Hot Take on NPR Politics Podcast

I listened to the first episode and, since Sam Sanders specifically asked for comment, here I go.

I judge political chat shows via a set of three unrealistic aspirational metrics. I’ve listed them interspersed with my comments below.

Does a show waste a lot of time trafficking in conventional wisdom?

The show started off rather badly on this question. The crew decided to open their first show with an imitation of the infamous Dean Scream. The conventional wisdom is that Howard Dean made a super goofy sound on stage and could no longer be taken seriously as a presidential candidate by the American people.

They failed to mention that the reality is that the Dean Scream was the creation of the media. The people who were actually present at the event when the scream occurred, you know the actual Howard Dean supporters and members of the press who were in the audience, never heard anything like the barbaric yawp heard round the world minutes later. That sound was the way a microphone picked up and recorded the scream which reporters, as Bob Garfield put it, “excerpted for maximum cruelty and endlessly re-ran”. This is not a conspiracy theory. Even CBS News knows this. The fact that the NPR Politics crew failed to make an aside acknowledging this absurdity which, farcical as it is, may have killed a presidential campaign, implies either that they don’t recognize what really happened or that they aren’t interested in providing even a middlebrow level of deeper analysis. I won’t want to judge them too harshly by this brief, goofy bit. (Too bad Howard Dean didn’t get that kind of consideration.)

The rest of the show certainly fared better than the opening and better than a lot of political talk on NPR – or anywhere else.

One  conventional wisdom-inspired practice of media figures is to autonomically interject expressions like “on both sides” when criticizing one party in order to try to avoid accusations of partisanship. This safety net of false equivalence (nothing is ever truly the same on both sides)  tends to hamstring reporters’ ability to actually criticize one party for something even when that party is primarily or sometimes even uniquely responsible for that thing. This happened on several occasions in this first episode. I hope they can figure out a way to minimize this practice or get a little more granular with some data to back up who does the thing more and what that means.

Does a show feel like a talk radio program about sports?

This was the problem I had with the show “Political Junkie”. Yes, politics has things in common with sports. There are fans. There are winners and losers, favorites and underdogs. There are pseudo-competitive events like “debates” and actual competitive events called “elections.” There is handicapping.

But if you allow the tropes of sports coverage too much presence in your reporting you’re losing the thread. Politics is like sports, but politics isn’t sports. Treating it as sports is lazy and, more importantly, hides what is truly going on. Sports, for example, are not important.

The most common way to treat politics like sports is to focus too much on polls. Most reporters realize that opinion polling is unreliable, but that doesn’t stop them from talking about the latest polls like they are meaningful, as if a poll, like the Dean Scream, is an event that actually happened and has provided useful information. Late night hosts might call this “clock gobbling”. Frankly the Iowa caucuses don’t even qualify as providing useful information.

Anyway, the good news is that they didn’t focus too much on polls and they didn’t treat politics like sports enough to be terrible – which is kind of a triumph for political reporters. Tamara Keith did do one thing that has become common, at least on NPR where staffers know listeners are tired of “horse-race” coverage. She said “not to get too horse-racy” and then got all horse racy. It’s like when someone leans over to you and says, sotto voce,not to gossip, but I heard Peggy is pregnant and that Dan isn’t the father!”

Does a show provide me new useful information?

This will be unique to everyone, so I won’t comment specifically. Go listen and judge for yourself.

Overall I enjoyed listening to the show, and I think they did a great job for a first episode. I’m interested to see where they take this. My favorite part, by far, was the “what you couldn’t let go” segment. It feels better when reporters actually exhibit human reactions to things. This is why people gravitated to the exaggerated reactions of Stewart and Colbert to current events and it seems to be a trend in public media.

Miracle of Miracles

Jackie Lyden had a story on Weekend Edition this past Sunday about the repair and re-costuming of a beloved icon of the Virgin Mary at a Catholic church in Harlem. This tacky statue is credited with countless miracles by parishioners and the Catholic church itself. And, so anyway, it has a new fancy dress up dress and stuff.

Wait, what? Back up. Who cares about the freaking dress, Jackie? A KITSCHY STATUE HAS BEEN GRANTING WISHES AND PERFORMING MIRACLES ON THE REG FOR DECADES NOW. There’s your headline, obvs. I mean if even one miracle were real it would change everything science knows about the universe. That’s not an exaggeration.

