Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Keepin it Real

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Peabody Award

I watched tonight’s episode of ABC’s Peabody Award winning “Black-ish”.  And I was amazed at how raw and honest it was.  In fact, I’m not sure the entire thing wasn’t an ad-lib.  And when co-star Anthony Anderson had tears in his eyes as he described the fear I had as I sat on my couch and watched out new black president and his black wife walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day 2009, I wondered if my tears were what the writers expected.

Four-hundred years ago, a great crime was perpetrated on one group of human beings by another group of human beings.  Maybe, 400 years from now, that crime will be a distant memory and both groups will have since worked together to solve no only the problems we know, but the problems to come.

But right now, at the halfway point, there’s still a lot of shit in the way.  And in the meantime, I’m working to do my part to make things better between people of color and the police.

But as far as this comedy, which is really satire, which is really – sometimes – a slap across the face, … wow, ABC.  That’s all I can say.  Wow.

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August 25, 2016 at 13:09

Paying Tribute

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Boxing Gloves

Listening to the tributes pour in for Muhammed Ali earlier this year, I was thinking about what kind of person gets tributes.

I wonder if the first type of person doesn’t necessarily seek tributes.  Instead, as they follow their passion, they come up against people who don’t like what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it or even who they are.  But they continue to follow their passion to do whatever it is they’re doing even as they both gain admirers and haters.  These people are eventually recongized for being the best at what they’ve done not only because their passion has honed that perfection, but because they’ve done it in the face of those who hate everything about them.  And a key element seems to be that a lot of people must hate them.

A segment of our culture reserves the highest rewards for those who not only surmount the professional obstacles, but almost as important, overcomes the obstacle of the rest of us.

Meanwhile, I wonder if the second type of person seeks tributes and doesn’t have any shame in how they get them or who gives them.  Whether it means being the loudest black, women, jew, hispanic, muslim, lgbt or homeless hater, or whether it means doing hurtful things to those people in the dark, or whether it means always “Me first”, this second type of person is about expediency, not morality.  What is the quickest way they can be known for something, since to that point they may have never been seen or known or acknowledged for anything.  They will twist all we supposedly call sacred into a banal justification of every perversion just so they can feel people are paying attention to them.  A key element is that they seem to need a lot of people to notice them.

A segment of our culture reveres these people too because evil is easy and cruel is pile-on fun.  Burn a church, deface a monument, spray obscenities, slash some tires and they can feel alive and not the weak, festering lump they are locked inside.

I’ve often thought about the concept of First Cause, and I haven’t yet heard a good argument that counters the thinking that every good thing we humans conceive is a response to something hideous we thought of first.  All the non-profits, corrective laws and religous edicts that we employ to fix our failings always seem to be in pursuit of, not in front of on par with, those failings.  It makes me wonder which is easiest for us to be; kind or cruel?

What are we?

Muhammed Ali’s first cause was, reportedly, to become a boxer because he wanted revenge for a stolen bike and a cop told him to channel that anger to the ring.  As he was laid to rest, a lifetime of good wiped out that incentive of anger.  But his work was consistent, not the two steps forward, one step back, constantly relearning kind – constantly unlearning bigorty wheel we seem to be stuck on.  I wonder why the world is never lacking for people who carry their fear and hate like a cold stone at the center of their chests with no goal but to be the best thing they can be, even if that thing is putrid.

When I feel a little overwhelmed like this, and I need a little hope, I think … Thank God for babies.

Written by Interviewer

August 15, 2016 at 23:58

Refusing to take the Medicine?

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Taking the Medicine

I’ve been looking at websites of public radio stations.  And the variations among them reminds me of the whole idea of meeting the needs of your customer and of a quiet corporate fight taking place even as I type these words.

Supermarket chain A buys supermarket chain B.  Both chains run a pharmacy.  Chain B’s technology and its system for managing customers and medications is superior to chain A’s system.  But although Chain A is absorbing chain B’s technology, chain A is forcing chain B to adopt its management system.  Chain B is resisting because it knows its system serves its customers better than chain A’s.

The correlary to public radio is this.  Back in the 90s, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters was promoting an effort called “The Healthy Stations Project”.  Among the ideas was that stations should adopt a similar feel in terms of sound and look because that would help stations project an image of professionalism.  And that, in turn, would increase listener support, i.e. more successful pledge drives.

As a former federal employee, I am very familiar with concept of corporate branding.  Every agency went through such a branding process in the mid to late 2000s.  But as the huge public radio survey, “Audience 98” showed, the messages about what audiences wanted vs what seemed best for stations were confusing.

On one hand, the data seemed to show that local programming, much of it created by volunteers with little training or in small stations with low budgets, was driving some of the audience away.  Quality, in stations with trained staff and better equipment, was what the audience wanted, or so the NFCB thought.  In 2008, community radio station KRCL in Salt Lake City fired many of its volunteer staff and replaced them with professional hosts.

