Suspicion

Scott Simon is one of the most affable interviewers employed by NPR, but there is a tone he takes with atheists that fathers normally reserve for the first dinner with a daughter’s ostentatiously tattooed jobless older boyfriend. He clearly believes atheism is a threat to society regardless of whether or not God exists.

Saturday’s interview with Richard Dawkins is a shining example. Simon has a history of disrespecting atheist interviewees, but this was the most rude I’ve ever heard him be. He was driven to ask a particular question, one he has asked many times before, and one he apparently believes is a checkmate in the rhetorical battle against atheists. It was delivered in an unusually awkward, almost Trump-like syntax:

I want to – look, I respect atheists and atheism. But I want to pick up a nice argument we used to have every couple of years with Christopher Hitchens, your friend. And that’s – you can respect atheism. I’ve covered a lot of wars, famines and tragedies. And it seems to me, truly, every theater of suffering I’ve ever been to, there is a dauntless nun, priest, clergy or religious person who was working very selflessly and bravely there for the good of human beings. And I don’t run into organized groups of atheists who do this.

Simon was so intent on this question that he mostly disregarded Dawkins’ replies in order to ask it again, and yet a third time. He even clearly implies that atheists are unpleasant know-it-alls:

But I do wonder, am I just not seeing the world correctly to see large numbers of well-motivated atheist(sic) lending their lives to trying to better the world? Or they’re – if I might put it this way, are they more concerned about just being right intellectually?

I think Dawkins acquitted himself well, but I’d like to give my own responses to this strident question, some of which will amplify his.

Simon’s question incorrectly assumes atheism is comparable to religion.

Plato recounts a man who asks Socrates how to find the best teacher of warrior skills for his son. Socrates replies “Is there not a prior question?” In Socrates’ case the prior question was complex and meant to enlighten the listener about the nature of knowledge and what knowledge is worth pursuing.

In Simon’s case there us a simpler prior question: “Why would atheism organize into large-scale atheist-themed charity organizations?”

Like many NPR staffers Simon misapprehends what atheism is, and, more to the point, what it isn’t. It is not anything like religion. It is simply the lack of religion. As Penn Gillette once said, “atheism is a religion like not stamp-collecting is a hobby.” To be slightly more accurate, atheism is a religion like not having any hobby is a hobby. Atheism is a lack of churches, of theology, of clergy. Atheism represents a simplification of one’s worldview to omit irrational beliefs in gods, angels, demons and miracles.

Asking why atheists don’t create massive, atheist-themed global charity organizations to deploy dauntless atheists to every theater of suffering is totally absurd. Churches are organizations of people joined together by a common set of beliefs. It’s hard to imagine a lot of organizations joined together by a common lack of belief. Yes, there are atheist organizations, but mostly because atheists are a reviled minority, including by Mr. Simon. The day atheism becomes common and accepted is the day those organizations mostly disappear.

Secular organizations provide the counter-examples Simon is seeking.

Simon admits that secular organizations and individual atheists do good in the world, but refuses to allow those to substitute for the atheist organizations he apparently thinks should exist.

When people lack religious belief and therefore the desire to act as a member of a church they organize around other more specific goals and causes that they care about, such as providing clean water or medical care to villages in the developing world, including in disaster-ravaged and war-torn areas. The secular organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is a perfect example of this. MSF is made up of doctors, many of them from Europe. Statistically it is a certainty that many/most of them are atheists. They perform some of the hardest and most needed acts of bravery in theaters of suffering around the world. UNICEF is another large-scale example. One can argue that secular organizations do a better job than religious ones because they don’t waste precious energy and resources on the evangelical goals that both motivate and distract missionaries.

These organizations demonstrate that, in the unlikely event atheism takes hold across the world, Simon need not worry the theaters of suffering will be emptied of well-meaning helpers.

Religions are problematic in ways atheism is not.

Most of what religious organizations do is in places other than theaters of suffering. And much of what religions teach (and require) is not about helping others. Almost half of the Ten Commandments are not about behavior but instead are about worshipping Jehovah. Religion is characterized by everything it requires of its believers, and everything that its organizations enable. This includes the good and the bad. Many wish to define religion as only the positive things done for religious reasons. For example with this statement from the Dawkins interview Simon even implies there’s an argument to be made that religion plays no role in terrorism:

You’ve been outspoken and unbowed in your beliefs that religion plays a role in terrorism.

This idea is absurd, but better minds than mine have thoroughly debunked it elsewhere.

