I was one of those on-air personalities pitching for public radio over the past two weeks. Next to my animals, public broadcasting is probably my biggest passion. Now that most of the airways seem to have been taken over by people who don’t know what an indoor voice sounds like and who do not so much want to report the news as shout their version of reality, public broadcasting has come to seem like a Mecca of sanity in a world gone mad.
As I sat at the board waiting for my turn to pitch, I ruffled through some of the cheat sheets provided to help volunteers know what to say when the red light comes on. Believe it or not, no matter how smooth and Tom Brokaw-ish you sound while standing in front of your mirror holding your brush as a microphone, when confronted by an actual live mike, a lot of us go dumb. The cards help us find the words that fled our minds.
One of the cards stated that journalism is the only profession specifically protected in the Constitution. It’s right there in the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee. Apparently our Founding Fathers thought that a free exchange of questions, ideas and information between those who would represent us and those who would be represented was critical to the functioning of a democracy.
Unfortunately, some of us mistake the screamers and shouters on TV and radio cable news as journalists. They aren’t. Much of cable news doesn’t so much report the day’s events as they report what they think you should think of those events. They skew the news to fit their beliefs. This is clearly evident if you listen to just about any news show on Fox and compare it to a program like All Things Considered.
The reason Walter Cronkite’s declaration that America could not win the war in Vietnam made such headlines was because it was such an extreme and radical break from what a newscaster was supposed to do. He was not supposed to do commentary. He was supposed to report the news. Back in antediluvian times, there was an actual separation between commentators, analysts and reporters.
Once that line got blurred by the need of cable news channels to fill 24 hours of time with something that would not cause us all to fall off the couch in boredom, it became harder and harder to find a place where a journalist understood his or her role was limited to reporting facts and not offering opinions. News broadcasts melded into something not quite news and not quite commentary. Any pretense at objectivity was lost in the shuffle.
The recent flap over the firing of Juan Williams is a provocative example of this blurring. For many, Williams’ statement that seeing people in Muslim garb on airplanes made him nervous was merely an iteration confirming what many feel but are afraid to say aloud. Clearly many believed that because he was not saying it in his role as a news analyst on NPR but as a panelist on a Fox show, it was his right to state his opinion.
The problem, as NPR saw it, was that most people associate Williams with news analysis on NPR broadcasts. They apparently cringed at the thought that this statement would in some way be associated with NPR.
Unfortunately, this leaves us in a position where NPR comes off as the thought police and Williams comes off as a journalist shut down for expressing something many of us have probably thought, even if we feel shame for having that thought.
In my mind, that is exactly why, instead of terminating Williams, NPR should have raised the topic with him on a show that would have allowed a reasonable and open exploration of the issue. Because, quite frankly, more Americans than would care to admit it have probably at some point looked around at fellow air passengers and exhaled, if only just a little, when they saw none clearly identifiable as Muslim.
It’s a topic that deserves a sane, reasonable and balanced discussion if we are ever to understand why those moments occur and why they feel so wrong. And if that is not the definition of what public broadcasting should be doing, I don’t know what is.