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.

Iowait, Wait Don’t Tell Us

The 2012 Republican Cadidates:

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why responsible news orgs like NPR and NYT are so itchy for the Iowa caucus (and straw poll before those) results.  They’ve created endless coverage of the various Republican primary candidates, who increasingly resemble the nutty villains from the campy old Batman TV show with Adam West, as they wend their smarmy ways through every barn, outhouse, and corndog-extrusion facility in the state.  The press does this in spite of the fact that responsible people, including Jon Stewart, keep pointing out that the results are meaningless in almost every way that matters.

So why do they do it?  I think I figured it out the two reasons,

First things first.  Iowa is first.  The press loves “breaking” news, and there’s no breaking election news like the “first” primary-ish event.

Second, and this is more important, by making such a big deal about the Iowa caucuses the press actually causes the Iowa results to matter.  Think about it.  Who would care about the Iowa pseudo-primaries if the press didn’t give them wall-to-wall coverage?  Conversely you might care about the Daytona Beach Seniors-Only Bridge Club’s choice of candidate if the press jabbered about it 10 hours a day.

Choosing something silly and making it important gives the press a kind of agency.  They become the story.  The story is not the results themselves, the story is the amount of attention the press focuses on the results.

And we’re all pretty tired of it, except of course for some members of the tiny and pointless demographic that actually takes part in the caucuses.  Oh well, just another clownish, predictable aspect of our increasingly cartoonish and alienating electoral process.

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.

Got Milk?

Have no fear, dairy fans, Laura Sydell is still on the job!  Indeed, she’s all over the whole milk-detecting “smart refrigerator” thing like Judy Miller on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Her bio on Twitter says she’s interested in “looking at the intersection of culture and technology.”  Who knew she meant “milk culture”?

The only problem is that her Vitamin-D fortified monomania may be blinding her to the larger world of technology.  Have you ever heard the old saw that “if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail?”  Evidently every technological advance is, to Sydell, just another inevitable step on the many-streamered path to our glorious smart-fridge future.

The opportunity arising from the opening up of new wireless spectrum for digital devices?  Milk-detecting smart fridge!

Coolest thing she might find at the 2011 consumer electronics show?  Duh!  Milk-detecting smart fridge, obviously!

She is giving this gallons of coverage. She tweets “Getting ready 2 talk about CES on ATC. So far what interests me most is internet connected appliances:refrigerator, washing machine.”  In that  two-way on ATC she brings up the whole milk thing right at the beginning to make sure it isn’t edited out for time.  Additionally she writes in the synopsis/blog-post that accompanies the audio for this on the ATC website yesterday that “I want my fridge to tell me when I’m out of milk, but,” she adds moovingly, “I don’t know if we are there just yet…”

Courage, Laura!  Don’t be a milquetoast!

Listen, I’m as interested in the status of my domestic milk supply as the next blogger, maybe even more than some (looking at you, veganlife.blogspot.com…), but if you think about it for a couple of seconds you’ll realize that this 2% solution to our admittedly nightmarish collective ignorance of our own milk quantities is probably not all it’s cracked up to be, even in theory.  What if the smart fridge knows we have gallons of milk but doesn’t know it’s all gone horribly off?  What if we have to constantly monitor and recalibrate the accuracy of the M.I.L.K.?  (Milk Indicator Level from Kitchenaid)  What if the fridge is ignorant of some sort of catastrophically unanticipated increase in our milk requirements, like providing enough nog for the NPR Arts Information Unit staff holiday party?  And this is not to mention the privacy issues.  What if the Department of Social Services learns about our failure to keep our child’s bones strong through maintenance of an adequate dairy supply?

As fascinating as the topic is, one has to wonder why Sydell keeps milking it.  Is there a sour note here?  Does she have some udder motivation to constantly call our attention to the national tragedy of our milk ignorance?  Your humble blogger has discovered there exists not only a “Sydell” brand goat-milking stand, but also a “Sydell Spa” brand milk-based facial cleanser.  Coincidences?  You, dear reader, or better yet the NPR ombudsperson, can make that call.  (Memo to FOX News: get Juan Williams on this, please!  What else does he have to do?  Oh wait, I forgot, FOX News doesn’t do actual journalism.)

I suppose it could be personal.  Does Laura live several hours from the nearest milk provisioner?  Is she exhausted from wasting entire days when she returns home for a nice virgin White Russian only to find that the fiendishly opaque milk carton, when hurriedly opened with that funny little cap they all have now, reveals nothing but her hopes and dreams?  Everyone knows you can’t drink those, unless you are newly-appointed house speaker John Boehner.

