The Unfairness Of Balance

Want to hear some really bland talk radio? Check out WNYC here in New York from 10 to noon weekdays. It’s the home of "The Brian Lehrer Show," a program so uncharismatic that it’s hard to believe that it’s broadcast on two powerful transmitters to the biggest city in America. With monotonous tooty groove bumper music and a host who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular, it’s what you’d expect to hear in less popular slot on a small town public radio station. It’s kinda sad.

There’s obviously a lot of work that goes into the Lehrer’s show, but the end product is so invertebrate that it’s telling of the leadership and vision of WNYC, and indicative of the lack of bravery in general at NPR. Although they often have big name guests, there are almost no great moments on Lehrer’s program. They try so hard that you feel sorry everybody behind the scenes. For a while, Lehrer was host of NPR’s "On The Media," and it turned out to be one of NPR’s best shows, AFTER he left. While Lehrer is no longer a national NPR figure, he does a high profile program on one of NPR’s most important stations, and his show is the only talk show on WNYC focusing exclusively on current events. You’d think it would make for good listening, but instead it’s a lame balancing act, often lacking courage and at times as compelling as a traffic update.

It’s not that Lehrer’s show is without content or occasionally energy, but it chronically comes across as a utilitarian effort that never seems to inspire. And the program suffers from the same two-dimensional vision that has affected news and issues programing in television and radio– you have to match pro with con, left with right, and yes with no. It’s a methodology that was forged with the onset of cable TV pundit packed panel shows in the 1980′s, and now that same kind of thinking goes into much of the programming of NPR and their affiliates.

In this era of Bush II and the rise of Fox News, NPR in general is feeling even more pressure to be "fair and balanced." Along with PBS, the network has been under fire from Bush lackey and former editor of the heralded Reader’s Digest Kenneth Tomlinson, who was head of the Corporation For Public Broadcasting before he resigned yesterday. (Like Libby, Rove, Delay, and Frist, Tomlinson has been under investigation for shady practices.) Tomlinson has been fighting a multi-front war against NPR and PBS in hopes of not only limiting government money to our public TV and radio networks, but also to reduce the actual hours of news programming they feature. Why? It’s that pesky liberal bias. And while Tomlinson stepping down would seem to be good news for public broadcasting, there’s still plenty of like-minded Republicans at the CPB who wish the network ill.

It’s damn sad that it’s come to this. Compare the situation to what’s happened in Britain. The BBC, the best government-funded news network in the world, is able to criticize the Blair government and their partners in crime (the Bush administration) without similar threats, NPR has been trying to appease the American right wing for years. Of course, the neo-cons and the religious right aren’t going to approve of any government funds going to NPR until they parrot their views without giving the opposition credence or coverage in any meaningful way. Of course, they won’t do THAT, but what NPR has done is comprise their journalism in the name of survival. To quote former NPR host Bob Edwards– "In today’s media, we seem to bring on the liars in order to balance the truth." It’s enough to make your stomach hurt.

While you hear the worst of NPR’s "balance" efforts in their high-profile national news programs, Brian Lehrer’s local show on NPR’s biggest station is a great example of spineless radio. When you do hear some guest making a case against corruption, torture or war, you’re probably also be subjected to some apologist explaining that corruption, torture or war is really okay (or they’ll just deny it’s happening at all). And if there’s not an opposing guest, Lehrer himself will play devil’s advocate and challenge the person with material his staff has grabbed off the web from writers or politicians who defend corruption, torture or war. The net effect is that Lehrer totally cloaks his own opinion on almost every issue, and the content further encrypts him as a journalist or political thinker.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the show rarely gives more than a dozen minutes to most issues and guests. I suppose Lehrer and his staff think it makes for a fast paced show, but instead it’s a superficial herky-jerky two hours of radio which neither enlightens nor entertains. Too many segments on the show end with Lehrer cutting off a guest in mid-sentence because he is "out of time."