It is well worth asking why supposed miracles are treated so casually by the media. Here are a few theories:

  • The media has “learned helplessness” about trying to prove miracles happened, so they just report that lots of people believe they happened and move on.
  • The media is wary of alienating religious folks, so they get as close as possible to calling the miracles real (by quoting people who believe in them, aka “witnesses”) without actually confirming them.
  • The media is cynical and really doesn’t believe in miracles at all, but they overcompensate for their bias by condescending to the believers with their coverage. “I’m sure it helps you be a better person to believe in such things, though of course I don’t need to” might be the subtext here.

Miracles are spoken of with no suspicion with surprising frequency in conjunction with the canonization of new saints (3 “proven” miracles required), the death of religious leaders who are often credited with having performed miracles during their lifetimes, and, as with Lyden’s latest, some travelogue about holy places or icons.

If such stories are worth air time, how much more are the reported miracles worth the attention of the press? If a statue is routinely healing people and otherwise changing lives in dramatic ways then this really is the biggest story on Earth because miracles really don’t actually happen.

And since the press refuses to investigate claims of miracles, who do they expect to do it? Does James Randi have to do all of them himself?

And, finally, the question must be asked, if we accept the premise that miracles are happening all over the place, why don’t the gods heal amputees?

Open Letter to Weekend Edition & Scott Simon RE: Glenn Beck

Dear W.E. Team:

You guys generally do such a great job! But you made a very questionable choice today, and since second-guessing NPR is one of my most cherished self-appointed and under-appreciated jobs you know I’m obligated to interrogate it.

Why, I mean seriously, why did you invite Glenn Beck (of all possible pundits) on your show to publicly vet Donald Trump’s conservative bona fides?

I’m not questioning the idea of having a conservative on your show for this purpose, I’m questioning your choice. Although Glenn Beck managed to sound calm and reasonable on your show – he only referred to himself in the third person twice – he has a very long and colorful history of saying bizarre and awful things. With good reason he is considered (sometimes even by the man himself) to be one of the most divisive, irresponsible, unhinged and inflammatory characters in the whole conservative freak-show. (I was tempted to use “Let Me Google That For You” for those links.)

By putting him on the air you are unquestionably lowering yourself and worsening the polarization and poisoning of the American political landscape, a tragic and potentially catastrophic situation you yourselves have bemoaned on previous occasions.

The fact that you chose Beck demands that we consider what your motivations might have been.

  • Was it stunt-casting to try to increase ratings?
  • Was it an attempt to attract sponsorship for your show from the merchants of gold, doomsday-prepper supplies, and ersatz male enhancers who support Beck’s poison-spewing media empire?
  • Was he the only conservative willing to criticize Trump in public?

Feel free to message me on Twitter with the actual explanation.

Please don’t do anything like this again. It’s so much worse than Kardashian on Wait Wait I can’t even.


Airbag Moments

Of Forests and Trees

Something the media seems to have a lot of trouble with is getting distracted by events rather than the higher level causes of classes of events. A dramatic recent example of this is the Gold King mining disaster in Colorado. Public radio did a reasonable job talking about the particulars of the event, and some shows made it clear that the Gold King site was one of thousands of closed-mine time bombs all over the U.S. that are either polluting or destined to pollute local environments.

But out of the nine stories NPR shows have produced to date about the problem, not one has covered the noisome economic feedback loop that allows mining companies to make incredible profits while ignoring or riding roughshod over environmental regulations. Local public radio station KUNC did an okay story about it, though it focused too much on Gold King. Even the oft-reviled CNN managed to emit a decent story which described some of the higher level dynamics of the mining industry. It’s often a complicated issue, but sometimes it amounts to mining companies simply declaring bankruptcy once a mine is no longer profitable. At that point it’s up to taxpayers to pay for clean-up. You’d never guess that listening to NPR over the last couple of weeks.

This is a huge blind-spot. If I were conspiracy-minded I’d come up with some theory about the Koch brothers muzzling this kind of information. Since it’s probably not a conspiracy, then what is the reason? I have no idea, but I can venture a few guesses regarding stories about the economics of mining:

  • They can be complicated and therefore are too much work for harried reporters.
  • They are considered boring and might turn off listeners.
  • They are inherently political and therefore getting into the details, ugly as they are, opens up NPR to accusations of anti-business (read anti-Republican) bias.
  • NPR producers, reporters, and interviewees are ignorant of the economic systems that produced these mines.

