On a night when we drank all the whiskey, Bill Holm nodded toward me and said to Robert Bly, “Just think, more people read his work than both of us put together.”
Though I was feeling kind of honored just to be in the room with a world-famous poet and a Minnesota-famous poet whose work I greatly admired, I had an inkling that what he said was probably true. At the time, my work was appearing in Successful Farming magazine, the largest farm magazine in the nation, and on DTN, the largest agricultural news service in North America. Including a few other publications, I had a weekly audience of around a million people.
It’s less now, mainly because I can be kind of a pain, which occasionally leads to periods of underemployment, but at the time it was accurate.
Of course, what Bill was far too polite to say was that despite the numbers of people who saw my work, they were the people who didn’t matter.
That hasn’t changed. My readers aren’t “deplorables” — I’m too much of a lefty to have many of those in my readership. Instead, by and large they’re small-town folks, the type of people who get form letters when they write their congressperson. Farmers, blue-collar workers, a few preachers and a smattering of other people. Odds are they’re never going to be wisely opining on a CNN panel, and if a politician does come into town, they usually leave as soon as possible for a bigger place with decent food. But do you know what all those folks agree on?
That’s a trick question. They’re people, not a herd of lemmings. They don’t agree on much. They all have their own priorities, their own joys and miseries. It’s such a huge mistake to lump all of us people who don’t matter together, cramming us into some notch or niche.
In “The Murrow Boys,” Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson’s book about the beginnings of broadcast journalism, there’s a paragraph about Edward R. Murrow schooling Eric Sevareid and William Shirer, among others, in the use of this new medium. He said, “Pretend you’re at home, leaning on the fireplace explaining the story to the local dentist or professor. But then also pretend the maid and her truck driver husband are listening, too.”
Times change. Back then, everyone listened to the same news. Now we get to choose our news, choose our own truth. It’s so tempting to give in to that, to make the niches smaller and smaller, to tell your audience just what they want to hear. But that’s wrong and it’s not useful. I’m 63 years old. Over nearly half a century, various important people in various important jobs have shook my hand, looked earnestly into my eyes and tried to fit me into a handy slot so they can hit the right button. I’m fed up, and I’m not alone.
It’s not just telling people what you think they want to hear, it’s also listening only to what you want to hear. I was on a radio show a couple of times, as part of an expert panel. After the second show, I wrote a column about the experience, noting that everybody involved talked about doing things, but none of them had much experience in actually doing things. I sent a copy of the column to the producer of the show, because I was confident she wouldn’t see it otherwise. I never got a response, nor was I ever invited back.
I try hard to not pretend that I speak for more than just myself, but I’m going to go out on a limb here. One thing the people I care about have in common is that they’re sad. Sometimes cranky, sometimes furious, sometimes confused, but sad is what I see underneath it all. The people in charge, the important ones, have stopped paying attention. They’ve lost track of what matters, are consumed by trivial things, tiny vendettas and silly posturing. We need them to pay attention. We live in a good world, but it’s also a hard place, with some bad people and awful things going on. The important people need to wake up and be serious.
It’ll be for the best, for everyone. Historically speaking, it’s not good when the people who don’t matter are sad. And when they go from sad to mad, it’s the important people who suffer.
Brent Olson, of Ortonville, Minn., is a writer and a member of the Big Stone County Board.