Of Forests and Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look, Ma (.com)

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Annoying on Public Radio Now

On a Tuesday, this is Airbag Moments returning to air – or wifi anyway.

I notice with horror I made zero posts in 2014. I am tweeting a lot, though, so blame the siren song of social media and fear of the Riyadh Flogger for my lack of blogging. (@airbagmoments)

What has driven me beyond the 140 character restriction today, the first time in over a year? Only a brief list of weird/annoying micro-trends in Public Radio, especially NPR, that I feel need some publicity – so they can stop.

Let’s do the numbers!

1. The Daily Grind

Apparently Steve Inskeep feels our pain. (Well he doesn’t feel my particular pain, since he took to his fainting couch and blocked me on Twitter at some point – see below.) But apparently he feels the rest of you, because he has pioneered a new version of the useless day-of-the-week intro ritual (ie “on a Wednesday”) he and other hosts have adopted over the last couple of years. Now he’s taken to uttering pseudo-ominous inanities like “well, you’ve made it to Tuesday!” I think everyone out here in listener-land is pretty aware of what day of the week it is and whether or not surmounting the previous midnight is worthy of succor and sympathy.

I will go so far as to say I would not mind being calmly reminded of the date, Steve, which you never do for some reason.

2. Yay us!

NPR or its shows were mentioned in two nerdy inner sanctums in the past week, the game show “Jeopardy” and the NY Times crossword puzzle. Given the exuberant twit-storm about this from NPR staffers I can only deduce that it’s apparently everything they’ve been working towards for their entire lives. What will they do now for a second act?

This brings me to a more general annoyance, which is the self-aggrandizing vanity retweets many hosts and official public radio program feeds indulge in. I guess I’m glad that @doctormom420 cried in her driveway during the segment when Scott Simon sang “Danny Boy” to Draggy, GoryCorps creator and aptonym David Isay’s 2-legged Golden Retriever, but I don’t need to know about it.

Let’s make a deal: if you are going to retweet the effulgent praise then I expect you to retweet the trenchant critiques also, which you can find more easily if you unblock me on twitter.

Which brings me to…

3. Throwing a block

I try to be a resource for people by following every public radio personality and show I can find on Twitter, unfollowing them only when their feeds become choked with baby pics and vanity retweets.

Those of you who are familiar with the effete and grammatical pokes I take at public radio must marvel at Steve Inskeep’s (and EXCITING UPDATE “Vocal Fry Guy” Raz!) precious sensitivity. This is unbecoming in one who makes a living ostensibly asking tough questions in interviews. If Twitter actually notified users at the time when other users blocked them I could know which comment of mine tweaked Inskeep’s and Raz’s hair-trigger peevishness.

Then we come to On The Media, a show I myself have praised effulgently in this space. Yeah, they blocked me for some reason. Really, OTM? You are the show that hates censorship so much you have produced entire episodes about it. What could I, who have called OTM the best show on radio, have said to offend them so much that they would block me from their official Twitter feed? What does that even accomplish other than tainting the purity of my love for them? At least Brooke and Bob, the hosts, have yet to block me from their little-used personal feeds.

I admit that I do sometimes say things that don’t follow the public relations guidelines for human society known as “political correctness.” But I am not one of these ignorant, racist, sexist, conspiracist or wing-nut (left or right) knee-jerk public radio trollers you find in the comment sections dangling under so many segments’ web pages.

To those who block me I have this to say: no matter what you claim, vous n’êtes pas Charlie.

4. Same old pundits vs. Sarah Chayes

I have written before about how outrageous it is that Chayes, one of the most valuable voices about Afghanistan we have and a former NPR correspondent, has been ignored ever since she left her radio job to actually do something instead of just “getting a sense.” I have also written about how weird it is that smart voices only seem to appear on radio shows like Diane Rehm when they are coincidentally on a book tour.

Well the second phenomenon has, at least for a brief period, solved the first because Sarah Chayes is on a book tour, which is the golden ticket to get back on the radio. Yay!