Whether or not you believe Religion is a major cause of terrorism, it certainly inspires many horrible outcomes ranging from tragically widespread alienation of gay kids from their fundamentalist religious families, to more spectacular sect-on-sect deadly violence that occurs weekly in places like Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt.

To make this crystal clear I’ve created a chart showing some of the good and bad things that are demanded by or systematically enabled by religion and atheism:

religion chart 1

Atheism wins handily because it requires nothing – good or bad – of atheists. You might argue that some atheists also molest children, but they are not empowered by the fact that they are atheists. The shocking child abuse widespread within the Catholic Church was enabled, hidden, and ultimately protected by the respect required of congregants for their clergy and the political power of the church in communities.

By contrast, atheism has no doctrine, not even rationality. If you are an atheist for irrational reasons you are still an atheist. Atheists simply do not accept the truth claims about gods made by the religious. If an atheist organization is created and starts a youth group or meets every Sunday for discussions it’s not because atheist doctrine requires or encourages it. There’s even a group called “Atheism Plus” which admits by its very name that all of its principals and activities are additions to the simple base of atheism.

It’s also interesting that the World Happiness Report rates many of the most secular countries at the top. Here’s the summary for 2017:

Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.

And all without a single dauntless nun or priest! A world without religion is not as scary as Simon so often implies. It might even be quite a bit better.

Atheism is an undeserving target.

Globally atheists are an oppressed minority. In America majorities in many states say they would never vote for an atheist running for public office. Atheists are killed and tortured in many countries on a regular basis, something that is woefully under-reported by NPR.

Sometimes journalists like Simon get confused into thinking criticizing atheism is “punching up,” as in afflicting the comfortable on behalf of those who piously comfort the afflicted. I believe they feel this way for a few reasons:

  1. Because atheism is the closest humans can get to a true representation of the world it seems more “powerful” than the frangible and conflicting myths taught by religion. Religious truth claims have been in retreat for centuries as science progressed. (Meanwhile, due to population growth, lack of education, and familial & community indoctrination, there are more religious people than ever.)
  2. Many atheists are well educated privileged caucasians, while religious people tend to be less educated and more underprivileged.
  3. Some atheists have a gratingly supercilious manner. (Many religious people who believe they are on a first-name basis with the almighty share these traits, but for some reason they get a pass.)
  4. Religion has a major emotional component and atheism is purely rational. As a result atheists can seem like haughty Mr. Spocks to religious people.
  5. In many places atheism is trending up even if atheists are still dramatically outnumbered.

Given the real power of religion I’d much rather hear Simon & NPR punch up at, for example, nefarious and hypocritical self-proclaimed religious groups like “prosperity gospel” churches that are actively fleecing people while wearing the sheep’s clothing of righteousness.

Missing Information

NPR Must Do Better In The Age of Trump

My ideas get a lot more exposure from my drive-by Twitter “bromides,” as Scott Simon caustically deemed my tweets today, but this topic deserves a full post.

I guess I can be proud that I actually inspired vitriol from the nicest guy in public radio. After all, the enforced “niceness” of NPR coverage as they go about getting their senses of seriously not-at-all nice things is one of their most profound flaws as a news organization. Niceness clouds their experiences and cripples their descriptions. (Anyway, everyone hates journalists, so at least journalists get to hate media critics, amateur or professional.)

This is going to be a long post including a lot of things I’ve been thinking over the last few months. It has two primary purposes:

  1. I’ll debunk NPR’s argument that journalists should not use the word “lie” to describe false statements because identifying a lie requires knowledge of intent. I’ll also demonstrate that  alternatives to the “lie” explanation for Trump’s false statements are terrifying and news-worthy.
  2. I’ll adduce evidence that NPR normalizes Trump, and frequently does so by failing to report many crucial facts in their coverage of him and his administration.

The Oreskes Doctrine

In case you didn’t know, NPR news director Michael Oreskes went on record bravely defending the value of facts and truth, not exactly a controversial opinion among NPR listeners. But he explicitly abdicates any duty to call a “lie” a “lie.” This is the ditch that 21st century journalism drove into when it naively tried too hard to pursue the shibboleth of objectivity in the face of half a nation (or more) of know-nothings.

Oreskes’ excuse for this editorial rule is that in order to call a demonstrably false statement a “lie” we must know the intent of the speaker, which one can only know if one possesses the awesome power of telepathy. This pusillanimous definition of “lie” suddenly limits the use of the word to novels and confessions, when the authors of lies take explicit responsibility for them.