On Wednesday, progressive scholar and curmudgeon Gore Vidal was his first guest. The initial topic was his involvement in a National Day of Protest against the Iraq War. But what you hear in this interview is Lehrer attempting to neuter the opinions of the eloquent Mr. Vidal, and then bragging how comprehensive his radio show is. When Vidal brought up the fact that he believes that Bush stole both elections, Lehrer tried to steer him away from the controversies by saying that his show already covered those elections and there’s nothing new to talk about regarding them. Vidal nails him by pointing out that the war and the obscene foreign policies of the Bush regime were all made possible by stealing elections.

Then after twice trying to divert Vidal, Lehrer pulls out a New York Times Magazine piece that paints Vidal as an "America hater" with Harold Pinter. And then Lehrer uses Pinter’s opinions expressed in the piece to see if he can get Vidal to equate the dual invasions of the Bush presidency with the UN military action in Kosova during the Clinton administration. Gotta keep that "balance" after all.

And then after Lehrer isn’t able to successfully counter Vidal in any appreciable way, BOOM– another interview comes to a screeching halt. Total time, just over 11 minutes. The listener learns almost nothing, except that Lehrer is an incompetent talk host with an inflated opinion of his own program. It’s pointless radio with a great guest. Have a listen…

WNYC – Gore Vidal on the Brian Lehrer Show – 11-02-05  12:38

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And if you want to hear another brilliant old fart really chew up Lehrer, you ought to hear his interview with Mort Sahl from April, 2004. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a talk host slammed so hard on their own program. Sure, Sahl is a grouchy contrarian and it sounds like he’s just gotten out of bed in this clip, but whether he’s fully awake or not he takes aim at the alleged balance of Lehrer and NPR with deadly accuracy. He outs them both for what they really are–  a closeted liberal talk host and a liberal radio network too afraid show anything but chronic and disengenious moderation to the public at large.

In the interview, Sahl brings up Air America and says if NPR had done its job they wouldn’t have had to create a commercial liberal talk network in the first place. While that’s an arguable idea, he makes a valid point. By their constant balancing act, NPR and hosts at their affiliates like Lehrer aren’t just hypocritical, but they’re polluting the news intake of the millions of NPR listeners by putting on liars and conservative apologists and taking extra effort to not irritate the Republicans who hold the purse strings for the government dough they depend on.

This clip is rather amazing and unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It’s kind of a host roast…

WNYC – Mort Sahl on the Brian Lehrer Show – 04-29-04  18:01

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To be fair, there’s some fine programming on WNYC. Leonard Lopate, who follows Lehrer every day, has some compelling moments. While it can get a little precious now and then, he does have some great guests from time to time and you never feel like they’re being cut off before you get hear them complete a few thoughts. Unlike Lehrer, Lopate has interesting bumper music and never masks his political leanings. And if he happens to challenges a guest you know it’s coming from the heart and not some exercise in balance. Speaking of a lack of balance, you oughtta check out Steve Post’s "No Show" on WNYC. Dark, hilarious and as real as anybody you’ll ever hear on the radio, his one hour show is a real jewel in the WNYC schedule.

And at least two national NPR programs that originate from WNYC are actually quite good. I already mentioned "On The Media," the only real dirt digging news magazine in the NPR line-up. And "Selected Shorts" is a wonderful way to ingest some literature via the radio.

However, two others– "Studio 360," and "The Next Big Thing" are just awful. They’re both wine and cheese car wrecks, with so much shiny urbane smugness that you just want to grab your palm pilot and London Fog and take a spin in your new Jaguar after a good listen.

And that’s the thing about WNYC in general. There’s an elitist air to the whole station that reminds me of a Mac ad campaign. Their promos constantly tell you how smart, deep, and worldly WNYC and NPR is, and when they’re begging for money they coddle their listeners with similar praise exclaiming how you’re an erudite individual who demands great radio and comprehensive coverage of every important issue and event of the day. Barf.

During their fundraisers, WNYC’s appointed beggars are as bad as the evangelist shysters who crowd the radio dial pleading for prayer offerings and fleecing their radio flock. In short, they’ve been trained to manipulate and guilt their audience into giving their money. In general, public radio across the board has a parasitical relationship with their own audience, constantly hitting them up for cash while they continue to take huge sums from corporations, advertisers and the government. It’s disgusting. It didn’t used to be this way.

