Reporter's Notebook

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Posts Tagged ‘The Takeaway

News, Politics and Dead Children

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Politicians

I just listened to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a follow up report by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed on the BBC Newshour.  A family in which a father, Abdullah Kurdi, lost both of his boys and his wife as he tried to get them to Europe from Turkey and the grief of the remaining family was featured.  One of his sons has become the subject of worldwide revulsion.  More about that later.

As I listened to the father and his sister crying over the death of the children, and the father’s pledge to put a banana on their graves each day (the children loved bananas), I was thinking about the function of emotional impact on breaking news stories and how politicians gravitate between amplifying and attenuating that impact in their own political self-interest.

When Terry Schiavo was at the center of a life support termination whirlwind in the early 2000s, the conservative elements of the American Congress rallied, along with then President George W. Bush, to try to prevent her husband from disconnecting Ms. Schiavo.  The Congress intervened as the country was embroiled in a debate about what constituted “persistant vegetative state”.  Eventually Mr. Schiavo did disconnect his wife from life support despite what some called the misplaced efforts of Congress.

This refugee crisis issue doesn’t seem much different in that the life of a people and their right to survive is being counterbalanced against public opinion which has again translated into political calculation.  Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq and Syria, crossing the Mediterranian, and landing in Greece and Turkey as they try to make it to Germany.  Germany has opened it’s doors to them but curiously, those people are being blocked by Hungary and are unable to reach Germany.  David Milliband, former Home Secretary for Great Britian, told Todd Zwllich of The Takeway today that the United States needs to begin taking more refugees to help reduce Europe’s crisis.

The Newshour’s Tim Franks paraphrased the speech by Mr. Harper addressing the crisis by saying that people can expect many more deaths.  Mr. Harper himself said he has visited a refugee camp and said the numbers of people awaiting transit to Europe stretches into the millions.  That clip, though possibly incomplete, seems to suggest that although there will be more deaths, we should not be surprised by them.  And that seems to be an oh-so-gentle way of beginning the distancing of the political responsibility from the humanitarian crisis.  That he has visited a camp apparently buys him little on the way to being able to actually address its existence.

Europe is hamstrung as to what to do about the flow of refugees, even though the spigot was turned on the moment President Assad of Syria began barrell-bombing citizens he called dissidents and turning a blind eye to ISIS operatives in his territory.  That is what began the flow of people west and north away from the Middle East and North Africa.  And it represents a second catastrophic failure of political will by the world in general.

Injured and dead children are no motivation for change.  Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “Napalm Girl” from the famous photo taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War was nine.  The war raged on for three more years.  And if twenty murdered six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman in 2012 didn’t affect the politics of guns in one of the most powerful and progressive countries on Earth, the ability of other nations to successfully address their own crisis doesn’t look hopeful.  Maybe it’s a defect in human DNA.  But when babies, like 2-year old Alyan Kurdi, the son of the father mentioned above, wash up on beaches as corpses or disappear beneath oceans because elections, public opinion, budgets and soverignty collide with empathy, resolution promises to be a long, slow, grinding process in which many many, many more will die indeed.

As a reporter, I understand how vile and intransigent politics and politicians can sometimes be.  But as a listener hearing a crying father, or as a reader looking at a picture of a toddler in tiny tennis shoes face down in beach sand, I find me sometimes asking journalism, “What am I supposed to do with this horror?”

Photo by Virginia Mayo of Reuters

An “Ol G” of News

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In my opinion, PRI’s “The Takeaway” is very near to its perfect form.  But it wasn’t always so.  The Takeway arose from the ashes of the Bryant Park Project, an effort in the early 2000s by National Public Radio to create and present a hip, fast paced morning talk show geared toward a younger audience.  BPP was groundbreaking in the way it tried to present its own avant-garde style of news.  But one person’s innovative is another person’s disjointed.  And NPR responded to BPP’s poor ratings by cancelling the program within a few short years of its debut.

The Takeaway, with co-hosts John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee quickly filled the void and came on strong with hard hitting, fast paced and topical news and feature programming.  It was a response to what public radio listeners wanted in conjunction with NPR’s flagship news program, “Morning Edition”. The Takeaway didn’t chase people away from their radios after Morning Edition as BPP had done.  But early Takeaway had different problems.

Namely, it rocketed through its segments with such speed listeners often didn’t have a chance to take in what they had just heard before they were hearing something new.  And although the two host format does add variety to the mix, it can also contribute to an already too fast pace by making listeners feel they are trying to follow a ping pong ball.  The news was good, the announcing was good, the format was good.

But now, it’s much better.  Hockenberry has taken over the announcing chair.  And in exchange for speed, the program is now “tight”.  Here’s the difference.  Any program that tries to smash too many stories into too little time or does too much experimenting with how it presents news can leave listeners under-informed and frustrated.  It can sound hurried, rushed and unsatisfying. And within that hurriedness there can be other problems.  Dead air, stories that don’t complete the storytelling arc and a flipness to reporting that can sound almost careless point not just to production problems but conceptual problems.

By contrast, calling a program “tight”, in production parlance, is high praise.  Tight means there is a flow between segments with transitions that make sense.  And it means those transitions are so seamless that you don’t notice them. It means the authority of the narration doesn’t talk down to you.  And it means that the mix of that narration, orchestrated with interviews, soundbytes, music and sound effects is credible.  Plus, The Takeaway’s partnerships with the BBC, the New York Times and WGBH in Boston along with Mr. Hockenberry’s presentation give it a width and depth that is rare even within public radio.

Also, Hockenberry is ballsy.  He eschews labels and rolls up to the assumptions society is all to eager to swallow about itself.  He is pushy, relatively loud (by public radio standards) and, dare I say, sometimes indelicate.  That is what makes him so great.  He is, probably, the coolest old white public radio dude ever.  But, I’ll bet he knows that.

Faith Sailee, the original BPP host, along with Celeste Headlee, Mr. Hockenberry’s original co-host have both moved on.  Ms. Sailee is a fixture on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.  And Ms. Headlee is an alternate host for Michelle Martin’s Tell Me More.  While I’m sure Mr. Hockenberry is not satisfied yet with The Takeaway, as a listener, I can see the program has traveled parsecs from where it started.  I am grateful for everything it went through and everyone who worked on it to get it there.

The term “old school” has become shorthand for the measure twice cut once mindset that typifies high quality work.  But sometimes, for some people, you have to go a little further. Back in the day, you called the best of the best an “Ol G“.  As I listen to The Takeaway, I am convinced Mr. Hockenberry has moved into the ranks of an Ol G.