Beyond “Talkers”

Whatever your position on health cost containment, narrowing the education achievement gap, fiscal sustainability, tax equity, and infrastructure development, most agree that they are issues that will shape Minnesota’s long-term future.

So, which issue did the Star Tribune prioritize above others for inclusion in its Minnesota Poll, and subsequent front page placement?

Liquor sales on Sunday.

I’m sure people have strong opinions about the relative merits of having our Sabbath on the rocks, so, okay, it deserves some coverage. At the same time, some perspective is necessary. After all, Minnesota’s future isn’t particularly dependent on the outcome of the debate. We can plan ahead on Saturday, or take a day off, and our quality of life won’t suffer so very much. That issue is only in the poll because it is conducive to comfy snap judgements. It is “approachable.”

A few McIssues in my news is fine. Fun even. But newsrooms are overdoing it. There is so much obsession with these trivial “talkers” — the term radio producers sometimes use to refer to issues that are easy for all listeners to follow — that they crowd out adequate discussion of the issues that may well, if neglected, seriously screw up our future.

Of course, there’s always been trivia and imbalance in the news. But it’s getting worse. We now know practically everything there is to know beer on Sunday, “defense of marriage,” Zygiworld, beer sales at Gopher games, abortion gotcha games, the royal wedding, and other marquee talkers. But as we are tittering about Beatrice’s bonnet, Minnesota’s schools, infrastucture, health system, safety net and middle class are teetering.

The problem with the game of Trivial Pursuit being played out on our front pages can be summed in two words: Opportunity cost. When the Minnesota Poll is engaging Minnesotans about liquor sales on Sunday, it’s NOT engaging us on issues that will greatly impact our future.

For instance, the Minnesota Poll isn’t’ probing about things like: 1) what sacrifices will we accept to reduce medical costs; 2) which of the evidence-based policies for reducing the student achievement gap would citizens endorse, 3) would citizens be willing to give up all their tax loopholes in return for lower rates and a simpler system, and 4) do citizens want corporations to disclose their political contributions? These are but a few samples of the dozens of orphan issues being wholly or partly crowded out of the paper by a gazillion column inches per year of Trivial Pursuit.

I’m not naive about commercial pressures and reader preferences. I’m not arguing for the Star Tribune to read like an academic journal. I’m just suggesting that more often mixing in deeper content would be good for the commonweal, and good for maintaining readership with some of us who may not be quite as shallow as editors suppose.

With the Minnesota Poll, Star Tribune editors especially have a unique opportunity a few times per year to engage us rubes in some of the more impactful issues we collectively face. The right to sauce on Sundays, as deliciously rantable as it is, does not fall into that category.

- Loveland

10 Responses

  1. Raising those issues would not necessarily force the Strib into dense, academic writing. Those issues are inherently interesting. You are right that editors assume shallowness, doing a disservice to readers and abdicating their responsibility to keep readers informed. Ignorance is not shallowness. If people are ignorant, the media aren’t doing their job.

    (I vote for liquor on Sundays.)

    • What I REALLY would like is to be able to buy a couple quarts of malt liquor on Sunday AND read in depth wonky coverage in the Sunday paper at the same time. That would be so trippy.

  2. I want to be able to buy my liquor on Sundays, AND I want to be able to do that at the grocery store!

  3. Still, there is something to be said for a sampling of opinions where the respondents are competent to make their case and have not had their brains massaged by spin points and media campaigns.

    I say this as someone who lives across the Red River from Fargo where I can go on Sunday to correct lapses in the beer cellar.

  4. I understand your point and would agree if the opportunity cost weren’t there. There are so many big issues that we are ignoring when focusing on talkers.

    For what it’s worth, I am with you on blue laws. Theocratic.

    • What I would really like to see is what the strib did during the great “Hillary Care” fright; they set up citzens’ panels all over the state where they gave the panels information, time and access to expertise as they deliberated over the best form of health care. The results as I recall were much more impressive than anything that has come out of Congress.

      Incidentally, up until sometime in the 70′s North Dakota was pretty sabbatarian, so much so that Dakotans had to come over to MN to buy a lot of stuff on Sunday. Then the priests of the Temple of Mammon, aka West Acres Mall, complained and got the right to sell stuff on Sunday. I don’t know that the state slid any further into the depths of depravity because of it, and it certainly increased the number of strip malls in Fargo.

      • @John:

        http://www.peopleandparticipation.net/display/Methods/Citizens+Jury

        A looooooong time ago I brought to fruition a production format at MN Public TV called: “Gavel,” which was essentially a public policy citizens jury dressed up as a real court trial. The first one we did was on the issue of “living wills,” about which the MCCL had grave concerns.

        Each side of a question were assigned actual lawyers; they could call their own witnesses and cross examine the other side’s; we had a district court judge to keep things kosher; and then the jury’s deliberations were shot with the “verdict” as the denouement.

        We used the U of M’s moot courtroom for the first effort, but TPT eventually created a set of their own. They ought to dust off “Gavel” and bring it to bear on some of these questions confronting us all.

        The format’s most appealing characteristic from TPT’s perspective is that it’s cheap to produce, like Almanac.

  5. Maybe if they disguised it as a reality show they could sell it commercially. Seriously, it sounds like a good idea.

    There are all sorts of subjects, like fixing Social Security, where a citizens’ panel primed with a little expertise could come us with solutions that would be far smarter than anything coming out of congress.

    • Too bad C-SPAN has what I presume to be a minimalist production budget. It’s a pretty cheap thing to shoot. And if you sexed it up a little with a jimmy jib and dolly camera as relief from all the static shots, it’d be watchable, especially if you were rigorous in choosing lawyers, a judge and jurors with a pulse…

      Eh, what am I saying? if H.L. Mencken were here he’d bitch slap me ’til my ears bled.

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