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updated: 6/7/2012 9:59 AM

Newspapers and the role of listening in public debate

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And listen to others. Even the dull and ignorant. They too have their stories.

--"Desiderata," Max Ehrmann

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What is so bad about listening, especially about listening to "the other side?"

That question began to hound me after I listened to a news report on the results of the failed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The report first included excerpts from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's concession speech in which he told supporters he had told Walker both sides in the Wisconsin political division had "to listen to each other."

Barrett's supporters roundly booed the comment.

Then came a speech from Walker and after strong words about being vindicated, the governor, very reasonably I thought, told supporters that he'd spoken to Barrett and that one thing he's learned through all this is that he needs to be more inclusive and involve more people in decisions.

Again with the grumbling and the boos.

It's important to note that both leaders silenced their audiences and stood up for the importance of working together with opponents. But I was stricken by how ready the masses were to condemn and shun those who disagree with them. Advocates of both candidates were clearly more interested in conflict than cooperation.

That impression was reinforced by some of the reaction I received to the Daily Herald's editorial on Sunday, in which we urged factions in Illinois that are dealing with problems not unlike those of Wisconsin to resist the temptation to use the Wisconsin result, whatever it might be, as a political call to arms for their position. "In Illinois, let's resolve to avoid those divisions," we wrote. "Let's resolve to work together to reach a solution. Let's be reasonable with each other."

But "reasonable," I have to acknowledge, is a term that is open to some interpretation. At least, for many people what's "reasonable" is their point of view and what's "unreasonable" is anything contrary to that.

That kind of thinking doesn't leave a lot of room, unfortunately, for listening.

I opened this essay with a line from one of my favorite poems. Ehrmann introduces the line with this phrase: "Speak your truth quietly and clearly." It's an interesting approach when considered in the context of public debate. We can state our positions, our truths, consistently and strongly, but we will always get closer to the truth, if we listen to others -- even, as I suspect most of us qualify those who disagree with us, "the dull and ignorant."

Walker and Barrett both spoke in conciliatory terms about "working together" with the Wisconsin recall effort behind them. Illinois' many factions are wrestling practically as we speak with the complex and emotional dynamics of providing fair pensions for public workers in the midst of deep budget difficulties. Ultimate success for any of them surely will require accommodating the interests of other individuals and groups.

That requires a lot of listening, and it becomes even more critical when you consider the major election campaign set for this fall. So, our role in the process as a newspaper, it seems to me, ought to be to facilitate that by making sure that all sides get heard. We have to listen. We have to make sure you have the opportunity to listen.

And, hopefully, nobody will get booed.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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