But on the other, many stations rejected the idea of diluting a local identity they had spent years growing from nothing and were quite proud of.  Their audiences were very protective of the look and sound of their local stations and didn’t care if they didn’t have the “polish”.  KBOO in Portland, for example, has a reputation as one of the fiercest defenders of it’s identity, whether from outside or from within.

There was a backlash, and the Healthy Stations Project died.

As I go through these websites, and see the variation in their look and feel, three things stand out;

1.  Many stations do share a “corporate” look.
2.  Many stations don’t
3.  All of the websites I’m looking at are for NPR member stations

I’m curious to know if you know whether stations that haven’t adopted one of the half-dozen or so prevailing templates are struggling to keep their own identity as NPR member stations, or if NPR is letting them be?

No, it Doesn’t

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Crossed Arms

The current chaos surrounding the Rio Olympics, whether it’s Zika or the polluted water or over-priced and soon to be ghost venues led reporters at BBC’s “Newshour” to ask athletes already there, “Do you think the Olympic Games have been tainted by all of the bad news?”

One unnamed athlete said, “No, I don’t think so”.  But in the next breath said, “but I don’t think it’s in a good place” which they capped with the question, “Does that make sense?”

This post isn’t about Rio.  It’s about the question “Does that make sense?” and how obviously flawed it is as an answer.  As blogger Jared Fuller asked in January, “What’s worse than hearing this phrase is saying it.”  He admits that, “Asking “Does that make sense?” comes from a place of innocence – maybe even a place of compassion. You want to affirm that your prospect understands what you’re saying, so you ask the question and mean it. Unfortunately, it actually just confuses the prospect, which is the opposite of what you were going for.”

Fuller calls it a “transitional phrase” which is really just a place holder, like, “ummmmm”.  There is no real information in it because it’s strictly rhetorical; a device for passing the conversation back to the other person which, would seem to be a good thing since it facilitates more conversation.

But Fuller also calls it a dumb question because by asking the question, the asker is setting the answerer up to judge the intelligence of the question and consequently, the intelligence of the asker.  And in some cases, the asker may actually and passive-aggressively be questioning the intelligence of the answerer.  The Harvard Business Review says that besides making the person you’re talking to question whether you know what you’re talking about, it transmits the message that you don’t think the listener isn’t smart enough get it.

It’s been a long while since I’ve heard it.  I had hoped its corpse had already begun to rot.  But perhaps it is finally passing through the body of public usage.  With this interview, I hope it gets flushed.

Written by Interviewer

August 4, 2016 at 04:51

The Video Appears to Show an Explosion

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Dubai Explosion

Has TV news and its newscasters become so pre-occupied with qualification that they don’t trust anything?

This morning, Charlie Rose of CBS This Morning was reporting on the explosion of a Boeing 777 in Dubai.  The circumstances of why the jet was on the tarmac with apparently broken landing gear was unclear.  It was explained in an earlier report that the jet has an excellent safety record.  In that report, the correspondent said that only an analysis of the black box would show what happened.

But, a jet with its fusalage on a runway would appear to indicate a very hard landing.  Of course, since we don’t know why the fusalage was on the ground, there are other possibilities, like maybe the landing gear failed during a normal landing.  If you’ve seen the video though, you might be thinking, “That’s ridiculous.  Of course a hard landing broke the landing gear.”

Yes, of course.

So, later in the report, when Mr. Rose says “Video appears to show an explosion …” as the the left wing is blown into the air and the fusalage is engulfed in flames, I realized my head was tilted in confusion.

Appears?  Was the video a YouTube fake?  A computer simulation?  Nope, it’s pretty clear that this was an actual jet airliner blowing itself to smitherines and burning itself to a crisp.

There is a criticism of news these days of how, in order to be “balanced”, it presents both sides of an argument even if those argurers are not equally yoked, credentialed or experienced.  A crackpot is paired with a scholar in an effort to appease everyone in the audience and meet the ideal of journalistic objectivity.  This wrinkle in professional broadcasting ethics is still being worked out.

But when something explodes with smoke and fire and 300 people escape from it before it kills any of them, that’s not appearances.

That’s real.

Written by Interviewer

August 3, 2016 at 22:37

The Springwater Corridor and self-imposed limits by KOIN news.

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Springwater Corridor

The Springwater Corridor is a public space that until earlier this year, was a walking and bike path most of the residents who know the area enjoyed.  But after Portland Mayor Charlie Hales declared a housing emergency last year, and relaxed the city’s restriction on homeless camping this year, the corridor has become a pop-up community of the homeless. For months, residents of the camps and the nearby homes have been trying to find a way to live together.  But tensions have risen and the city is promising to remove all homeless people from the camp in the wake of complaints by homeowners of theft and trash by and from its residents.

