Where’s the Pork?

NPR reporter Julia Simon had a story today that exemplifies the best and worst of public media.

She starts with an incredibly good question: all educated Americans know that the US gives mega money to Egypt annually, but what does that money actually buy?

In a  very easy to understand narrative Simon takes us on a guided tour of what happens with this money.  SPOILER ALERT!  It never leaves the USA.  It actually purchases a bunch of bloated, American-made cold-war weapons systems of which Egypt already has plenty.  Best quote:

There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.

- Shana Marshall, Insert Relevant Institution Here

Simon then follows with specific examples of companies who lobby Washington to keep these purchases going.

So far so awesome.  But then the story just ends.  There is the requisite comment that this is just how things are and the inertia of existing programs is difficult to change etc.  We’ll just have to leave it there.

Conventional wisdom achieved: the military industrial complex is what it is, sigh.

But there’s a giant Nile crocodile in the room that is utterly absent from this story of a corrupt developing country spending proxy billions of American taxpayer money on unnecessary American made weapons, isn’t there?

Anybody?

Bueller?

Oh wait!  Corruption!

The subtext of the story for those actually paying attention is that someone, somewhere, is getting a lot of kickback for these deals.  Probably a lot of someones.  In fact a lack of corruption in this set-up would be so astonishing as to deserve its own mention.

But I guess that sort of exploration is for the kind of investigative reporting that either doesn’t exist much anymore or is too focussed on Anthony’s Wiener.

Problems to Follow Papal midterm elections?

I’m so sick of all this Papal coverage, but I found this item of interest:

Supreme Deity “Has Concerns” With Newly Elected Pope

March 14, 2013
Vatican City

(AP) At His day-after-the-election news conference Thursday, The Lord of Hosts said He wants to meet with the newly elected Pope Francis I as part of a search for common ground on policy issues. Jehovah said He was eager to work with Vatican leaders and listen to “good ideas wherever they come from.” But He said He “has concerns” that it will not be easy to reach agreement on contentious issues.

The Lord of Lords has frequently been in conflict with previous occupants of the Vatican’s highest office on a wide variety of matters facing both the Vatican Curia and all of humanity for all of time. The new Vatican leader does not appear to be likely to change that disconnect in spite of conciliatory language from both sides.

The first question from reporters after the King of King’s initial statement concerned the issue of abortion, perhaps the most difficult area to find congruity between the parties. All previous Popes, as well as all priests and cardinals, including the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio himself, frequently and totally condemn all forms of abortion, while the Maker of Heaven and Earth continues to abort or miscarry an estimated 50% of all fertilized eggs globally, an activity He has engaged in for all of human history. God confirmed that He will continue this initiative and allow no interference from Vatican officials, saying He stands by His record of over twelve thousand billion so-called “spontaneous” abortions.

Anticipating a direct request from the newly chosen Pontiff, Jake Tapper of ABC News asked the Ultimate Power of the Universe if He would consider changing His stance on Earthquakes, adding “especially those which cause terrifying tsunamis that kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Your constituents.” Elohim replied that, as with rape, disease, and many volcanoes, Popes and other Vatican officials often pray for the victims of such events and circumstances but rarely proactively ask for their prevention. As a result The Lord “sees no reason to consider changing His policies” on any of these issues in the next fiscal year or, for that matter, all future time until the end of both the Universe and the very concept of time itself.

In what could be yet another sign of problems to come, Pope Francis broke with more socially active clergy during his time in Argentina. He failed to support the “Liberation Theology” movement as they attempted to improve conditions among the poor via direct aid and via calls for government action. Very God of Very God refers to Himself as a “Biblical Originalist” on the issue. “While poverty has proven to be a greater challenge than I anticipated when I called for its eradication over 2000 years ago, I still firmly believe we can, and indeed must, do everything in our power to bring an end to it.” Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the pro-business American Enterprise Institute, speculated “if the omniscient and all-powerful Maker of All Things Seen and Unseen truly wanted to end poverty there’s a sense that He could do so very quickly.”

Even differences on something as seemingly uncontroversial as “the dignity of life” may cause strong divisions between the new Pope, who has frequently spoken in support of it, and God Almighty, whose record includes infinite varieties of hideous fetal mutations, flesh-eating bacteria, organ-liquefying hemorrhagic fevers, and continence-robbing brain injuries and diseases.

There are several areas of apparent agreement between the parties. On the questions of why bad things happen to good people and why Apple insists on changing the configuration of the iPhone recharger even though the old one was completely fine and now everyone has to buy a stupid adapter both parties replied in a joint statement that there would be “no comment at this time.”

Dumbest thing heard on public radio this week

My local public radio station played a piece from a PRX podcast called “99% Invisible” this weekend about the history of pneumatic tube delivery systems.  It was quite interesting.  Unfortunately it contained the following howler, uttered by producer Sam Greenspan:

If you think about the kind of technology that we were promised by something like Star Trek, we have just about all of it except the transporter.

Has this guy ever actually seen Star Trek?

If so, then I am really excited because I guess I missed the latest issue of Sky Mall, which I assume now features:

  • A real-time language translator that works from thought, and not just human thought, so it can translate alien languages it has never encountered.
  • Food synthesizers
  • Faster than light travel
  • Time travel via manipulation of faster than light travel
  • Artificial gravity
  • iPhone-sized communicators that can talk to orbiting spaceships…without requiring any cell towers or satellites.
  • Beds that can monitor all of your medical vitals with no probes or straps.
  • Hand held laser-style weapons that can stun or kill
  • Spaceship mounted laser-type weapons
  • Near infinite, powerful clean energy from crystals
  • Robots so much like humans you can’t tell the difference

And that’s really just the beginning of a complete list.

So, Sam, either you need to send me some “Buy Now” links for this stuff or you need to calm down your tech triumphalist hyperbole about our current, really quite lame state of technology compared to Star Trek’s actual implicit promises to the contrary.

The much more accurate and interesting point is the very opposite of Greenspan’s sentiment:  very, very few of the things promised us by 20th Century sci-fi have come true. Why is that?

Random notes on a Friday

Days of our Lives

Speaking of “on a Friday”, what is it with local and national NPR hosts telling us, every few minutes, what day of the week it is?  Is it because a lot of the listening audience resides in “memory care” apartments?

This happens enough that, sort of like the “give us a sense” style of interviewing, I am convinced it is some kind of “best practice” enforced by policy and not just a fad.

I’m no Pope Gregory XIII, but I am usually pretty on top of what day I’m having a case of or humping over or thanking God that it is.  I’d like to humbly suggest that you guys go all the way and tell us the date.  Try “it’s Fridy the 18th” instead of the truly useless “on a Friday, it’s Morning Edition” or “good Friday morning to you.”

Either that or add even more tautological information so we can all meditate on what it means to be told things we already think by the journalists we choose to listen to.  “Here on Earth, just like yesterday,  it’s Morning Edition.”  “Reality is comprehensible by applying reason to the information detected with the human sensorium, and it’s All Things Considered.”

Speaking of days, does anyone inside NPR or out actually know what the hell “Weekends at All Things Considered ” means?  I can’t parse it.  What was wrong with Weekend Edition Saturday/Sunday?  I smell a committee.