I have no idea which of these, if any, are true. If anyone knows, please drop me a line.

Meanwhile the principle remains that reporters and producers need to do a better job detecting and telling stories about the higher levels of abstraction that generate the every day events they currently have most of their focus on. Just today there was a piece about the abandonment of the term “alien” to describe those who are now more usually called “undocumented”. It was a fine story which detailed how this specific word went from official usage as a euphemism by Latino activists to a discouraged epithet.

But this is happening to language every day. Any euphemistic word describing something which is innately troubling, hateful or otherwise problematic will inevitably accrue negative connotations. Replacing the word with a new one simply delays the process. Eventually the failure of this kind of linguistic reality laundering will result in negative feelings about “undocumented” as well. This is a much more trivial issue than tens of thousands of abandoned mines, but it points to the blindness to or silence about the complicated patterns and levels of abstraction behind so many of the things we experience every day.

Look, Ma (.com)

I have sometimes talked about the way NPR uses what I consider to be over-gentle, linguistically pre-chewed forms of expression in its writing along with a story-time vocal style that combine to subconsciously infantilize the listener. I do not believe they are trying to infantilize us on purpose, it’s just the unintentional result of a lot of smaller style choices. In any case it’s one of the things that makes NPR so much more pleasant to listen to than the TV-news-standard stentorian delivery of someone like Andrea Mitchell. The closest NPR comes to this is Mara Liasson, who happens to moonlight on FOX TV News. (Or is NPR her moonlight job?  Hard to tell.)

But advertisers are another story. Baby-talk modern company names are generated from pure cynicism. And I mean “baby talk” literally. Words like “mama” are common across cultures as the first sounds made by an infant, and in many languages they are used as parental names.

Listen more carefully next time you hear the national underwriting messages pronounced in Jessica Hansen’s lovely voice. You’ll hear ““, ““, and ““. They are practically baby-talk anagrams for one another. I’m waiting for “”

So, is it a coincidence that at least three “baby talk” companies advertise heavily on NPR? Or maybe there are just so many nonsense-word baby-talk companies now that you should expect a normal distribution to be clotted with them.

Google Inc. took its name from the number “googol,” a one followed by one hundred zeroes, which a mathematician allowed his young nephew to name. Google it!

To Infinity…And Beyond!!! (and beyond that, too!)

The meaning of the word “infinity” is impossible to comprehend. It contains multitudes, literally. In fact, it contains everything and keeps coming for more. It is the the most famished concept in math and cosmology, devouring all sums and spaces, gleeful as it swallows exponents and parsecs alike. It is sinister, for everything that lives will eventually disappear into it without so much as a ripple or blemish on its mirror surface. No human mind can grasp it. The vertiginous vastness of its nature is beyond communication. It’s one of the first ideas children encounter that truly blows their minds. I’m still not over it.

Mathematicians have tried to tame it; infinity is useful and necessary in that abstract realm. They selected a symbol for it, as if it could be captured in a mere rune. But in practice infinity is a Hell’s Angel badass singularity that is fatal to applied logic and reasoning. All you have to do is ask a computer to divide any number by zero, the result of which is axiomatically infinity, and the computer will promptly behave like a a person injected with an LSD-PCP-Bath Salt speedball. The poor computer will immediately generate a deeply felt and wounded message reading simply “Divide by zero error”. The computer is saying “OMG did you just seriously ask me to try to calculate infinity? I just cannot even. I don’t even know where to go from here.”

My point here is that infinity is really, REALLY beyond humungous, akin to an ineffable deity. We can name it, try to talk about it, but never truly know it or grok it. And, like an angry god, its name should not be invoked for cheap effect.

And so a few days ago when I was listening to a Laura Sydell story on All Things Considered, as one does, I was suddenly struck by this comment, made by a worthy named John Seely Brown.

“The ability to imagine is the key challenge, because we have infinitely powerful tools to build whatever we imagine. As a result we’re limited by our imagination.”

Do you see the problem there? If not, read it again. There it is: Infinitely powerful tools.

Yeah, as they say, no. “We have infinitely powerful tools” is something only comic book super-villains should say with a straight face, usually followed by a prolonged, evil cackle and some kind of intimidating knife-switch being closed.

