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.

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