Getting an Interviewee to Admit Hypocrisy

Robert Siegel of NPR’s All Things Considered is one of the better interviewers on radio or television. While normally I would object to his allowing the interviewee to make unsubstantiated statements such as former Cong. John Shadegg of Arizona who states that the last Congress was arrogant by passing legislation that “a majority of Americans opposed,” it is beautiful the way Siegel sticks to the point and gets Shadegg to admit that he has said “over the top” things that aren’t helpful.


News Media Acting Like Politicians, But Get Paid Better

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reports NPR staff are upset with the resignation of Senior Vice President of News Ellen Weiss, who spent her entire career at NPR, rising from the ranks to lead a resurgence of the storied news organization.  Some inside public radio see it as a capitulation to conservatives.

Some blamed congressional conservatives and Fox News – which had repeatedly denounced NPR since the October firing – for inflaming the situation, which led to the resignation on Thursday of Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president for news. Weiss was the NPR executive who terminated Williams for saying he was "nervous" flying on a plane with people in "Muslim garb" on Bill O’Reilly’s TV program. Since his firing, Williams signed a three-year contract with Fox for almost $2 million.

"We have allowed Fox News to define the debate," wrote Peter Block, a member of the board of Cincinnati Public Radio, in a posting to an e-mail group consisting of public radio managers. He added, "I do not think this kind of capitulation [by NPR] assures the future of an independent press. . . . Democracy is on the line and NPR is one of the last bastions of its possibility." Block said in an interview that NPR’s reaction "lacked integrity." NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, also pointed to Fox, noting in her column, that the Williams "incident has become a partisan issue in Washington’s hothouse atmosphere, with Republicans (egged on by Fox News) using it as a rallying cry to demand that NPR be ‘defunded’ by the federal government."

Staffers wouldn’t be quoted criticizing NPR’s action, though it is typical of its lack of courage. They were probably afraid of retaliation from Schiiller and the board. Instead the staff remind us of what was lost

Guy Raz, who hosts the weekend edition of "All Things Considered," called Weiss "the finest journalist I ever worked for. . . . She’s a pretty legendary figure in the newsroom. For many people, she’s an inspiration that you could start at the bottom and make it to the top if you worked hard it. It’s a cliche, but she really set the standard for integrity."

Some employees interviewed Friday steered clear of criticizing NPR’s upper management, but Raz said there was some anger in the newsroom. "It’s a pretty natural reaction," he said. "Yeah, I think we’re angry because she was such a good leader. She really knew how to lead this organization," he said.

Economics reporter Adam Davidson said Weiss had "the single most important role in the development of NPR over the past 20 years. . . . I don’t think there’s anyone in the history of public radio who has had as positive an impact. I’m shaken and shocked" by her exit.

In the last day, however, we learn that the dog didn’t eat NPR’s records. At least we know what Vivian Schiller, the chief executive who, of course, kept her job, even though she agreed with the firing and made sarcastic remarks about Williams at the time.

According to tax records released by NPR on Friday, Schiller received a bonus of $112,500 in May 2010, about 17 months after she was hired by the Washington-based organization. This was in addition to a base salary of $450,000. The bonus was included in her hiring package, NPR said.


Don’t you love it when news organizations exhibit the same blatant obfuscation that they deplore when practiced by corporations, politicians or other organizations?

Take NPR, for the latest example. Yesterday, NPR released a report finding that the news editor who fired Juan Williams over his controversial remarks and NPR’s president who supported the action, while acting within the law, had a quick trigger finger. The board, of course, wouldn’t exactly say that the firing was justified or that it was unfair.  It was just too, oh, decisive. I guess the bleeding heart softies at NPR would have preferred bringing in Williams for a chat and letting him down easy. Maybe giving him an NPR coffee mug with his pink slip.

Meanwhile, they let the news editor Ellen Weiss take the fall, forcing her to resign, while NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller was punished by withholding her bonus for this year.

When asked by The Washington Post about that bonus:

Schiller said she "fully accepted" the board’s decision to cancel her bonus, which she said had not been determined for the current fiscal year. (Schiller could not recall the amount of her bonus in fiscal 2009, and NPR said it did not have that information.)

Really? Schiller couldn’t remember the size of her bonus? OK, maybe it was figured by some kind of arcane formula down to the precise cent. Which wouldn’t be unexpected at NPR where they probably have tortured their accountants to come up with a calculation that is “fair.” But she couldn’t give us a ball park figure?  Say, $2,000, or $200,000 or $2 and an NPR tote bag? But then NPR says it “did not have that information”? Do they burn their books after each fiscal year? Did the dog eat the records?

Internet Gaining on TV and Newspapers?

