Off-duty reporters, political rallies and NPR (II)

Management digs in deeper while still not explaining why off-duty reporters can’t attend and observe without participating. Will the next memo outline how much distance you have to keep from the crowd if you’re heading out for a carton of milk? And will the distance be measured in yards or meters?

Off-duty reporters, political rallies and NPR

What does it mean to “participate” in a rally? It’s a question I’m asking myself after reading a memo from NPR management (via Romenesko) warning journalists to stay away from the Oct. 30 rallies being organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo, from senior vice president for news Ellen Weiss, includes this:

NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John [sic] Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.

Most of Weiss’ admonitions are a matter of common sense. Journalists should not put bumper stickers on their cars, donate money to political candidates or do anything else that would amount to political involvement. But if I were an off-duty NPR reporter, I’d be offended at being ordered not to attend a rally, whether it be Colbert’s “Keep Fear Alive” event or Glenn Beck’s recent gathering.

Good journalists want to check things out whether they’re working or not. There’s a proper role for a reporter on a busman’s holiday, and it neither requires staying home nor involves waving fists and posters while chanting along with the crowd.

It’s called attending, observing, learning.

From NPR, clarity on the Bush tax cuts

Kudos to NPR for airing the first clear, understandable story I’ve come across in the mainstream media on why there’s actually a substantive argument for retaining the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

No doubt you have heard Republicans say that raising taxes on incomes above $200,000 a year ($250,000 for couples) would hurt small businesses, along with the Democratic retort that it would affect barely 2 percent of those businesses. Well, here’s the explanation in a nutshell:

  • The vast majority of small businesses might better be termed micro-businesses. NPR’s examples: “a hot dog vendor, a housecleaner, a guy selling T-shirts on eBay.” Not only do they not make $200,000 a year, but they don’t hire anyone.
  • Small businesses that are substantial enough to hire more than a handful of people are relatively few in number, and make up a large share of the 2 percent cited by Democrats.
  • Many if not most of those small businesses treat their business income as personal income for tax purposes. So, yes, raising taxes on incomes above the $200,000 threshold could very well harm their ability to invest and hire new employees.

Even so, the NPR story notes there’s a strong case to be made that small businesses would benefit far more from targeted measures than from retaining the Bush tax cut.

Bottom line: I learned something important I didn’t know about a much-debated public-policy issue. Isn’t that what journalism is for?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Daniel Schorr, 1916-2010

Schorr (left) and Simon

NPR commentator Daniel Schorr has died at the age of 93. A legendary reporter who was on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, lost his job at CBS News after he leaked classified information and then reinvented himself at an age when most people would have been content to retire, Schorr was among the last living journalists to have covered the post-World War II reconstruction of Europe.

Schorr’s days as a working reporter were over before I had started paying attention to the news, but I enjoyed his sharp, intelligent commentaries on NPR. At one time he sounded so weak that I wondered how much longer he could continue. But despite his age, seemed to recover his strength during the past couple of years.

He was on the air as recently as July 10, talking with “Weekend Edition” host Scott Simon about the U.S.-Russian spy swap and President Obama’s visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Here’s what Schorr said about the delicate state of U.S.-Israeli relations:

Neither can afford to be very long on bad terms with the other because of their domestic constituencies. And so, they have problems. And I’m sure the problems in private are discussed at much greater length than they do in public. But in the end, it’s likely they’ll come back together again, because they are condemned to be good friends.

Schorr may well have been the last journalist alive who had been recruited to CBS News by the legendary Edward R. Murrow. His death marks not just the passing of a fine reporter, but of a piece of history as well.

WGBH acquires WCRB Radio

This press release literally just came in. I’ll be talking about it tonight at 7 p.m. on “Greater Boston” (WGBH-TV, Channel 2). The full text of the release follows.

Public service broadcaster WGBH today announced plans to acquire New England’s leading all-classical music station WCRB 99.5fm from Nassau Broadcasting Partners of New Jersey. The terms of the agreement have not been disclosed pending filing with the FCC.

WCRB is a 27,000-watt station, deeply rooted in the Boston region, serving audiences for more than 60 years with a broad reach in New England, drawing some 340,000 loyal listeners each week. WGBH is uniquely poised to operate WCRB, with its extensive classical music programming experience, its state-of-the-art Fraser Performance Studio, and its strong alliance with Boston’s premier classical performing organizations, artists and audiences. With WCRB added to WGBH’s radio services — 89.7FM in Boston, and WCAI and WNCK on the Cape and Islands — WGBH will serve listeners from Cape Cod to New Hampshire, adding renewed vigor to the cultural economy of the region.

