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 than 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.

I’m a Beale-eiver

Okay, now I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  (more after the image)

Beale
Crazy Like a Fox...Network

Evidently Republicans turn off the movie Network when they get to the part, only a few minutes in, where everyone is encouraged to run to their window, throw it open and yell the famous phrase.  Maybe Republicans become hypnotized and actually obey these instructions, so they miss the rest of the movie in favor of waking their neighbors.

But it seems that political commentators never make it all the way to the end either, though they seem to have a slightly longer attention span.  Take today’s well stated but still missing-the-point commentary by Mike Pesca.  He does better than most. He makes an important connection that Republicans seem to miss: the fact that the character Howard Beale, accidental savior, is stark raving mad.  Beale’s not held up as a noble hero by the the screenwriter, Paddy Chayevsky (yet another Greatest Generation casual genius).

But Pesca, like every other Network-mentioner I’ve heard since Glenn Beck created his Howard Beale tribute-band persona, fails to mention the most important and relevant aspect of the film.  You see Howard Beale is crazy in Network, but he nevertheless spouts quite a lot of truth in his highly-rated Jeremiads.  Many of these truths have to do with the failure of television to actually inform.  But the truths that really get him into trouble are those which inveigh against his corporate masters, the mega-company that owns his network.

As a result the company subjects him to an artificial epiphany in the form of the god-like presence of (believe it or not) Ned Beatty, one of the exalted executives from the parent company.  He converts Beale to the sort of Ayn Randianism favored by major multi-nationals. You can watch this scene here.

God Inc.
God Inc.

Beale becomes a Eunuch, singing the corporate message beautifully, all the sound and fury drained of significance.

And thus we have Glenn Beck, whose religion is apparently that which helps the bottom line of Rupert effing Murdoch.

Postscript: The 90s version of Network is The Matrix.  While the dialog is far less artful, the message is even more subversive.  Plus there’s awesome Kung Fu.

Chayes Lounge

(With apologies for the title.)

When I first heard the heroic Sarah Chayes on NPR, heroic was not a word that leapt to mind.  I used to make jokes about her tough assignment: Paris, France.  Her uniquely pronounced tagline, “this is Sarah Chayes in Parizz,” always caused my wife and I to try to guess to whom she was related to land such a cushy and sought-after post.  But Karma must be bad at NPR, because suddenly she was datelining from war-torn regions of Afghanistan.

One minute, after putting to bed her report on the adopt-a-tree program at Versailles, she’s at the charming boulangerie on the corner selecting fresh baguettes to feed to what I presume was an endless stream of visiting friends and family.  The next minute she’s dodging mortars and IEDs on her way to interview a warlord.  I imagine dealing with guests became less of an issue after that.

Then her story gets even more amazing.  I’ll let her website tell the rest:

In 2002 she decided to leave journalism to help rebuild the shattered country, whose fate will help determine the shape of the 21st century.  Currently she runs a cooperative in the former Taliban stronghold, producing fine skin-care products from local fruits, nuts, and botanicals. (www.arghand.org) The aim is to discourage opium production by helping farmers earn a living from licit crops, as well as to encourage collective decision-making. From this position, deeply embedded in Kandahar’s everyday life, Ms. Chayes has gained unparalleled insights into a troubled region. Her book about Afghanistan since the Taliban is The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (New York: Penguin, 2006)

I bring this all up because after Obama’s can’t-please-any-of-the-people-any-of-the-time speech there’s a (destined to be short-lived) surge in coverage of Aghanistan on NPR.  I’ve heard a lot of repetitive and insipid takes on the situation, but there’s one thing I haven’t heard: Sarah Chayes.  Why would this be?  Why wouldn’t they interview someone who is not only unusually knowledgeable about the situation but also clearly in the NPR address book?  Did she not give two weeks notice?  Did she talk about fight club?

The reason is not that she’s hard to find.  She’s back in the states.  Things in Kandahar have gotten too dicey for her business to continue operating in the open.  In fact I just attended a rather brilliant lecture she gave about the war in Afghanistan.  One of the aims of the lecture was to explode a number of myths about the situation, a mission she accomplished thoroughly.  Is that the problem?  Is it that her narrative goes against the conventional wisdom too much and would therefore take too long to explain?