Many NPR staffers have doubled down, as they love to say, on this simplistic argument via Twitter. Whether they do this through sincere belief or organizational obeisance I can’t say: nobody from a profession whose life-blood is leaks has ever provided me with any inside information, anonymous or otherwise, about the true moods & opinions of NPR staffers on this topic.

Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

I favor a more robust use of “lie” for a number of reasons. The first is the actual definition of the word “lie” in dictionaries not written by Michael Oreskes.

Mr. Webster’s word zoo provides two relevant definitions. The first does require intent. Maybe that’s where Mike stopped reading. The second definition is this:

2. to create a false or misleading impression.

Whatever Trump’s intention, he certainly creates false and misleading impressions through his bizarre utterances.

Here are the second and third definitions of “lie” at Dictionary.com:

2. something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture.
3. an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood.

Both seem to fit the bill nicely, but especially number 3.

Trump makes a lot of false statements. The Washington Post helpfully counted how many different separate “false or misleading” statements the insane-clown-in-chief has made in his first 100 days.  The total is four hundred and sixty-nine. Imagine the total if they had counted every time he lied instead of each separate lie! Then add in the lies of his hench-people! That sum is a big number that, I feel certain, has no precedent in American politics. Hell, I doubt it has a precedent in the office where Bernie Madoff made his sales pitches. Statistically, some of that hoard of falsehoods must be lies. But NPR, of course, won’t even discuss them in aggregate or in theory – other than the discussion about their refusing to discuss it.

If Not A Lie Then What?

For this section I’ll pretend that Oreskes is my boss, too, and thus will treat the word “lie” the same way cowardly wizards in the magical world of the Harry Potterverse treat the word “Voldemort.”

Contra my previous section, let’s accept for the moment the official public NPR position that without a confession no human can possibly know if a false statement is unambiguously a The Word That Cannot Be Said.  It still theoretically allows one to speculate on the likelihood of any given false statement being a fully class A official and intentional Word That Cannot Be Said. But such discussion is also forbidden. This emulates the way that even criticizing capital blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan is legally also a form of blasphemy. (Is there a head-getting-chopped-off emoji?)

But, okay, there’s still a lot to talk about here without accusing Trump of the l-word (sorry, Showtime, there’s a new l-word in town!) or even speculating about it. The only alternative explanation for Trump’s repeated false and misleading statements is that there is something very, very wrong with him. He might be terribly ignorant, terribly stupid, terribly demented, and/or terribly delusional. Those are the only choices. They are all really bad and dangerous.

Trump doing the l-word all the time is terrifying. The alternative explanation for his blizzard of false statements is maybe even more horrible. So why isn’t NPR talking about both all the time? I’m not joking here. The tapestry of Trump’s false statements, as opposed to some particular false statement, is the biggest, scariest story in the country, whatever the available explanations.

Wee Report, You Decide

(“Wee” as in tiny, as in abbreviated reports that omit crucial information.)

The other argument that Oreskes makes is that it’s NPR’s job to provide the facts and the listener’s job to be their own personal decider about what the facts mean. A nice person recently happened upon one of my Twitterborne nano-Jeremiads against Oreskes et al and replied thusly:

tweet

I gave her a brief answer at the time which I will expand upon here.

First of all “We Report, You Decide” was one of the ironic slogans of FOX News since its founding days. The other one was “Fair and Balanced.” So that happened.

But sure, these sentiments are as laudable in the abstract as they are laughable in the context of advertising the world’s most successful propaganda organ and sexual-harassment fantasy camp.

But does NPR give us the facts? I mean, sure, they give us some facts. In fact they give us a lot of facts. Even I often accuse All Things Considered of considering too goddam many things!

But do they give us the facts we need to make informed decisions about important things? In particular did they give us the facts we needed about Trump during the campaign? And did we get useful facts about his cabinet nominees? Are we getting good facts now on a day-to-day basis? Anyone remotely familiar with my Twitter feed over the last few months already knows my answer, which is a resounding “Hell No!”

It is my contention that NPR shies away from certain kinds of information that I and many other paying listeners consider to be vitally important. I’ll speculate about the reasons for this later, but first I’ll adduce some specific examples from the Trump era:

Trump rallies were often mosh-pits of disgusting behavior on the part of Trump supporters. Trump himself encouraged this, dramatically breaking with John McCain’s precedent of actually scolding his supporters when they acted unreasonably at his rallies. NPR had a lot of coverage of Trump election rallies by staffers like Asma Khalid and Sarah McCammon. It’s great that they focused on what Trump was saying, but they omitted or gave minimal coverage to the unfortunate antics of Trump supporters. In one case I was reading the live tweets from a college professor attending a particularly disgusting rally that NPR also covered. It was like two different worlds. Why leave out the ugly stuff? Are NPR staffers suffering the thing from that horror movie where bad things only happens when their eyes are closed?