Death

Just a brief item to note that the guys and ghouls at “Story Corpse” have again incremented their body count and the world’s collective misery.  Today’s heart-soup immersion blender’s victim was canine, which at least shakes it up a little.

I think the producers over there dream of a day when every death of every beloved person, animal, or object with great sentimental value can make the whole world cry.  These stories are, as we are constantly reminded, archived in the library of congress, so they can make the space aliens who’ll be sifting through the wreckage of our civilization in a few years cry too.

StoryCorps Producer David Isay (visual approximation)

I can find one positive note: at least the pun-loving Keeper landed a job after the regrettable cancellation of Tales From the Crypt.

Lies

There was a pretty good piece by David Folkenflik today dissecting the press coverage of Notre Dame’s girlfriend-gate.  At one point he spoke of the problem of how much the reporters wanted the story to be true (like the one about Saddam’s WMDs I suppose).

Let’s think about that statement.  The reporters wanted a young, football-star-beloved woman to have died of cancer long before her time?  That really helps me understand Story Gore’s morbid editorial bias.

I’ve noticed that journalists tellingly universally loathe the preachy, shallow character-filled Sorkin series “The Newsroom”.  I love it.  It’s almost like “Airbag Moments” the tv show.  It takes the media to the woodshed weekly by doing what Folkenflik does, only in narrative form.  It Monday-morning (“On a Monday…”) quarterbacks the news.  It’s one big thought experiment about, knowing what we know now, how should the press have handled big events in recent history.  Who else is even having this conversation in this way?  The Daily Show  last week even expressed a devout wish that the show depicted a journalistic drive that actually existed.  In reality there isn’t enough money in profit-driven journalism for the logistics of investigative reporting about things less interesting but more important than gridiron paramour three-hankies.

The more vital question for reporters, I suppose, is whether or not the platonic ideal of reportage Sorkin tries to model would have made any real difference.  What if the answer to that is no?

As punishment, anyone who reported about the Notre Dame story has to watch a “Love Story” / “Brian’s Song” double feature tonight.  I’m assuming the Story Corps folks were already planning to because, you know, it’s Friday!

Taxes

Speaking of unpleasant stories the media wants badly to be true, NPR loves the “Military Veterans Aren’t Getting The Support They Deserve and it’s the VA’s Fault” headline.  I can’t recall a single positive NPR story about the Veterans Administration.  I happen to know that the VA, especially the health care delivery side known as the VHA, not only delivers a lot of great care, but also delivers it in ways that are years and sometimes decades ahead of the private sector.  Computerized patient record keeping is a powerful example of this.  Given how many stories NPR does about the tragicomic struggles of the private sector with this technology you’d think they’d cover how the public sector already nailed it.

Something else the press usually misses is that a large number of VA employees are themselves, by mandate, for better and for worse, Veterans.  This is especially true in the VBA, the branch that determines what benefits Veterans receive, and the recipient of the most frequent and bitter excoriations.  By policy the VA hires some of these Veterans preferentially over non-Veterans who might be more qualified.  (Not every Veteran is an angel straight from heaven, and that should not be a controversial sentiment.) So please be aware that when you criticize the VA you are criticizing a whole bunch of Veterans many of whom are working hard and some of whom are hardly working.

We can all agree that many Veterans do need and deserve more services than they are getting, but journalists need to stop acting like the reason is some faceless implacable bureaucracy.  Like most things, it comes down to money and logistics (sound familiar?), not a lack of desire on the part of the VA to serve the Veterans.

On a local note: please keep in mind, NHPR, there are good economic reasons why there’s no full VA hospital in your state.  Politicians and scoundrels love to talk about how much they care about Veterans, but forcing the VA to waste money on a facility that won’t have enough patients to stay in business or provide a full range of services does not serve the only constituencies that matter, Veterans and taxpayers.  Between the Boston area, Maine, and Vermont, northern New England is as well served as makes economic sense.  If you’re concerned about drive times, talk to Veterans who live in far flung towns in hypertrophied western states.  This whole “New Hampshire needs a VA” thing is just political grandstanding and cap-feather acquisition.  So in spite of your knee-jerk sentimentality and desire for the big bad VA narrative, please add some more balance to your coverage of this.

On a personal note, it’s good to be back.

Mara Liason: naive, or just bored?

The following exchange took place yesterday in one of the infinite “two-way” reports spending one last night in bed with the still-warm body of Rick Santorum’s stillborn campaign:

SIEGEL: Speaking of his future, of course much depends on whether the Republicans win or lose the White House, but what is his future?

LIASSON: Well, he could be in a Romney Cabinet. He certainly will be a conservative social issue leader in the Republican Party. 2016, he could run again. He’ll have a heck of a lot of competition if [he] does that, though.

It’s really not hard to know what Santorum’s future is.  It’s going to look a lot like his immediate pre-primary past.  As Joshua Green put it in Bloomberg:

He did some lobbying, hooked up with a think tank, and sat on a few boards

Sound familiar?  Basically being handed a bunch of money for his extraordinary ability to be Rick Santorum.

So what’s up, Mara?  Do you not know this?  Either you are extremely naive about what out of work politicians do or you think it isn’t interesting enough to just say it.  Too true to be good.

But I find it extremely interesting that out of work politicians make a bunch of money simply for being out of work politicians.  It’s a sickness at the heart of our politics, and I find it very, very worth discussing.

In fact I find it much more worth discussing than the questionable poll results you and your kind perseverate over daily.

But you, Mara, seem to be wed to the old school reportage.  Make it exciting!  Gin up a real fight!  Make it about the contest.  2016!!  You actually said it!  I think you might be the first!  Yay!

And today on Morning Edition you even fired the starter pistol on the race between Romney and Obama, characterizing it as completely evenly matched.  How conveniently exciting for you and all your horse-race monger compatriots.

War is Peace!  Ignorance is Strength!  Everything is Equivalent!

See Ya, Iowa, Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya

Commence the sound of crickets from the total lack of press coverage Iowa will now enjoy for the next 3.5 years.

Thanks for nothing.

Meanwhile NPR treats Santorum’s Iowa success as a surprise, as if Mike Huckabee never happened.  We know how this story ends, folks, nothing to see here.

Aaaaaaand they’re off!!

Some at NPR are getting a little sensitive about folks like me decrying their horse-race coverage.  Diane Rehm jumped down the throat of a caller who legitimately brought up this problem on her show the other day.  (Note to Diane: it’s not always about you.  The caller made clear he was talking about “the media”, not your show.  Also, I’m guessing we’ll be hearing some starter trumpets on your episode dedicated to Iowa results today.)  In tweets, correspondents like Don Gonyea get all defensive when you wonder aloud why he spent so much energy covering the brief “surge” of the made-for-fail Bachmann campaign.  He couldn’t help it!  He was a prisoner of poll results!

So they seem to understand on some primitive level that listeners and media analysts alike don’t appreciate the breathless “horse race” coverage, but they just can’t seem to stop themselves.

The Iowa caucus is the most embarrassing example.  “It’s A Photo Finish For Romney, Santorum” the headline at NPR.org shouts.

I am tempted to do a meta horse-race by recapping minute-by-minute the competing minute-by-minute reports filed from Santorum and Romney headquarters by Ari Shapiro and Don Gonyea, but who has the time?  (I will mention one of them actually used the phrase “neck and neck and neck”.  Nope, no horse race here.)

