< Journalists are People Too

Transcript

Friday, November 04, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

“Wake up, public media people,” wrote New York University Journalism Professor Jay Rosen in his PressThink blog. You don’t get to decide whether you have political enemies or not, but you can decide how to respond to them. The default setting is a series of political defeats.

Rosen’s been frustrated with public radio's recent spate of firings, including the punting of former NPR President Vivian Schiller, after a doctored sting tape was released, produced by conservative activist James O'Keefe. Also, by WNYC's dismissal of Caitlin Curran, and also by NPR's decision to drop distribution of World of Opera, because it's host Lisa Simeone had engaged very publicly in political advocacy.

But not all pink slips are created equal, so I asked him if World of Opera is still being distributed, which it is, and Simeone still hosts, which she does, was there really any damage done?

JAY ROSEN:

I think the only damage in that case has  really been to NPR, which has shown that it will back down from public controversy and will even, as the earlier case, which I’ve also written about, fire a CEO over these  kinds of things.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I think the big problem is our tendency to conflate all these firings. The [LAUGHS] Vivian Schiller firing, the former NPR president, was a kind of bizarre reflex. But Caitlin Curran worked for an organization that had rules common throughout traditional media institutions.

JAY ROSEN:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Excessively broad or not, they nevertheless exist.

JAY ROSEN:

Right, that’s true. But I don't think these rules are helping public radio gain trust. They certainly haven't dimmed the culture war atmosphere surrounding NPR and its funding at all. It would be wiser for public radio to start transitioning to a system in which it acknowledges that its people have political lives, and they ought to be transparent about it.

That certainly happened when Bob Garfield started his Comcast Must Die campaign. He was acknowledging that he has political convictions sometimes and decides sometimes to act on them. And WNYC was perfectly fine with that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The fact is Bob’s thought experiment caused a lot of consternation. And I interviewed him on this program about the potential appearance of conflict of interest. He thought recusing himself from discussions of Comcast was sufficient. I disagreed.

JAY ROSEN:

Mm-hmm. I'm actually on Bob’s side. I think if his convictions are displayed publicly, if they’re explained on the air and he is transparent about what he is doing, that ultimately is going to lead to more trust in the long run, fewer controversies and fewer CEOs fired as a result of culture-war tricksters like James O’Keefe.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What you think of the argument that if you don't go about publicly proclaiming feelings and beliefs –

JAY ROSEN:

Mm-hmm?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- you may be less impelled to defend them and freer to change your mind?

JAY ROSEN:

Oh, I think that there's something to that, definitely. I think there's a risk in taking a stand or declaring yourself in any way.  But I think you should measure that against the risk of false balance.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

False balance meaning giving two unequal sides equal weight in order to duck the accusation of bias, even —

JAY ROSEN:

Right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- even if that misrepresents a story. Fairness bias.

JAY ROSEN:

Fairness bias [LAUGHS] is a huge problem in public radio, in my opinion, as is political timidity. I think there are risks to complete nonpartisanship at all time, and the risk is that any slight deviation from an image of perfection becomes a huge deal.

And when you aren’t making this claim that if people have no starting point, they aren’t coming from anywhere, they don't have any conviction, they don’t have any politics, you actually have less trouble.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Do you think Caitlin Curran should have been fired?

JAY ROSEN:

No. First of all, it might be a good rule for WNYC to not try and control the lives of people that you don’t give health insurance to. The fact that she's not an employee, I think, is relevant, because WNYC is not investing in her career as much as it could. I would say there are limits to how much control we should have over freelancers, and I would say that we have to have different ways of getting at a complex event like a demonstration.

People who have declared no interest, no stake and don't participate are able to tell the story of Occupy Wall Street, and people who do participate are able to tell the story of Occupy Wall Street. And it seems to me that public radio is grown-up enough and mature enough to handle both.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What's wrong with different kinds of institutions deciding on different kinds of reporting? You have right-wing news organizations, left-wing ones, and ones in the center. And maybe the ones in the center, like public radio, may occasionally commit fairness bias. But they are also capable of doing a kind of reporting that those more inflected organizations just can't.

JAY ROSEN:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE], no I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, but I would also say that what really matters in generating trust is that your stuff holds up under scrutiny that it is true and accurate, based on fact and you’re transparent in where you're coming from. And if you combine those two things, you're good.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Jay, thank you very much.

JAY ROSEN:

My pleasure, Brooke.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and blogs at pressthink.org.