That was the context with which I watched an excellent report tonight on a “community meeting” by KOIN 6’s Jennifer Dowling.  Earlier, members of a group called the Portland Tenants Union were meeting with the homeless and some homeowners trying to broker a dialing down of the tensions.  Meanwhile, some of the homeless have defiantly said that when the city comes through on August 1st, they will refuse to leave the corridor.

Although several residents of both communities spoke with Ms. Dowling, a PTU representative asked that KOIN not come close to the meeting to videotape it because, he said, those participating deserved to be able to speak honestly without them and their comments being broadcast to the world.  Ms. Dowling asked if his group was doing to the media what the community/city sought to do to the homeless; essentially exclude them from a public space.

What fascinated me was that Ms. Dowling and her crew seemed to not videotape the meeting and, in fact, did keep a distance of what looked like about 100 feet.  Normally, the press claims the right to be wherever it wants to be in a public space.  This PTU representative had no legal authority to restrict the movements of KOIN.  That Ms. Dowling chose not to tape the meeting was at least as interesting to me as the circumstances which brought about the meeting itself.  It has made me wonder how often the media self-imposes restrictions for any number of reasons, including a sense of ethics, fair play, privacy, practicality, logistics, etc.

To be clear, these types of decisions are made by reporters, producers, news crews, sound people and videographers all the time.  But this the first time I’ve noticed it taking place on tape.  Is there something going on within news organizations or academic journals examining a different relationship with the public?  Does this represent a change in how news interacts with communities?

Or was this just a freebie?

UPDATE:  Just learned that the city is moving it’s sweep back to September 1st.  I’ll be there then.

UPDATE:  On August 2, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales repealed the urban camping edict he had issued earlier in the year which was the trigger for much of the conflict over the Springwater Corridor and other areas where the homeless set up living spaces.   The city said it will provide 72 hours notice to any such camp to give its residents time to leave before they are in violation of the law.  Portland Police Bureau spokesperson Officer Pete Simpson said enforcing that change will be a “low priority” because there are just too many locations to police.

I was so Disappointed

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Fanning a Fire

As I listened to the Friday News Roundtable, which is hosted every week by OPB, one of the panelists said how “disappointed” they were that Republican nominee Donald Trump did not pick a more explosive and contentious vice-presidential running mate.

I thought to myself, “So, to be clear, you are disappointed that a potentially destructive candidate did not pick a more equally destructive running mate because that will make for a more boring story for you to report.”

This is another one of the long list of problems I believe permeate the news biz.

I loved the mid 2000’s TV show “Scrubs” because of its biting commentary on medicine, hospitals, doctors and culture.  One episode I remember was an argument between long time staff nurse Laverne and Chief of Interns, Perry Cox.  Laverne was asking about the tendency of surgeons to always choose exploratory surgery over other options and Cox said, “When was the last time you ever met a cutter who didn’t want to cut? Laverne! You have been here 40 years now, have you ever heard such a thing?”

Likewise, news people apparently don’t prefer a news story that is interesting but without the poisonous consequences over one filled with prurient and insane interest that also results in horrible consequences.  Part of the reason, I think, is because the more messy, complex, bigoted, disgusting story is guaranteed to have plenty of news babies; each of which can then be teased out ad nauseum and in gruesome detail.

They might say they don’t choose the stories they must report, and I expect that’s right.  One problem with the media is it is a competition.  Whoever can claim to be the fastest to report is seen as the best, the “news authority”.  That brings ad dollars.  And the worse, the better.  But there are a list of other “reasons” that I’m sure would be a counterpoint to each of the four points in the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists.

But here’s the bigger problem.  Societies run by demagogues or plagued by fanned fires don’t suffer free media for long.   And I harken back to a Saturday Night Live bit for some support.  When Sarah Palin had appeared on the October 22, 2008 airing of SNL, with her Tina Fey doppelganger, there was a segment with Ms. Palin seated comfortably in an easy chair facing and talking to the camera directly.   And she essentially said that once she and John McCain become president, there would be some changes in how a TV show like Saturday Night Live could parody cultural figures.

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.  After all, SNL is a program of humorous satire.  But there was no hint of humor, and her veiled threat of censorship sounded less like satire and more like a warning.  If Trump becomes president and if he had, instead of choosing Mike Pense, chosen Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie or even Sarah Palin, I wonder how long the sometimes, nose-high Fourth estate would continue feel invulnerable.  He has already threatened the media and the constitutional basis of a free press. A story that delights for its messiness, but raised to a sufficient temperature, can cook up some really nasty policy consequences.

So when I hear news people lament over how they wish a political story was more spectacularly shit-filled, or how they futz that a personal collapse is less compelling because the sufferer isn’t doing more to blow themselves up in front of cameras or microphones, I wonder if the American people (whoever that really is) might have a point when surveys show large swaths on both sides of the political spectrum say they don’t entirely trust the media.

I don’t mean the hard working journalists who report the facts and refuse to prognosticate or editorialize.  I mean what’s left.

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