So come one, NPR, get on the stick.  Get Sarah Chayes back on the air as an expert this time.  Give her knowledge and ideas some play while the topic is hot, because if recent history is any guide we’ll all forget about Bush War 2.0 in a couple of days. While she was on in November 2008, and while her book did get a little coverage when it was released, she’s had nothing like the week of long segments you aired and still prominently feature on your home page based on Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s strychnine in print.  Is Hagerty’s personal journey into neodeism really that much more important?

I’m looking at you, Morning Edition, Diane Rehm, ATC, etc etc etc.

And while I’m on the subject I’m going to recommend (again) that you look at some other important and novel recent takes on Afghanistan from William Lind.  Maybe you’ll even interview him.

Web 2.0 The Humanity! (aka NPR Media Player Epic Fail)

I have been both listening to public radio and using the internet since long before NPR’s awkward, vaguely Luddite first encounters with the World Wide Web.  I recall vividly Linda Wirtheimer’s bemused tone as she gingerly announced that listeners could finally provide feedback via “the email”.

Gradually, and mostly to great advantage, NPR began to make online services available that acted as force multipliers for listeners.  We could email questions to Diane Rehm or Talk of the Nation instead of wasting time hanging on the phone.  We could look up broadcast schedules.  We could break annoying outmoded regional monopolies by listening to distant stations’ live feeds.  (Local stations HATE this.)

More important than all of this, we could listen to any episode from almost any show at our convenience.  This, at least to someone like me who actually owns a dusty cassette tape of an episode of Morning Edition I ordered by snail mail, was the real revolution.  By now, being human, I’m a little jaded about it, but I can still remember being a bit drunk with power at the ability to call up any story from any episode of All Things Considered going back years.

My how things have changed.  A charming mild suspicion of the more laughable and faddish aspects of Web tech (still appropriately evinced by On The Media) has, on most NPR shows and in its executive conversation pits, transmuted into a gushing fanboi obsession that is echolalic at best and gigglingly hysterical at worst.  It reminds one of certain scenes in “Reefer Madness.”  The indiscreet charms of Tweet-By-Night Web 2.0 social media, their nauseating, Octomom- like fecundity, and their ultimate shallowness, have not been kind to NPR as it attempts to mainline all of them simultaneously.

Diane Rehm’s Tweets accidentally got routed via LinkedIn through the Facebook page of Krista Tippet’s podcast and then into the comment stream of Danny Zwerdling’s blog.  Tragedy ensued when Terry Gross naively gave it a Digg, Buzzfeeding it back to WAMU’s RSS reader, ultimately causing the Minnesota Public Radio’s Streaming Server to become sentient and go Cloverfield during a recording of Prairie Home Companion.

Or at least that’s what I imagine is the reason my now thrice-damned Media Player won’t let me listen to an only slightly stale episode of Fresh Air.

I’m not actually overreacting here.  The problem is one I expressed concern about in my original positive review of the NPR Media Player (which I am now dubbing the “NPR Media Gatekeeper”): it’s a giant step backwards  and makes the internet worse.  Congratulations.

In the good old pre-Gatekeeper days you could stream or download many NPR programs, and it seemed like it would soon be true of all of them.  This is the best of all possible worlds for listeners, but for NPR itself there are some major problems with this whole “information (media) wants to be free” ethos:

1. It’s difficult to manage advertising in this kind of model. For one thing it’s not easy to keep the ads current.  If they, for example, pre-encode a commercial for Archer Daniels Midland in a downloadable podcast then it’s there forever –  even if ADM stops its sponsorship when NPR reports on something unflattering about them involving melamine.

2. It screws local stations.  Why should I listen to my local affiliate or even go to its website if I can listen to my favorite show live or at any later time from NPR’s site?

NPR appears to have adopted two stratagems to deal with this.  They don’t make shows available to listen to live, and after-the-fact they want to force you to use the Media Gatekeeper to listen to them.

The Gatekeeper, of course, has the nefarious power to insert ads live, though I really don’t resent that in principle.  What I do  resent is that when the Gatekeeper doesn’t work, which in my experience on numbers of different computers happens frequently, you find yourself unpleasantly back in the early ’90s before Susan Stamberg’s smith-coronaphilia had ever been troubled by the phrase “web site.”  It’s 2009, and while we don’t have flying cars  I absolutely refuse to lower myself to ordering a cassette tape.  What would I play it with?

