Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Error in Fact

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Rainbows and Unicorns

Forbes said in a 2013 article that as of then, a million or more books were published in the U.S.  OK, except a New York Times article said that as of 2002, only 80,000 were published in the U.S.  OK, except I can’t believe the number of published books has jumped by 920,000 in 10 years.  I mean, Amazon is powerful but it’s not THAT powerful.  Especially with all of the dour talk about declining book sales, the introduction of Kindles way back when and the disappearance of Joseph Beth and Little Professor’s along the way.

But this isn’t about bookstores.  It’s about credibility of reporting.  Neither article cites its sources for its numbers.  Maybe because it’s Forbes and the Times, both editors felt company names speak for themselves then and now.  But as I work on my own book; a book I’ve sweated and cursed and exhausted myself over for the last three years, I wonder will people trust my research considering these plain and simple examples of journalistic inconsistency from those at much higher levels than me?

Like, when a well known writer for a well known media outlet told me by email that they didn’t know if a fact I quoted from a piece they’d written was correct.  Excuse me?  They didn’t say they couldn’t remember.  They didn’t say the facts had changed.  They said they didn’t know.  And as gingerly as I could, I prodded to know if they knew that as they were writing, or did they come to know it over time?  And either way, why would they put it in their piece or not offer a correction?

I have busted my ass to make this, my first book, to be as good as I can make it.  It may not be as good as I hope my writing will eventually be.  But I’ve been a reporter for a long time. I know how to research.  And I expect I also know how to tell the truth and how to feel like crap if I even suspect that I haven’t.,

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February 14, 2018 at 02:54

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Dark Art

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Broken Light Bulb

I was listening to the Friday News Roundtable, a feature of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Outloud” news program and heard something that made the dark art aspect of my training switch on.  I’ve spent my life in journalism, writing and hopefully, creative thought.  But as I’ve often mentioned here and other places, people with skills can use them for good or bad.  That is, they have the ability to see effective uses for a tool, whether it is doing what some would call creating or doing what some would call destroying.  The thought itself is ambivalent.  Like scientists who never ask, “Just because we can do it, should we?”, a potential application is instantly seen in binary form; it can be a pharmaceutical plant, or it can be a chemical weapons factory.

So, I hear host Dave Miller mention how a new ballot measure, Measure 101, will soon push itself to the front of the attention of Oregonians after the beginning of the year.  The measure, which imposes taxes on hospitals and health care providers, will bring along with it, federal matching funds, giving the state up to $320-million to help it fund its programs.  The opponents to the measure, those same hospitals and health care providers, are no doubt looking for ways (as such corporations are often wont to do) to argue against or otherwise obfuscate the issue.  And in that moment, when one of the guests said, “To most Oregonians, 101 is a highway,” I had it.  “What about,” the dark side asks, “a commercial that is nothing but surfer music and gorgeous shots of the iconic Highway 101 from the perspective of a shiny, sexy red convertable.”  Bazinga!

It would be hypnotic in its beauty and, in a subtle way, make people think of 101 in terms of escape, rather than of trying to understand complicated healthcare tax policy in the dead of winter.  It could help tilt the perception of the voters by confusing the issue in their minds.  Then, the arguments started in my head.  “How can you even think about making such tools, such weapons?”  “Because I can,” says the bad angel.  “You know people wouldn’t be that easily manipulated, don’t you?”  “Wouldn’t they,” asks the bad angel?  “You’re evil.”  “Nope, just fruitful,” smiles the bad angel.

Like ABC’s sweet Robin Roberts calling, “Bye Felicia” after a fuming Omarosa was booted out on her ass from the White House, the dark art of say, language, is in even her.  “Calm down,” says dark angel on my shoulder.  “You win all the time.  I’m just having a little stretch.”

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December 16, 2017 at 04:20

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Tick Tock, You Don’t Stop

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Time Master

Occasionally, I write something about gear.  Right now, I want to talk about a very handy little device that you may not think much about unless you need to do some precise time juggling and you realize only this can do it.  I’m talking about a time calculator.  It’s amazing what a time calculator can do.  I first saw them used by the Traffic & Continuity Department at an Armed Forces Broadcasting facility in Europe.  Then, I got one around the time of working for FEMA as a PA during Katrina and Rita.  That one disappeared, but I’ve had another one for about two years.  From Calculated Industries, it adds and subtracts hours, minutes and seconds, and converts time in decimals to hours, minutes and seconds.  It converts 12 to 24 hours settings and from A.M to P.M.  Also, a timer and a stopwatch.  A remarkable little device.   

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November 9, 2017 at 02:29

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“Let’s Listen.”

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Let's Listen

I’m noticing more public radio reporters saying this before their stories.  It reminds me of when NPR began saying, “Live, from NPR news” before each newscast.  Is it designed to invite listeners into a closer relationship with the storytelling, in a “C’mon, let’s go!” kind of way?  Being more personal with listeners by asking them directly to come along for the ride?  To invest themselves at that moment?  If I hear it throughout public radio’s news offerings, I’ll bet it’s based on some memo somewhere about a new set of psychographics that suggests it will help boost pledge drive giving.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:55

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Reality Check

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Throwing Shade 2

This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about dialogue.  Specifically, the unwillingness to accept reality that defines how different groups talk to each other.  Democrats, once again, have been repeating their claim to hope that the Republican effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act is “dead.”  Their insistence sounds a lot like their certainty that Hillary Clinton would win the Presidency.