Or perhaps this is the consumer technology equivalent of what Reagan termed the “soft-serve bigotry” of lowfat expectations.  How can any careful observer not be disappointed by the state of consumer technology?  I, too, am cowed by the fact that here we are in 2011 and we still have no warp drives, no teleportation, no clean and infinite fusion power, pretty much nothing we were promised by the imagineers of the greatest generation 50 years ago.  (Except, of course, that stupid Facebook game that Isaac Asimov predicted in his speculative novel “I, Time-Wasting Fake Farmer” in 1947.)

Maybe, just maybe, if we can do this one stupid thing, if we can just have a refrigerator that can put a cussing update on our cussing Facebook wall to tell us how much cuss-damned milk we have, maybe we can, as President Kennedy promised in his stirring oration announcing the Apollo program, “do the other things” too.  Was it Browning who said “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Alright, dammit,  I’m on board!  I’ve talked myself into it!  From this day forward I hereby dare to believe that one day, in some shining Sydellian Utopia, we’ll even have a fridge that can tell us when it’s time to buy more Half and Half.

Good luck in Vegas, Laura!  Those of us who dive for dreams are counting on you!

A Radio Show About Nothing

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Loosely translated: “About which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”  In other words if you don’t have something intelligent or useful to say, just be quiet.

If Public Radio lived by Ludwig’s rule then some things would change.  “Speaking of Faith” would have been called “Not Speaking of Faith” and would have consisted of an hour of blessed silence.  Of course that show, which I think I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog, has been born again as “Krista Tippett on Being.”  It would have to become “Krista Tippett on Nothing,” which can only be an improvement.

But the main thing that would happen, freeing up countless hours of currently wasted time, is that NPR would have to cease its breathless, obsessive handicapping of upcoming elections.  I have railed against the horse-race nature of what passes for political coverage on NPR several times before but, shockingly, it appears to be having no effect.  In fact things are getting worse.

How many radio hours have been wasted in the last month breathlessly poring over the latest poll numbers and pre-announcing the imminent demise of the Democratic majority?  Even more than the number of hours spent during the approach of last year’s “nothing to see here” off-year elections.  Remember how it was supposed to be a big revolution?

I have three explanations for the amount of blather on this topic.  First of all the press thrives on reporting on conflict and change, so the prospect of party turnover interests them far more than what the new party in power will actually try to do.  Second the coverage of polls is a low risk for them politically because they’re just talking about poll results so they can go on for hours without worrying about appearing to be, God forbid, non objective.

Finally it’s easy.  Which makes me think they are lazy.  It’s like filler.  “Hey, guys, can you fill up ten minutes talking about poll results?”  “No problem!!”

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.

Juan But Not Forgotten

NPR recently inspired a surprising number of listeners to self righteously declare that they will never contribute another dime to their NPR station.  What caused this self-defeating outburst from the former fans?  The fact that NPR issued an official internal memo forbidding employees to attend the Stewart/Colbert Rally for Sanity in Washington unless they are officially covering the event.  Behind this action, of course, is the hoary mid century j-school notion that reporters should not have political opinions that might influence their coverage.  Because no human can actually turn off the opinion-having part of their brain without rudely invasive surgery, journalism has often settled for what might be the worst of all possible worlds, the mere appearance of objectivity.  As consumers of news we can either pretend we are getting an objective report or we can play the game of constantly trying to guess how the journalist’s bias is affecting their reportage.  Unfortunately this results in a kind of bias amplification.  Our own bias will multiply our perception of the reporter’s bias and distort the actual message we get from the story in dramatic ways.

You can see this clearly in the wide variety of opinions listeners hold about NPR in spite of said attempts to remain unbiased.  Here are a few excerpts from just a short stretch of the comment beard under a Huffington Post story about this whole Rally for Sanity flap:

“I would have imagined such blatant anti-left bias would have disappeared at NPR by now. Yet every time I listen to All Things Considered, I end up turning it off in anger because of just that problem.”

“I stopped contributing and listening when you became another mouthpiece for the ultra-cons­ervatives.”

“I try to stay away from NPR since it became a Republican propaganda organ.”

Even correcting for the road-rage-like hyperbole that seems to be a prerequisite for blog comments, we can see that a lot of left-leaning folks have begun to despise the bias they personally detect in current NPR content.  I’ll leave finding the right-leaning hate speech against NPR’s liberal bias as an (easy) exercise for the reader.

