Monday, July 17, 2006

The Highs and Lows of Public Radio

PD metro columnist Regina Brett is filling in this week for the bright and talented Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, as host of WCPN's 90.9 at Nine program, and I'm sorry to report that she isn't exactly setting the world on fire (but then, in the spirit of full disclosure, I've always found her print columns ho hum at best, tiresome at worst). The subject this morning was the statistical disparity between whites and blacks when it comes to death by drowning . So far so good. Only her opening framing language, in which she rhetorically inquired if this is a result of racism (less access to public pools?), set the stage for what could have been a dreary PC-fest. Let's be generous and note that it may well have been the station's producer who came up with this tired angle and not Brett. Incredibly, the online description of the show doesn't even bother with the question mark, simply stating that these racial disparites in drowning deaths are "one of the last vestiges of segregation." Huh? Blacks also experience higher rates of sickle cell anemia and entry into the NBA. Can we expect a show soon on how those, too, are vestiges of racism?

But all was not lost. The sometimes self-correcting beauty of journalism is that in many cases, the interview subjects or some other part of the reporting can get an errant idea back on track. That's precisely what happened here. Brett's first guest, a black swimming instructor for the Red Cross, completely shot down her premise the moment he opened his mouth. Asked if the disparities were a result of racism, he calmly explained that no, it's instead a result of differences in black culture. Most blacks simply don't learn to swim as kids and thus accidentally drown at higher rates.

This episode once more draws attention to a larger problem that continues to dog public radio: a perplexing failure to connect with minority audiences. Just a couple of weeks ago, in a great interview with Tavis Smiley as he was coming through Cleveland to promote his new book, the aforementioned Cindi D-R elicited what I think is Tavis's most detailed and honest explanation yet of why he quit the network some time ago after deciding not to renew his contract. He didn't want to be mere window dressing for NPR's efforts to connect with minority audiences, he said, without real input into how those audiences are catered to. Smiley's loss continues to haunt NPR, which suffers from its obsessive focus on upper-income white baby boomers and a related inability to connect with other audiences, who of course comprise a majority of Americans. And sorry, but patronizing blacks (as this show so nakedly and awkwardly did) won't solve the problem--it only aggravates it. Most black folks I know have even less respect for lazy, PBLG journalism (powered by liberal guilt) than their white counterparts.

In any case, the beauty of NPR is that even when it hits the occasional sour note, you just know something great is sure to follow soon. Sure enough, I happened to be half-listening to the Diane Rehm show an hour later, and heard a great little tidbit that raised my spirits and reminded me why I (along with a few tens of millions of others) love NPR. In an interview with a couple of dueling authors of books on the subject of eating greener, one of the guests said that healthy eating is mostly common sense, and that one should follow the same advice her mother always taught her: to eat the foods found around the edges of the supermarket--the dairy items, fresh meat and poultry and the like--rather than all the heavily processed foods found in the middle. Now that's a driveway moment.


At 6:00 PM, Blogger Jeff Hess said...

Shalom John,

I didn't hear the Brett piece, but I did catch a teaser for it yesterday and my immediate reaction was "who came up with that lame idea?"

On a parallel cultural note, the Talmud teaches (Kiddushim 29a) that a father is to teach his son three things: Torah, a trade and how to swim.



At 6:09 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow! Great addition (as always) to the subject, Jeff. And remember, even bad ideas can be saved through good execution.

At 4:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I’m sure the programs produced and acquired by NPR are aimed at a certain demographic base. From what I understand, only about 15% of NPR’s funding comes from the CPB (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting). The remainder of NPR funding, to produce and acquire programs is supplied by corporate sponsors, foundations and “member stations” (listeners). And only a meager percentage of public radio listeners are also contributors. Even though I’ve never thought of Morning Edition or All Things Considered as news and information suited only for a high-income white demographic, I’d be naïve to think that public radio program managers don’t buy what the “contributors” want, perhaps making this an issue of “follow the money”? I guess we will see how Tavis fares on PRI.

Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

At 5:22 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You're absolutely right about all of the demographic characterization of PBS's audience. But embedded in there is an irony that I suppose I was only getting at by implication. So let me be more explicit. I would argue that this same privileged, educated audience of mostly progressive people cares about their community and their fellow man (woman, boy, girl, etc.) to such an extent that they also should, I would think, resent an otherwise comprehensive news and information source that somehow seems to miss covering huge swaths of the population.

