Alternative facts flourish without "common intellectual furniture"

Mar 14, 2017

Many years ago, I taught a course in specialty publications at a small university in the Detroit suburbs. One of the students was a woman who was an executive secretary at General Motors.

She was nearing retirement, and she and her husband’s shared passion was a game called tabletop shuffleboard. Their dream was to publish a tabletop shuffleboard magazine.

I told her that I didn’t think there were enough people interested in tabletop shuffleboard to make such a publication financially viable. Well, she informed me that there were already three such publications. 

One was essentially moribund, but the other two were engaged in a fierce head-to-head competition. They wanted to buy one of these and use their savings and whatever she could learn from me to make it successful. I don’t know if she ever realized her dream. But she did help teach me something: We are a land of an infinite number of subcultures. There are thousands of people whose lives revolve around tropical fish, show dogs, fishing, wine, you name it.

Today would have been Albert Einstein’s 138th birthday. There’s an elderly physician in Bloomfield Hills who knew Einstein when he was a student at Princeton, who today has a multimillion dollar private Einstein library.

I’ve been in the home of a delightful couple whose lives centered on collecting glass target balls. Thirty years ago, I could have assumed that whatever their orientation, all these folks would know about the major political and economic issues of the day.

They were all fairly well-educated. I knew that they all got their news from some daily newspaper whose editors tried to give them a coherent digest of events, and from one of three or four network news broadcasts, which were more alike than different. Something existed then called the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast news to be more or less evenhanded.

Since the airwaves are public property, the Federal Communications Commission required those licensed to run a station that offered programming in the public interest, which meant news. Well, not long after that, the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned.

Nine years later, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 ended most restraints on how much of the broadcast market any one company could own. The FCC had already moved away from requiring stations to provide anything like evenhanded news.

For decades, the great national electronic chiefs of our tribe were Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They were where we went in times of crisis to find out what was true. They’ve largely been replaced by channels that reflect our own prejudices back at us. That means we no longer share an accepted vision of reality – what I call common intellectual furniture.

Michigan Radio does an amazing job at attempting to provide that locally. But it reaches only a minority of the population – and is also frequently under attack by those who want to believe in alternative facts, even after they’ve been shown to not be facts.

We are facing a number of crises in our state and nation, things like infrastructure and education that we urgently need to solve. My fear is that, unless we once again find a common language to discuss them, any attempt at solutions may be doomed.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.