170 Million Americans: Speak Up


OK — so I’m going to be a shill for a minute here: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service (which you may know as “public TV” or “Masterpiece Theatre”), National Public Radio, and local public TV and public radio stations across the country are campaigning to turn back an attempt in Congress to cut public media funding. The move is part of a much larger effort to reduce government spending.

The public media response is called 170 Million Americans. That’s the number of people the CPB says watch public TV, listen to public radio, and use public media digital services each month. That’s a lot of people, more than half of the U.S.A. Public media people–I’m one, as it happens–are urging friends, family, coworkers, passers-by, and complete strangers to let their folks in Congress know how they feel if they value the service we deliver. So consider yourself urged if you’ve read this far. Here’s where to go online if you’re inclined to take action. And if you’re wondering, here’s how public media funding works.

Fuller disclosure: Yes, I work for a public broadcaster, KQED in San Francisco. And I’m responding in part to a call to action from by company’s CEO, and in part to a comment from a usually well-informed friend who said he “wasn’t worried” about the CPB cuts because public financing isn’t all that much of the corporation’s budget. In the case of KQED, we get about $5 million a year in federal support. That’s about 8.5 percent of the company’s annual budget. If you run a business or pay close attention to your household finances, think about what kind of hit that would be. Some public broadcasters–those in smaller markets and rural areas–reportedly get 30 to 50 percent of their funding through federal support. For them, this becomes a life-and-death matter, and for their audiences, it’s a matter of having continued access to a source of diverse news, information, and entertainment programming.

(Click on image for larger version of poster, which has a kind of goofy reference to The Count from “Sesame Street.”)

You’ve Been Warned


This was posted adjacent to the campus of Santa Clara University. We spotted it Saturday night when we were down there to watch soccer with Eamon and Sakura.

Let’s not even talk about what the reaction a poster like this is trying to elicit. Let’s focus on the wording. If prompted, my slogan might be, “Vaccines save lives.” Clearly this local leafleteer is of another mind. Fine–let’s resolve this disagreement in the marketplace of ideas. But here, the pitch isn’t “vaccines may be dangerous” or “Vaccines: use at your own risk”–statements that would probably be attention-getting and may not stray across factual lines. That’s not enough for this broadside, which says flatly “vaccines are poison.” In a world where apparently no one can be trusted to think–hey, which vaccines are we talking about here?–nothing but the most alarmist message will do.

[Update: NPR’s “Morning Edition” did a segment this morning addressing questions about the safety of the new swine flu vaccine. ]

That Day

A semi-annual semi-tradition here, reposting an abridgment of a passage from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that Scott Simon read on NPR the weekend after September 11, 2001:

“I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times;
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm;
How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalk’d in large letters, on a board, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you:
How he follow’d with them, and tack’d with them—and would not give it up;
How he saved the drifting company at last:
How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when boated from the side of their prepared graves;
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men:
All this I swallow—it tastes good—I like it well—it becomes mine;
I am the man—I suffer’d—I was there. …

I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken;
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris;
Heat and smoke I inspired—I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades;
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels;
They have clear’d the beams away—they tenderly lift me forth.
I lie in the night air in my red shirt—the pervading hush is for my sake;
Painless after all I lie, exhausted but not so unhappy;
White and beautiful are the faces around me—the heads are bared of their fire-caps;
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches. …

I take part—I see and hear the whole;
The cries, curses, roar—the plaudits …
Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs … the rent roof—the fan-shaped explosion;
The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air. …

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.”

Polysemy Sunday

NPR broadcast a story this morning reporting that retailers will “pull out all the stops” to move merchandise in this doleful shopping season. The report also assured us that sellers “aren’t pulling any punches” in their attempts to unload inventory.

What sort of stunt is NPR pulling here? The story could have gone much further:

–Merchants will not pull a fast one on customers.
–They are trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Or maybe a hippopotamus.
–They are not, however, pulling our leg. Times are tough.
–We’re all pulling for nour favorite shops to make it through the downturn. Wal-mart does not count as “a shop.”
–They will not pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Except maybe in the hat and scarf department.
–They are trying their hardest to pull this shopping season out of the fire. Those Christmas chestnuts are getting charred.
–You don’t need to have any pull with store employees to get a good deal. Although when did it ever hurt?
–Who can resist the pull of a good sale? I’m stocking up on the buy-one, get-one-free lard bricks.
–Maybe the president will pull rank and order us all to shop. That made our problems go away after 9/11.

