Renee Montagne interviewed Gary Trudeau today on Morning Edition about the last 40 years of Doonesbury. They jawed on quite a bit about the characters, especially B.D., the veteran who lost a leg in Iraq. Somehow the lengthy (almost 8 minute) piece failed to talk about politics.
Now I know it’s not polite to talk about religion or politics AT A DINNER PARTY, but this is a news show. How is it that a normally politically obsessed radio program avoids talking politics with the guy who changed the comics page forever by invading it with explicit political cartoon content? (Sadly he thereby paved the way for such luminaries as “Mallard Fillmore.”) That’s really the main thing about Doonesbury, right? It’s like interviewing Bob Dylan and only talking about his Christmas album.
Thinking about why Montagne was so careful not to mention politics in this context (or to include a single example of the strip’s outright political content in the collection of strips on display at the NPR website) I realized the explanation holds the key to many of NPR’s journalistic failings.
What we listeners want from journalism is passionate investigation to discover truths that matter to us.
Let’s break that sentence down contextually. “Passionate” means we want journalists to take their profession seriously, maybe more seriously than many yuppie parents of young children are capable of. (See Studs Terkel on this topic.) This means putting their careers and even lives at risk when necessary. “Investigation” means to use skills, contacts and other resources we laypeople don’t have. “Discover” means that the information we receive should be new and non-obvious. “Truth” means the discovered information should shape the story, not other way around. “Mattering” in this case could simply mean quenching our curiosity, but it could also mean inspiring us to change our vote, whistle-blow at our job, or do something nice for the family of a deployed soldier.
If we use that carefully worded sentence as a set of filtering criteria for news stories, and we require all stories to meet all of the terms, 90% of nightly news stories fail. 100% of FOX News stories fail. I’d say something like 60% of NPR stories fail. That last is actually pretty good, but only by comparison to the dismal performance of everyone else.
One of the key terms that stories fail to meet these days is “investigation”. What are the recent stories most passionately investigated by NPR? They are all about wounded veterans, and most of those are by Danny Zwerdling. While I would criticize some of the content of those stories because Zwerdling has a preconceived narrative that he tends to impose, his investigations are clearly passionate. But they’re not risky. Everyone wants veterans to get all the help they need – or at least everyone who can recall the fact that we are at war.
And that’s why Montagne felt so comfortable talking about Doonesbury’s own wounded warrior: no controversy but loads of human interest even if the human is imaginary.
Meanwhile the Doonesbury strips that really mattered over the last decade were the many that effectively challenged the conventional wisdom coming out of the White House, especially regarding the Iraq war. It was on that topic that the news media, NPR included, failed us to the point of debasing our very democratic principles.
It’s no coincidence that even now NPR is too timid to talk to (let’s be frank) a mere cartoonist about that particular part of his career and our recent national history.