The bottom line is that Iowa doesn’t matter.  Iowa never matters.  It’s a stupid distraction, but it’s covered like the World Series, which also doesn’t matter.

Nobody but Rick Santorum believes he will be the nominee.  If the caucus had been held during any of the other also-ran surges one of the other no-chancers would have come in second.

The only good thing about all this fail?  At least we got to hear multiple references to “surging santorum”.  Thank you again, Dan Savage.

Iowait, Wait Don’t Tell Us

The 2012 Republican Cadidates:

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why responsible news orgs like NPR and NYT are so itchy for the Iowa caucus (and straw poll before those) results.  They’ve created endless coverage of the various Republican primary candidates, who increasingly resemble the nutty villains from the campy old Batman TV show with Adam West, as they wend their smarmy ways through every barn, outhouse, and corndog-extrusion facility in the state.  The press does this in spite of the fact that responsible people, including Jon Stewart, keep pointing out that the results are meaningless in almost every way that matters.

So why do they do it?  I think I figured it out the two reasons,

First things first.  Iowa is first.  The press loves “breaking” news, and there’s no breaking election news like the “first” primary-ish event.

Second, and this is more important, by making such a big deal about the Iowa caucuses the press actually causes the Iowa results to matter.  Think about it.  Who would care about the Iowa pseudo-primaries if the press didn’t give them wall-to-wall coverage?  Conversely you might care about the Daytona Beach Seniors-Only Bridge Club’s choice of candidate if the press jabbered about it 10 hours a day.

Choosing something silly and making it important gives the press a kind of agency.  They become the story.  The story is not the results themselves, the story is the amount of attention the press focuses on the results.

And we’re all pretty tired of it, except of course for some members of the tiny and pointless demographic that actually takes part in the caucuses.  Oh well, just another clownish, predictable aspect of our increasingly cartoonish and alienating electoral process.

Gotta Have A Gimmick

Black Friday has come and gone, but the sales of dime-store epiphanies remain brisk, ever brisk!

As every burlesque performer knows, to sell yourself, or at least something you’ve created, you just gotta have a gimmick.  It’s the way you stand out from the crowd, the way to rapidly multiply among those precious viral growth medium slots in the public radio demograshpere like some kind of upper-middlebrow version of the disease in Contagion.  You know the carriers:  Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Morning Edition, and the Holy Grails: Colbert or Stewart.

We’ve seen gimmickless books fade away without that kind of invaluable free publicity:

Cokie Roberts and her unfinished Wellesley-theses-turned-book-club-also-rans about famous women in history.  Susan Stamberg autobiographies.  Scott Simon family tear jerkers.  They all lacked that oomph, that one-liner pitch cum subtitle that will set those Christmas encrypted credit card numbers sailing along the Amazon.com Digital River when someone needs a gift for the retired former philosophy major or the not yet employed twenty-something soul searcher or Wall Street occupier.

But some public radio correspondents know how the game is played.  They become proxies for our curiosity.  They inhabit, or at least pretend to inhabit, some intellectually titillating aspect of the spirit of their audience for long enough to satisfy the dilettante urge for just enough exploration…not so deeply as to be boring or uncomfortable, mind you…just enough to limn the edges of a possible cure for the common mid life crisis.

Take for example Neal “Not the Barbarian” Conan.  I don’t doubt that he was actually curious about devoting a year of his life to being an announcer for NPR’s official sacred pastime, the sport of baseball, especially as a break from arduous years as a foreign correspondent, but I have to imagine his gimmicky book plan was what allowed him to go through with it.  And so he did, thus baseball fans out here on Planet NPR didn’t have to.

Conan’s quest (“Conan’s Quest”, amazingly, is not yet a video game title or second gimmicky book) is similar to Gimmick King AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.  In case you don’t know, AJ Jacobs is the guy who manufactured a different gimmick-based holiday-gift-ready codex about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica  (so we don’t have to.)  From that “experience” he managed to land at least eleven (!) promotional spots on Weekend Edition.  That might be a record, as it even beats the number of spots given to gimmick-queen Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s silly book about neuro-imaging the soul. (I did not make that up.)

Like Neal Conan, Jacobs also claims to have spent one year doing something supposedly holy, living according to the rules of the Old Testament (so we don’t have to): “Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year.”  Why would you try to live according to Old Testament rules followed by no modern person if you were truly interested in “the relevance of faith in our modern world?”  You wouldn’t.  It’s a gimmick, and a pretty clever one.  Gimmicks sell books.  And while some of the promotional copy surrounding the book holds out the promise of epiphanies to be found within by “readers both secular and religious”, the book’s actual approach seems to be light hearted.

As we see from multiple examples, gimmicky books that delve lightly into subjects that public radio listeners find interesting get huge publicity from public radio programs.  That probably seems logical and harmless to you, so let me explain why I think this is a pernicious trend.

Public radio has limited time, especially during their highest rated hours.  As listeners we should expect them to use that time well.  As monetary contributors (not looking at you, Sam Negus) we have a right to demand that they use that time well.  In theory the best radio shows would present the most informed and most articulate voices speaking on topics of interest and import.  Yet this almost never happens.  The practice of presenting gimmicky book authors who happen to be on publicity tours is one of the reasons.  Bookers and producers are either over-worked or lazy, so the temptation in either case to cherry pick from authors currently on book tours shilling their latest non-fiction gimmick-fest is irresistible.

Newspaper editorial page editors use a similar shortcut for filling column inches.  Authors (or their publicist proxies I sometimes suspect) are only too eager to pen editorial-length versions of their gimmick books for placement in newspapers.  I call these “advertorials”.  They can be quite stealthy, but having read many I can usually identify them by the end of the first paragraph.  There are a couple of give-aways.  They are often on topics that must be awkwardly twisted to appear relevant  to the events of the day, and they never fail to end with a byline that just happens to include the name of the advertorial author’s latest book, which just happens to be recently published and in full promotional mode.

To sum it up: smart people (think college professors) with deep knowledge are rarely heard at length on public radio unless they happen to have a new book to sell.  Meanwhile people (smart or otherwise) with shallow knowledge get loads of airtime simply because they have a new book to sell.  This is what happens when notions are productized.  It’s a positive feedback loop, meaning it keeps getting worse.

Which brings me, at long last, to Eric Weiner and his new gimmick-book, Man Seeks God.

At this point I want to mention that until I did some research for this post I had little prior knowledge of and I have no animus towards Mr. Weiner.  I recall his byline but could not name a single specific report filed by him.  As with Scott Simon, I’m certain I’d enjoy a beer summit with him to try to change his mind about a few things, and as with Scott Simon this blog post will have to substitute.  Speaking of “beer summit,” if you think I’m not shoehorning Henry Louis Gates Jr. (i.e. civil rights) into this before the end you must not be a regular reader.

As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the semi-official religion of public radio is what Daniel Dennett termed “Belief in Belief”, described by Christopher Hitchens as “the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.”  Or, as I put it, in order to be thought of as a good person it doesn’t matter what clothing you believe the emperor is wearing, as long as you can’t tell that he’s naked. While Weiner does come out (spoiler alert!) as something like an Atheist at the end of his exhibitionistic spirit-quest, Man Seeks God seems vying to be the ecumenical Bible of Belief in Belief.  He’s practically a Belief in Belief street preacher, as you will see.