Meanwhile most of the regular pundit slots remain filled with people whose responses are entirely predictable: either political talking points or conventional wisdom.

I’m out of time, but not out of bile, so stay tuned!

I do, I like Green Eggs and Ham!!!

You’d think a purported master-debater like Ted Cruz would know that the protagonist of “Green Eggs and Ham” learns to freakin’ LOVE green eggs and ham – once he actually tries them.

You’d think NPR’s news department would be smart enough to point out this amusing fact.

The whole damned point of that book is to get children (Republicans?) to try new things.  Sound familiar?

Who knows, maybe Cruz will come to like Obamacare!  If he’s like other Republicans who individually change their minds when it suits them it will happen the moment someone in his family needs an expensive life-saving procedure that they can’t afford.

Where’s the Pork?

NPR reporter Julia Simon had a story today that exemplifies the best and worst of public media.

She starts with an incredibly good question: all educated Americans know that the US gives mega money to Egypt annually, but what does that money actually buy?

In a  very easy to understand narrative Simon takes us on a guided tour of what happens with this money.  SPOILER ALERT!  It never leaves the USA.  It actually purchases a bunch of bloated, American-made cold-war weapons systems of which Egypt already has plenty.  Best quote:

There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.

– Shana Marshall, Insert Relevant Institution Here

Simon then follows with specific examples of companies who lobby Washington to keep these purchases going.

So far so awesome.  But then the story just ends.  There is the requisite comment that this is just how things are and the inertia of existing programs is difficult to change etc.  We’ll just have to leave it there.

Conventional wisdom achieved: the military industrial complex is what it is, sigh.

But there’s a giant Nile crocodile in the room that is utterly absent from this story of a corrupt developing country spending proxy billions of American taxpayer money on unnecessary American made weapons, isn’t there?

Anybody?

Bueller?

Oh wait!  Corruption!

The subtext of the story for those actually paying attention is that someone, somewhere, is getting a lot of kickback for these deals.  Probably a lot of someones.  In fact a lack of corruption in this set-up would be so astonishing as to deserve its own mention.

But I guess that sort of exploration is for the kind of investigative reporting that either doesn’t exist much anymore or is too focussed on Anthony’s Wiener.

Random notes on a Friday

Days of our Lives

Speaking of “on a Friday”, what is it with local and national NPR hosts telling us, every few minutes, what day of the week it is?  Is it because a lot of the listening audience resides in “memory care” apartments?

This happens enough that, sort of like the “give us a sense” style of interviewing, I am convinced it is some kind of “best practice” enforced by policy and not just a fad.

I’m no Pope Gregory XIII, but I am usually pretty on top of what day I’m having a case of or humping over or thanking God that it is.  I’d like to humbly suggest that you guys go all the way and tell us the date.  Try “it’s Fridy the 18th” instead of the truly useless “on a Friday, it’s Morning Edition” or “good Friday morning to you.”

Either that or add even more tautological information so we can all meditate on what it means to be told things we already think by the journalists we choose to listen to.  “Here on Earth, just like yesterday,  it’s Morning Edition.”  “Reality is comprehensible by applying reason to the information detected with the human sensorium, and it’s All Things Considered.”

Speaking of days, does anyone inside NPR or out actually know what the hell “Weekends at All Things Considered ” means?  I can’t parse it.  What was wrong with Weekend Edition Saturday/Sunday?  I smell a committee.

Death

Just a brief item to note that the guys and ghouls at “Story Corpse” have again incremented their body count and the world’s collective misery.  Today’s heart-soup immersion blender’s victim was canine, which at least shakes it up a little.

I think the producers over there dream of a day when every death of every beloved person, animal, or object with great sentimental value can make the whole world cry.  These stories are, as we are constantly reminded, archived in the library of congress, so they can make the space aliens who’ll be sifting through the wreckage of our civilization in a few years cry too.

StoryCorps Producer David Isay (visual approximation)

I can find one positive note: at least the pun-loving Keeper landed a job after the regrettable cancellation of Tales From the Crypt.