Trump’s Supporters are 50% deplorable, at least as described accurately by Hillary Clinton. But NPR and many other journalists clearly saw her comment as out-of-bounds. And, sure, maybe if she’d been running against Mitty Milquetoast Romney it would have been mean by comparison, but, given Trump’s daily provocative racist lies about immigrants, and the really vile stuff promulgated by Trump’s supporters, her non-false statement was positively genteel. She could have called them “a nauseating dumpster-fire of fact-free hate-zombies” and been nearly as correct.

But NPR would have you believe Trump supporters are just, you know, wonderful folks. The other day they were attempting to gingerly approach the concept of white supremacists in America by interviewing an articulate former white-supremacist. He had a lot of interesting things to say, but I found this comment by his interviewer, David Greene, more telling:

“Covering this last election I met so many supporters of president Trump who were not full of hate, I mean, who were just lovely, lovely people who were parents and just were looking out for their families. But was there rhetoric in this campaign that was somehow speaking directly to some of the kids you’re talking about?”

The first sentence is just wildly naive. I’m astonished a working journalist could take the people he met at face value to this degree. I think it’s more likely that, as an adult human being not raised in a Skinner Box, he knows that people who are superficially lovely and polite can harbor some horrible prejudices and glaring misapprehensions. So why put Trump voters on a pedestal like this? Why posit two neat, unrelated boxes with lovely people in the one and ugly rhetoric in the other?

Like most, I have friends and relatives of varying degrees of loveliness who voted for Trump. They all present pretty well in day to day society, but I know which ones have sickening reasons for voting for Trump. (SPOILER ALERT: it’s pretty much all of them.)

Finally I want to mention the endless vox populi pieces where often poorly-informed Trump supporters sit around, usually in some folksy just-folks diner, and spout rarely challenged FOX News talking points. These kinds of reports sprang up on NPR programs like mushrooms after a rainstorm in the wake of Trump’s election. It was like NPR suddenly noticed the existence of lower middle class white people and are on a mission to make sure listeners notice them too. (Nothing remotely analogous occurred after Obama’s elections.) The problem is that these people all know they’re on the radio so they aren’t likely to say how they really feel about certain sensitive topics.

My favorite of these annoying, redundant reports ended with one brief point of light when something happened that perfectly embodies this point and my next point:

Another man approached me on his way out of this event, someone who had not spoken out during the breakfast. He leaned in and whispered to me, off-mic – and I’m quoting now – “there are two words you haven’t heard this morning,” he said, “narcissism and lies.” So obviously very provocative, I wanted him to explain what he meant by that. He said he didn’t want to get into it, and he just walked away.

Which Brings Us To Trump’s Psychological Health. Donald Trump is a delusional, sociopathic malignant narcissist. Don’t take my word for it, take the word of my board-certified practicing psychiatrist (that means M.D., folks) spouse. Okay, be like that, don’t take her word for it. But do take the word of a bunch of prominent psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers who are circumventing one of their own professional ethics codes by publicly diagnosing Trump because they believe their ethical duty to report is more important than the outmoded “Goldwater Rule.”

(FYI “Duty to Report” is the obligation doctors and therapists have to break sacred doctor-patient privacy because, for example, a child is in danger of violence. It’s not comforting that it applies to the President’s mental condition.)

If you use the search feature on NPR’s website to find a story about Trump’s mental health you’ll be looking for a long time. It’s been mentioned in passing by a few interview subjects, and that’s about it.

A president’s mental health is pretty important. Why isn’t NPR talking about it, even abstractly, when there’s plenty of discussion of it in magazines and in other media outlets?

