams. Team Hannity or Team Maddow. It’s like “Twilight” for the middle-aged and elderly who should know that werewolves and vampires are fictitious, and TV ideologues are actors.

Last week, a former colleague posted a Facebook comment about how commenters on a large Wisconsin newspaper website were arguing over whether a woman who was kicked in the head by a giraffe was a liberal or conservative. It’s funny, but it’s also not surprising and kind of depressing.

It’s hard to have serious discussions or any progress in this country until people stop worrying more about locking arms ideological buffoonery than actually solving problems.

Or we could just keep shouting, but I can guarantee that the people worth influencing have stopped listening.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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