Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Ruth's Year End Report

Ruth: I rewrote this entry repeatedly and continued to say to C.I., "Wait!" But this morning, I thought I had it completed. Then Tracey told me the year-in-review was up and while we were reading it together C.I. phoned and said, "I'm going to sleep but if you want to revise you've got until midnight your time if you need it."

So I will take another crack at summing up 2005. In
the year-in-review, Charlie had some kind words for my contributions to the community. I thank him for that. I was also delighted by Eddie, Rachel, Micah, Mia, Jonah, Ned, Doug, Cindy and Susan selection of Pacifica as the network, television or radio, of the year. As they note, Pacifica provided live coverage of the John Conyers Jr. hearing on the Downing Street Memo and on the John Roberts Jr. confirmation hearings. While NPR, which did not receive a single honor, could not break away from their canned programming, Pacifica demonstrated that they are community radio repeatedly.

Hurricane Katrina was not tucked into existing programs in a brief soundbyte by
Pacifica. They provided special programming on it and they addressed in their regular programs as well. NPR was late in grasping that Katrina was a story and, once they did grasp that, they largely provided what my grandson Jayson called "shout outs."

KPFA's The Morning Show, Andrea Lewis and Philip Maldari can interview a book author or a music artist but they can do so within the context of events of the day. When I noted that Terry Gross' Fresh Air on NPR had little to say about the war or events we face today, the e-mails poured in. I kept waiting for the one that would defend Ms. Gross and her program but there were none. "Artsy fartsy" was the kindest remark anyone offered for the apparently Not So Fresh Air. Ms. Gross is a talented conversationalist and the editors for that show work very hard to provide the appearence of a seamless discussion; however, in recent years the topics have steered to a set group and, as George noted, there is a tendency for Ms. Gross to attempt to prove she is the smartest person in the world with her references and factoids. She has become a kinder and gentler version of John McLaughlin.

I would place money on Andrea Lewis being as informed as Terry Gross but Ms. Lewis never comes off as wielding her knowledge as a blunt instrument to strike guests and listeners over the head with. She seems genuinely interested not only in an author, for instance, coming off well but in what they are saying.

Today's Fresh Air is a good argument for NPR to install a mandatory retirement system for their programming. It has become an institution with little ability to surprise or entertain at present. Ms. Gross is talented but watching her continue to do the same routine year after year might have led someone to wonder if her talents would not be better utilized in a different format?

In All About Eve, Margot Channing, played by Bette Davis, is preparing for a play entitled Aged In Wood. "Aged in Wood" is an apt description for today's NPR. The majority of the programs sound like someone figured out what would cause the least offense and created a playbook under which they all operate. While Ms. Gross or Diane Rhem's talents can sometime redeam their own programs, there is little hope for Talk of The Nation, All Things Considered and Morning Edition which play like the same program geared towards different hours. Talk of The Nation tosses out a little more attitude, especially on Fridays; however, they are the same shows with many of the same guests, making the same points, utilzing similar annoying bumper music. Aged In Wood.

Rachel e-mailed me to ask if the bulk of the programming on NPR was pre-recorded? I do not know the answer to that but it certainly sounds as if that is the case for any NPR program not featuring call ins from listeners. Rachel wrote of her enjoyment, she listens to Pacifica's
WBAI, at hearing the hosts think on their feet when a technical glitch occurs live. I honestly believe that anyone who listens to radio pays attention, if not enjoys, those moments because they demonstrate whether or not the host is able to perform without a safety net.

Democracy Now!, which the community rightly picked as the best newscast, airs live online and then replays on various
Pacifica stations. It can be considered "live to tape" in its radio broadcasts and one expects that reality from a news program. Gaskateers Steve Inskeep and Renee Montaigne might actually demonstrate real personality, and abandon their "jokes" and silly patter, if they were "live to tape." On a good morning, the Gaskateers appear to have crammed hard for a single topic but you never have the feeling that they care about a story in the manner in which Amy Goodman or Juan Gonzales does.

Perhaps they feel they are being "objective" in that regard? If they feel they are being "professional" they might want to drop the jokes about how well paid, for instance, Ms. Montaigne is?

The "professionalization" of NPR is something I have heard slowly take place since the network's inception. 2005 demonstrated all the problems of that goal as they rushed to prove their "objectivity" by giving more air time to a man holding a counter-demonstration, which was poorly attended as predicted, in support of the Bully Boy to the many events that were taking place in DC to protest the war in September.