Well, yes…and not necessarily. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has another survey, out this week, that’s informative, if you don’t misinterpret the findings. The clearest finding is that the Internet is becoming more of the medium for news for many folks than television. It certainly hasn’t overtaken it among all groups, though it has among people 19-29 years old. And even that conclusion is somewhat suspect. After all, you can watch a TV program online. Who gets the credit as the source—TV or “the internet”?

This fuzzy conclusion gets more obscured when you read about the internet’s supremacy over newspapers, which applies to the overall population, though not among the 50+ set. After all, whereas most folks don’t go to the internet to watch TV, I’ll bet a sizable portion of those who look for news online indeed go to newspapers sites. Which makes the conclusions here a little misleading.

[M]ore people continue to cite the internet than newspapers as their main source of news, reflecting both the growth of the internet, and the gradual decline in newspaper readership (from 34% in 2007 to 31% now).

…The internet also has grown as a news source for people ages 50 to 64; currently 34% say the internet is their main source of national and international news, nearly equal to the number who cite newspapers (38%), though still far below television (71%). There has been relatively little change in the how people age 65 and older get their news. The internet has risen to 14% from 5% in 2007, but is still far behind newspapers (47%) and television (79%) as a main source.

I wish the good folks at the Pew center (and I love their work) would have worded it differently.  But reading further, there are nuggets that should influence how political questions are debated.

College graduates are about as likely to get most of their national and international news from the internet (51%) as television (54%). Those with some college are just as likely as college grads to cite the internet as their main source (51%), while 63% cite television. By contrast, just 29% of those with no more than a high school education cite the internet while more than twice as many (75%) cite television.

For political operatives that may mean deploying different spokespeople for different media. For example, if it’s the lower middle class you want to target, send those folks who can sound as if they are one of them. I don’t mean that condescendingly. Joe Biden may make a good source on TV news because he has a working class persona, whereas John Kerry may not.

There is some unabashed good news in the survey results.

Reflecting the slow decline in the proportion of people getting most of their national and international news from television, the numbers specifically citing cable news outlets or broadcast networks as their main news source has fallen. When asked where on television they get most of their news, 36% name a cable network such as CNN, the Fox News Channel or MSNBC; 22% name ABC News, CBS News or NBC News; and 16% say they get most of their national and international news from local news programming.

TV is constrained by its format. Rarely are issues covered in-depth and without prejudice or bias. If more people read the news online, they would be caught up in the world of hyperlinks, taking them to new sources that allow them to gain more knowledge and hopefully a broader range of viewpoints, though that’s not guaranteed.

But here’s the best news. The percentage of people who say they get their news from radio has remained constant over the past 20 years. Alas, they all aren’t listening to NPR; many are Limbaugh ditto-heads. According to Carroll Doherty of the Pew Center, NPR’s audience mirrors the general demographics of the population, so both young and old are listening. Why has radio remained constant? Because traffic hasn’t improved most places. Radio listeners tend to be in their cars at the time.

The View from Somewhere Isn’t Where It’s At

Part two of David Folkenflick’s excellent report on the news media is online. And indeed Jay Rosen, who I cited in yesterday’s post, makes the case for reporters revealing more of their beliefs. In fact, it is the focus of this report.

"If they’ve been covering a beat for a while, I’d like to know what fascinates them about their beat, what they think are the biggest challenges facing the nation, who some of their heroes and villains are, and any convictions — deeply held convictions — they’ve developed by reporting on the story over a long period of time."

"We can tell where the person is coming from and apply whatever discount rate we want to what they’re saying," Rosen says. "I also think that it’s more likely to generate trust. And this is the main reason why I recommend ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ replace ‘the view from nowhere.’ "

I agree completely with Rosen’s critique of today’s media and the “view from nowhere.”  Peter Goodman, who recently left the New York Times to become business editor at the Huffington Post describes the problem pitch perfectly.

"This is not about ranting; it’s not about working for a particular partisan interest or set of interests; it’s not about getting individuals elected," Goodman says. "It’s about the same mission that I think has been part of quality journalism forever, which is uncovering truths that aren’t so easy to uncover."

He says The Times gave him great leeway to follow his reporting, wherever it led. But Goodman says his reporters at the Huffington Post will have some liberties other news organizations might not afford.

"I don’t want them feeling like they have to hand in [stories that say], ‘Well, these people said this, those people said that; here, dear reader — you know, you figure it out,’ " Goodman says. "I would like them engaged in a process of getting to a satisfying conclusion." [emphasis added]

In other words, “he said, she said” journalism, another phrase that may be Rosen’s.  While this type of journalism is well accepted in America (and in the NPR report former Post editor Len Downie vigorously defends it) to other western countries it is laughable.