Pull yourself together. And once you’ve done that, remember we need to pull. Together. To help the economy pull through.

Keep spending!

National Debut

Last night before leaving the station — KQED in San Francisco — the news desk at NPR in Washington called to ask for a “spot” — a brief story (45 to 60 seconds) for the network’s hourly newscast. They wanted something on our governor ordering a furlough for most state workers — two days a month starting the 1st of February — and a 10 percent pay cut for managers. The order runs through June 30, 2010, and was imposed because the state faces a $42 billion budget deficit between now and then. (Unfortunately, California doesn’t own a printing press to help bail itself out of trouble, and lots of people and institutions are going to pay for the problem we’ve got.)

No one else was available to do the story, so I did it. It consisted of a lead for the NPR anchor to read, a script for me to read, and a soundbite. My understanding was that the 45-second limit was close to absolute. I wrote something that timed at over a minute (the timing was done with me reading the script with a stopwatch running). I hacked 15 or 20 seconds off of that, went to a sound booth, called the NPR editor and read it to him, then recorded myself, added the soundbite, and sent it off to the network.

And that was that. I listened to the newscasts last evening, imagining my little piece would be ringing out over the airwaves. Nothing. I figured other stuff had gotten in ahead of that and put the episode into the valuable experience column.

Then this morning, while we were walking the dog, my sister called from Chicago. “Hey, you have your first groupie,” she said. One of her friends had just called to see if she had some relative who might have had occasion to be on NPR news. As Bozo the clown said once — no, many times — “Hey, that’s me.” So sometime this morning, I made my national debut. Stay tuned for the collectible DVD of the occasion, complete with bonus features, including “The Making of the December 20, 2008, News Brief on California State Employee Furloughs: The True Story.” Autographed, individually numbered, and guaranteed suitable for investment purposes (compared to whatever that Madoff fella sold you.)

Now It’s Done

Last weekend, NPR aired a segment on the Depression-era ballad “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” I’ve heard the song forever; I think my mom and dad had a recording of The Weavers’ Eric Darling singing it. The melancholy in the tune and lyrics always made an impression; and I always felt that my parents had a direct connection to the song, that it was about a time they had lived through. Our very own economic crash prompted NPR to do its piece: online, the segment is titled “A Depression-Era Anthem for Our Times.”

They gave the subject 10 minutes of air time, and used it well. Rob Kapilow, a composer and student of popular song, deconstructed both words and music. His summary: “Lyrically, it’s the entire history of the Depression in a single phrase: ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ”

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Strange Campaign, Stranger Coverage

This has been a strange election season for me. The last couple times around, 2004 and 2006, I did phone-banking and some other volunteer work. That was in large part due to the fact I wasn’t working for any media organizations during those elections. As I’ve been reminded this year, working for a public radio station anxious to maintain its appearance of even-handedness in political coverage, campaigns are off-limits if you’re working in news.

I’ve got all sorts of thoughts about the wisdom of that policy and what it really accomplishes. I’ll try to get back to those by election day. As I said, though, I actually feel like I’ve been missing something this year. Not that I enjoy calling strangers on the phone so much or intruding into their political decisions. But this is a historic election year, one that people will talk about for generations to come. It’s one of those things you want to say you saw, that you were there for.

I had an appointment with my dentist this morning to fix a broken tooth. On the way in, I caught an NPR segment with Juan Williams. NPR calls him an analyst. He also works for Fox News. How NPR tolerates that and what it implies, I don’t know.

The segment involved one of the Morning Edition anchors, Renee Montagne, debriefing Williams about where the campaigns are right now. Sample passages:

MONTAGNE: OK, final week of the campaign. And here is what we’re hearing from John McCain. Two arguments. His criticism of Barack Obama’s tax policies which he says would amount to a socialist redistribution of wealth and – that’s one of them. Let’s start with that. Has it helped him?

