KEARNEY, Neb. — Chris Sommerich had an idea.
What if Nebraskans had a chance to talk about a touchy topic these days — say “fake news,” politics, journalism and the future of democracy?
What if they could do it in person, physically gathering in a room to discuss the issue openly.
What if journalists — local and national — weighed in?
What if everyone could do this in cities across Nebraska and not on social media, where sides are drawn, trenches are dug and — to continue the World War I metaphor — poison gas is spread?
So Sommerich, head of Humanities Nebraska, figured out a way to do just that.
With help from the organization that awards print journalism’s highest prize, the Pulitzer, and a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, plus a bunch of willing participants — including yours truly — Sommerich conducted a statewide series of talks with a weighty word in the title: “Trust.”
From Scottsbluff to Omaha and in four communities in between, Sommerich organized panels of experts, invited the public and held open discussions about the role of a free press in a democracy and threats to that.
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The structure was less a top-down lecture and more a bottom-up question-and-answer session with red Nebraskans who might be inclined to distrust the press and blue Nebraskans who might be inclined to think that the press isn’t doing enough watchdog work.
These regular Nebraskans engaged with one another and with national journalists like Sarah McCammon of National Public Radio and local journalists like Shon Barenklau, the Kearney Hub’s publisher.
Also on the docket were people like Matt Waite, a UNL professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in launching the fact-checking PolitiFact website.
The 90-minute forums kicked off last month in Norfolk, followed by talks in Scottsbluff, Omaha, North Platte and, on Thursday, Kearney.
The final event is scheduled for Nov. 28 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Innovation Campus.
Humanities Nebraska is a Lincoln-based organization that is funded by the federal government’s National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources.
Its role is to promote that which makes us human — events and activities that highlight the arts, culture and human understanding.
Sommerich said the idea grew out of anguish he heard statewide from Nebraskans of all political stripes who felt like there were few opportunities to engage with one another constructively on the hot issues of the day.
He said he was inspired by community conversations that the Norfolk Daily News conducts there and by the work of a group called Inclusive Communities in Omaha, a nonprofit that hosts monthly discussions on what can be difficult subjects.
The result was events like the one I participated in Thursday in Kearney.
More than 100 University of Nebraska at Kearney students attended an hourlong discussion about “fake news,” and at least 60 more people went to the later talk that was, more broadly, on journalism and democracy.
At each stop, audience members were handed a card that listed ground rules “for a productive conversation.” (Note: Bookmark this for Thanksgiving dinner.) The tips included civility, respect, brevity, objectivity and patience.
Kearney audience members asked pointed questions such as how to limit hate speech, how the consolidation of news outlets was hurting journalism, especially local journalism, and whether fluff was replacing meat in daily newspapers.
One woman said she wanted more local investigative work and fewer human interest stories.
One man challenged the idea of objectivity, saying news outlets instead should focus on accuracy and honesty.
Another — citing his age — asked how media outlets would tailor their products to young people who eschew the newspaper and local television.
Barenklau said that information is a franchise and that it will always be needed — it’s just that the way it’s delivered is evolving.
Waite said that no matter how technology shifts, “good, useful, verifiable, factual information” remains vital.
I made a shameless and naked pitch that the audience, which skewed older, get their children newspaper subscriptions for Christmas. (The World-Herald has a steal right now on digital subscriptions.)
Barenklau told questioners that his door is open and that he welcomes feedback about how the Hub can be more responsive.
McCammon, whose role on Thursday was to serve as the moderator, talked about what it was like to be a national reporter for NPR whose assignments include that third rail in American discourse: abortion.
She said that the language around the topic is so fraught that people on either side of the issue can be unhappy with how NPR approaches it but that NPR tries hard for balance and fair coverage of the issue.
McCammon also talked about getting her broadcast start in Nebraska, working for NET.
She described going to a dairy farm in Nebraska to interview a farmer — and asking if there was a private room in his homewhere she could pump breast milk because she had recently given birth.
The audience laughed at the irony and the anecdote.
Sommerich said his hope was to humanize the press for audiences and also conduct open exchanges that might not solve problems outright but that point people in the right direction.
“Our human nature is still to communicate with each other,” he said. “Fundamentally, (this is about) bringing people together and exploring what it means to be human.”