There is nothing wrong with believing in your side.  But, as the old Scottish rhyme goes, “If wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets.”  In other words, believing it doesn’t make it so.  And when you turn out wrong because your belief accounted neither for history or the determination of your opponents, you end up looking weaker, not stronger.

I can’t think of anything that fires up an opponent faster than considering them stupid or their own passionate cause, dead.  Democrats and those on the left may consider themselves on the right side of morality but their insistence in trying to smash an opposition just as capable as them puts them on the wrong side of reality.  At the very least, those on the left need to remember that, at every turn, their opponents are human, like them.  Thoughtful, like them.  Afraid, like them.  Determined, like them.

There are bad actors on both sides (Hillary’s campaign throwing Bernie under the bus) and good actors (Tillerson, Mathis and Kelly trying to keep their President presidential in the American spirit).  Maybe that makes for a slow moving conversation forward.  Or maybe talks stall.  But by not throwing so much shade (as Sophia Loren is clearly and infamously casting over Jayne Mansfield’s breasts), at least it doesn’t go backwards.

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October 25, 2017 at 02:19

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Flags and Tote Bags

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Flag in truck

Since the 2016 election, I have noticed a plethora of big flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks in Oregon.  I don’t know how common this is across the country.  But it occured to me the other day that this display of affiliation; i.e., people who want to be known as “true” Americans, is kindred with people who carry public radio tote bags.  This is just a guess on my part.  Though, anedcotally, they are probably on opposite sides of the political spectrum, now might a good time to apply public radio research which, weirdly, seems to tie them together.

Audience 98, a seminal public radio study, was the culmination of decades of deep dives into who listen to and financially supports public radio.  For many years, it was the road map for how stations plotted their survivial by tuning their pledge drives to study results.  And one of the main things the work revealed was that certain types of listeners liked showing off their connection to public radio.  They liked not only setting themselves apart as people who gave to public radio in their own minds, but also letting everybody else know they’re in that distinctive class.  And the tote bag was how public radio responded.

The bags, hauled through grocery stores, antique shops, jazz concerts, wine tastings and all of the other venues any respectable public radiophile knows they need to patronize, immediately associates them with the “I’m better than you” crowd.  And when I see a fifteen square foot “Stars and Stripes” violently whipping in front of me on the interstate, I think, “Holy Shit, this person is saying exactly the same thing”.  As much as they would deny it, both groups are people who are desperate to convince me of something, though they’d probably say what I think isn’t important.


Plug in your own experience.  “People who tend to vehemently deny that they’re ________________, often secretly are”.  With this rock solid meme, the flag/tote bag dynamic starts to look less like a preference and more like a character trait.  It’s ironic to me that scratching the surface could show tote bag shoulder swingers and pickup truck flag fliers probably have more in common than they’d think.  But sadly, one of those might be their belief that they each, of course, think they are better than the other.

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August 13, 2017 at 23:08

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Quiet as it’s Kept

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  I’ve been feverishly working on my book about the public radio pledge drive.  But very early this morning, something that you probably never knew could happened, didn’t happen.  And how it went down is something I find both characteristic and intimately related to that book.

NPR reporters were operating without a contract since June 30th.  They had been in negotiations for a new contract.  NPR management, like all management, wanted to reduce costs and increase its flexibility by cutting salaries, healthcare and expanding the use of non-union, possibly less qualified workers to do work being done by current staff.

Did you ever hear about this?  I’m sure not.  Just like you probably didn’t hear about the last set of contract negotiations in 2015.  That agreement extended to the start of the most recent set of talks.  The difference is this time, a federal mediator was called in because the sides couldn’t agree.  And, BIG difference, the employees had agreed to ask their union, SAG-AFTRA, to authorize a strike vote.

Who thinks this kind of thing happens at the cerebral NPR?  Nobody, because listeners never hear anything except the dulcet tones of Michelle Martin or Kelly McEvers or the soothing twang of John Burnett.   When nurses, firefighters, teachers or hotel workers strike, you hear about it for weeks in advance.  The chess moves are all the same, of course.  Late night negotiations, last minute concessions, rush, twist, restate.

But NPR is too polite for all that crap.  Too classy.  And, too concerned that if listeners knew it too has nasty family fights, there might be the tiniest chance they might rethink where their pledge dollars go.  The network is already on a political knife edge, what with attacks from the current administration and about one in five of its listeners in partial to full agreement with the President.  That’s 20% it can’t afford to alienate.  So it’s no surprise nobody knew.  Although, it has used attacks from without to generate listener support and tsunamis of cash in the past.

But, after all, its a media organization.  If it doesn’t want people to know something, nobody can turn a spigot off tighter.  If the employees had wanted to be really nasty, they could’ve waited until about October, when stations across the country were starting their Fall pledge drives and really needed the network’s gravitas to pull them across their finish lines.  I can’t imagine that piece of leverage wasn’t considered as employees and their union strategized what to do.

I support each and every voice, producer and writer, as I have always supported any set of troops.   Managers are also in their box and have their own set of marching orders.  And it must be hard, since many of them have also come up from the ranks.  Hopefully, this latest round of contract fights won’t lead to any recriminations, like firings or show cancellations.  Congratulations, #wemakeNPR.


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July 16, 2017 at 22:45

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