This restriction to using the Gatekeeper or nothing  is what’s known in the world of corporate I.T. as “business logic.”  In other words the question becomes, as Diane Rehm so likes to say, not what NPR can offer on the internet but what it chooses to offer.  This is bad behavior by a network that is directly funded by its listeners.

So here’s my oh so unsolicted advice to NPR: find a happy medium between your former web ignorance and your current Web 2.0verload.  Spend less effort chasing every MyblogSpacebookfeeder trend that comes along and more time making your content available to all in every form they’d like to have it.

We’ll see if NPR’s new boss “gets it” and takes this in a better direction.

Missing the War

NPR has done a really wonderful job of reporting on the trees, but they just don’t get the forest.

Mandelit Del Barco has heroically chronicled the struggles of L.A. gangland. Sylvia Poggioli, just today, has bravely told us of the struggles of Italy against the Neapolitan mafia. Countless reports about the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon are delivered by myriad reporters. Tales of Columbian and Mexican drug cartels are easy to find. Then there are the reports about the lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And yet, somehow, the connection is never made.

” I’m missing the war
Till beads of sunlight hit me in the morning
So much time so little to say ”

Don’t let Ben Folds’ lyrics be our cultural epitaph.

Read your William Lind.

These are all the same thing, and have been since World War I. But nobody talks about it.

The crisis of the legitimacy of the state.

Lawn Darts 2: The Revenge

So is NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn’s official “beat” stupidity?

The poor guy seems to be stationed in Texas where the stupidity, of course, grows bigger than it does in other states. As a result he encounters more of it than the average NPR flatfoot. His coverage of the giant UFO witnessed by the future Sarah Palin voters of Stephenville, TX is a case in point.

But today’s entry, hyping the terrifying threat posed by a small, well-intentioned foldable soccer goal for children, sets some kind of record for unintentional self-parody. The plaything is earnestly described as a “deadly toy that lurks in thousands of backyards.”

Renee Montagne made this introduction, right out of a local network news teaser:

“Families with young children and toddlers should pay attention to this next story…one child has already died.”

They buried the lede. I think it’s more sensible to say “out of 200,000 of these soccer goals, only one deadly incident has occurred.” It wouldn’t surprise me if sock puppets have a higher fatality rate.

I don’t want to diminish the truly horrific (and too gruesomely described in the report) tragedy of the single child killed through interaction with this unstoppable playground death machine, but let’s be serious. Even irresponsible lifestyle journalists require three data-points to make a trend.

Is this toy really the most dangerous thing to be found around the average home? (After studying this useful Daily Show item I was convinced the worst offender was gravity.) Is it in the top hundred potentially deadly items? Frankly Sarah Palin’s gubernatorial tanning bed seems more perilous, yet even her notorious litter of slack-brained Ewells managed to survive its proximity pretty much intact. (Or at least that’s what they tell the press…maybe the inevitable Palin-aimed October surprise will reveal some kind of tanning bed/conjoined twin shocker.)

You’d certainly never know this from the panic-stricken tone of the report. Parents are told to remove the nets “immediately,” as if their ultra-supervised 21st century children are, at this very moment, in the act of improvising an explosive device from the thing and detonating it near an arms depot. By the time the piece was over I had an image in my head of the Omaha Beach sequences from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.

The story does try to draw some larger conclusions from this wet firecracker of a news item:

  • The Bush administration is irresponsibly laissez faire in pretty much everything it does, product safety included.
  • Companies making toys in China are dangerously focused on price over all other considerations
  • Sarah Palin is an uneducated frontier beauty contest loser who can’t manage the executive branch of her own family

While all of these points are axiomatically true, this report is too fundamentally weak in premise to prove them.

Hey, wait a minute! Sarah Palin wasn’t even mentioned in the original Morning Edition story! She’s taken over this blog post the same way she took over the Republican presidential campaign!! That’s so devious!

Just how senical (senile + cynical) are they?

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.

Wall Street Journal Standards Falling Already

Language evolves. I understand that.

In fact, I predict that more and more dictionaries will come to include one or all of our our commander in chief’s pronunciations of “nuclear” (noo-kyoo-ler, or sometimes nuclar, or even new-kee-ler) until they are fully accepted as correct.

But I and other right-thinking people can certainly try our damnedest to fight it every step of the way.

I don’t really mind so much when some benighted southern yokel pronounces it incorrectly. After all, they may never have actually heard anyone pronounce it properly.