Lies

There was a pretty good piece by David Folkenflik today dissecting the press coverage of Notre Dame’s girlfriend-gate.  At one point he spoke of the problem of how much the reporters wanted the story to be true (like the one about Saddam’s WMDs I suppose).

Let’s think about that statement.  The reporters wanted a young, football-star-beloved woman to have died of cancer long before her time?  That really helps me understand Story Gore’s morbid editorial bias.

I’ve noticed that journalists tellingly universally loathe the preachy, shallow character-filled Sorkin series “The Newsroom”.  I love it.  It’s almost like “Airbag Moments” the tv show.  It takes the media to the woodshed weekly by doing what Folkenflik does, only in narrative form.  It Monday-morning (“On a Monday…”) quarterbacks the news.  It’s one big thought experiment about, knowing what we know now, how should the press have handled big events in recent history.  Who else is even having this conversation in this way?  The Daily Show  last week even expressed a devout wish that the show depicted a journalistic drive that actually existed.  In reality there isn’t enough money in profit-driven journalism for the logistics of investigative reporting about things less interesting but more important than gridiron paramour three-hankies.

The more vital question for reporters, I suppose, is whether or not the platonic ideal of reportage Sorkin tries to model would have made any real difference.  What if the answer to that is no?

As punishment, anyone who reported about the Notre Dame story has to watch a “Love Story” / “Brian’s Song” double feature tonight.  I’m assuming the Story Corps folks were already planning to because, you know, it’s Friday!

Taxes

Speaking of unpleasant stories the media wants badly to be true, NPR loves the “Military Veterans Aren’t Getting The Support They Deserve and it’s the VA’s Fault” headline.  I can’t recall a single positive NPR story about the Veterans Administration.  I happen to know that the VA, especially the health care delivery side known as the VHA, not only delivers a lot of great care, but also delivers it in ways that are years and sometimes decades ahead of the private sector.  Computerized patient record keeping is a powerful example of this.  Given how many stories NPR does about the tragicomic struggles of the private sector with this technology you’d think they’d cover how the public sector already nailed it.

Something else the press usually misses is that a large number of VA employees are themselves, by mandate, for better and for worse, Veterans.  This is especially true in the VBA, the branch that determines what benefits Veterans receive, and the recipient of the most frequent and bitter excoriations.  By policy the VA hires some of these Veterans preferentially over non-Veterans who might be more qualified.  (Not every Veteran is an angel straight from heaven, and that should not be a controversial sentiment.) So please be aware that when you criticize the VA you are criticizing a whole bunch of Veterans many of whom are working hard and some of whom are hardly working.

We can all agree that many Veterans do need and deserve more services than they are getting, but journalists need to stop acting like the reason is some faceless implacable bureaucracy.  Like most things, it comes down to money and logistics (sound familiar?), not a lack of desire on the part of the VA to serve the Veterans.

On a local note: please keep in mind, NHPR, there are good economic reasons why there’s no full VA hospital in your state.  Politicians and scoundrels love to talk about how much they care about Veterans, but forcing the VA to waste money on a facility that won’t have enough patients to stay in business or provide a full range of services does not serve the only constituencies that matter, Veterans and taxpayers.  Between the Boston area, Maine, and Vermont, northern New England is as well served as makes economic sense.  If you’re concerned about drive times, talk to Veterans who live in far flung towns in hypertrophied western states.  This whole “New Hampshire needs a VA” thing is just political grandstanding and cap-feather acquisition.  So in spite of your knee-jerk sentimentality and desire for the big bad VA narrative, please add some more balance to your coverage of this.

On a personal note, it’s good to be back.

Aaaaaaand they’re off!!

