Tom West: Hard to learn when not all seek knowledge

Do you suppose that one reason the nation is seemingly so divided over issues is because we have stopped searching for new knowledge? Or that we have all developed stronger opinions on the right and wrong of public policy?...

Do you suppose that one reason the nation is seemingly so divided over issues is because we have stopped searching for new knowledge? Or that we have all developed stronger opinions on the right and wrong of public policy?

A week ago Friday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty stopped by the Minnesota Newspaper Association's annual convention to address a luncheon crowd of about 300 people.

As expected, Pawlenty outlined some of his plans and policies, then stuck around to answer a few questions.

The first person to the microphone began, "I don't have a question; I have a statement. You should be ashamed. ..."

It went downhill from there.


The speaker was upset about a Pawlenty health care plan that would cut some poor people's subsidies. It was fair comment, but the problem was most of the people in the room wanted to hear what the governor had to say, not somebody in the crowd.

After the speaker finished his initial tirade, the governor said bitterly, "Well, there's a comment from an unbiased journalist. Gosh, there's no bias in the media there."

That brought the guy back to the mike, and before they finished exchanging pleasantries, he told the governor twice more that he should be ashamed.

I'm not sure that the message got through; the governor seemed more steamed than humbled.

Finally, Pawlenty asked the speaker what newspaper he was with, and the man replied, "I'm not a reporter."

That brought hoots from the crowd, many of whom were reporters and editors and were a little embarrassed by the man's behavior. Collectively we've been to thousands of press conferences, and the protocol for journalists is to ask questions, not make statements. We journalists find that we learn a lot more that way.

I learned afterward, that the man was a journalism professor from St. Mary's College in Winona. His name is Steve Shild.

Shild also thought the newspaper association was at fault for not allowing equal time for a rebuttal to the governor's statement. When one of our board members told him that his comments were unwelcome, I'm told the professor immediately used the "free speech" defense.


Sometimes our basic rights come into conflict, and this was one of those instances. Free speech clashed with the right to peaceably assemble. The preference of the majority to hear what the governor had to say was interrupted by one person that almost nobody wanted to listen to.

After watching the interruption, I found myself reflecting on several similar instances at the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota Duluth. Administrators at those schools have told me that it is now commonplace when a speaker opens up the floor for questions that at least a couple of people are more interested in making statements than asking questions.

Susan Beasy Latto, public relations director at UMD, said, "Some people make statements, but cleverly formulate it around a question."

I'm beginning to wonder if this is a reflection of a larger trend. On the Internet, the Age of the Blogger has begun. Bloggers are anybody with an opinion on anything who create a Web page to express their opinion.

Bob Ashenmacher, public relations director at the College of St. Scholastica, has seen many people make statements during a Q & A session, but doesn't think the phenomenon has increased in recent years. It's been with us for some time, he said. The biggest change he has seen is that the dialogue has become "coarser."

Maybe that's why it is more noticeable. When a person leads with "You should be ashamed," it's difficult to ignore.

Unfortunately, the event was not billed as "An argument with the governor." It was an opportunity for the governor to state his case to 300 journalists, nothing more, nothing less. If any of the journalists present were to write a story about the governor, one would expect they would seek out comment from the other side. They didn't need to have it right there.

Shild understandably did not know that the newspaper association routinely invites state legislative leaders, statewide officeholders and our congressional delegation to attend our convention. Not many take advantage of the opportunity to talk to so many community leaders in one setting, but we like to have them come, if only just to mingle, because they are all newsmakers. Hubert Humphrey made a regular habit of it, and even Jesse Ventura, who loves to bash the media, showed up one year.


Still, I think the idea that one can voice an opinion in any venue has become more commonplace than it once was. I still believe that it is hard to learn when your mouth is open. And I wonder if that isn't part of the reason that society is so polarized these days.

    I promised last week that I would report what Thomas Jefferson character interpreter Bill Barker had to say at the newspaper association banquet.
    Barker/Jefferson spoke as if he were the newly re-elected president of 1805, which Jefferson was.

    He said we live in a 4 mile per hour world -- actually 3 mph on foot and 5 mph if on horseback, but it averages out to 4.

    He noted that the federal government now has 63 employees -- down from 73 after he eliminated 10 useless positions.

    He said that he replaced the custom of bowing to the president with shaking hands "in the Indian manner" because it showed that the visitor was not armed and meant no harm.

    Noting that he sat on the board of the American Bible Society, he said he thought the First Amendment was clear in its intent. "It's not the duty of the government to dictate religious opinion," he said. "Man is most free when he allows the civil authority to be separate from the ecclesiastical authority."

    With regard to the allegation that he fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings, he said only, "When you enter public office, you should never do in private what you would not do in public."

    Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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