But I start to twitch when the people who can’t say the word have some intimate or expert connection to it. I’ve heard nuclear weapons experts screw it up. And Bush himself really should try harder given that he (A) attended Yale and (B) has his finger on the trigger of the largest nookyewwlur weapons arsenal in the known universe.

Imagine how annoyed you would be if his petulant voice suddenly drawled over the Emergency Broadcast System saying “I regret to inform you folks that I have, uhh, authorized a full scale newwkyoulair attack on the former Soviet Union”? The only thing worse than anthropogenic apocalypse would be having Bush cause it while not being able to pronounce it.

Which brings me to Jay Solomon, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal who did a two-way today with Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. He was discussing last year’s refreshingly non-apocalypse-causing attack by Israeli jets on a mysterious Syrian target.

Mr. Solomon’s position at the Journal implies an impressive pedigree, though a hasty google was unable to turn it up. Additionally, in the way that reporters must become quick experts on the subjects they cover, he can be considered something of an expert on nuclear politics.

Yet there he was, nucucumberylering it every time he said the word during the report. Shouldn’t we expect the system that selects from the cream of the ivy league cream to work at papers like the NY Times and the WS Journal to produce people who can pronounce nuclear?

And why didn’t Siegel correct him? Too shy? If Siegel and Solomon’s mother haven’t done it by now then I guess it’s up to me. After all, proper pronunciation of the word is quite simple.

Feel free to anonymously email a link to this post to anyone who needs to know:

How to Pronounce “Nuclear” Almost Like an Educated English Speaker

( Soon to be a popular YouTube video, I feel sure )

Step 1. Say “New”, as in “New York Times”.

Step 2. Say “Clear” , as in “the journal strives for clear writing!”

Step 3. Now say them quickly as in “After my dermabrasion I’m enjoying my new clear skin!”

Step 4. Now every time you have to say “nuclear” say “new clear” instead. It really works!!

There, isn’t that so much easier than getting a job at the Wall Street Journal was? Since you could do that I just knew you could say “new clear”.

Bush, however, I’m not sure about. One school of thought posits that his folksy spoonerisms, malaprops, and anencephalies are intentional. But I don’t believe that theory. I don’t think the unholy stem-cell love clone made from combined mouth swabs of Tom Hanks and Billy-Bob Thornton would be that good at playing brain-injured.

So, Jay, fight the lobotomy Rupert Murdoch is in the process of performing on your famous paper!

Help us hold the line on the proper pronunciation of what is probably the scariest word in the entire English language!

Or else stick to typing it and stay off the radio.

Good get

Today’s Morning Edition embodied some of the positive trends I see in NPR reportage.

There are subject areas that demand constant coverage and attention as opposed to the “declare a crisis every ten years and forget about it” syndrome Mainstream Media is so often prey to.

American and global energy use and abuse certainly falls into this category, as does the problem of educating underprivileged legacy-challenged children.

A brief 27-second item foreshadows future dramatic oil price and pollution increases as Chinese are said to have a lust for just the kind of gas guzzlers that American car companies are desperate to supply.

A longer piece describes a Newt Gingrich-inspired program of rewarding poor urban kids with cash if they improve their grades. Of course this kind of idea is unpleasantly crass and serves as a sad commentary on a society that so often makes it impossible for public schools to do the job we ask of them. But at this point anything is worth trying. And who could really be against rewarding poor kids for academic performance? After all many of them already have after school jobs, legal or otherwise. Isn’t paying them to study in order to succeed in the long term a better option, at least in theory?

Wonderfully for the fatuous jerk-a-knee behind the newspaper comic “Mallard Fillmore” (doesn’t the title really say everything that needs to be said about it) reporter Odette Yousef manages to find a cartoonish academic, associate professor in educational policy Richard Lakes, who actually says the following:

“This message really reinforces that these low-income kids are destined to a life of wage-earning,” said Richard Lakes, associate professor in educational policy at Georgia State University, who called the program “morally bankrupt.”

“It reinforces that these children in particular are going to be servants of the middle and upper classes,” he said.

This is where the radio format really comes in handy. I probably would have believed that statement to be an invented Jayson Blair kind of quote by a made-up person if I hadn’t heard him with my own ears.

“A life of wage earning?” Really? And that’s a bad thing? Compared to what, exactly? Being an associate professor? I guess Georgia State pays Professor Lakes in magic beans and the laughter of children?