Kim Jong Trump’s History is a haunted landfill of outrageous misbehavior, both personal and professional, but it was never thoroughly plumbed by NPR during the campaign. Now anything before the election seems to be a distant, irrelevant memory to them. His fraudulent “university” didn’t go away because he got elected, but you won’t hear much more about it on NPR. It’s like once he became president NPR could only talk about what he’s doing now. Guys, his backstory is a devil’s playground designed by Baz Luhrmann! Go nuts! We’re VERY interested. This devastating article is based mostly on information available before the election.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, is an interesting person, but you wouldn’t know it from NPR’s coverage of her. Sure, they talked about her past support of charter schools, but holy cow they left out a lot! Did you know her brother is Erik “spelled the German way, why?” Prince who heads up a massive private military force that would make a James Bond movie villain green with envy? You may remember it as “Blackwater,” the company that America paid zillions to during the Iraq occupation to enhance our presence without inflating our official boots-on-the-ground numbers. NPR, which must know this, felt it was irrelevant in all of the DeVos reporting when she was nominated. Blackwater has since rebranded itself with a somehow even creepier name, “Academi.” UPDATE 7/24/17: NPR doubled down on not mentioning this. They did a lengthy interview with brother Erik and never mentioned his sister. Also failed again to note his militant Christian-adjacent beliefs.

Oh, also, did you know a bunch of DeVos’ money (she’s super-rich, natch) comes from the Amway pyramid scheme? Well if you do know it’s not because you heard it on NPR. There’s plenty more that is directly relevant to her new job, like her support for gay conversion therapy and other extreme Christian attitudes, but, I guess NPR figures we should find that stuff out elsewhere for some reason.

Greg Gianforte, everybody’s favorite journalist body-slammer, gained an extremely high profile for both his violence and his Montana special election.  NPR produced 43 stories that mentioned him, and that total includes a number that were entirely about him or the Montana race. They never thought to mention that’s he’s a die-hard moronic creationist who believes man hunted with dinosaurs. He even gave large amounts of money for a creation museum in Montana, also never mentioned. This is especially ironic because Montana is full of fossils and geology that utterly and obviously disprove creationist claims.

The Mercer Family is another seemingly off-limits topic for NPR. Until there was a major story about them recently in The New Yorker the name “Mercer” had never been uttered on-air on any NPR program. Turns out they’re kind of a HUGE DEAL and SUPER CRAZY, but so far only Dave Davies has talked about them on Fresh Air in an interview with the writer of the New Yorker article. UPDATE May 26, 2017 Jim Zarolli finally did a 4 minute piece on Mercer. It focused mainly on his wealth building and normalized him as merely very conservative. It never mentioned the family’s religious beliefs or any of the other really bizarre stuff found in the New Yorker article.

Ben Carson is an unqualified joke, but he was treated as a not-totally-weird HUD secretary nominee by NPR.

Rick Perry makes Ben Carson look like a nuclear physicist/unstoppable 30-season Jeopardy champion. Again they treated him with far more respect than he deserved. His predecessor was an actual nuclear physicist. Perry can’t even pronounce the word “nookyooler.”

Jeff Sessions is radioactive in the racism bandwidth, but NPR treated him far too well. I did a separate post about that so I won’t add more here. I’ll just say it involved the tortured, NPR-invented minimizing phrase “alleged racial statements.”

Trump’s Recent NRA Speech was covered with stories and many NPR News bulletin items. In most (or all – I have only listened to most) of them they failed to mention that the NRA gave Trump’s campaign $30 million. I feel like that’s news I could have used. I tweeted at the reporter covering the event, Lisa Hagen, asking why she kept leaving this out, but she never got back to me.

This isn’t even close to a complete list of NPR’s under-reporting and over-normalizing reporting.

Why Does NPR Do This?

I am a rationalist. I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, for that way lies madness. I will constrain myself to the believable before I list a few conspiracy-ish ideas.

Honestly I think NPR seeks to be both nice and objective. They want to be the grown-ups in the room even as they sometimes deliver the news employing a tone and syntax that would better serve “Goodnight Moon.” This causes them to self-censor either at the reporter level, the producer level, or both. That’s my theory, and I corroborate it with my many posts about their habits of expression, such as constantly asking for a “sense” of something rather than going after the thing itself.

A more paranoid interpretation is that they are worried about Republicans cutting their funding if they seem the least bit biased. As Stephen Colbert correctly stated, reality has a well-known liberal bias, and the fake news phenomenon renders this ever truer. This makes it pretty damned tricky to stay both accurate and objective to the Republican observer. If this is the reason, they need to stop worrying about it. Republicans hate them already, and that will never change.

Even more paranoid, and which I do not believe, is the idea I’ve heard that hefty donations from the likes of the Koch brothers come with quid-pro-quo agreements enjoining them from robust investigation of certain topics.

Now What?