Some at NPR are getting a little sensitive about folks like me decrying their horse-race coverage.  Diane Rehm jumped down the throat of a caller who legitimately brought up this problem on her show the other day.  (Note to Diane: it’s not always about you.  The caller made clear he was talking about “the media”, not your show.  Also, I’m guessing we’ll be hearing some starter trumpets on your episode dedicated to Iowa results today.)  In tweets, correspondents like Don Gonyea get all defensive when you wonder aloud why he spent so much energy covering the brief “surge” of the made-for-fail Bachmann campaign.  He couldn’t help it!  He was a prisoner of poll results!

So they seem to understand on some primitive level that listeners and media analysts alike don’t appreciate the breathless “horse race” coverage, but they just can’t seem to stop themselves.

The Iowa caucus is the most embarrassing example.  “It’s A Photo Finish For Romney, Santorum” the headline at NPR.org shouts.

I am tempted to do a meta horse-race by recapping minute-by-minute the competing minute-by-minute reports filed from Santorum and Romney headquarters by Ari Shapiro and Don Gonyea, but who has the time?  (I will mention one of them actually used the phrase “neck and neck and neck”.  Nope, no horse race here.)

The bottom line is that Iowa doesn’t matter.  Iowa never matters.  It’s a stupid distraction, but it’s covered like the World Series, which also doesn’t matter.

Nobody but Rick Santorum believes he will be the nominee.  If the caucus had been held during any of the other also-ran surges one of the other no-chancers would have come in second.

The only good thing about all this fail?  At least we got to hear multiple references to “surging santorum”.  Thank you again, Dan Savage.

Highlights for Children

I’ve long noticed that NPR correspondents, with or without conscious intention, water down the language they employ in their reportage.   I’m not quite sure why.  I might imagine they were trying to create the journalistic equivalent of “easy listening” music – or maybe “new age.”  But their selection of topics (war, disease, the economy) belies this.

The “M”-word is the perfect example of this tendency.  Whether from spontaneous groupthink or ironclad editorial edict, NPR reporters go out of their way to avoid the word “mother” the way an alcoholic avoids free wine tastings.  Jennifer Ludden did an entire piece on the fertility of women in their 40s without once using the word.  This is only possible due to her substitution of the much more popular word “mom”, which she uses four times.

One explanation would be a polite differentiation of biological motherhood from “family of choice” momhood so as not to implicitly stigmatize those who come by at least some members of their clutch in ways that are not, uhmm, “in-house” as you might say.  But Ludden’s story, with its subject entirely devoted to the difficulty middle aged women encounter when trying to, ermm, “grow their own” so to speak, would be the perfect place for the biologically specific term “mother.”  Its total absence in this particular story, along with the clumsily repetitive use of “mom,” indicates something else is going on.

Maybe it’s the fact that “mother” is sometimes used in a rather extreme piece of two-word profanity that, let’s just say, implies a globally frowned-upon form of over-parenting.  Having it all, so to speak.  Sometimes, to avoid inevitable bleeping, that epithet is shortened to “Mother-f-” or just “mother-” on television.  So is it this?  Is the word “mother” now anathema just because it occasionally hangs out in the wrong part of urbandictionary.com?

It turns out that theory is also faulty.  The proof is that NPR reporters avoid the words “children” and “fathers” with as much awkward sidestepping and repetition as they do “mother”.  They compulsively prefer “dads” and “kids” to party with all the “moms”.  When a “father” shows up, things can get ugly, as in the Loudon Wainwright song “Me and All the Other Mothers”.

Maybe, as with some profanity, it’s some kind of word origin problem?  Is “mother” from some poorly thought of word root and “mom” from an original language that’s a bit more presentable in polite society?  Turns out that’s not the case either.  Both the hated “mother” and the beloved “mom” seem to originate from the same semi-universal infant sound “ma” or “muh”, which may itself derive from the satisfied “mmm” infants sometimes utter after a bout of nipple noshing.  So there’s another theory shot-down.

Let’s examine the larger context.  As their Twitter feeds attest, most NPR reporters *cough* Scott Simon *cough* are child or grandchild-addled.  Or do I mean “kid” or “grandkid”-addled?  It’s so odd how different these exact synonyms can feel.  One would never say “wicked stepmom”, “kid of the depression”, or “dad of our country”.  At least not yet.  “Mother’s Day” is holding on with 35 million Google results, but “Mom’s Day” is coming up fast in the rear-view with 994,000.