The premise of Man Seeks God is little more than the title indicates.  Mr. Weiner is, at least for the purpose of selling the book concept, hot to get some religion in his life.  As a result he decides to take a grand tour of the world’s faiths (so we don’t have to) in hopes he can adopt one for himself.  So maybe it’s more like he goes to the sacred animal shelter?  Anyway, if you are a regular public radio listener you already know the rest: all of the religions offer something wonderful.  But they all also present the Goldilocks dilemma: too this or too that, never just right.

While I found the idea of the book redundant with the seemingly infinite public personal (oxymoron?) spirit journey books we’ve had to date, with several hundred thousand unique titles from Jane Fonda alone, it was too innocuous for me to pay much attention to.  When I heard the inevitable log-roll piece on Morning Edition I just sort of tuned it out.

But then came the final straw: Weiner’s advertorial was published in the New York [freaking -ed] Times.

It’s a minor Christmas miracle of awfulness, managing to be simultaneously insipid and bigoted, both trendy and old hat.  Worst of all it was crass and commercial about its subject even as it inhabited the already crass and commercial form of an advertorial.

I did not like it.

I am very much not the only one who didn’t like it, but I am the only public radio blog that did not like it so keep reading.

What’s not to like, aside from the arch but not arch enough writing style?  He gets into trouble as soon as paragraph three where he demonstrates lazy, conventional, and frankly bigoted thinking when he divides his model of current religious discourse between “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists” (capitalization his).  And yes I’m an atheist, and yes, this comment made me angry.  But my point is that I wasn’t angry until he called me a name.  In fact atheists aren’t generally angry until someone like Weiner points at them and yells to anyone who’ll listen “Hey, look how angry that guy is! He’s soooo angry!”  Calling atheists angry is glib dismissal.  The expression “angry atheist” generates mild fear and revulsion.  It turns atheists even more into the infamous “other” through the language of warning.  Growing up in the southern states I frequently heard many phrases that served a similar purpose.  “Militant Blacks” and “Pushy Jews” are two such poisonous pairings which were used to mentally censor whole races and world-views, that could retard the “arc of history”, that could succor repression.

And do I really need to mention that there is more anger in a single homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protest then in all meetings of atheists and freethinkers throughout all time combined – even as gelato mongers near to an atheist convention hall refuse entry to the godless?  (Hmm, denying groups of people access to eateries, where have I heard of that before?)

You might think that in spite of the ugliness of “Angry Atheist” Mr. Weiner was being quite fair because his phrase “True Believer” was also meant as something of an insult, creating a balanced pair of “others,” neither of whom merit attention.  But the phrase “True Believer” has no essential negative character.  People are happy to call themselves “true believers”.  Many religious people are even happy to call themselves fundamentalists, and even to describe themselves proudly as “intolerant.”

This autonomic drawing of false equivalence between atheists and fundamentalists (often employing the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) adds nothing to the discussion and serves to obfuscate the profound difference between the entire thought processes of the two groups.  The ultimate goal of this language is to seem to place Mr. Weiner, his book, his advertorial, his readers, and his interviewers in a privileged corporate suite looking down on all the silly culture warriors clashing by night.  He does this explicitly by trying to coin a new meme for all the hep cats like him: “Nones” (capitalization his.)

“Nones” are defined as “people who say they have no religious affiliation at all” though, according to a poll (so it must be true), only seven percent of them are claimed to be straight up Angry Atheists.  (At the None conventions the atheists should have separate but equal water fountains.  That’s just science.)

Why Weiner includes the atheists in the “Nones” group I don’t know because he goes on to make a set of weirdly contradictory claims about Nones:

  • “Nones … drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”
  • “Nones are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God”
  • “Nones may not believe in God.”
So this whole “Nones” thing is a bit of a muddle.  Like the idea of religion Nones supposedly enjoy it’s something like whatever you want it to be.  Nones don’t care if a religion is “true” as long as it makes their mental trains run on time.  The “Nones” thing is such a Thomas Friedman-like assignment of a catchy name to a superficially constructed model of something going on in this crazy modern world of ours that you can at least see why it was accepted by the New York Times.
Brief aside: atheism rarely posits things like “There is no god.”  Such a statement often means nothing because of the difficulty of defining deities.  Atheism usually takes the form of questions, such as “What do you mean when you say god(s)? Can you explain why anyone should believe he/she/they exist(s)?”  So far, to my knowledge, there’s been no satisfying answer to this sort of question. (see the postscript)
But then the whole advertorial takes an unexpected and yet still entirely Thomas Friedmaniacal twist.
Are you sitting down?  Okay, read on:

The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.

Wow.  I did not see that coming.  But now that it’s here…still wow.  We’re beyond Krista Tippett, folks.  In fact this statement may allow us to finally create a complete scale of profundity of statements about religion:
  • The Sublime: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein.
  • The Profound: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense..”  – Carl Sagan
  • The Pseudo-Profound: “Mmm…I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the word pray rhymes with the word…play…mmm”  – I’m just guessing someone on Speaking of Faith or Krista Tippett On Being has said that.
  • The Dumbest Thing Ever Said About Religion: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion.” – Eric Weiner
We need a Steve Jobs of religion?!?  To the extent that sentiment means anything it’s a very bad idea.  Steve Jobs was long considered a cult leader.  Apple was maybe the earliest company to actually call its marketing people “evangelists.”
Weiner goes on, in the name of buzzwords, to further technocratize religion by calling for “a religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”  It’s just very creepy and so willfully ignorant of history.  Do I really need to mention that every popular religious reformer in history has been their own “Steve Jobs of religion?”  They’ve all come up with new ways of being religious.  But as fun as it is to explore this, many others have already sharpened this particular point so I’ll move on to the next horror from this piece.
In evangelizing for his church of “Nones” Weiner puts this yucky chestnut out there:
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
Terrence said “you believe that easily which you hope for earnestly” but I guess he was wrong.
Where, aside from obvious parental/cultural guilt, does this desire to believe in God come from?  And why not gods since polytheism is usually a lot more fun?  Weiner claims to be an Enlightenment-loving rationalist, but he fails to understand that his statement sounds to the freethinking ear like “I’m not a drug addict but I hope to be one day.”
He seems to have taken the propaganda that you can’t be good without God so deeply to heart that he will be forever torn between his desire for belief (goodness) and his respect for his own powers of cognition which tell him clearly that a religion may do good but is, at its very core, a lie.
Mr. Weiner, if you read this, I would suggest you spend less time browser-window-shopping at the ebay of world religions and more time analyzing the origins of your personal need to believe.

To everyone else, Merry Christmas, and if you are interested in the topic of the varieties of religious experience, try Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet, the writer who outed the shenanigans at the C Street house.  Then read his other books too.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’d like to quote Louis CK from his quite recent live online reddit.com crowd-sourced interview.

Louis CK: I’m not an athiest. I think god [sic] is there and that he is watching and he made us. I just don’t give a shit.

Reddit person “Brenner14″: This will come as a surprise to many.