If you’ve made it this far you are either an NPR staffer wanting to know what is being said about them or a serious NPR listener. If you are a staffer I ask that you message me on twitter if you have comments. I will keep them anonymous.

If you are a dedicated listener I would also like comments, and I ask that you tweet a link to this story or retweet my original tweet linking to it. I also ask that you use social media to hold NPR to a higher standard than the one they are currently holding themselves to.

Their timid, normalizing coverage of the Trump campaign helped get him elected, instantly turning all of American history into a joke.

Let’s just hope the maladroit monster they empowered, the very avatar of America’s moral, educational, and, I’m forced to conclude, journalistic failures, doesn’t turn Seoul into a smoking ruin.

If you want a more academic and generic perspective on the failure of the press to properly communicate about Trump, read this fantastic Twitter thread.

I remain, @airbagmoments.

Alleged Journalism

Yesterday’s All Things Considered featured the following statement by Robert Siegel:

Democrats have accused President-elect Donald Trump of stacking his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires.*

*Oddly this isn’t in the transcript. To hear it click “play” on the linked page.

This phraseology has a much bigger problem than the passive voice it employs. Siegel takes a pure fact, which is that Donald Trump has appointed many millionaires and billionaires to his cabinet, and inserts it into the mouths of a group of anonymous Democrats. This transforms the actual real, true, not #FakeNews fact into a suspect partisan accusation.

Why would he do this instead of clearly stating “President-elect Donald Trump has stacked his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires.” Is it because the word “stacking” implies cheating, as in “stacking the deck?” That makes no sense because this is not a real quote. It’s one of the weakest rhetorical devices in journalism, a generic pseudo-quote. Whoever wrote his pusillanimous introduction chose the word “stacking” when they could have selected a less negative expression like “picked a number of,” or even “picked an unprecedented number of” – if that’s historical fact. (Which would be a cool thing for NPR to research and tell us…)

I believe the explanation is the same over-abundance of “he said/she said” journalistic caution that has hamstrung NPR for years and which helped normalize Donald Trump’s candidacy all the way to the White House. Whenever a journalist, terrified of potential accusations of bias, feels the least bit uncomfortable stating something outright she can simply add “alleged” or, as Siegel did, pseudo-quote a generic speaker, like “disgruntled Star Wars fans.” This quickly develops into a crippling habit. The latter strategy even verges on Blair/Glass-style invention of sources and fits the definition of “conventional wisdom.”

One of the worst recent examples of this same tic involves yet another ostentatiously outrageous Trump nominee, Jeff Sessions. Steve Inskeep, as if with awkward tongs, referred to Jeff Sessions’ “alleged racial comments.” This is a cowardly sort of triple euphemism. He fails to quote a source, even a generic one like “people who don’t like racial comments.” He uses the word “alleged” as a rhetorical blanket for what he’s about to say. Finally, and worst of all, he employs the meaningless-in-this-context term “racial” instead of “racist.” Nobody, allegedly or otherwise, cares if Sessions makes a “racial” comment. I’m not even sure what a “racial” statement is. Maybe it’s something like “many races make up the population of America?” In any case, it’s obviously racist comments critics are concerned about, and Sessions has made them. That’s another fact. I would have preferred Inskeep had simply said “Sessions’ racist comments,” but since he hid behind “alleged” he had no reason not to at least say “racist.” Journalism not achieved.

The day after the election of Donald Trump, which resulted in large part from the worst misprision by news-folks in modern history, African-American novelist Attica Locke appeared on Morning Edition. She was not in the mood for bullshit. The following salty exchange took place:

GREENE: And we should be careful here because there are many Trump supporters who I’ve spoken to over the years who would not consider themselves racists.

LOCKE: You know what though, David? I’m out with that. There’s a part of me that honestly feels like that level of politeness, where we’re not calling things what they are, is how we will never get forward. The fact of the matter is that you have to at best be able to tolerate racism in your president.

It took a novelist, i.e. a professional liar, to tell this truth to Greene. I hope NPR reporters were listening well – the way they claim to think is so important.

NPR “head of news” Michael Oreskes takes the brave stance that facts exist and they matter, and NPR former ombudsman Alicia Shepard agrees. Yet they cannot bring themselves to allow the word “lie” to pass between NPR reporters’ lips even as they play and endless stream of them from the new administration.

Start calling things what they are. We’re waiting.

Postscript: Thanks to composer B.J. “That’s his real name” Leiderman for inspiring me to start blogging again!

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.

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.

Quizzically,

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.

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.)