Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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?

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.

Just Pause

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Musical notation

Despite all of the horror, it might be a good time to remember this simple and beautiful and elegant last verse from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

I’m not an overly religious man.  But every now and then, I just want to “turn it over” for a minute.

Written by Interviewer

July 9, 2016 at 05:54

Posted in Scratchpad

A Problem with Journalism

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Reporter Notebook

NPR reporters Leila Fadel and Deena Temple-Raston  are reporting on Turkey.  Last night, suspected ISIS sympathizers bombed the Istanbul airport, killing and injuring dozens.

But a bright spot in the investigation is that authorities say taxi drivers who unknowingly transported the terrorists have been a treasure trove of information.  Interviews with previous taxi drivers in the wake of ISIS bombings in Paris and Brussels helped investigators trace attackers back to apartments they used as staging areas, and beyond.

I wonder though, if ISIS will now begin killing taxi drivers after they’ve made their deliveries, adding more innocents to their chains of murder and destruction.

I’ve talked before about the problems with journalism and the law of unintended consequences.  If law enforcement releases information or journalists discover it, who has ultimate responsibility for its ultimate effect?

Do the ends always justify the means?

Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2016 at 06:24

Posted in Scratchpad

Wake up and Smell the Coffee in your NPR Coffee Mug

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NPR coffee mug

Public radio listeners can be an insular bunch.  In some ways, they are opposite to American citizens in general and a contradiction to one of public radio’s main selling points.

American citizens, in general, are interested in what happens in other states even though they themselves live in one state.  Public radio listeners, by contrast, like to think of themselves as citizens of the world, but have little to no idea what is happening elsewhere in the public radio universe.  In part, it’s the fault of the public radio stations themselves.  They have, each and every one of them, set themselves up like little Levittowns.

Every listener need is met.  Every street has a grocery store, a hardware store, a restaurant.  There’s no reason for anyone to leave their own block and that’s the way station’s like it.  If you never feel the need to go anywhere else, then all your time, attention and money stays here.

But that means public radio listeners never hear of the turmoil elsewhere between stations that are fighting over audience, or the white knuckled panic with which affiliates and networks eye each other over the effect of podcasts on funding, or state cutbacks to public radio support and the struggles stations are having over when and for how long to have fund drives that are both, effective and don’t drive listeners away.

Stations have succeeded too well at making things comfy.  And that is where some of the responsibility needs to shifts to listeners.

They could afford to be more engaged with the state of public radio, not just their local station, because of domino effects.  In these times of tight budgets when state A decides to cut or end support to its public radio station, states B, C and D, looking across the border, start wondering where else besides public radio they could put their money.  And while station A in Nebraska misses a fund drive goal, and its board sells its frequency – making it disappear, listeners in Connecticut are blissfully absorbed in the soft tones of Garrison Keillor.

Public radio listeners pride themselves on being advocates for every cause NPR, PRI or APM reporters haul out before them.  But they also need to pay attention to the medium as well as the message because without the medium, there is no message.  Contributing to your local station is fine.  Volunteering for your local station is great.  But your public radio community is a lot bigger than your neighbors your public radio station serves.  It is part of a hemispheric network of wheels and cogs.  All of them, together, make this amazing thing called public radio.  If any of them start to grind, or strip, the whole thing could come to a smoking stop.

I know it might seem unlikely.

But unlikely things are happening everyday.

 

Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2016 at 03:00

Time to make the Donuts

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Donuts

The only thing I like better than writing is building databases.  You would think those would be reversed considering writing is thought to be more of an artistic endeavor.  Creating spreadsheets, by contrast, is head down, butt in the seat, grunt work though, as someone who writes, I know writing can be its own kind of torture.

But there is something about the researching; the lining things up, the sorting, the cross-tabulating that I find fascinating such that the days or weeks or months it takes me to compile that data is as much the reward as the surprises the data reveal.  You would think filling rows and columns would be laborious and tedious and mind numbing.

Each piece of data helps build a picture that I anticipate like a kid’s first time visit to Disneyland.  I’ve always been like this.  I know I have to do this digging and shoveling, sifting and stacking.  But I also know that when I hit “Tabulate”, pictures in each cell start to move like pages in a flipbook and that is thrilling to me.

As I work on this book, I am digging as deeply as I have ever dug and I know what I’ve done so far hasn’t gone nearly deep enough.  I can be OCD like that.  But when the researcher is satisfied that he has found every article, report, study, white paper, message board or blogpost, he will hand it all off the the writer who trusts every ladder rung has been stress tested.

The writer will take that roiling vat of information and move to Step 2 of the process; corroboration; turning facts and assumptions into thoughtful and intelligent questions that people in the know can confirm (or refute).  Questions that I hope show the people I’m asking that I have done my homework.  Because nothing annoys professionals more than amateurs who waste their time.  These are busy people and my subject – money and how public radio stations get it – is at the heart of what each of them do everyday.  The writer will then take everything and exhaust pens, pencils and toner cartridges on reams and reams of paper.

My editor will first pat me on the head and tell me it’s clear that I’ve been thinking hard about this, but then fill the other side of the page with notes.  My graphic artist friend will tell me my ideas for artwork are good places to start. My programming friend will make me stare at numbers I’ve already stared at for months and make me make them make more sense.

And I will (for the most part) listen to these people because they are smart.

I hope the interviews I get, supported by the rows and columns I’m filling now, help me create something new and helpful to everyone who cares about public radio, listens to public radio and wants it to be the best it can be.

Time to make the donuts.

Kill Your Darlings

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Hand Holding Knife

A programming genius I know is helping me crunch data that I’ve  been collecting for this book I’m writing about the public radio pledge drive.  The plan is that tranche A, after it’s washed and tumble dried, will be a template for tranche B; using one as a control for the other to find patterns that aren’t obvious.

I know a little about spreadsheets, and that’s how I gave my programmer friend the data I’d gathered.  But they weren’t exactly in love with it.  “You need to reformat this”, they said.  “Otherwise, I need to write a whole language subset (whatever that means) before you can see this data the way you want to see it.”  In other words, they didn’t like my spreadsheet.

I like to think I’m a smart person.  I like to think I’ve been around enough to know a little about a lot, but that little bit I know is really good.  Turns out, spreadsheets are high school level data collection to graduate level people writing programming in languages like Perl.  So, here I am, reformatting my spreadsheet in a way that my programming friend’s program can better search it, parce it, slice and dice it.

And you know, their way is better.

There isn’t as much ambiguity.  There’s much more consistency.  And I’m finding mistakes, not in the original data, but how I notated it.  It’s like when writers are taught to read their copy backwards as a way to catch mistakes because reading it forward makes it too easy to miss them.  Rearranging my twenty columns into their three is a brutal exercise in utility.  But it’s exactly the kind of brute force utilitarianism that a programming language needs to create elegant results.

“Kill your darlings” is what editors tell writers too in love with what they’re written.

I can tell you, programmers are even worse.

Written by Interviewer

June 25, 2016 at 07:34

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