How much the repeated attacks on NPR have played into that is something I wonder about. Listening to
Pacifica in 2005, I was reminded of the first moments of NPR and the hopes that so many of my friends and I had for the network. We thought NPR truly would present voices that were not already chewing up time on the television networks and that serious topics could be explored. Those hopes faded some time ago and not just because, each Monday, Morning Edition features the conventional wisdom of Cokie Roberts.

Would the Watergate hearings air live on NPR today? Possibly if the TV networks were also airing them live. That appears to have become the standard NPR aspires to, "Are we doing what the commercial TV networks are doing?"

If NPR was Aged In Wood in 2005,
Pacifica truly was Fresh Air. It was exciting to read the year-in-review and note a quote from one of the programs or to see a mention of one.

Are we getting the word out enough? Perhaps that can be one of our resolutions for 2005?

As I stumble around trying to figure out my iPod, one thought usually pops up and it is the reach that anyone, technology permitting, can listen to
Pacifica. During all the years I listened to NPR and prior to the creation of NPR, Pacifica was out there. The network consists of five "Sister Stations" and over sixty "Affiliate Stations" that broadcast over the airwaves. Via the internet, you do not need to live in the immediate area of any of the stations. Technology, a frequent foe of mine, allows the network to have global reach.

I learned of the network through this site, evidence that an old dog can learn new tricks, which is an example of word of mouth. I should note that my friend Treva has known of the network for years and repeatedly sang the praises of
Pacifica. But during that time, I thought of it as something a few lucky people in a designated area could receive.

As we all look back on 2005, the year-in-review demonstrates that a number of members, hopefully a very significant number, are utilizing
Pacifica regularly. Support of our independent media can come in the form of money and I do hope that members in the position to donate do; however, support takes other forms as well. If you have ever tried a recipe a friend passed on or gone to see a film that someone you know could not stop talking about, you know the power of word of mouth. So in 2006, I hope we can work to increase the word of the mouth.

As C.I. pointed out last week, Media Matters has beefed up their NPR coverage. Their focus is on party politics at Media Matters and I am not sure that some areas will be covered such as the NPR segment that, according to Morning Edition, resulted in a large number of complaints and that, in terms of members of this community, resulted in many e-mails. I am referring to their infamous "More female babies are being born than males! It's a crisis!" report that they attempted to clean up a bit with a response and then a later report but which only made for a bigger mess.

As Ms
. recently noted in their current issue, a new trend story is, my wording, "More female college graduates than males! It's a crisis!" So obviously this alarmist talk, that is never "news" when it works the other way and men benefit, exists on many levels. Outside of stumbling upon a "report" such as that from NPR, in 2006, I want to do my part to get the word out on Pacifica.
So having noted problems with NPR, and applauded some of their successes, in 2005, my desire is to focus on highlighting
Pacifica programs that speak to the community. Along with Media Matters, FAIR regularly highlights errors and problems with NPR and I can and will certainly note those, especially when they are reported on FAIR's CounterSpin.

When NPR was under threat, I once again rallied behind them in 2005. Rebecca's attitude was one of "why bother" and I was surprised by that at the time. I was aware that there were divisions on NPR within the community and C.I. did take great strides to highlight pro and con views. But in the time since Kenneth Tomlinson has walked off the national stage, I have reaquainted myself with a familiar feeling. It is the feeling I often forget until it walks up and greets me with, "You again."

The feeling is one of feeling, honestly, manipulated. "We must save NPR!" comes the cry. The response on the left, I'm sure there are those on the right who rally as well but that is not my focus, we rush in to save NPR. After each "save," the reality sinks in that NPR is happy to have us rush to its defense, it is just not happy to program for us. That is obvious in the choice of guests and not merely in terms of the political nature of the guests but also in terms of the ranks they come from. Where is the public in NPR's public radio?

It was created, as was PBS, to provide an alternative to commercial broadcast media. It was supposed to allow topics that were not being covered by the commercial media, out of fear of lost revenues or lack of interest, to be explored. Today both NPR and PBS feature commercials though they do not call them as such. Both feature a very limited public dialogue.

So it is the come down that greets me again. The voice that points out nothing changed in the programming. "War Got Your Tongue?" is a wonderful editorial and, to apply it to NPR, one has to wonder how they served the public debate when we are almost three years into a war and they have failed to provide a true debate on the issue.