Anyway, to me all this linguistic pre-chewing smacks of parental and grandparental overcompensation.  The same way marketers forced used-car dealers to start referring to their jalopies as “pre-owned”, and realtors to start calling houses “homes”, parents continually try to spin reality to their children as something more palatable.  It’s the difference between “shit”, if you’ll pardon the expression, and “poop”.  It’s exactly the relationship of Ray Liotta’s character to Jeff Daniels’ in the totally brilliant and allegorical “we’ve all got a darkside” Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” A word clothed uncomfortably in gym shorts and a t-shirt purchased hastily at a gas station is still naked underneath.

So is this the answer?  Do NPR reporters actually know the difference between Shineola and that other nasty substance that isn’t Shineola, but they just don’t want to come out and say it in so many words?  I really hope so.

The alternative is that they actually mentally inhabit this baby-proofed, rose-colored Nicey Niceland.  In Nicey Niceland, Wall Street math-prodigy mountebanks aren’t prodigious monsters, they’re “number crunchers.”  And in Nicey Niceland the politicians don’t “lie,” they “exaggerate” or “mis-speak.”  When the lies come flying, the reporters at Nicey Niceland Today report on the public opinion reaction to the dishonesty rather than even noticing the rude fact of the moral unfitness of the liar.  Nicey Niceland Public Radio (NNPR) reporters are so happy just to get a “sense” of things.  Reality had them at “hello.”

In this formulation, evil is real, and the banality of evil is to perceive and describe it in child-friendly gauziness.  Like Jeff Daniel’s character, Gallant is so Gallant that he becomes Goofus without realizing it.  (“Gallant lets his children starve to death because stealing bread is illegal.”)

Public Radio is a format that features vocal intonations sometimes too closely resembling the cadences of a parent reading a storybook to a child at bedtime. I hope they are at least explicitly aware of these linguistic habits, and that they have a good reason.  I would also love to hear the reason.  Journalism is the first draft of history, and that draft should not be written with sparkle pens and hearts over the “i”s.

Maybe the first step to fixing all this is for NPR staff to ban their kids (adult or not) from listening…

Really Morning Edition?

WARNING: This post contains much more profanity, large fonts, and profanity in large fonts than are commonly employed here.

I like to use public radio content as a jumping off point to discuss some larger idea in journalistic practice or politics.  I never meant this blog to just be sniping about this or that story or person day to day on the air.

But today I’ll make an exception.

My question today for the producers of Morning Edition:

“What the F**K?!?”

It’s really all I can think.  Seriously, what the f**k, guys?

Three, count them, three long, ear-bleedingly bad pieces.  And I didn’t even listen to the entire show.

Crappy story 1: No surprise that Barbara Bradley Hagerty would create a staggeringly credulous puff piece on a purported Catholic miracle.  What’s shocking is that nobody at NPR listened to it and said “Uhmm, Barbara, you know this is basically Catholic propaganda that could have been released unchanged by the Vatican’s PR department right?  We can’t possibly run this.  Also, you always do this, so you’re fired.  Really, really fired, as in we are removing all of your old stories from the NPR website because we suddenly noticed they are all like this.”

It seems that Hagerty “reporting” on religion is like Sean Hannity “interviewing” Sarah Palin – only without the uncomfortable sexual undercurrent.

Crappy story 2: A super-mawkish “Storycorps” about a self congratulatory divorced dad and his self congratulatory daughter taking a break from self congratulations to congratulate each other on being such an awesome dad/daughter.  Now I know I shouldn’t complain because at least no one died in the fascinating stories they told about throwing frisbees around, but cloyed nausea is not a feeling I relish a lot more than the usual existential dread inspired by StoryCorpse.  But again, I don’t resent the daddy/daughter combo for making the recording.  What they do in that storycorps booth is none of my business.  But why was it chosen by someone at NPR to be put on the air?