"I’m rather extreme on this subject," says Simon Jenkins, the former editor in chief of the center-right Times of London who now writes columns for the liberal Guardian. "I find American newspapers boring — and biblical. I cannot believe how dull they are. These are news sheets for a genre of readers who want vast slabs of information and get entertainment in a different way. And they are micro-monopolies, all of them."

Still, I can’t bring myself to agree with Rosen’s conclusions. I object when reports describe even institutions as “liberal” or “conservative,” “left” or “right.” What that does is signal the reader to be ready to discount or embrace the following viewpoint because it tracks (or doesn’t) with their view of the world.  Labeling these institutions really does nothing to combat the rampant “view from nowhere.” And having reporters reveal their politics, if that indeed is what Rosen is suggesting, will be an impotent solution to the problem. I think what it will lead to is the same thing we now see: groups from either side demanding that a news outlet add more conservative or progressive reporters to offset a perceived imbalance, as they do now with opinion writers. Then what? Do you have a conservative and a progressive covering the same beat? Otherwise, if it’s one or the other, the opposite inclined reader will not read the stories at all or complain incessantly about them.

Besides, it’s hard to pinpoint where someone is coming from based solely on a few biographical paragraphs. I am a progressive and support many progressive causes. But I also think government is seriously flawed, inefficient and ineffective. I think the age at which one can start to draw Social Security should be raised. Gun control laws are largely ineffective. If I were a reporter, would I need to reveal all my views on each issue?

Let reporters gather the facts, weigh them on the “truth-o-meter if possible, and report the truth as close as they can divine it. The truth is what readers want. The reason newspapers and other MSM are failing is not because we don’t know the ideologies of the reporters and editors. It’s because they are not giving us information we can use. The are stenographers of the status quo, worried more about their continued access to the centers of power than in revealing what’s really going on.

NPR Stations: Who’s Juan Williams?

It should surprise no one that NPR donations have not been impacted by the Juan Williams firing. The network and its affiliates got some angry emails, but likely from people who don’t listen to the station.

Several station managers say the angriest responses have been from people who appeared not to be regular contributors, based on their cross-referencing caller and e-mailers’ names with databases of donors.

In fact, I gave that day to my local station with a note that if NPR backed down, I’d demand a refund.

Saving CNN—and the Profession

All right, it’s a grandiose headline, but what CNN might do could at the very least show a way for journalism.

In “How to Fix CNN” in yesterday’s Politico, the only intelligent, original ideas came from Jay Rosen:

[Rosen’s] alt line-up for CNN prime time looks like this: (Please excuse my jokey titles…)

  • 7 pm: Leave Jon King in prime time and rename his show Politics is Broken. It should be an outside-in show. Make it entirely about bringing into the conversation dominated by Beltway culture and Big Media people who are outsiders to Beltway culture and Big Media and who think the system is broken. No Bill Bennett, no Gloria Borger, no “Democratic strategists,” no Tucker Carlson. Do it in the name of balance. But in this case voices from the sphere of deviance balance the Washington consensus.
  • 8 pm: Thunder on the Right. A news show hosted by an extremely well informed, free-thinking and rational liberal that mostly covers the conservative movement and Republican coalition… and where the majority of the guests (but not all) are right leaning. The television equivalent of the reporting Dave Wiegel does.
  • 9 pm: Left Brained. Flip it. A news show hosted by an extremely well informed, free-thinking and rational conservative that mostly covers liberal thought and the tensions in the Democratic party…. and where the majority of the guests (but not all) are left leaning.
  • 10 pm: Fact Check An accountability show with major crowdsourcing elements to find the dissemblers and cheaters. The week’s most outrageous lies, gimme-a-break distortions and significant misstatements with no requirement whatsoever to make it come out equal between the two parties on any given day, week, month, season, year or era. CNN’s answer to Jon Stewart.
  • 11 pm.: Liberty or death: World’s first news program from a libertarian perspective, with all the unpredictablity [sic] and mix-it-up moxie that libertarians at their best provide. Co-produced with Reason magazine.

All good ideas. But let me suggest a re-organization and a few other ideas.

First, shoot the messengers, i.e., the politicians. OK, not actually shoot them or, God forbid, put them in cross hairs. But minimize them. Healthcare, financial reform, immigration, energy realignment, economic recovery—they all are influenced heavily by what politicians do, but the pols don’t inform the debate. People with expert knowledge do. What do those who study healthcare think will decrease costs? How can those costs be impacted by public policy? How do we approach end-of-life care decisions? The people who can answer those questions don’t go to work at the Capitol. They are academicians, doctors, insurance executives, analysts and everyday people who have faced such issues. Three or four sitting around a table with a journalist who listens—rather than jumps in with his next question—can lead to intelligent debate. Sure, some folks will say that’s what PBS does and they don’t attract more than a couple of dozen viewers. But NPR has its largest audience ever. It’s not what I’m proposing but it’s a beacon of light for intelligent information.

