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Commentary: Everyone becomes a pundit in the twitter age

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SAN DIEGO -- As a newspaperman in what some consider the twilight of the age of print, it feels as if I'm being "punked." In any case, I'm pretty sure that Ashton Kutcher is messing with me.

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More precisely, the movie star and the movement he represents are messing with my livelihood and that of thousands of other professional communicators who've spent their careers working in newspaper, radio and television -- what, in the Mesozoic Era, used to be called traditional media.

The 32-year-old Kutcher -- whose has more than 5 million followers on Twitter -- insists he has no use for the old ways. Several months ago, I saw an interview with Kutcher in which he declared: "We can and will create our media."

By "we," Kutcher was talking about anyone who subscribes to the belief that their views and opinions are just as valuable as the views and opinions of media professionals who have the benefit of editors, producers, fact-checkers and years of experience. Put another way, this tribe believes that the views and opinions of columnists, radio talk-show hosts, television commentators and other pundits are no more valuable than what you pick up from Twitter, Facebook or the scores of nameless, faceless individuals who blog feverishly.

Consider the reader who wrote in to disagree with something I'd written. After speaking his peace, he said: "No need to respond. You had your say, and now I've had mine."

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly got a taste last year when, during an appearance on ABC's "The View," he argued with co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck over Twitter. Hasselbeck demanded to know why O'Reilly thought his views were more valuable than any given "tweet." Well, O'Reilly said, because he has a staff of 15 researchers who are "getting to the bottom of complicated questions."

As part of this trend, the reviews can often be a bigger draw than the feature. I was at a university recently when a professor lamented that when he assigns his students to read and analyze news articles or commentary from the Internet, they often come back to class with critiques of the readers' comments that follow the story rather than of the story itself. It's all of equal value. It's all just words.

For those of us who express opinions for a living -- often admonished for being "biased" when that's the point of commentary -- this is both frightening and exciting. It's frightening because television networks, radio stations and newspapers are losing revenue and thinning out work forces. It's exciting because, as a consumer of media, we live in a time when you can summon up vast amounts of material and read or watch or listen to what you want -- in essence, to choose your news.

But what if what you really want is to simply hear the sound of your own voice? Well, there's an app for that. I often hear from liberals who only watch MSNBC and conservatives who only watch Fox News. Both sides stay in their respective sandboxes for the same reason -- not to hear another point of view or learn anything new but to reinforce what they believe.

Not long ago, I heard from a reader who said: "You know, I used to agree with much of what you wrote, and I looked forward to reading your column. But lately, we just disagree too much, so I'm going to stop reading."

Some newspapers are feeding this narcissism by giving up space on the editorial page to print more letters to the editor. The thinking is that if people want to buy the paper to read their own words instead of someone else's, then so be it.

Yet, for the record, what most people don't understand is that much of what you get from the media doesn't just come out of thin air. It comes through endless reporting, research, thinking, experience, analyzing, interviewing stakeholders and processing feedback from readers, listeners and viewers.

Some people push back and insist that they won't be told what to think. They miss the point. I can only speak for myself, but I'm not trying to tell them what to think or what to believe. I'm just trying to get them to think harder about what it is they believe -- and why they believe it. And some, it seems, would just as soon not.

That's a troubling sign. Not just for the media, but for our entire society.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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