And in what world is paying kids to do better in school more likely to land them a wage-slave “career” than not paying them to make good grades.

This is the kind of mindless, aesthetic, pre-determined-by-politics response normally associated with the focus-grouped paranoid fantasies of Coulter, Hannity, and Limbaugh.

Professor Lakes has taught me something: previously I thought straw men only came to life in the Land of Oz.

Gjelten Saves the Day

A few weeks ago I chided Public Radio (and NPR specifically) for not covering the threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Finally today’s morning edition aired a scary but very informative story on this subject by Tom Gjelten. Great work, guys! But stay on it.

Almost as scary is a story about how quickly and easily the British are becoming a surveillance society for the purpose of rooting out all levels of crime including littering.

I hope that isn’t what extra awareness of nuclear terrorism inevitably leads to…

Slow News Month

I don’t wish to discourage my vast and fanatical army of readers, but updates will continue to be sporadic for the next week or two as preoccupations not having to do with public broadcasting rudely intrude. (Much like the Chinese population, if you line up all Airbag Moments readers four abreast and march them into the ocean they would never stop. For the Chinese this is because their reproduction rate would more than make up for the activity. Airbag Moments readers are simply contrary and would refuse the command.)

I have no doubt my stalwart cadre of co-contributors will fill in for me, but I apologize in advance if their non-existence prevents them from doing so.

A couple of tidbits to recommend if you missed today’s Morning Edition.

I sometimes find the “Storycorps” segments to be mawkish or depressing, but this morning’s was really wonderful. If it doesn’t melt your heart you must be Ann Coulter. (I told you stop reading my blog, Ann! Does the phrase “restraining order” mean anything to you?) It throws into high relief the difference between the New Testament/Liberal approach to crime and punishment and the Old Testament approach favored by the c.i.n.o.s (Christians In Name Only) on the right. It’s such a perfect parable that it’s hard to believe it’s true.

Also notable was a quirky story about the US government rushing to patent the atomic bomb during the Manhattan project.

The NPR Media Player

Recently NPR introduced a special media player that many of its programs now employ on their websites.

(Find my more recent and negative thoughts about this here.)

Here are some pros and cons of version 1.2:

Pros:

  • The player automatically organizes shows into discrete segments. Thus if you click to listen to the entire Wait Wait Don’t Tell me episode the player displays it in labeled subsections, like “Not My Job”. That is really nice, and is just one part of the player’s…
  • There is Jukebox playlist functionality. In addition to dividing shows into useful subsections the player also accumulates individual stories as you click on them. Thus you can browse the NPR website and click on a series of stories which gradually install themselves into the player’s playlist. It’s even easy to delete and re-order items in the playlist.

Cons:

  • Big Brother. As far as I know the player doesn’t give the listener the choice of downloading the clips for later playback. Downloadable files and podcasts must be provided separately on a show by show basis. Many programs, like “Wait Wait”, do indeed provide such files, but who knows how long that will last? Making media viewable only online is a nefarious trend that eliminates an important feature of the internet, and I don’t like anything that appears to be part of it.
  • Playback problems. I have experienced a number of playback seizures, sometimes lasting several minutes, especially when trying to adjust the play head to hear a section again. Presumably this will improve over time.

Neither pro nor con:

  • Advertisements occur within the playback. Listening is generally prefaced with an ad for, for example, NPR store digital radios. On the other hand the advertisements are far less obtrusive than the station IDs and sponsor messages every twenty minutes that you hear on the radio, not to mention PLEDGE DRIVES (curse them!), so I can’t really call these ads a net negative. On the other hand I can’t tell how often the ads are meant to display. Sometimes they play only before the first selection, sometimes, and I think this is just a bug because it’s far too often, they seem to play between each one.

Overall I think the player is a positive development and long overdue.

Props to the NPR web techs!

Hypocritical Mass

From meteorologists we know that storm systems are created when air masses with different qualities encounter each other. High pressure meets low, warm meets cold, dry meets moist.

In politics and business hypocrisy is created when two idea masses with different agendas collide. Generally the conflict is between what needs to be said and what needs to be done, or between what should be done and what various interests would prefer to have done instead.

Any regular public radio listener can tell that the world is enduring a perfect storm of hypocrisy, and it seems to be intensifying.

A small case in point: I don’t actually believe writers should use the worn out cliche “perfect storm”, but there it is anyway. It is what it is.

