Keeping the “public” in public radio

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that NPR and public radio stations shouldn’t walk away from government funding, even if they don’t need it. For one thing, it would hand the right a victory in the culture wars. For another, it would set a dangerous precedent for public television, which is far more dependent on public money.

NPR goes into damage-control mode over Williams

Juan Williams

After NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller said Juan Williams should keep his feelings about Muslims between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist,” I thought perhaps it was Schiller who ought to schedule some couch time. She apologized, and today she’s in damage-control mode.

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik did something very smart (which I learned about through Jack Shafer’s Twitter feed): he refused to attend an off-the-record staff meeting about Williams’ firing following offensive comments he made on Fox News. Instead, Folkenflik pieced together what happened by interviewing some of those who did attend. Based on Folkenflik’s tweets, Schiller seems to have hit the right notes. (I’m running them in chronological order rather than the usual reverse chrono:

The all-staff meeting was off the record, so I did not attend. However, staffers who did told me the following:

Schiller said decision to give Wms notice was not because of slip of the tongue, but latest in a series of violations of NPR ethics policy

Schiller said it had been raised several times but that he continued to inject personal opinon in his analysis in settings outside NPR.

Schiller said at some point, you have to draw the line. (more)

Though she called it the right decision, Schiller also said NPR did not handle Wms’ ouster well. She promised staffers a “full post-mortem.”

Schiller also said she was ambushed leaving her home by a two-person camera crew identifying itself as being from Fox News.

Over and out.

I feel a little better about this than I did yesterday. Schiller did the right thing for the wrong reason at the wrong time. What’s important is that she knows she blew the handling of it. No way she can undo it — not after Fox News rewarded Williams with a three-year, $2 million deal. But at least she seems determined to make the best of a bad situation. It sounds like she’s adopted the views of NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who writes that “a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.”

Here is our discussion of the Williams matter on tonight’s “Beat the Press.” I’m also quoted in a Christian Science Monitor story on the hazards of straddling the reporter/analyst/commentator divide.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Juan Williams and political correctness

Just a quick observation about NPR’s decision to terminate Juan Williams after he expressed his fear of Muslims on airplanes during an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

To me, Williams was clearly a victim of Rick Sanchez syndrome. That is, Williams was not an asset to NPR, and management was probably happy to stumble upon an excuse to get rid of him. Williams is a supremely uninteresting occasional commentator who will not be missed. What he said was offensive, but if he were a star he’d have been let off with a suspension and an apology.

I’ll add that many people hold the views that Williams expressed. That’s not an excuse. But if NPR hadn’t acted so precipitously, and if Williams were up to the task, Williams might have helped lead a national conversation on the Islamophobia that now pervades this country.

NPR made a mistake in firing Williams, but he should have quietly been let go a long time ago.

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

The Washington Post gets it right — or at least comes closer to getting it right. Michael Calderone reports.

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.