Crappy Story 3: They actually interviewed the vapid author of and promoted the hideous book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”. Which is enough for me to condemn them for all the reasons that will be obvious to people who aren’t douchebags.

But they ran this on Earth Day.

Really?

Now, NPR, I give you money because I listen to you, not because I agree with everything you say.  People who listen regularly  but don’t give money because they don’t agree with all of the content are straight up assholes, especially if they have Scottish accents.

But if you make it so unpleasant to listen to your programming that I have to turn you off, well, the money goes away too.

More StoryGore

I promise I’m not going to post every time StoryCorpse has an episode about someone sick or dying.  Who has the time?

But when they have a story about multiple people becoming sick and dying I just can’t help it.

Today’s story, surprising no regular reader of this blog, was about the nightmarish early days of AIDS. Good morning!  Have a nice weekend!

The GoryCorps body count is increasing faster than the second act of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the 80s.

If Zonker Had a Radio Show

Renee Montagne interviewed Gary Trudeau today on Morning Edition about the last 40 years of Doonesbury.  They jawed on quite a bit about the characters, especially B.D., the veteran who lost a leg in Iraq.  Somehow the lengthy (almost 8 minute) piece failed to talk about politics.

Now I know it’s not polite to talk about religion or politics AT A DINNER PARTY, but this is a news show.  How is it that a normally politically obsessed radio program avoids talking politics with the guy who changed the comics page forever by invading it with explicit political cartoon content? (Sadly he thereby paved the way for such luminaries as “Mallard Fillmore.”)  That’s really the main thing about Doonesbury, right?  It’s like interviewing Bob Dylan and only talking about his Christmas album.

Thinking about why Montagne was so careful not to mention politics in this context (or to include a single example of the strip’s outright political content in the collection of strips on display at the NPR website) I realized the explanation holds the key to many of NPR’s journalistic failings.

What we listeners want from journalism is passionate investigation to discover truths that matter to us.

Let’s break that sentence down contextually.   “Passionate” means we want journalists to take their profession seriously, maybe more seriously than many yuppie parents of young children are capable of.  (See Studs Terkel on this topic.) This means putting their careers and even lives at risk when necessary.  “Investigation” means to use skills, contacts and other resources we laypeople don’t have.  “Discover” means that the information we receive should be new and non-obvious.  “Truth” means the discovered information should shape the story, not other way around.  “Mattering” in this case could simply mean quenching our curiosity, but it could also mean inspiring us to change our vote, whistle-blow at our job, or do something nice for the family of a deployed soldier.

If we use that carefully worded sentence as a set of filtering criteria for news stories, and we require all stories to meet all of the terms, 90% of nightly news stories fail.  100% of FOX News stories fail.  I’d say something like 60% of NPR stories fail.  That last is actually pretty good, but only by comparison to the dismal performance of everyone else.

One of the key terms that stories fail to meet these days is “investigation”.  What are the recent stories most passionately investigated by NPR?  They are all about wounded veterans, and most of those are by Danny Zwerdling.  While I would criticize some of the content of those stories because Zwerdling has a preconceived narrative that he tends to impose, his investigations are clearly passionate.  But they’re not risky.  Everyone wants veterans to get all the help they need – or at least everyone who can recall the fact that we are at war.

And that’s why Montagne felt so comfortable talking about Doonesbury’s own wounded warrior: no controversy but loads of human interest even if the human is imaginary.

Meanwhile the Doonesbury strips that really mattered over the last decade were the many that effectively challenged the conventional wisdom coming out of the White House, especially regarding the Iraq war.  It was on that topic that the news media, NPR included, failed us to the point of debasing our very democratic principles.

It’s no coincidence that even now NPR is too timid to talk to (let’s be frank) a mere cartoonist about that particular part of his career and our recent national history.

D-, Renee.