It’s about time NPR sprouted some testicles and just got off the government dole. Sure, it works in Canada and Europe but there’s rampant mental illness in America that seems to rule out being able to fund a brave or excellent public radio network. It has something to do with rampant Christianity and some inherent super-greed that prevents us from having a mature republic that takes care of itself and helps other countries in any meaningful way. The fact that we’re the richest country in the world and we don’t have national health care, we have a failing infrastructure and a hopelessly inept disaster relief program, AND we contribute a shamefully microscopic portion of our GNP in foreign aid to poor nations are ALL symptoms of our pray-and-pay way of doing things in the states, which has ultimately led to the corruption of journalism at NPR.

So it’s sad, but NPR needs to get real. Their affiliates need to quit running the polite little advertisements they call "underwriting" and just run real commercials. Sure ads are disgusting, but they’re real. Radio is a dirty business, and it’s really expensive. But the dance that NPR does every day, pretending that you’re not hearing advertising and that you are so damn smart for listening to the ads and pretending you’re not, is absurd. And the constant begging for money is very tiresome. If all the pleading will hold an audience that advertisers will pay for, then go ahead and beg away. But it’s just plain embarrassing. BBC, CBC, Radio Netherlands, and any other western public radio network I could name doesn’t get on their knees and weep at their audience.

And as far as WNYC goes, it seems like they could do a little trimming to get their budget in check if the government cash dries up. Did I mention the $400,000 salary of their General Manager Laura Walker? I meant to.

Of course, WNYC isn’t all bad. And I’ve heard Brian Lehrer is a swell guy to work with, but being nice doesn’t necessarily translate to good radio. The real tragedy is that WNYC is NPR’s main affiliate in the biggest radio market in America, and it oughtta be better, much better. But more importantly, the NPR mothership, needs a serious retooling if they want to survive and be relevant into this new century. And I don’t think that firing their long-standing morning host or creating a mid-day magazine program that’s even softer than "All Things Considered" has done anything to improve the outlook for NPR. Every programming move the network makes smells of the efforts of demographic number crunchers, and they only seem able to do more of what they’ve done before, with extra balance of course.

There was a time when "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" were essential portions of my media intake. Nowadays I can’t listen to either without eventually having to either turning the volume to zero, or switching the station. Why is it that NEVER happens when I listen to similar shows on BBC or CBC? For every interesting deep news story I hear on NPR I’m subjected to some warm and fuzzy anecdote about grandma’s kitchen or a story about stuffing the kids in the station wagon and heading to the box store. There’s almost no edge or guts to NPR anymore. Okay, there’s Daniel Schorr.

Am I suffering from memory loss, or didn’t public radio in this country used to be creating a superior product without pandering to make itself more popular? These days, NPR is in the business of super-tweaking their programing across the board to make it’s programming more attractive to suburban college educated homemakers, young white collar dudes, or some other type of human being that I am obviously not (and don’t want to be). I want information, entertainment and cogent opinion now and then, but when I hear some inane commentary on NPR I wanna scream– "Take the goddamn pink fuzzy blanket of feel-good radio off me, NOW!"

Just to end this critical rant on an up note, let me mention a really great NPR program. If Harry Shearer‘s "Le Show" isn’t the best show on NPR, it’s damn sure the funniest. It’s a packed hour of Music, comedy and cutting commentary that doesn’t suffer from weak-kneed "balance" and is never cute or cuddly. In fact, it’s so good that it isn’t even on WNYC. Apparently they tossed it into a late night time slot and pissed off Shearer, who took it from the station. It can be heard locally on WNYE (91.5 fm) on Monday nights at 9 p.m. You can also stream it or podcast it. Check his site for details.

Meanwhile, if after reading this you want to check out Lehrer’s show, it’s on WNYC (93.9 fm and 820 am) Monday through Friday from 10 to noon, and is rebroadcast from 1 to 3 a.m. on 820 am. You can also podcast it or listen to individual segments at WNYC’s website. There’s also an official blog for his show which you can check here. Last time I looked it featured a menu from the White House dinner being held for Prince Charles. But don’t be planning to leave any comments on his blog. Balance is best left to the experts.

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