John Seely Brown doesn’t have infinitely powerful tools. No one has infinitely powerful tools. No human will ever have infinitely powerful tools. Theologians even debate whether or not the omnipotence-claiming god of Abraham truly has infinitely powerful tools. Can God throw a curveball so sneaky even Jesus can’t hit it? Is God constrained to moral actions? (The answer to the latter seems like a big old “No!” of course. #theodicy)

But John Seely Brown is thought-leading us to believe he is not constrained by the mere finite, but only by the interdisciplinary artist-in-residence-curable constraint of imagination.

After hearing this howler of a hyperbolic claim I unwittingly began a Twitter conversation in which I was quickly accused by an NPR reporter of being hubristic and having neither a life nor an imagination. No, really. Here it is:

Can you believe this shit?
Figure 1. Laura Sydell rips public radio’s infinitely awesome blogger a new one. Rhetorical summary: “I know you are, but what is John Seely Brown!?”

Ouch, right? Plus I was obviously applying the hubris tag to claims of infinite power, not to Sydell as she seems to have misinterpreted. Of course one might be justified in accusing her of something like hubris-by-proxy…

The proper response was, if anything, “allow John Seely Brown a moment of exaggeration in his exuberance at the cool stuff he’s doing”, not a spit-take inducing doubling down on “infinitely powerful.” If Sydell had accused me of being over-literal in my reaction to the word “infinitely” she might have a fair point, but her mama-bear ad hominem broadside is over the top. How am I the hubris-befuddled party here?

Were Airbag Moments a blog about language peeves I would have cause to opine about the overuse and cheapening of the word “infinite” simply on the basis of style, like the overuse and cheapening of the word “literally”, but there are actually much more serious reasons, especially for journalists and industry spokespeople, to eschew tech triumphalism and to treat it with skepticism when it appears. This idea that “the only limit is our imagination” is the obnoxiously perfumed Disney-film epitome of tech triumphalism. The same exaggeration can equally inappropriately describe a pencil, or Play-Doh ™.

Tech triumphalism flourished, as one would expect, in the mid twentieth century, when the development curve of fundamental invention was arguably at its steepest. Magazines like Popular Mechanics boasted unintentionally hilarious (even then) covers featuring flying cars and plans for working robots you could build with free boxes from your neighborhood grocer.

flying car
Figure 2. “Your flying car for 1967, Hiller’s Aerial Sedan” PM said in 1957.

Wired magazine periodically takes up the mantle of Popular Mechanics for contemporary techno-gushing, and has proven to be almost as hilarious in some of its predictions over the years.

Sydell is not the only public radio personality to overestimate just how awesome our present and near future are. Remember when that guy from 99% Invisible said we now have everything from the Star Trek tv show except the teleporter? Good times! When I thoroughly corrected him on the inanity of that claim he also refused to back down. I guess nobody likes corrections. Or reality.

The idea that there is eventually going to be a technological fix for all of our problems is a deadly one. It inculcates lassitude and inattention towards very real, very, very hard to fix dynamics in the world. If Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity gadget then I guess anthropogenic climate change is nothing to worry about. In fact if it’s even close to true that the only limit to his power is imagination I hope the United Nations will quickly dispatch John Seely Brown to start fixing some things real quick, like the anthropogenic hellscape living nightmare that Fukushima Daiichi has turned into.

There’s actually a benighted school of thought in Economics comically named “Cornucopianism” that is accepted as dogma by some noted economists. It essentially teaches that we humans are such clever little buggers that we will always invent ourselves out of every hole we are capable of digging ourselves into, including problems like disease, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. (Sounds like hubris to me.) The effect of this is to encourage us to dig ourselves into ever deeper holes. Jabbering about infinity devices, or flying cars for that matter, encourages that delusion. Who needs to recycle or buy a fuel-efficient car or practice safe-sex when Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity machine?

Of course I could be wrong. Maybe John Seely “Thanos” Brown actually owns and operates an infinity machine. But the examples from Sydell’s story of what our nation’s infinity labs are doing certainly don’t inspire the expected awe. For example I’m sure the 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is attractive and interesting, but it isn’t exactly a cure for Malaria, much less a fix for the continents of plastic debris laying waste to our oceanic biosphere. In fact I’m guessing odds are good that the plastic 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is fated to choke a Sea Lion in the not too distant future, shortly after the forgotten gewgaw is discovered in an attic and junked by a mystified tenant.

Sea life greet 3D-printed tchotchkes with less enthusiasm than Laura Sydell and Ira Flatow.