“An opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime. The acquisition of WCRB by WGBH signals a new era for the Boston broadcast landscape, and for our city’s renowned classical music tradition,” said WGBH Board Chair Amos Hostetter. “WGBH’s depth of experience, demonstrated leadership in radio, and commitment to excellence will bring a new level of service to this market.”

“From its very first broadcast, WGBH radio has provided audiences with the best in classical music and performance. Today we are excited to reinvest in this tradition for a new generation of listeners,” said WGBH President and CEO Jonathan Abbott. “The acquisition of WCRB will allow WGBH to sustain the vibrant classical music tradition of the Boston area.”

WGBH will finance the purchase with a special capital campaign, Keep Classical Alive, inviting both major donors and grassroots supporters to participate and become founding members of its all-classical service. Although WCRB is licensed as a commercial frequency, WGBH plans to operate the station as a non-commercial service in keeping with its mission to provide public media service for audiences in the greater Boston area. Over the coming months WGBH will fine-tune the formats of both WGBH 89.7 and WCRB 99.5 to create lineups that are complementary.

“Preserving WCRB’s heritage as one of the country’s premiere classical radio stations was an important objective for Nassau. We are extremely pleased that WGBH will be continuing this heritage and are confident in their future stewardship of such an important Boston tradition,” said Lou Mercatanti, Chairman and President of Nassau. “This is a win for everyone — most especially our loyal listeners.”

Since the 1950s WGBH has taken advantage of Boston’s vital classical music tradition. From its debut broadcast from Symphony Hall in 1951, classical music and performance have been a hallmark of WGBH’s service, featuring the region’s world-class orchestras, artists and conservatories. It has partnered with music organizations both large and small, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Handel & Haydn Society, to the New England String Ensemble and the Boston Children’s Chorus. It has nurtured young musicians with school enrichment programs, and helped launch emerging artists.

“This is a truly exciting development. Classical music is part of our common world heritage, and as such it is in the public interest for an institution like WGBH to make sure our voices are sustained and celebrated,” said cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “As both a performer and a listener I applaud WGBH for making this significant investment in our community to ensure that the classical music genre will remain alive and well on Boston radio.”

“This is great news for music and arts education,” said Linda Nathan, co-headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy. “Keeping classical music vibrant is an extremely important resource to enhance learning. WGBH’s new service will further enrich the educational experience for students of all ages.”

“For more than 50 years WGBH and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have partnered to further the cause of classical music in Boston and beyond,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe. “With facilities that provide unmatched technical excellence for recording and broadcasting live performance, WGBH is uniquely positioned to bring heightened awareness of the beauty and power of classical music. All of us at the BSO are excited by the possibilities resulting from WGBH’s acquisition of WCRB.”

In addition to live radio broadcasts, WGBH has been a pioneer in moving classical music onto new platforms, with live streaming, an all-classical HD channel, podcasts and mobile applications. The acquisition of WCRB will greatly enhance these efforts to serve new audiences on a broad array of distribution platforms in New England and beyond.

WGBH was represented in the transaction by Public Radio Capital.

NPR ombudsman Shepard responds

NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has responded to my item of last week in which I criticized her for defending NPR’s policy of refusing to refer to waterboarding as “torture.” She writes:

Yes, President Obama and AG Eric Holder have said that waterboarding was torture. I’d personally call it torture. But if you were an editor at the Globe, would you say that someone tortured another person? Or would you want to use a direct or indirect quote, i.e., “John Smith said the guard tortured him”?

I’m not trying to say what is and is not torture, but is every abuse classified as torture now or are there degrees? When a police officer throws a suspect to the ground and handcuffs them, is that torture or simply abuse?

Would it be better to, say, describe the technique and then say some call it torture? I do not think enhanced interrogation techniques is acceptable either. That’s why I come down on describing the technique and adding that some call it torture.

Shepard asks, so I’ll attempt a few answers.

I’m not sure what Shepard thinks there is to gain by skiing down the slippery slope from waterboarding to getting rough with a suspect during an arrest. In my original item, I strictly limited my remarks to waterboarding, recognized as torture by just about everyone on the planet.

The opinions of Obama and Holder are entirely unnecessary to determining whether waterboarding is torture.

