It’s Not looking Like Public Radio Will Be Part of the Solution

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3MinnPost has discontinued media coverage, so I’m no longer covering stories like this. But if I were, this one would be a fat target.

Here’s the link to a Daily Beast story.

Essentially an employee of the radio show Marketplace, which is a production of St. Paul-based American Public Media (APM), a sister network of Minnesota Public Radio, Wallace wrote on his private blog about coping professionally — as a journalist — with the new realities of our current Trump era. This did not sit well with American Public Media, and he (a transgender guy, no less) was eventually fired.

Says the Daily Beast story: “According to Wallace’s account, he was told that his blog post violated Marketplace’s code of ethics because he questioned the way that journalistic ideals like ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ can be abused by people and organizations who don’t believe in facts or who hold ‘morally reprehensible’ positions like white supremacy. Wallace also wrote that journalists shouldn’t care if they are labelled ‘politically correct’ or ‘liberal’ for simply ‘reporting the facts’.”

APM seemed particularly upset with Wallace’s assertion that “neutrality” is itself an act of strategic political positioning, usually to avoid the appearance of (liberal) bias and avoid conflict with audiences and advertisers/underwriters. Journalistic “neutrality” is the semi-mythical realm where journalists do not make judgments on what they are reporting, which is to say specifically pointing out “errors of fact”, “falsehoods” and “lies”,

Said Wallace, ” … can people of color be expected to give credence to ‘both sides’ of a dispute with a white supremacist, a person who holds unscientific and morally reprehensible views on the very nature of being human? Should any of us do that? Final note here, the ‘center’ that is viewed as neutral can and does shift; studying the history of journalism is a great help in understanding how centrism is more a marketing tactic to reach broad audiences than actual neutrality. Many of the journalists who’ve told the truth in key historical moments have been outliers and members of an opposition, here and in other countries. And right now, as norms of government shift toward a ‘post-fact’ framework, I’d argue that any journalist invested in factual reporting can no longer remain neutral.”

The response from APM was entirely predictable. “American Public Media communications director Angie Andresen told The Daily Beast in a statement: ‘Like most employers, we don’t discuss personnel matters about current or former employees. We value our strong ethics and political activity guidelines. They are designed to allow us to fulfill our commitment to independent and objective reporting. Diversity is a hallmark and strength of Marketplace. We do not discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression’.”

It’s safe to say “diversity” is not the central issue here. Rather it is … a low-level employee, on his private blog, saying something — well worth a broad public discussion — that might possibly, in some way shape or form create an issue for APM.

As the Daily Beast story notes, this comes on the heels of another telling example of public radio’s squishiness. On the topic of full and fearless reporting of what is arguably the biggest story any journalist has covered in their lifetime, namely the installation of a White House administration that has no qualms about lying as matter of routine, not to mention simultaneously vilifying the press for its “fakery”, National Public Radio reasserted its determination to proceed as if nothing has been disrupted.

In a New York Times piece Jan. 25 on the ethical bona fides of Michael Oreskes, NPR’s Senior President for News was quoted (from an internal statement) saying of the use of the word “lie” to describe Trump’s behavior, “the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.”

Which is another way of saying, “There is a risk there.”

Yeah, the world is full of risk.

It may be true that calling out Trump will push some people away. But I doubt Oreskes or anyone else at APM has any metrics to prove it, much less research to show that the kind of aggressive reporting on Trump shown on a near daily basis now by The New York Times (which just reported a surge in on-line subscriptions) may be precisely what a literate, involved and duly outraged audience expects of it at this very minute.

Oeskes is no doubt worried. All public radio has to feel imperiled by Trump’s threats to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, something that could very well happen given the lack of counter-punch from Congressional liberals. The less aggressive NPR is with Trump the less likely they’ll feel the budget axe. Or so they may think.

The APM sacking of heretofore anonymous Mr. Wallace is part and parcel of the point I was making in my previous post, built around the commentary the Strib wouldn’t run on precisely this kind of hidebound timidity and misreading of consumer sentiment. Mainstream news organizations, fond of an “above the fray”, “this too shall pass” attitude toward outbursts of cultural extremism, are risking alienating a key audience/customer base by not adjusting and stepping up to this very large and unprecedented fight.