Now, in spite of her vituperations against yours truly and her not-very-imaginative or infinite dreams of a smart fridge, I do generally respect Sydell. So I went ahead and looked up this Doctor John Seely Brown as she so icily demanded.

Instead of finding a list of Tony Stark-like world-changing inventions, I discovered that Doctor John Seely Brown has a lot in common with none other than my frequent target, professional religion-adorer Krista Tippett. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown won admission to Brown University. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is the eponym for his own website. And like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is clearly a very talented, intelligent person, an accomplished self-marketer, and sometimes talks in ways that, while verbose and grandiloquent, fail to convey specific meaning to the average listener.

Here are a few TED-talk-ready Seelyisms (Holy Cow does he give a lot of lectures!) from his website:

“Today, I’m Chief of Confusion, helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work”

“Learners craft their own pathways, through a rich ecology of learning experiences” (I guess they craft their pathway through the ecology with some sort of imagination machete?)

“Welcome to the Imagination Age where the arts, humanities & sciences fuse creating a new kind of alloy.” (applause, presumably)

“For the problems we now face in the 21st century we need vividness and texture to sense what might be needed given their complex nature.” (who can argue with that?)

“His personal research interests include digital youth culture, digital media, and the application of technology to fundamentally rethink the nature of work and institutional architectures in order to enable deep learning across organizational boundaries – in brief, to design for emergence in a constantly changing world.” (emphasis mine)

Do those mean anything tangible to you? It’s all a bit vague for my apparently raisined, lifeless, and pride-distorted imagination. I assume he has nurtured vivid imagishperical ecologies that have enabled deep utility for the world, such as the copier his team developed at Xerox PARC that could actually predict when it was about to break and call for repair – which is very cool, except, you know, Malaria and all – but he sure has produced a lot of triumphalist techno-evangelical jargon as a by product. A lot of research outfits manage to produce incredible breakthroughs without that sort of hype. Hell, Apple Computer is a shrinking violet compared to this stuff.

But Sydell clearly drinks the rhetorical Kool-Aid and so do a lot of very smart and successful people in business and the academy, so I’ll check to see if Google Translate has a “Thought-Leader Lecture –> Unimaginative Egotistical Zombie Grunts” translation mode.

If not I’m just going to have to sharpen my imagi-machete and get to work crafting a new path through my personal learning ecology.

Obit or Eulogy?

Journalism has been called, aptly (and possibly tautologically) in my opinion, the “first draft of history.” This expression is beneficial because it implies both the limitations of journalism and its obligations. It also implies that journalism, like first drafts, is basically disposable.

Journalists on deadline have two disadvantages that historians don’t: they can’t know what crucial information will be revealed after their story has gone to print, and they don’t have time to do deep research on the context of a story.

Obituaries of celebrities are less difficult than breaking news stories in both of these regards. News organizations have the ghoulish good sense to write obits of famous people well in advance of their deaths. Because the deceased are famous the context is already established, and new revelations about the dead that will dramatically alter an obit are unlikely. The death of a person is the ultimate not-ongoing event, and editors can make considered choices about what parts of a person’s life to include.

In this context we can consider the All Things Considered obit of televangelist Robert Schuller broadcast yesterday that could have easily been mistaken for a press release. It was the epitome of the kind of kid-glove treatment religious figures are granted by NPR. The obit writer, Nathan Rott, was happy to highlight Schuller’s rhyming and alliterative projects, including the “Hour of Power” and the “Crystal Cathedral”.

If you only had Rott’s obit to go by you’d assume that Schuller was simply a feel-good godly genius whose life was one big success after another.

The true picture is rather different. The “Hour of Power” was one of those shows that begged for money in the name of religion from the poor and lower-middle-class folks who watched it. In spite of the millions raised from Meemaw and Peepaw’s social security checks the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt and the Schullers eventually sold it to the Catholic Church. In the process there were dramatic family squabbles. Schuller himself died seemingly in poverty and, perhaps, senility.

So how is it that none of that appeared in the obit? NPR is practically obsessed with old age and mental illness after all!

All we need to do is look back at NPR’s coverage of the death of Jerry Falwell to see another example of the spineless coverage of religious figures, especially Christian evangelical figures.

(Note: I’m not a journalist. It’s not my job to provide footnotes about Schuller, but just Google “Robert Schuller controversy” if you want the details. NPR apparently didn’t.)