Friday, May 06, 2005

Ruth's Morning Edition Report

Ruth: If you write to me care of, C.I. does forward them to me.

There are so many wonderful e-mails. Most of you write along the lines of "I thought I was crazy. Anytime I complain about NPR, people look at me like I'm crazy." I'd argue those people aren't listening or they aren't listening closely. Possibly, they are getting all the news from NPR and are unaware of certain details that skew or get omitted.

A few e-mailed to ask if I hated NPR? No, I do not hate NPR. It is not what it used to be by a long shot. But there are still strong stories most days and there are some people who obviously care about what they do.

Do I hate Morning Edition? I thought hard on that one. I was a huge Morning Edition fan in the days of Bob Edwards. He was on top of each broadcast. These days, it's like we've got the kiddie patrol making jokes and asking their carefully rehearsed questions.

I noted The Diane Rehm Show this week and that's the example of a strong broadcaster. When people are speaking, she's not attempting to fire off her next question, she's actively listening and responding to what they are saying.

On Morning Edition, and this is most obvious when Cokie Roberts does her political "analysis," there is no listening. Cokie says whatever she wants to say and no one asks her to explain what she's talking about. She'll offer a bit of jargon and a good broadcaster would follow up by asking her to explain what that means? When she makes one of her "people are reporting . . ." statements, a good broadcaster would ask who is reporting?

Cokie Roberts is useless to me as a listener but she's made more useless by the fact that no one wants to get her to credit sources or to explain jargon.

But even with that, there is no excuse for her to get away with the claim that the Washington Post editorial board favors the Democrats. What world does Cokie live in?

Long before I ever started doing the Morning Edition Report, I heard Cokie say something that was so off base from what The Washington Post was reporting. I e-mailed C.I. and got sent back a thing from The Daily Howler by Bob Somerby where he noted that it appeared Cokie just read the headlines of The Washington Post and not the actual articles. That's a highly likely proposition.

But this week when she got off her charge that The Washington Post favored the Democrats, I really expected someone to call her on it.
For anyone who missed it, check Monday's post.

Here's the exchange from that post:

Renee: The Democrats have yet to come up with a solution to the long term problems that social security will face are they starting for-to feel any heat about-about that?
Cokie: Again, not so far. But they can't be happy that the usually friendly Washington Post editorial page is now saying that they will have to come up with some specifics given the fact that the *Bully Boy* has. And people do seem to be taking something of a serious look at the *Bully Boy*'s proposal.
[I've substituted any term such as "president" or his last name with "Bully Boy" and noted it with astericks.]

The usually friendly Washington Post editorial page is usually friendly, but to the Bully Boy. Cokie got that off unchallenged, pushed the unfounded myth of "the liberal media" on NPR, and no one appeared to notice.

That's what a great deal of the e-mails are about and usually end with, "Why didn't anyone notice?" I have to wonder if anyone pays that close attention to NPR, honestly.

Were Cokie fact checked, she'd fail more often than not.

I do support NPR (less so PBS) and that was another big question. But I find it very hard to support Morning Edition which grows more juvenile every day. What was an audio version of a daily paper has become a show filled with "happy talk" by the anchors. It's hard to take the show seriously when it doesn't appear to take itself too seriously.

Bob Edwards was not a grinch but he could set a relaxed mood and still bring you the news. These days, it seems more and more that two airheads have taken over two hours of NPR's time.

Now the NPR ombudsman would disagree. He recently wrote about how ratings were up for Morning Edition. Does it matter if the rise comes from dumbing down the show?

I still don't know if the story ("for balance") about a wildcat that was saved was a joke or for real? I'm not questioning that it happened but when NPR gets angry e-mail regarding a true story on wildcats and then decides to later "balance" it out with a happy story, you can call the show whatever you want, but don't call it Morning Edition.

I was honestly surprised that they even responded to the e-mails because I was one of the people e-mailing in October to complain that Robert Kagan was brought on to evaluate John Kerry. For those who are not aware of this, Robert Kagan's wife [Victoria Nuland] worked for Dick Cheney. So you had a man married to a woman working for one ticket critiquing the statements of the head of another ticket. How did that pass muster?

Where was the outcry? (I know The Common Ills dealt with this not long after it started up in November. But why did we have a month of silence before The Common Ills came along.) I e-mailed to the ombudsman who did what he usually does, ignored my e-mail. Then he wrote the column dealing with the complaints from listeners and wrote, basically, "Robert Kagan may be pro-war" or some such nonsense. But did Mr. [Jefferey] Dvorkin ever address the issue of conflict of interest due to Mr. Kagan's marriage? No, he didn't.

What is the purpose of the ombudsman if not to address something that serious? He didn't want to know about it. Robert Kagan was allowed to present himself on Morning Edition as an objective analyst because Morning Edition refused to inform their listeners who Mr. Kagan was married to. When the issue was raised with Mr. Dvorkin, he decided to ignore it.

I'm sure many listeners have no idea to this day how "questionable" (I'd call it wrong) the decision to bring Mr. Kagan on was.

Do I hate Morning Edition? I wish it were better. I wish it were worth listening to. Now that I keep my grandson each weekday, Morning Edition is often the only show I can pay full attention to on NPR. Sometimes, if I'm rocking him, I can hear a large segment of another show. But he's very active and we're all over the house. So I really count on Morning Edition to provide me with solid information and it is, frankly, no longer doing that.

The other big question this week was how did I miss the big scoop about the CIA plan to capture bin Laden, behead him, etc.? I missed it because I didn't think it was a story.

This wasn't a reporter breaking a story they had come across. This was a former agent revealing a plan. That has to be cleared with the CIA ahead of time.