And they don’t want to talk about it.

10 thoughts on “It’s Not looking Like Public Radio Will Be Part of the Solution

  1. Brian, I didn’t know Minnpost had discontinued media coverage. I’ve been a fan of your columns for years. I would think we need critical coverage of media now more than ever!

    • Well, you can always write and tell them that. Their problem is that most of their “beats” have a dedicated funding stream from some foundation or such. Media did not. (They also might have just gotten sick of me.) It goes without saying neither newspaper sees any value in media coverage … at least as anything other than entertainment news.

  2. Very informative article and thanks for circulating it. One off note in the Daily Beast post — the reference to NPR’s Oreskes. I heard the interview last week where he made that statement. I wanted to dislike NPR’s position, but I think it made sense: In context, what he was saying is they’ll expose and “brand” falsehoods, but the word “lie” requires knowledge of the speaker’s intent, and they have no way of reading minds, whether Trump’s or anyone else’s. As a former journo and media consumer, that doesn’t outrage me, nor does it merit a blast at NPR as afraid of Trump. Having said that, I don’t see NPR doing enough enterprise and investigative reporting of Trump, but that’s another story, off the topic of neutrality etc.

    • Rick: Yeah, it’s a perfectly arguable point. But what I find interesting is this from the rest of the Times piece: “Editors at The Times also consulted dictionaries. And they had some prior experience with the matter, having approved the use of the L word once before in reference to Mr. Trump.

      In September, when he grandly announced the findings of a yearslong so-called investigation into what nearly everyone else never doubted — “President Obama was born in the United States, period” — The Times published a Page 1 article with the headline “Trump Gives Up a Lie but Refuses to Repent.”

      Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said that he learned of Mr. Trump’s latest comments in a text message from an editor on Monday night. After consulting with other top editors, he decided that the use of “lie” was warranted.

      For Mr. Baquet, the question of intent was resolved, given that Mr. Trump had made the same assertion two months earlier through his preferred mode of communication, the tweet: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

      (Nota bene: The tweet actually contains what might be considered two untruths — or falsehoods, or erroneous assertions, or bogus claims — since Mr. Trump’s victory was no landslide, but among the closer elections in American history.)

      Mr. Baquet said he fully understood the gravity of using the word “lie,” whether in reference to an average citizen or to the president of the United States. He emphasized that it should be used sparingly, partly because the term carries such negative connotations, and partly so that it does not lose potency.

      “On the other hand, we should be letting people know in no uncertain terms that it’s untrue,” Mr. Baquet said, referring to the president’s assertion of a voter-fraud epidemic. “He repeated it without a single grain of evidence, and it’s a very powerful statement about the electoral system.”

      Baquet’s thinking seems based on a common sense perspective of “intent”. A bit like knowing pornography when you see it, eventually it is clear to any functioning adult that the person in question is lying.And “lying” is the most direct, specific and common way to describe behavior most of us are familiar enough with in our daily lives. But I agree with the admonition to use it “sparingly” so as not to lose its “potency”.

      Beyond that, you’re right. It isn’t simply the use of one word. It is the lack of a consistent, aggressive approach to reporting the truth regarding all manner of outrageous “falsehoods.”

  3. Looks like we’re down to Bob Collins and his NewsCut blog. The crusty old editor has his own take on what and what isn’t good journalism, but he can get a little defensive when the critique hits too close to home. As we all get, I suppose. Jason DeRusha will opine on media issues from time to time as well. Still, that’s not the same as a media beat, is it?

  4. Well, we’re going to have spring weather soon, thanks to Republican-enabled global warming, and I for one am eager to grab some picket signs and establish a presence anywhere near our local media collaborationist corporations. If there are enough of us, we’ll create a story about their refusal to call a liar what he is. Like the birther fable but in reverse—get the message reported despite their qualms. Also, I’m in favor of nonviolently besieging schools of journalism and confronting their students, especially, and also their staff, with the challenge of whether to resist or collaborate–because one cannot morally remain neutral at this critical point in history.

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