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Published: Sunday, 5/9/2010

Vary reading for more civil discourse

FORTY-SIX years ago, Lyndon Johnson chose the University of Michigan's spring commencement to set out his notion of the Great Society. We all know how that turned out - great on vision, not so great on results - but we've forgotten the promise that President Johnson set out that afternoon in Ann Arbor:

"We are going to assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of White House conferences and meetings - on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. And from these meetings and from this inspiration and from these studies we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society."

Last weekend, the heir to President Johnson, or at least the successor seven times removed, delivered a Michigan commencement address in a very different time with a very different set of challenges. Barack Obama, too, had a message for the times - and for the students who were taking their degrees:

"If you're somebody who only reads the editorial page of the New York Times, try glancing at the pages of the Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post Web site. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy."

America hasn't cured poverty or the problems of the cities, nor even come close to understanding the best ways to educate our young, in the nearly half century between these two commencement addresses. But today more than ever we need to seek what Johnson called "the best thought" and we surely need "the broadest knowledge."

Indeed, Mr. Obama's plea to the readers of the editorial page of the Times to look at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is as vital in 2010 as Johnson's promise to consult broadly and - this is a much-ignored phrase from LBJ's Ann Arbor text - his conviction that "the solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in Washington."

If a university education means anything, it means an openness to ideas that are disquieting and discomfiting. But anyone who has spent time with recent college graduates - or their parents and other elders - knows that in a time when a broader menu of information is available, at the flick of a keystroke, than at any time in human history, Americans are more interested in views that conform with their own, produced by news outlets that look at the world the way they do, featuring opinion leaders who reinforce rather than challenge their ideological inclinations.

This applies to readers of the Journal's editorial pages as much as to readers of the Times's, to the listeners of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh as much as to those who place the Huffington Post Web site among their favorites.

All this comes at a time when we also crave civility and compromise. A recent Zogby International Poll taken in conjunction with a civility offensive at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., found that 95 percent of Americans want civility in politics, 87 percent want political disagreement to be respectful, and 70 percent want compromise.

I wrote about these findings last week and, of course, was besieged by angry e-mailers - like Tolstoy's families, every unhappy writer unhappy in his own way.

The very first note blamed the liberals and their unremitting attacks on George W. Bush for the incivility of the current age. The second blamed the conservatives and their talk-radio jeremiads for the rancid tone of contemporary discourse. And so on, note after note.

It's Bill Clinton's fault. No, it's Newt Gingrich's fault. It's the socialist in the White House who wants the government to own everything and make your health-care decisions. It's the big corporations that control the press and refuse to acknowledge the capitalist corruption of American life.

It was a political version of he said/she said. Yuk.

I'm convinced that a good deal of this comes from the twin echo chambers that are polluting our civic life. One is Washington, where I wrote for a quarter century while growing weary of listening to the same old people peddling the same old same old. The second is our - all of our - tendency to seek books, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, Web sites, and cable ranters who echo our own thoughts and transform those thoughts into prejudices.

I'm an editor fiercely dedicated to the survival of my own newspaper - and to its Web site, premium subscription service, and mobile dispatches. But it's not the only local publication I read.

The experience of reading the New Republic can only be enhanced by reading the Weekly Standard, too. It would be a shame to miss the National Review - or the Guardian Weekly. And, yes, by all means read the editorial page of the Journal and its equivalent on the Times. Your day, and your outlook, can't be complete without them both - and many more Web sites.

Just as I was finishing typing this piece another e-mail flew in, full of the usual bluster and blame, too drearily predictable to quote here. Here's how I answered it, perhaps too hastily:

"I have received tons of notes from people on the right blaming the liberals and people on the left blaming the conservatives. I'm tired of both. You're right and they're right and together you are wrong."

We could all use a more open mind, myself included.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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