WILLIAMS: I think it has. I mean, that’s why we now have Joe the Plumber, that now iconic figure of the campaign, out on the campaign trail for McCain. The argument is coming from McCain that Senator Obama believes that taxes are too low while Senator McCain believes that spending is too high, and secondly that there is this, you know, effort by the Obama team in terms of wealth redistribution. And McCain is saying that is something that punishes success while McCain is one that’s trying to build an economic system, a tax system, that would reward success. So, that has worked with lots of people who are making money and then led to the argument about exactly who McCain’s team wants to give a tax break to.

Wait! She asks him whether the argument that Obama’s proposals amount to a “socialist redistribution of wealth” are working–and he says they have! But read the rest of his answer: He never justifies that anywhere, except to say that Joe the Plumber is now iconic. Williams’s statement that there is an argument about who McCain would give a tax break to is absurd. As Obama says, in one of the few clearly true pieces of campaign rhetoric out there, McCain hung his hat on the Bush tax policy. And there is not much of an argument about who that helps. It ain’t really Joe the Plumber, either.

There’s more:

MONTAGNE: What about the second argument, McCain’s arguing for divided government, basically, yeah, between the Republicans and the Democrats? Any indication that that is affecting how people are thinking about voting?

WILLIAMS: Well, again, we don’t have hard numbers. But what you do see out on the campaign trail is an awareness that you would have Democrats in control across the board: Senate, House, as well as White House. And that argument has picked up steam because the idea is that – you know what? – it’s not so much that Barack Obama would just be president, but that you would have lots of Democratic committee chairmen and officials – specifically the likes of Nancy Pelosi, someone who’s always been, I think, demonized by the Republicans – in charge pushing very liberal policies on a very liberal president. That argument you hear all over the campaign trail.

Notice that Williams doesn’t even try to put this Democratic Domination argument in McCain’s mouth. He puts it out there himself as something you “see out on the campaign trail.” And it is “picking up steam.” In a world awash with hard numbers on the race, he can’t find any, or he lacks the wit to interpret them. Amidst his characterization of the “likes of Nancy Pelosi,” “very liberal policies,” and “a very liberal president,” he doesn’t even try to answer the question — which was how McCain’s tactic is affecting voters. So, Montaigne had to ask it again, and he was forced to answer. Lamely:

MONTAGNE: But you say people are swayed by that?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know that they’re swayed by it. What is evident is that the McCain campaign believes, Renee, that they can use that argument to sway votes in these final days before the election. So they believe it is effective.

Juan wasn’t done analyzing. Montaigne asked him about Obama’s TV spot for Wednesday night. Again, he takes his time getting around to the answer:

WILLIAMS: You know, this is so rare, Renee. You got to go back to Ross Perot to see anything like it. And of course, the amount of money being spent is so stunning, it just knocks your socks off. But that’s because Barack Obama has raised a stunning amount of money, and he has it to spend. There’s some criticism within the Democratic ranks that he’s not using that money to help people down the ticket. It’s all about Barack Obama at this point.

And what he wants to say to the American voter is so, well, prosaic. I mean, he’s just going to say, I’m someone you can trust, I’m someone you know. Don’t believe all these arguments about my character. I’m someone that will lead America successfully. I’m a patriot. He wants to deliver on that basic promise that he can lead America and say he’s presidential.

What a performance. What an embarrassment. The way I heard the entire segment, he went out of his way to sideswipe Obama by merely repeating the McCain campaign’s doggerel with no pretense of analysis. And then, sight unseen, he pans Obama’s performance as “so prosaic.” Not a word of criticism for the ridiculous suggestions that Obama’s policies represent socialism. Not a finger lifted to weigh the impact of McCain and Palin’s campaign of untruths. Not an ounce of intellectual energy expended to put the campaign in any kind of historical perspective at this juncture.

This guy’s dignified as a journalist, dressed up with the title analyst, and handed a supposedly neutral national platform to offer one campaign’s take on the opponent. No one calls him on it on the air. And I’m supposed to sweat the ethical implications of some grass-roots campaign work?

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