Which brings me to one Mr. Juan Williams and a scrappy little up-and-comer known as Fox News.  By adopting the slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide,” Fox News, intentionally or not, raised the bar for satirizing modern journalism to a level that not even the combined forces of Stewart, Colbert, and the Onion working with the ghosts of Dryden, Swift and Twain could ever hope to approach.  It’s like the old definition of “chutzpah”: the guy who murders his parents and then begs mercy from the court on account of his being an orphan.

No, it’s actually worse than that.  It’s more like the guy who kills his parents right in front of the judge and jury and, while standing over their still-warm bodies, says that he never had any parents and also he’s the president and founder of the Anti-Parent-Murder Coalition of America and also Obama is a Hitler-Stalin-Satan-Bin Laden chimera and the real parent killer.  You’ve heard of that guy, right?

The elephant in the press-room is that everyone knows that Fox is outrageously biased.  It’s a political organization to an infinitely greater extent than it is a news organization.  This is axiomatic.  They may deny it in their hilarious slogans, but their actions are unmistakable.  They have content that is, to borrow a phrase from the late great Douglas Adams, almost but not entirely unlike news.  They use this fishy news-like substance the same way Republican politicians use Christianity.  They aren’t interested in the meaning found within it, they are interested in the sui generis and ersatz authority it confers on them to use their really big microphone.

Why am I taking this opportunity to slam Fox News – other than the fact that it’s really fun?  It’s because the fact that Fox news is an honest-to-Todd (Palin) propaganda organ is directly relevant to National Public Radio’s stance on the “Rally for Sanity”.

Let’s follow the logic:

  1. NPR would like its reporters be objective
  2. Being objective isn’t humanly possible
  3. Therefore NPR wants them to seem to be objective by not associating with activities that are political
  4. The Rally for Sanity is an event with an inherent political bias or agenda of some kind (precisely what is not identified by NPR)
  5. Therefore NPR employees should not attend

Pretty sound logic.  Let’s use it again.

  1. NPR wants its reporters to seem to be objective by not associating with activities that are political
  2. Fox News has an inherent political bias and agenda
  3. Therefore NPR employees should not appear on or be paid by Fox News

That’s also sound and consistent with the first.  Originally I was going to wield my plus-3 big red font of absolute denigration against NPR for their inconsistency in allowing the likes of Juan Williams and Mara Liasson to appear on Fox, but then they fired Juan Williams supposedly for comments he made about Muslims.  Is the timing just a coincidence and the stated reason specious or are they suddenly reevaluating what it means to appear objective?

If the latter then Mara Liasson (and any other NPR employee who works with Fox) needs to make a very quick decision about butter and her bread side preference.

If the former then NPR is an awful corporate coward.  If, for reasons of the appearance of objectivity, NPR reporters are not allowed to even attend the politically tepid Rally For Sanity unless they are covering it as a story then those same reporters really, really should not be allowed to take money from Rupert Murdoch to appear on Fox News.

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.

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.

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”  Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.  Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).  I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.  Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”  The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.  You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.  The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.  It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.  Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.  Often they are religious themselves.  So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.

Fish Tale

I have to take a brief minute to give props to the fake story about whale farming aired on April 1st.  The story, though pretty obviously fake, apparently fooled many listeners appealing as it does to their environmentalist achilles heels.

The following day the ATC hosts mentioned that they had tricked some folks within public radio but wouldn’t name names.  Luckily I will.

One listener who bought it hook, line, and sinker was, hilariousy, no other than the becoming questioner herself, Diane Rehm.  In her show with Jack Horner the next day she was getting a bit upset over the ethics of tampering with bird genes to ressurect dinosaurs, and she actually brought up whale farming as an example of just how far people were willing to take things like this.  Perfect.

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.

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.

He’s not the president…

…but he plays one on TV.  Well, in the movies anyway.

I’m speaking, of course, about Talk of the Nation’s guest yesterday, Mr. Michael Douglas.

It seems he’ll be appearing before lawmakers.  Weirdly he won’t be there to testify about what possibly illegal methods he used to get Catherine Zeta Jones to marry him, something I’d expect most congressman (and NPR-obsessed bloggers) to be keenly interested in.

Instead he’s there to discuss a topic even more near and dear to this blog’s heart, Nuclear Proliferation.

But here’s the problem.  Douglas is a self-styled advocate on this issue, but even he, a trained actor, can’t properly pronounce the word “nuclear.”  Maybe he’s trying to method-act presidential diction?

How many posts do I need to produce about this before people start getting it right?

New clear, new clear, new clear…