Louis CK: well i [sic] don’t “Believe in god” i [sic] have zero idea how everythign [sic] got here. I would personally say that, if i [sic] had to make a list of possibles, god [sic] would be pretty far down. But if I were to make a list of people that know what the fuck they are talking about, I would be REALLY far down. aids [sic].

Really, what else is there to say?  If only Louis CK had listened to Ludwig JJW.

Highlights for Children

I’ve long noticed that NPR correspondents, with or without conscious intention, water down the language they employ in their reportage.   I’m not quite sure why.  I might imagine they were trying to create the journalistic equivalent of “easy listening” music – or maybe “new age”.  But their selection of topics, war, disease, the economy, would belie this.

The “M”-word is the perfect example of this tendency.  Whether from spontaneous groupthink or ironclad editorial edict, NPR reporters go out of their way to avoid the word “mother” the way an alcoholic avoids free wine tastings.  Jennifer Ludden did an entire piece on the fertility of women in their 40s without once using the word.  This is only possible due to her substitution of the much more popular word “mom”, which she uses four times.

One explanation would be a politically correct separation of biological motherhood from “family of choice” momhood so as not to implicitly stigmatize those who come by at least some members of their clutch in ways that are not, uhmm, “in-house” as you might say,  Michele Bachmann style.  But Ludden’s story, with its subject entirely devoted to the difficulty middle aged women encounter when trying to, ermm, “grow their own” so to speak, would be the perfect place for the biologically specific term “mother”.  Its total absence in this particular story, along with the clumsily repetitive use of “mom”, means something else is going on.

Maybe it’s the fact that “mother” is sometimes used in a rather extreme piece of two-word profanity that, uhmm, let’s just say implies a globally frowned-upon form of over-parenting.  “Having it all” so to speak.  Sometimes to avoid inevitable bleeping, that epithet is shortened to “Mother-f-” or just “mother” on television.  So is it this?  Is the word “mother” now classed with “faggot” and “retarded” just because occasionally it hangs out in the wrong part of urbandictionary.com?

It turns out that theory is also wrong.  The proof is that NPR reporters avoid the words “children” and “fathers” with as much awkward sidestepping and repetition as they do “mother”.  They compulsively prefer “dads” and “kids” to party with all the “moms”.  When a “father” shows up things can get ugly, as in the Loudon Wainwright song “Me and All the Other Mothers”.

Maybe, as with some profanity, it’s some kind of word origin problem?  Is “mother” from some poorly thought of word root and “mom” from an original language that’s a bit more presentable in polite society?  Turns out that’s not the case either.  Both the hated “mother” and the beloved “mom” seem to originate from the same semi-universal infant sound “ma” or “muh”, which may itself derive from the satisfied “mmm” infants sometimes utter after a bout of nipple noshing.  So there’s another theory shot-down.

Let’s examine the larger context.  As their Twitter feeds attest, most NPR reporters *cough* Scott Simon *cough* are child or grandchild-addled.  Or do I mean “kid” or “grandkid”-addled?  (It’s so odd how different these exact synonyms can feel.  One would never say “wicked stepmom”, “kid of the depression”, or “dad of our country”.  At least not yet.  “Mother’s Day” is holding on with 35 million Google results, but “Mom’s Day” is coming up fast in the rear-view with 357,000.)

Anyway, to me all this linguistic pre-chewing smacks of parental and grandparental over compensation.  The same way marketers force used car dealers to start referring to their jalopies as “pre-owned”, and realtors to start calling houses “homes”, parents continually try to spin reality to their children as something more palatable.  It’s the difference between “shit”, if you’ll pardon the expression, and “doo-doo”.  It’s exactly the relationship of Ray Liotta’s character to Jeff Daniels’ in the totally brilliant and allegorical “we’ve all got a darkside” Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” A word clothed uncomfortably in gym shorts and a t-shirt purchased hastily at a gas station is still naked underneath.

So is this the answer?  Do NPR reporters actually know the difference between Shineola and that other nasty substance that isn’t Shineola, but they just don’t want to come out and say it in so many words?  I really hope so.

The alternative is that they actually mentally inhabit this baby-proofed, rose-colored Nicey Niceland.  In Nicey Niceland, Wall Street math-prodigy mountebanks aren’t prodigious monsters, they’re “number crunchers”.  And in Nicey Niceland the politicians don’t “lie”, they “exaggerate” or “mis-speak”.  When the lies come flying, the reporters at Nicey Niceland Today report on the public opinion reaction to the dishonesty rather than even noticing the rude fact of the moral unfitness of the liar.  Nicey Niceland Public Radio (NNPR) reporters are so happy just to get a “sense” of things.  Reality had them at “hello”.

In this formulation evil is real, and the banality of evil is to perceive and describe it in child-friendly gauziness.  Like Jeff Daniel’s character, Gallant is so Gallant that he becomes Goofus without realizing it.  (“Gallant lets his children starve to death because stealing bread is illegal.”)

Public Radio is a format that features vocal intonations sometimes too closely resembling the cadences of a parent reading a storybook to a child at bedtime. I hope they are at least explicitly aware of these linguistic habits, and that they have a good reason.  I would also love to hear the reason.  Journalism is the first draft of history, and that draft should not be written with sparkle pens and smiley faces over the “i”s.

Maybe the first step to fixing all this is for NPR staff to ban their kids (adult or not) from listening…

Target Demo

Your humble web logger has never been much of a joiner.

Popular activities like religious and athletic observance are about group identification and herd bonding, “grex” as Robert Frost put it, more than they are about the disposition of foreskin and pigskin.  They have never appealed to me.  Kurt Vonnegut’s enduring neologism, “granfaloon,” is a concept as essential as heliocentrism: once you hear it you know it to be one of the few reliable truths in the universe.  A granfaloon is defined by Wikipedia as “a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.”  Perfect.

So it’s always a shock to me when I find myself close to the madding crowd, inescapably identified in the middle of a social category.  Demonstrably demographical. Caught.

I had one of these moments yesterday.  If you’ve read my “about” you’ll know I’ve always recognized that I share a number of properties of NPR Nation, but from my posts you’ll know I am alienated from many, many of Public Radio’s collective enthusiasms: baseball,  sentimental attachment to religion, precious language,  obscure yet banal musicians and composers, horse-race political coverage, and the list goes on and on.

Until yesterday I had begun to think myself above, or at least adjacent to, the general public radio public.

I was jolted back into my demographic identity when Guy Raz started his interview for the story “Fun and Intrigue with the Periodic Table.”

This is what he said:

So no one needs a description of the periodic table, right? It’s sort of as iconic as an Eames chair or the Chrysler Building.

There’s a lot to talk about here.  First of all, I don’t know where Guy lives, but I’m guessing I can at this very moment go into the middle of my small, preppy New England town, throw a stick, and hit several people who couldn’t begin to describe the periodic table, much less an Eames chair.

But my main point here is not the hilarious implication that everyone alive on Earth today knows about Eames chairs, or even, frankly, the Chrysler building.  It is not even the more credible but still amusing implication that everyone within the low-on-the-FM-dial and listener-supported sound of his voice considers these things iconic.

Here is the point:

In my home, not three feet away from one of the speakers converting electricity into the sound of Guy’s voice, is an Eames chair.  Ten feet further on into my house is a folk art sculpture of the Chrysler building.