Here is the summary from the first part of that two-part story:

Morning Edition, May 2, 2005 · Gary Schroen is one of the CIA's most respected and experienced spies. Two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his bosses handed him a new mission targeting Osama bin Laden: "Bring his head back in a box" is the phrase Schroen remembers. Five days later, the veteran operative and his six-man team were on a plane.
They were the first Americans to enter Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Over the next few weeks, Schroen paid $5 million in bribes to Afghan commanders, paved the way for U.S. military forces to enter the country, and armed anti-al Qaeda fighters with silencer-equipped machine guns and grenades.
Schroen's work with the Northern Alliance and smaller groups led to some successes, but he says his team never got close to killing the al Qaeda leader -- or his top deputy, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was reportedly in the eastern section of Kabul.

That's a lot of information for the C.I.A. to allow Mr. Schroen to release. It struck me as "news management." I wasn't impressed with the story because I felt it was an attempt at manipulation. The administration has been very good about saying, "Look at this hand, not at that one!" To me, this was another example of a "release" that attempted to cover something else. I have no idea what.

Bully Boy is under a great deal of criticisim for not having found bin Laden all these years later. Perhaps this was an effort to get us to care that there was a "plan" or that people "tried?" I don't have the slightest clue.

But when I talked to my granddaughter Tracey about it and told her my concerns, she said, "Grandma, don't write about it then." If it was indeed an attempt to get this story to overwhelm something the administration found embarrassing, I didn't want to ignore my own suspicions and play into the administration's hands.

Agent Schroen had a great deal to say. My question was how he got clearence for his remarks?

Some e-mailed to ask if I could please do an NPR report or a Morning Edition report every day?

I would love to but time doesn't permit that. I'm not able to actively listen to all the NPR shows and if my grandson is sick or dropped off early, that cuts into the time I would have to write down a report.

I have no problem with someone else also doing a Morning Report report. They might pick up something I missed or they might offer a different perspective on the same story. But like everyone who wrote, I, too, feel that NPR has been overlooked. It needs to be examined and held accountable the same way that a newspaper like The New York Times is. NPR has a great deal of influence.

With friends my age who listen to NPR, I don't usually have to explain in great detail when NPR gets something wrong because we're old enough to remember when it was a first rate source of news. Back then, it earned it's reputation. You can still get quality reporting from Nina Totenberg. But more and more, the voices like Ms. Totenberg's are overwhelmed by people reporting silly stories. This may or may not attract more listeners but it weakens what NPR stood for.

Today [Thursday], we heard the tale of the runaway groom. That was apparently another "balance" story to even out the reports of the runaway bride. I listened to that story and wondered exactly who made the call that this was a story important enough to air on Morning Edition?

C.I. has written about how, especially on Sundays, "lifestyle stories" make the front page of The New York Times. The runaway groom was a "lifestyle story." It wasn't a news story.

I'm also bothered by the reading of listener's e-mails which focuses on grammar as opposed to serious issues with reporting. I certainly don't need mocking voices of the anchors rotating out line by line to tell me that "an" was used instead of "and" or something equally worthless. (This week it was that Bill Gates used "irregardless." Does anyone really care?)

People listen to Morning Edition while they're getting ready for their day, while they're eating breakfast or on their way to work, and I don't think they're hoping to hear a Bob Newhart comedy lp. (Tracey will reprimand me for that with, "Grandma! We call them CDS!") I believe they are hoping to get some solid news in that two hour period.

I also don't believe listeners want to hear Cokie play Carnac the Magnificent. Cokie makes far too many predicitions and offers far too little "analysis." Not to kick her when she's down, but if Cokie's E.S.P. was so good, wouldn't she have realized she was being dumped as the co-host of ABC This Week and done something to keep that job?

Rebecca e-mailed me that she thought Cokie was the Rona Barrett of NPR and I have to agree with that. It is like listening to a gossip maven as opposed to a reporter.

I'm an old woman and Mr. Dvorkin would probably dismiss me as such (though we may be around the same age). But I have children and grandchildren and I do worry about the world they're facing now. I support NPR and will do everything in my power to see that it remains free from attempts to turn it into an opinion-journal. But fighting that fight means also holding NPR accountable for what it is doing on air. (That's in response to a question about what I see my "mission" as.) I've also noted before how much I have received from the community in terms of insight and common sense so I hope I give back a little of that in each post.

With the C.I.A. story, I was specifically thinking back to reports that NPR did, strong reports, on the manipulation and back alley ways of the C.I.A. in the seventies. Maybe you have to be old enough to remember those to raise an eyebrow this week when the two-parter story about a plan, almost four-years-old, airs? Tracey's always after me to be funnier and more of a letz. She'll try to get me to work in some hip lingo or tell a joke she's heard on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. She'll say, "Don't come off like such a mensh." (I don't think she's learned the meanings of some of the Yiddish words she's picked up from me.)

But, to quote her quoting Kat, "It is what it is." I wonder if Kat realizes how popular that saying has become in my family? "The potato salad didn't turn out too good, did it?" "It is what it is."

Gina e-mailed (and I'm assuming it's okay to quote her here) that she really enjoys me adding my two-cents worth. I really enjoy adding it too. Before I started doing this, my children would have to hear from me about Morning Edition each Sunday at lunch. Now they're usually saying, "Mama, you got that right this week" or "Mama, you were so wrong." It's really nice to have this outlet (in answer to another question).

One of my favorite features at The Common Ills is when members sound off or ask questions. If I'd prepared ahead of time, I would have gotten permission from everyone who wrote so that I could name them here. But when I was reading over the e-mails, I realized this would be a nice thing to focus on and plunged right in. If you could note if you want to be named, I'll do that next time I do a response to the e-mails.