Actually, I really don’t approve of that ever more popular tautology, “it is what it is,” either.

And I hate blogs!

In light of these unfortunate facts, I feel I must apologize to my family, most importantly, and, of course, to the American people.

Let’s take a look at the map of the category 5 hypocricanes that have made landfall recently, each covered by brave public radio correspondents on the scene yelling into their microphones in an attempt to be heard over powerful, putrid winds.

The Florida & Michigan primaries

Florida is a well-known magnet for hypocricanes, but rarely do they stretch north all the way to Michigan. Obama and Clinton have each created high-minded sounding arguments why the primary fiascoes in those states should be handled one way or the other. By amazing coincidence each camp’s moral calculus has come out in such a way that they support the answer most likely to give them advantage in the delegate count. What are the odds? Wouldn’t it be refreshing if each just said “Look, I’m running for president. I’m obviously going to want the solution that serves my cause, no matter what the rules said when the states intentionally broke them.”

The Boeing/Airbus Contract

This is another massive system stretching from Washington, D.C. to Washington state, and reaching as far south as Alabama. Like the aforementioned Hypocricane, this one is accompanied by a deafening whining sound.

Autonomically allegiance-pledging Boeing union workers interviewed on Morning Edition had the nerve to mouth flag-draped inanities like “hey, we’re not going to have a French-made product protecting the United States!”

First of all, France is our ally, not our enemy, as much as Republican demagoguery would have you think otherwise. Second, you work for Boeing, you jingoistic meat-head. Think about it for one second. Who buys billions of dollars of Boeing-made military equipment? That’s right, OTHER COUNTRIES!!!! What if they, like you, sit around their union halls (somehow making double-overtime I’m sure) demanding that only planes made by domestic companies (i.e. not Boeing…see where I’m headed?) are good enough to protect their troops?

This particularly transparent example of American exceptionalism is so stupid that it will, if its principle is followed to its logical conclusion, result in the opposite of its own thinly disguised agenda.

Then of course we have the politicians. By another stunning coincidence the feelings of the various congress-people involved in this matter line up exactly with money the states they represent stand to gain or lose. Coincidences are to hypocricanes what downed tree limbs are to hurricanes.

Eliot Spitzer

A crusader against corruption and, so sadly for him, prostitution rings, is found to be an enthusiastic repeat customer of “Emperor’s Club VIP”. I guess VIP stands for Very Ironic Politicians.

Full disclosure: I, myself, once tried their much more reasonably priced service, Emperor’s Club VIB. (Very Ignored Bloggers) I don’t recommend it.

Okay, Spitzer looks bad and everyone is calling for his resignation, especially Republicans. I wonder if ostentatious non-resigners Senators David Vitter (R-Louisiana) or Larry Craig (R-Men’s Room) are among them? God, for the sake of this blog entry, I certainly hope so. And let’s hear from our self-appointed moral compass gazers on the religious right about this matter. Somebody get the reaction of the not very reverend Ted Haggard.

(Hey, Bob and Brooke, isn’t it lucky for OTM that the Spitzer thing came out on a Monday?)

In Conclusion and In Summary

As a staunch small-government conservative I propose a massive new federal program based on FEMA to help deal with damage caused by these terrible hypocricanes. Let’s call it FIMA, the Federal Irony Management Agency. I’d like to suggest we appoint someone as brilliant as Michael Brown to run it. How about Senator Tim Calhoun?

We’re going to need enough FIMA trailers for the whole nation at this point. Aren’t you excited to discover what industrial poisons their insulation is ironically made of.

Putting the “L.A.” in Gangland

If you love HBO’s The Wire but find it insufficiently depressing then you’ll be happy to know The Wire continues on … in real life!

Listen to an incredibly valuable set of reports on today’s Day to Day.

Gang culture and violence is one of those problems that won’t go away. This means the press and pop culture tend to ignore it since the real currency of the media is change. If a story stays the same there’s nothing new to cover.

Day to Day has used a recent up-tick in tragically lethal incidents to focus a potentially helpful amount of attention on the festering problems of South Los Angeles. (Re-branded from the notorious “South Central Los Angeles”. Taste the difference!)

Give it a listen, but don’t expect any answers or hope. The forces involved are not subject to anyone’s control, especially not parents, public school teachers, politicians, police, or prayer.

But you already knew that from watching The Wire.

Special recognition should go to the chronically excellent Mandalit Del Barco’s segment.