Coincidence?  I think not.  I could only have been hit harder by those design allusions if I had a poster of the periodic table hanging over my stereo.  Either Guy Raz can see me through the radio or I have to own up to my membership in this group.

Does this mean I have to start watching baseball?

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Scott Simon is a genuine NPR personality.  He lets you know who he is, where he’s coming from.  It’s not just some reporter covering a story, it’s the avuncular, sentimental, self-described “luckiest SOB in the world” giving us his take on things.  Sometimes, from his tone alone, we can tell when he likes something (baseball) or when he’s not happy with something (genocide).  This affect-laden delivery can be helpful and enjoyable.

I contend that one reason people love Stewart and Colbert is that their reactions to the nightly outrages in our world are expressed with the dismay and passion, through humor, that such events provoke in normal people.  Simon practices this not through humor, but simply via his honest, folksy demeanor.  Scott, and I’m guessing he never allows anyone to call him “Mr. Simon” (that’s his dad!), is clearly a genuinely great guy almost any NPR listener would love to have a beer with – including me so long as the drinking doesn’t take place in a sports bar and we can stay off the subject of sports.

Plus can anyone resist those puppy-dog eyes?!?  Does he not perfectly resemble someone who’d think Obama’s use of the phrase “ass to kick” still qualifies as “locker room talk” from which children need to be protected in the year 2010?

But there are risks when a journalist/host wears his heart on his sleeve. The abandonment of the comforting myth of journalistic objectivity puts him in a foggy area along with Fox News.  Are we hearing truth or spin?  Another problem is that he risks alienating listeners who disagree with him.  (Helen Thomas ring a bell?)  He can avoid these pitfalls as long as he offers only studiously apolitical personal opinions.  Scott has proved himself remarkably nimble in this regard, even with his dangerously prolific tweeting.

One of the many non-controversial opinions he has made pretty clear of late is his support for organized religion.  This is not going to get him in much trouble in the USA, the most religious (by far) of all developed nations.

But it does have a tendency to annoy your humble, though easily annoyed, servant.

Take last Saturday’s Weekend Edition.  Scott interviewed Christopher Hitchens, noted dipsophile, atheist and author of “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

One of the ways Scott injects his personality into the show is by including his personal opinions in introductions of interview subjects, which could otherwise be very dry Curriculum Vitae excerpts.

His introduction of Mr. Hitchens (who I’m guessing allows the honorific) proceeded thusly:

He’s been a socialist who found Margaret Thatcher sexy; defender of the war in Iraq among leftists, a supporter of gay rights among rightists, an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.

That last bit bears repeating: “an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.”  There’s quite a lot of subtext buried in that seemingly innocuous aside, especially in the context of Simon’s previous utterances (or silences) on the subject of religion.  Simon employs the word “devout” in conjunction with atheism. This is a lazy and intentionally obnoxious category error frequently indulged in by irrationalists; kissing cousins with the meaningless expression “atheist fundamentalist”. The attempted  juxtaposition of opposites pretends that skepticism is not, in and of itself, a laudable ideal but is instead a flaw of character whose redemption requires the leavening of ideals.  Exactly which ideals are, as usual, not specified, and the stochastic menagerie of worldviews Mr. Hitchens has adopted, from sexy Cuban Communism to bellicose neocon paranoia, is too peculiar to be endorsed by anyone else. No, this is naked belief in belief, which I have mentioned before.  To be a good person it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in six impossible things before breakfast.  It doesn’t matter which designer’s clothes you think the nude emperor is wearing, as long as you believe him to be gloriously arrayed.

But I have some news for you, Scott, delivered in my own inimitable style:  skepticism is an ideal.

It may be the best of all ideals because it guards against any of the others, including  baseball and genocide, gaining too much power over the mind of man.

Krista Tippett’s Agenda: Kum Ba Yuck

Oh lord, kum bia yuck...

What's wrong with this picture?

A commenter who somehow managed to overcome the recent technical problems this blog has been having with too many people trying to comment at the same time posed the following question this morning:

What is Krista Tippett’s agenda?

This is an intriguing query.  Since I can’t hear the vocal inflection of the person who asked it I can’t tell if it’s sarcastic or serious, but it deserves exploration.  It spurred me to think and research more about the whole problem with much religious “journalism” in general and Speaking of Faith in particular.

It turns out that the agenda of SoF is a bit hard to tie down because they don’t seem to have an official mission statement on the SoF website.  Their stated priciples are, unsurprisingly, couched in a warm miasma of platitudes:

When she [Tippett] emerged [like Venus from the sea!] with a Master of Divinity from Yale in 1994, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be.

The black-hole-generating religion reporters who worked before 1994 have got to feel good about that one!

…she began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith that would enliven and open imaginations and public discussion.

She draws out the intersection of theology and human experience, of grand religious ideas and real life.

Evidently Krista didn’t study a lot of geometry at Yale Div, as I’m not sure how you “draw out an intersection.”  I just can’t tell if she means “clearly delineate” or “smudge beyond recognition.”

So an outright mission statement from SoF seems a bit elusive, maybe ineffable or even transcendent.  Sound familiar?  Maybe you can only have a poetic way of knowing the agenda of Speaking of Faith.  Maybe you have to look at it sideways.

Or maybe you need to look at their sponsor.

A primary sponsor of SoF appears to be, from the prevalence of their ads on the SoF website, the Fetzer Insitute. Luckily for my purpose they aren’t shy about articulating their mission statement:

The Fetzer Institute advances love and forgiveness as powerful forces that can transform the human condition.

Wow, who could be against that?  “Advancing” is a weak, vague verb to use in the context of love and forgiveness, however, so let’s take a closer look what they actually do.  Their programs range from extremely laudable sounding, if quixotic, world peace initiatives to less universally approved-of claptrap consisting of new age healing and spiritualism mixed with junk science some of which reads exactly like jacket copy for Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

So what we’ve discovered is nothing less than a teeming nest of modern Theosophers.  These folks find the hardscrabble wonders of rationalist secular knowledge to be unfulfilling, uninspriring unless they are spiced with heaping helpings of tired, intellectually empty and dishonest but highly decorated teleologies.

These sentiments have a corrupting influence on public discourse and encourage what atheists call “woo.”  Woo is a helpful category that refers holistically to irrational beliefs, especially in the realm of health care.  The problem with woo is that it can kill.  When Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or New Age cult members refuse modern medical help for their children, and the children die, that’s the dark side of all this spiritual role-playing.  What if deluded, costumed, Klingon-speaking Star Trek fans refused actual medicine in favor of a spray painted salt shaker they claim is a treatment from the 23rd century?  What really makes that different?  And should we really be spending money on trying to detect souls with fMRI machines when, for example, vaccine production is so slow and antiquated?

The real “black hole” in religious journalism, at least since the “emergence” of Tippett, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Karen Armstrong and the rest of the weak teleologists, is the inability of such people to be objective.  They see a noble heart in, as far as I can tell, every religious or spiritual idea they’ve ever covered.

Isn’t it frighteningly easy to imagine a friendly hour-long interview between Krista and, say, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson?