Second, label nothing left or right, liberal or progressive, totalitarian or libertarian. Labels close minds. Once you read “the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities” or “the conservative American Enterprise Institute” readers and listeners have already made a judgment about the idea or viewpoint about to be expressed.

Third, don’t aim to make news; instead engender thought. This, of course, is ridiculous to many journalists. Their job is to report news. Fair enough. But I’m thinking of broadcast programs or long-form print journalism. The economics of the business is such that news organizations may need to change deadline driven news hounds into analysts, not of the politics but of issues.  Think what would happen if a Congressman held a press conference and nobody came.  It wouldn’t be the end of the world. 

Fourth, interrupt talking point messengers. The journalists has no responsibility to let drivel drivel. The goal should not be to be “fair and balanced,” but “objective.” That means telling someone, “That’s not true.” Eventually, you may need to simply banish certain guests. Still, the politicians have a role in my programming, but they don’t own the airtime.

So here are my programs: Bob’s Show, Carol’s Show, Ted’s Show, Alice’s Show. In other words, put the focus on intelligent journalists who can foster insightful conversation. That would include the regular host, perhaps with subject specific reporters joining the conversations. The shows could tackle different topics each day. Hot issues, healthcare for the past year for example, might be a topic each night with each show’s moderator tackling a different aspect of the issue. Think “Charlie Rose.”

And here is where I think Rosen’s ideas fit in:

Begin each show with a fact check segment on the last 24 hours’ most audacious claims or charges (also see last three segments for fodder). The segment should pay particular attention to hypocrisy. Instead of “Fact Check,” call the segment “Truth or Consequences.”

Then the roundtable. Encourage participants to talk to each other. The moderator should interrupt for clarification or challenge, as well as follow a tangent when an answer requires it. Don’t book people who are likely to foment argument for argument’s sake but seek passionate viewpoints.

Then “Thunder on the Right,” with the moderator one-on-one with a conservative politician asking him or her to respond to the arguments just elucidated during the roundtable. Again, the questioner must be willing to say, “Stop the talking points,” or “That’s not true.” It’s OK here to discuss the politics of the issue, of course. Why can’t a good idea get done? How does our political system inhibit tackling big questions?

“Left-Brained” is the mirror image.

And finally, “Off the Wall” or “Out of Nowhere” or “A Third Way” (which is not to be confused with the middle way.) Seek out ideas not enjoying widespread discussion. Let it be a two to five minute presentation in any format that makes sense.

Each of the last three segments are grist for the next day’s “Truth or Consequences.”

“Politics is Broken” is not a recurring program but it is a recurring topic or issue. And by the way, it should have a dose of history, both to put the current political environment in perspective and to clarify what the Founding Fathers founded.

These shows may not fit into an hour-long format. Some topics may need 90 minutes. And CNN, with its broad resources for breaking news, can always preempt the regular line-up to cover such news.

My concern for Rosen’s program ideas is how long will people want to listen, for example, to a program that is solely dedicated to knocking down political myths. That may be too cynical for the most cynical among us.

Journalism was never meant to be fair and balanced between fact and fiction. It’s supposed to uncover truth. As the preamble to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states:

…[P]ublic enlightenment is the
forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

NPR Ditches ‘Democrat Party’

The NPR ombudsman has made it official:  the network is no longer to use the improper term “Democrat Party.”

What, you say, even its correspondents use the disparaging name Republicans use for their opponents?  Sadly, yes.

[Linda] WERTHEIMER: Now, he announced his decision just before the filing deadline for candidates to enter the race. So does he hurt the Democrat Party with this timing?

[Ken] RUDIN: Recyclable. I’m just – I just can’t get over what’s going on here. But anyway, Ritter was in trouble with his own party. Basically what happened, when Ken Salazar, the senator, resigned to become the Interior secretary, Ritter named somebody named Michael Bennett to the Senate seat held by Salazar, and half the Democratic Party was unhappy about that.

[Update:  I must have been bleary eyed as Rudin’s remarks do not use the term “Democrat party.”

“Pro-life” and “Pro-Choice” Are Dead

Let’s hope other news organizations follow NPR’s lead

On the air, we should use "abortion rights supporter(s)/advocate(s)" and "abortion rights opponent(s)" or derivations thereof (for example: "advocates of abortion rights"). It is acceptable to use the phrase "anti-abortion", but do not use the term "pro-abortion rights".

And while they’re at it, let’s hope they stop using “death tax,” “partial birth abortion,” and other advocates’ terms that have made their way into mainstream journalism.