You’re Soaking In It

America's Teens At Play

Careful readers of this blog will have picked up on a few broad themes :

  • mild, barely noticeable antipathy towards the Palinista wing of the Republican party
  • cringing at the over-use of certain words and phrases by Public Radio personalities
  • distaste at the shameless promulgation of Karen Armstrongian ecumenical pseudo-deism by the likes of Krista Tippett
  • rejection of conventional wisdom (“Con-Whiz!”  it’s like Cheez-Whiz for the mind) talking point ping-pong tarted up as “analysis”
  • mortified attention-calling to the pathological hyper-mega-parenting that has become the norm in today’s global yuppie culture

There’s some saying about fish not being able to see the water they are swimming in, and I think it applies to Public Radio staffers’ attitudes to the last four of these.

Studs Terkel wisely lamented that journalists have become too bourgeois to question the status-quo they are now totally invested in.  He was correct.  The toothless and intellectually passive correspondents of the supposedly liberal mainstream media have turned the likes of Stewart and Colbert into Woodward and Bernstein by comparison.  You can’t see the elephant in the room if you are the elephant.

And thus the entire meaning of today’s little Morning Edition story about a dramatic drop in teen driving orbited high above the head of story-filer Beth Accomando.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m all in favor of the clear benefit to society we’ll see when America’s pimply texters reject their traditional role as scary statistic generators for MADD. It’s not the result that bothers me, it’s the cause.

Beth Accomando posits that the cause must be the internet.  Or maybe video games.

But no, Beth, you totally, totally blew it.  The cause is simply and obviously the invisible fence 21st century teens have had conditioned into their brains by a relentless combination of agoraphobia-by-proxy created through an unprecedented level of parental anxiety and the debilitating sloth inculcated by a culturally humiliating practice of parents behaving like harried personal assistants to a celebrity.

This is the kind of attitude that turns the theme of Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road”, which is that we’re all mortal and that having children is no redemption because they too are mortal, into “a love story between a father and a son” as the progeny-besotted director stated yesterday in a Morning Edition story about the adaptation.

So small point: overparenting is trying to ruin the next generation.  If they don’t even want to drive, the traditional dream/lust of all teen-agers, what the hell will they ever want do of any value?

Large point: get your heads out of your asses.  We’re at war.

Had enough yet? How ’bout some more!

In case we denizens of northern New England weren’t depressed enough by waking up to the cold rain that will fill the approximately seven minutes of daylight allotted us this time of year, we were presented with the following story corpse by Morning Edition today:

Before his ninth birthday, Brian told his parents he wouldn’t make it to his “double digits.” He died months later. “That’s what he was trying to tell us all that time,” Kathryn recalls.

Thanks!  Really appreciate that.  No, really.  Seriously.

On another topic, does anyone have any cyanide?

Story Corpse

As any habitual listener of NPR will tell you, the most depressing regular segment of Morning Edition is “Story Corps”. Basically they go around the country taping people talking tearfully about their loved ones dying.  That’s not their mission statement, it’s just what ends up happening waaaaay too much of the time.  Or maybe those are just the ones some death-obsessed producer at NPR always ends up choosing.  As a result of this ghoulish proclivity on their part we generally dive for the off button as soon as we hear the opening notes of the deceptively treacly Story Corps theme song.

Today no one was close enough to shut down the radio, and as a result we listened to the whole thing.  It was about a mortician, natch.  But I will say it was one of the least depressing I’ve ever heard.  Go figure.

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.

Harvey Korman

I loved Harvey Korman.  He was a hilarious guy.  I’m sorry he’s dead.  NPR told me about it this morning.

You know what it also told me?  During a newsbreak, where each item should be as brief as possible to get to as many things as they can in the several minutes they have, the newsreader valiantly macheted his way through the following:

Korman died of complications from surgery to repair a ruptured aortic aneurysm.  He had undergone several major surgeries.

Why do we have to know this?  What gives us the right to know this?  Why does NPR think it appropriate to shout it out of a million radios?

I just talked about this a few days ago and here they go again.

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.

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.