Ultimately what fails to satisfy about Speaking of Faith is the extreme ecumenicism Tippett’s “agenda” requires.  It’s intellectually crippling, akin to a restaurant which tries to delight both big game bush-meat lovers and vegan PETA activists.  Everyone likes to eat, right?  They have that much in common, so it’ll be great!

Imagine if “On the Media” had a similar mission?  The whole point of the show would disappear.  No malefactor would be thoroughly investigated or subjected to cleansing, well-deserved ridicule.  So when an agenda like that of Krista’s Theosophical Sunday School infects public radio for two hours every weekend, taking up space where a superior program might thrive, it annoys me.  And I’m not alone.

You may not be surprised to learn that one of the most common google search queries leading people to this blog is as follows:

Krista Tippett Annoying

You’re Soaking In It

America's Teens At Play

Careful readers of this blog will have picked up on a few broad themes :

  • mild, barely noticeable antipathy towards the Palinista wing of the Republican party
  • cringing at the over-use of certain words and phrases by Public Radio personalities
  • distaste at the shameless promulgation of Karen Armstrongian ecumenical pseudo-deism by the likes of Krista Tippett
  • rejection of conventional wisdom (“Con-Whiz!”  it’s like Cheez-Whiz for the mind) talking point ping-pong tarted up as “analysis”
  • mortified attention-calling to the pathological hyper-mega-parenting that has become the norm in today’s global yuppie culture

There’s some saying about fish not being able to see the water they are swimming in, and I think it applies to Public Radio staffers’ attitudes to the last four of these.

Studs Terkel wisely lamented that journalists have become too bourgeois to question the status-quo they are now totally invested in.  He was correct.  The toothless and intellectually passive correspondents of the supposedly liberal mainstream media have turned the likes of Stewart and Colbert into Woodward and Bernstein by comparison.  You can’t see the elephant in the room if you are the elephant.

And thus the entire meaning of today’s little Morning Edition story about a dramatic drop in teen driving orbited high above the head of story-filer Beth Accomando.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m all in favor of the clear benefit to society we’ll see when America’s pimply texters reject their traditional role as scary statistic generators for MADD. It’s not the result that bothers me, it’s the cause.

Beth Accomando posits that the cause must be the internet.  Or maybe video games.

But no, Beth, you totally, totally blew it.  The cause is simply and obviously the invisible fence 21st century teens have had conditioned into their brains by a relentless combination of agoraphobia-by-proxy created through an unprecedented level of parental anxiety and the debilitating sloth inculcated by a culturally humiliating practice of parents behaving like harried personal assistants to a celebrity.

This is the kind of attitude that turns the theme of Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road”, which is that we’re all mortal and that having children is no redemption because they too are mortal, into “a love story between a father and a son” as the progeny-besotted director stated yesterday in a Morning Edition story about the adaptation.

So small point: overparenting is trying to ruin the next generation.  If they don’t even want to drive, the traditional dream/lust of all teen-agers, what the hell will they ever want do of any value?

Large point: get your heads out of your asses.  We’re at war.

Storygore

Dear reader(s) and NPR,

I do have a software company to run, so sometimes typing pointless, obsessive, and grandiose opinions about public radio into the great silence of the interwebs has to take second fiddle. Go figure. (I blame blogosphere sexism.)

But close students of Airbag Moments will have noticed that a number of the trends I’ve previously identified, named, and railed against have continued unabated on public radio throughout the summer. If anything, public radio ombudsmen seem to have spitefully incorporated my most strident peeves into their style guide rules.

Take for example the news of Estelle Getty’s death. NPR, in its brief piece on this “Golden Girls” comedienne, found the time to report about the severe dementia that made her final years a tragedy and eventually killed her.

Happily, although I may be the only reader of this blog, I found out I am not the only person to be annoyed by this bizarre compulsion to ghoulishness. They actually read a listener letter complaining about the gratuitous privacy-ignoring and dignity-destroying aspect of her obit.

But here’s the problem: They read the letter, but did nothing to address its contents. That sort of complaint absolutely requires a response either defending this grim editorial bias or promising to do better in the future. Just reading the letter on the air does nothing but beg the question, sort of like a passive aggressive non apology, a middle school mean girl forced to say something like “I’m sorry what I said about your not being pretty hurt your feelings.” Brooke? Bob? Where are you guys on this media absurdity? Do you approve of this practice? If so, you must be really looking forward to hearing all the disturbing details of the final struggles of Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan in the coming years.

Meanwhile “storycorps” today continues its almost unbroken streak of tearful deathbed diaries.

What is it, NPR?

The war and economy aren’t depressing enough for you?

Sincerely,

A.M.

Window Moments

Call this “Who’s riding my coat-tails now?”

Gretchen Woods, a caller to Weekend Edition Sunday last week, whined (with what sounded like good cause) about some story she’d heard.  So far so good.  Sounds like she and I would get along just fine.

But my ears pricked up when she suggested that the unsatisfactory piece was a “window moment,” as in making her want to throw her radio out of her car window.

Not bad, lady, but I did it first, I did it better, and, most important, I did it bloggier.

If you’re so fired up about criticizing NPR with labored but apt plays on words I invite you to become a co-contributor here.

Necrophiliac Public Radio

Ghouls, those vile creatures of myth who make graveyards their home and feast on the dead, can’t compare to journalists in the area of necrophilia. It’s unseemly.

Yes, it’s important to know that Ted Kennedy has a very serious illness. Perhaps, because he is a senator during a time of frequent close votes, it’s even valuable to know something of his prognosis. But the news media treats this sort of situation as an occasion to obsess and, worse, speculate about symptoms, treatments and anything else they can think of to drag out the coverage. It’s as if the moment someone with any fame becomes ill or dies the entire world has the same right and obligation to know every gruesome detail as consulting physicians or anguished members of the patient’s immediate family.

Today NPR spent many more minutes on what should be private details of Kennedy’s disease than on the situation’s actual political consequences. And, if that weren’t enough, Carl Kasel’s news update during Morning Edition about Hamilton Jordan’s death told many details about his years fighting illness to the exclusion of all other information. Was that really the right focus? The update should obviously have focused instead on what made him a public figure, not his personal medical history.

I first started noticing the extremity of this instinct on the part of the news media in general and NPR in particular with the death of a somewhat famous classical musician last year. I say “somewhat” because, while a large number of classical music fans knew of his talent, few others did. Yet every twenty minutes we received a detailed description of his lengthy battle with illness. Why is it necessary for people who have barely or never heard of this man to be privy to the saddest and grimmest details of his end?

Whatever happened to “natural causes?” Is that seen as some kind of journalistic failure? I presume so given the disappointment and humiliation I often detect in the voices of newsreaders forced to report that posthumous details aren’t available.

This practice is odder still in a country so paranoid about the privacy of individual health records. After all, one of the roadblocks to a national health ID card connected to a computerized patient record system is fear of loss of privacy. We’re so concerned about our health records that even our doctors have a hard time getting them and often have to employ paper filing systems from the 19th century. Yet the news media shouts detailed health information like a gossipy aunt to anyone who’ll listen every single time someone of fame dies or becomes ill – and the very same society acts like it’s normal, even required behavior.