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!

    Sense of Omission

    Since I just wrote about PRI’s The World’s routinely excellent global coverage I think it’s appropriate to point out where this kind of reporting isn’t adequate. Luckily I have former foreign policy adviser to the Edwards campaign Michael Signer to do it for me. (With a name like “Signer”, shouldn’t he be the presidential candidate? Or maybe he has a brother named “Bill”…)

    His recent Washington Post commentary “It’s a Scary World, Don’t Campaign Reporters Care?” spanks the media for ignoring or only superficially covering the foreign policy positions of the candidates, even though such policy statements have (shocker!) proven historically to be accurate predictors of policy.

    Interestingly, from a Public Radio point of view, he states the following:

    In November, I got a call from a major national radio program saying that they’d be doing a substantive piece on the candidates’ foreign policies — how they were developed and what the process revealed about the candidates’ thinking.

    Perfect! I thought. At last. I was in Iowa City and drove 45 minutes through blinding snow to a small studio for an hour-long interview. When the segment aired, my heart sank. It had changed into a quick-and-dirty recitation of a few policy proposals from all the candidates, Republican and Democrat — not the substantive compare-and-contrast that had been promised.

    I can’t say for sure whether or not this was National Public Radio, but a little Googling strongly indicts a report by Martha Wexler on All Things Considered of December 9, 2007. Signer doesn’t even merit a sound-bite from his hour long interview.

    Whatever the purpose of this NPR report, and however appropriate or not Signer’s interview was for that purpose, his point is very, very important. We live in extremely dangerous times. The entire news media, and Public Radio in particular, need to make international coverage a huge priority.

    Take just one foreign policy example. I was sentient during the cold war and woke up sweating from my share of Terminator-style atom bomb nightmares, but I feel the US is at more risk of Nuclear attack then at any time in our history.

    Sure, my opinion doesn’t matter, I’m just a grumpy blogger.

    But what about this fact? Both Bush and Kerry, men who agree on little, were asked during a 2004 debate what the greatest threat facing our nation was, and both immediately responded “nuclear proliferation,” specifically nukes in the hands of terrorists. (Ok, Bush started to answer “Jesus” out of debate habit but then caught himself. And what he really said was “nukuler perlimifiration,” but the point remains.)

    Am I the only one who remembers that? Am I the only one who actually believes it?

    What has the Bush administration done about it since? Precisely nothing, as far as I can tell, but I can’t really be sure because the media barely covers it!

    Note to the the media: stop waiting to cover problems only after they explode and try to do some predicting. I know it’s no fun to be Cassandra, but it is your chosen profession.

    Case in point: Daniel Zwerdling on ATC did an unbelievably good job warning us about a Hurricane flooding catastrophe in New Orleans in a lengthy 2-part report aired in 2003!. For people who love New Orleans listening to that story wasn’t a Driveway Moment it was an entire Driveway Afternoon. (Did he get a Pulitzer for that? He should have.)

    Maybe the media can try that kind of coverage with a few scarily important international conundrums?

    Cokie Adds Life (and Sense)

    Maybe NPR correspondents get paid by the “sense”?

    NPR saint/matriarch and sometime seagull at the television news landfill of conventional wisdom Cokie Roberts (you’re better than that, Cokie!) commented on the Democratic primary on Morning Edition today.

    I was disappointed to hear the following at the very top of her “three-way” with Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep:

    “…because there’s a lot of sense that these primaries tomorrow are the make or break primaries for her campaign and there’s been you know so much criticism that she’s is not human enough and these shows give some sense of humanity…”

    Steve & Renee make the extra effort to avoid asking for a sense (thanks, guys!), but she volunteers two senses in one sentence anyway!  The initial one is described as “a lot” of sense.  What a bargain!

    There’s a lot of sense among a lot of us here at Airbag Moments that the phrase “a lot of sense” is really unattractive, not to mention that it has a lot of sense of meaningless.  How many senses is a lot?  I think six is a lot, since we humans use only five.  But maybe a lot is more like a hundred senses.  I’ve heard that OT-8 scientologists like Tom Cruise and Vinnie Barbarino have that many.

    Let’s decide on a new grammatical term for these “sense” constructions.  Literary style mavens implore us to avoid the passive voice, often for good reason.  I propose we should name these phrases that use sense in this way something like “ultra-passive voice”.

    Any other ideas?