As John McCain and others have pointed out, the United States executed several Japanese military officers for waterboarding American prisoners of war after World War II. And as I wrote last week, if NPR really can’t bring itself to use the T-word, perhaps it can describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

So yes, if I were an editor at the Boston Globe, you’re damn right I would refer to waterboarding as torture. That seems about as solid as referring to oil as a fossil fuel, or baseball as a sport. By eschewing the term “torture” to describe a practice that the entire international community regards as such, NPR is not being neutral. Rather, it is embracing a euphemism that places the network squarely on the side of the torturers and their enablers.

NPR should not use enhanced interrogation techniques on the English language.

Thursday update: I was not as precise as I wanted to be when I wrote about “everyone on the planet,” as I was in a rush and had lousy Internet access. Last week, Bob Garfield of “On the Media” interviewed Shepard and made the point I was trying to make:

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights says that waterboarding is torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross have called what the U.S. did “torture.” Waterboarding is unambiguously in violation of the International Convention on Torture, which has been ratified by 140-some countries.

The United States is among those 140 countries, but, as the Associated Press reported in 2002, the Bush administration sought to block enforcement of the measure when inspectors wanted to visit Guantánamo.

Torture is not only a moral problem, but it has a precise legal meaning that most definitely encompasses waterboarding.

Calling torture torture

Alicia Shepard is as sharp a media observer as they come. A longtime writer for the American Journalism Review and the author of “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” she is a serious and respected voice.

That said, I’m scratching my head over how wrong Shepard gets it on NPR’s refusal to use the term “torture” to describe the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced during the Bush years. Shepard, now NPR’s ombudsman, writes:

I recognize that it’s frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric. But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR’s job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context.

Let’s forget “certain practices” and focus on just one: waterboarding, long recognized as torture. In November 2007, Sen. John McCain pointed out that the United States executed Japanese officers after World War II for waterboarding American prisoners of war.

And when McCain was challenged, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site investigated McCain’s assertion. Its conclusion: McCain was right — a number of Japanese officers were hanged, and others were sentenced to long prison terms, because they had engaged in waterboarding.

Shepard writes that rather than describing waterboarding as torture, it makes more sense just to say what happened: “To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization…. A basic rule of vivid writing is: ‘Show, Don’t Tell.'”

All right. Perhaps NPR can eschew the T-word and instead describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

Cutbacks come to NPR

Like a number of media observers, I’m bullish about National Public Radio because (a) its distribution model — reaching people who are stuck in their cars — still works and (b) its nonprofit funding system removes many of the pressures facing for-profit media corporations.

Note that these are organic advantages, having nothing to do with the excellence of its content. Although it’s pretty damn good.

But even non-profits need to make money. So it was inevitable that NPR would suffer cutbacks due to the economic downturn. According to Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, “Day to Day” has been axed, as has “News & Notes,” a program I’m not familiar with that was aimed at African-American audiences. A number of journalists have been laid off as well.

Much as I don’t like to see people lose their jobs, it strikes me that there may have been a little bit of mission creep — or mission bloat — going on here. By far the majority of NPR listeners tune in during drive time, which makes “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” among the most-listened-to radio programs in the country.

As long as those franchises are safe, I’m not too concerned.

Locally, it’s end-of-the-year fundraising time at WBUR (90.9 FM), as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Let’s hope enough money rolls in so that its own franchise shows, “On Point,” “Here and Now” and “Radio Boston,” are able to thrive.

Listening in on two war stories

I want to call your attention to two astonishingly good stories I heard on WBUR (90.9 FM) this morning.

The first, from NPR, is about a former marine who married a young Iraqi woman and brought her back home to the Ozarks. It’s a love story, but damned complicated, and no one’s living happily ever after. Listen to it or read it — and click on the photo (or here) for an audio slideshow. The reporter is Ivan Watson and photographer is Paxton Winters.

The second, a local story, is tangentially related — a piece by Monica Brady-Meyerov on Stephen Fortunato, a young Beverly man who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday while
serving in the Army. The audio’s not online yet, but you’ll find it here later today.

Fortunato’s death is receiving respectful and comprehensive coverage elsewhere. Paul Leighton has an outstanding story in the Salem News. In the Boston Globe, John Ellement does a nice job and includes a video. The Boston Herald has fine coverage from Laurel Sweet and Mark Garfinkel. I could go on.

But Brady-Meyerov paints a sound portrait of Fortunato’s family that is worth hearing as a model for radio journalism.