This bad habit plagues public radio interview shows as much as it does magazine and news shows. Diane Rehm demonstrates a particular fascination with the diseases of her guests, the more horrifying the better. I’ve heard her force actors who are just trying to promote a movie to discuss their traumatic health problems at great length. At least she holds the same standard for herself. But is it really necessary that we be informed every time she’s on leave for her voice treatments and not a vacation? And if she must tell us, shouldn’t we have some input in designing her treatment plan? Why not?

I realize that the gruesome and gory have always been mainstays of journalism, but the more ingrained a practice is in a field of endeavor the more it’s usually overdue for scrutiny.

I challenge all NPR producers to reconsider how much medical detail is really necessary and appropriate for broadcast.

Since that clearly won’t happen, I also challenge Bob Garfield or Brooke Gladstone of On The Media to address this issue directly.

Dis American Life

Have you ever heard the expression “there’s nothing so boring as other people’s dreams?”

Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” works hard to prove the saying wrong on a semi-regular basis.

Alex Blumberg’s 25 minute piece from episode 351 about tracking down his childhood babysitter is a good case in point. There’s a moment when Blumberg says his former sitter, after hours of telephone conversation, was waiting for the other shoe to drop, worried she’d somehow been a negative influence on little Alex.

Turns out she wasn’t.

And that’s precisely what’s wrong with misbegotten TAL segments. We, the audience, endure dramatic pause after dramatic pause, same old music interval after same old music interval, for that crazy twist you never saw coming that will redeem the murdered 20-40 minutes of airtime. Too often it just never arrives.

It’s the old radio memoir bait-and-switch: a strip club where the clothes stay on, a seventies television magic show with all the cheese but no actual tricks, an extended joke with a lot of spittle and no discernible punchline.

But how can you know before the end that you are in the midst of one of these hour wasters?

Fear not, loyal reader(s)! As a public service provided entirely without pledge drive we have created a survey to help you determine when a TAL segment is slowly going nowhere so you can turn off the radio and perhaps ask a loved one to entertain you for 20-40 minutes instead.

Instructions: for each criterion below that is true add the number of points specified.

  1. The story is about the childhood of an official contributing editor (1 point)
  2. Ira Glass keeps sounding amazed, but you can’t figure out why (1 point)
  3. A musical interlude occurs within the story so you can have a moment to let what was just revealed really sink in. Instead you start wondering how many times you’ve heard the music before and if they’re trying to save royalty money (2 points)
  4. There seem to be more music intervals than actual narration (1 point)
  5. The narrator has a speaking voice made for novel-writing (1 point)
  6. The events of the tale could only ever transpire in crazy old New York City! (1 point)
  7. You realize you wandered out of hearing range of the radio five minutes ago and didn’t notice (1 point)
  8. You thought you were listening to TAL, but you suddenly realize it’s Studio 360 (2 points)
  9. You hear a pitiful sound, turn to listen, and discover it’s your own voice intoning “Oh my god, this is so boring!!” (4 points)

    If the story you are listening to scores 3 or more total points, TURN OFF YOUR RADIO IMMEDIATELY and leave it off for at least one hour.

    To be sure, This American Life is also responsible for some astonishing, wonderful pieces. It is the momentum from these that keeps people listening through the chaff. Some of the personal stories are beautiful, even haunting. Others are hilarious and diverting.

    Most often the segments which qualify more as actual journalism than as essay are really excellent and serve to fill in the gaping holes found in other media. What is the day to day experience of the war in Iraq actually like for American soldiers and Iraqis? That question deserves innumerable TAL tales, and the ones they have produced are unique and reveal a poignant level of detail not available anywhere else.

    The best stories are like little worlds in poetic miniature that capture the beauty and absurdity of life the way every piece of a broken glass hologram contains the entire image. Each story beat can take the whole set-up in an entirely unexpected direction. Jack Hitt, one of the most artful and consistent TAL contributors, produced a shining example of this about the island of Nauru. If you haven’t heard it make it the next thing you listen to.

    One final small critique: Their attempts to shoehorn the segments they pick for a given week into a single theme are often laughably unsuccessful. Guys, just give it up when no theme is appropriate and call it a smörgåsbord episode or something.

    Okay, reader(s), your job is to post about the best stories you have ever heard on TAL or the least apt TAL attempted themes of the week. You may also want to try adding to the list of warning signs that the TAL story you’re listening to should be abandoned.

    Don’t all post at the same time, by the way, last time you crashed the wordpress servers.

    Reaching Out (ewww!)

    There’s another public radio linguistic tic that’s spreading faster than Lindsay Lohan at an Italian waiter convention!

    It is the phrase “reaching out,” used to mean contact, appeal to, please, solicit, as in “Mitt Romney is not yet reaching out to the all-important gay animal tamer vote.”

    The phrase “Reaching out” isn’t new, but its frequency is suddenly off the charts with the intense (albeit superficial) campaign coverage of the last few months. Listening to recent reports might convince you the presidential candidates had mutated into thousand-armed Hindu deities.

    Take Day To Day’s two-way between reporter Anthony Brooks and Republican strategist Dan Schnur today. Here’s a highlight:

    Schnur: “…it gives him the party’s leading conservative spokespersons from the president on down to help him reach out to the party’s conservative base and try to motivate them toward a fall election.”

    To which Brooks responds: “And what does he have to do though to really reach out and convince them…”

    And what about all the unintended nasty overtones of the phrase “reaching out?” Some scuzzy guy going for a grope on the subway. Zombies’ rotting hands emerging from their graves. Fill in your own.

    I imagine AT&T still regrets being associated with the slogan “reach out and touch someone.” They may be the “new” AT&T now, but I’ll bet they’re still listed in the Meghan’s law database.

    Of course the habit is not limited to public radio. A quick google of “clinton” and the phrase “reaching out” generates almost a million hits. But one of the themes of this blog is that public media, to demonstrate why it matters and deserves listeners’ donations, must rise above the rest of the silly fish-wrap* manufacturers.

    So, if you are a public radio host or a campaign reporter, think about reaching out to a thesaurus in the very near future.

    * I adore the phrase “fish-wrap.” I love nothing more than referring to the New York Times as “the fish-wrap of record.” (c)(tm)2008 Airbag Moments.

    But finger-staining news is inexorably evaporating into carpal- tunnel- inducing news, so we need a digital version of this perfect put-down.

    Reader(s): Please suggest a replacement for “fish-wrap” that will take us into the 21st century!

    The World: Back of the bus

    PRI’s The World is a heroically consistent “eat your broccoli” public radio show. Though not often gripping, they are one of the few sources of good, frequent global reporting in American media – especially important given our current president’s alarming New Yorker-cover-ish view of the globe. Let your local public radio station know they should subscribe to this show.

    So far today’s most entertaining/shocking story on public radio is one The World presented on fundamentalist Israeli Jewish women self segregating on buses. Wow, just…wow. Orthodox Jewish burkas. Way to be!

    Memo to Middle-Eastern countries: try not to make it look too much like you all deserve each other.

    Find and listen to the report on this page.

    Aside from The World’s parchingly dry style, the only other complaint I have about the show is the time it wastes on aggressively obtuse world music coverage at the end of each episode. The more incongruously hybridized a musical group is, the more eager The World is to provide them with publicity.

    Then again I do loves me some Tutsi/Cambodian trance-ragtime played on found antique Inuit toy instruments by Chechen octogenarians.

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