It behooves this audience, as well as those serving their media needs, to regularly give voice to this segment of the population and to try to understand it. Because the world is only becoming more diverse, not less. And if I'm going to pretend to be a well-informed, well-educated citizen, how can I pay attention only to what my sliver of the universe is talking and thinking about? Because no matter what, that sliver is being deeply impacted by what's happening in the rest of the world, and that impact is only growing over time.

Anyway, I'm of course preaching to the choir. I think you understand all this already.

At 8:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tavis Smiley is a careerist. His departure from NPR was more about his career and how much money he could make than anything to do with the nature of NPR.

NPR has a liberal slant but it fails to attend to the major problems of this society which arise from our pervasive corporate culture.

You rarely find anything anti-corporate anywhere in the media. That is a bias against all of us, black and white.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'll only half agree with you about Tavis. Or maybe one-third. Yes, of course he's a tremendous promoter of his career and budding empire, but for as long as I've watched him, he seems to have used that career and empire to do a pretty good job of giving voice to serious minority subjects in whatever media he touches.

As for our pervasive corporate culture--well, I'm afraid that's so pervasive that it sometimes seems like complaining about human nature. It seems easier to understand and adapt to it than to try to change it except around the edges. Obviously your entire life has been about not agreeing with that, which I respect...

At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Would a newspaper that derives significant revenue from weekly real estate ads publish a story about the tips and tricks real estate agents use to "close a deal" (even when they are supposed to be the buyer's agent)? Guess I'm back to following the money and pondering whether any media is truly independent?

Regarding your giving a voice to all members of a community, I'm all for that. Maybe Anderson Cooper can help us out. :) Seriously, how many of us were shocked to discover a few years ago that a US Census report ranked Cleveland the poorest city in America? How many of us were startled to see the numbers of disenfranchised in New Orleans? Yes, I think NPR needs Anderson Cooper.

At 6:07 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

A good, strong newspaper would indeed try to do that, but to your point, sad to say, the number of good newspapers is ever dwindling. And the wall that's supposed to divide the editorial from the advertising sides of the papers grows ever-leakier by the day, often by design. The Chicago Tribune used to go to the lengths of separating the ad and editorial staffs on different floors, with different elevators even (!) to avoid these kinds of conflicts, but that's certainly now a relic of the past, unfortunately.

Historically, I think it's in the auto coverage that you can most clearly see these conflicts at work, and where you can get the best window into the true editorial independence of a paper. That's in part because auto dealers have historically been the least subtle about wielding their influence. And GM was so ham-handed as to pull all its ads from the L.A. Times after a story it didn't like about the company.

As for Anderson Cooper, I understand your point, but would argue that he's a bad example of the larger principle. To me, at least, he represents the trivialization of TV news by glamor and injection of ratings-driven emotion more than he does anything positive. CNN's founder Ted Turner once famously maintained that at his network, the news is the star rather than the anchors or other "personalities." That struck some, including me, as a wonderfully refreshing idea. Also one that unfortunately died with Turner after he sold CNN to Time Warner.

Thanks as always, Anne, for your wonderfully thoughtful insights and reactions. And needless to say, disregard anything I've said here that doesn't ring true for you. Despite my hosting this virtual real estate, my opinions here carry no more weight than they do at my family dinner table, where my teenage boys regularly subject them to verbal bombardment. Which of course is as it should be.

At 8:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree that, "The deed is everything, the glory nothing"-Goethe. I like Anderson because I think his personal fortune allows him to take more risks...(not to be gauche, but I've heard this referred to as the "f you" factor). However, it just occurred to me that our President may be under the influence of the same dynamic. Yikes.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, Anne, good point. We'll give the benefit of the doubt to Cooper. And every writer is, or should be, familiar with the concept of f___ you money, just enough (in our fevered imaginations) to allow us to walk away from whatever we don't want to do, and to instead write whatever we want.

I think you're right about idiot boy George W. Poor guy never had to work for much of anything, and now the whole world is paying for it. Maureen Dowd in today's NYTimes does an especially fine job of roasting his frat boy qualities on the world stage.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

By the way, Anne, do Anderson's blue eyes and prematurely gray hair have anything to do with his appeal for you? Come on, fess up. You're among friends...

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blue eyes, gray hair, no--it was the tears that did it for me. :)

Re: Maureen Dowd, can you link the column?

At 3:00 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Oh, yes. The tears. Sorry to say, Dowd, like all NYT columnists, is now locked behind a paid wall called NYTimes Select, an understandable effort to collect some money from their otherwise freebie web content. But the column will probably be in tomorrow's Plain Dealer, which generally runs them a day later. If all else fails, I'll set aside the hard copy for you.

At 7:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

seems Cindi is another one that has decided to leave WCPN


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