NPR might argue that they have provided reporting. I would offer that they have provided some reporting. But NPR was not created just to provide the news summaries and occasional bit of reporting. It was created to aid the national discussion. They do not a report from Camp Casey, for instance, to provide a forum for pro-war and anti-war voices. That could have been done before Cindy Sheehan and it could be done now. If NPR was truly interested in living up to its mission statement, it should have provided something more than soundbyte reporting or noting this poll or that expressing the sentiments of the nation.

Terry Gross, for instance, could have provided some truly Fresh Air by hosting an on air debate that included non-elected, non-appointed people discussing the war, pro and con. Where has that debate been aired on NPR?

NPR might argue that they provid a forum for partisan journalists from time to time. That is true. From their narrow rolodex, they do invite certain individuals. Tracey and I were both surprised, happily, that Katrina vanden Heuvel popped up on NPR in December. Ms. vanden Heuvel is both a hero and a role model for my granddaughter. As important as that is to me, and it is important to me, I did not rally to the cause of NPR yet again in the hopes that they might find a way to provide one guest who did not fit their usual profile.

More importantly, NPR stands for National Public Radio. It does not stand for National Journalist Radio. So even though it is a good thing that Katrina vanden Heuvel was given some air time, the issue of where the public is in the debate on the war is still one that has not been given airtime on NPR, not with their own voices.

In the year-in-review, so many of you noted war resistors. You heard them interviewed by Amy Goodman or Matthew Rothschild. Though some NPR stations may air the programs, those are not programs produced by NPR. The enlisted who are choosing not to serve in this war, regardless of whether you back them as I do or not, are news. Public radio should provide their voices and their stories to their listeners. "Professionalism" and "objectivity" does not translate to "We will not provide these stories." It may translate to, "We will not take sides on the issue."

But by not providing those voices air time, NPR does take a side on the issue. In the sixties, Al Capp loved to mock Joan Baez and others in his comic strip. I knew some on the right who enjoyed that. I assume some on the right would enjoy mocking a Camilo Mejia if NPR provided him with a forum. I can imagine that they would spend the bulk of their week telling their friends about the "crazy" character that they heard interviewed on NPR.

But they do not get to hear those voices beyond "reports." The only exception I am aware of to that is when Tony Cox spent ten minutes addressing the case of Camilo Mejia in March of 2004. For that discussion there were a number of voices including one unindentfied enlisted male who was considering seeking conscience objector status. That aired on The Tavis Smiley Show which NPR parted ways with in December of 2004. Mr. Cox and the various guests did a fine job exploring the topic but it was ten minutes, minus the introduction and conclusion, and it only took place on one show. We are now two months shy of three years since Iraq was invaded.

If only as grist for their humor, those who support the war are deprived of key stories which, by some principle guiding factor at NPR, fail to qualify as worthy of exploration. Mr. Mejia and others do matter. But their stories cannot be summed up merely via a soundbyte from them in a report from an "objective" NPR reporter. Their stories and those of people who feel differently than they do go to the sort of "public affairs" programming that NPR is supposed to be providing.

NPR is not supposed to be a radio equivalent of CNN. It was created to provide a forum for the voices and views that the mainstream media did not cover. Just as PBS has gotten very good about passing off infomericals to plug a "financial expert" and her wares, books, tapes and videos, as "public affairs" programming, NPR has gotten very good about allowing Ms. Gross and her interviews with artists and writers to pass for "public affairs" programming. Public affairs goes beyond that and beyond antiquing and auto repair.

I do not question that there is a place for those sort of programs, exempting the informericals, but I do ask what else they have to offer?

Pacifica is offering more than that. They did broadcast a debate on the war, for instance. Some listeners may have agreed with the pro-war argument and some may have agreed with the anti-war argument but, most importantly, they were able to hear it. For any listener attempting to sort out where they stand on the war, he or she was provided with impassioned arguments on both sides.

There is nothing "objective" or "professional" that prevents NPR from doing similar programming. More to the point, their mission statement indicates that they should be doing that programming.

So, short of a deluge of e-mails objecting to my decision, in 2006, I would prefer to focus on the programs that are taking part in the discussions that matter to our lives and leave NPR to the strong hands of
Media Matters and FAIR. If that is something which we can agree on as a community, we can roll up our sleeves and focus on getting the word out on Pacifica Radio.