Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My People! My People!

Driving across New York State on my way to Northampton, Massachusetts, I checked in to the local NPR stations. This is my favorite part of driving around the United States. NPR affiliates tend to have quirky, local programs hosted by the town intelligentsia/elders.

WAMC is the affiliate in this neck of the public media woods, and sure enough, I hear the telltale tone of local hosts talking about their issue of choice. It was the Media Project. This is going to be good, I thought. I love listening to analysis of media issues, especially from a local perspective.

I was soon to be disappointed. The discussion focused on the woes of the media industry and its effect on journalism in print and broadcast. A few items:

1. The host, Rex Smith, talking about how much he loves advertising. True, advertising has paid for some pretty good journalism. It's also paid for some lazy reporting, serious breaches of ethics, and my personal favorite, led us into a war based on misinformation. One thing was clear: Mr. Smith is holding on to the cultural legacy of advertising supported journalism. I'm not saying there isn't a place for it; however, there are alternatives. Which leads me to point 2:

2. Making the case for alternatives. Mr. Smith's partner in crime, WTEN's Elisa Streeter, at one point glibly responded to a valid criticism of profit driven journalism, with "what's the alternative". I awaited the academic's response, who also turns out to be the executive director of WAMC, Alan Chartock. Here was the moment where a public radio executive could make his case and espouse the ability of public media to take up the mantle. But he had no alternative to offer, which saddened me, but did not necessarily surprise me. Mr. Chartock is one of several public media administrators who have little to offer in the way of innovation.

The broadcast encapsulated in a nutshell the problems facing news managers, who are trapped in the thinking of conventional news production, and public media leaders, like Mr. Chartock, who appear weekly to make curmudgeonly comments about the state of journalism.

These are my people: public radio people. Except that they're not. One came from a newspaper, another was a commerical television anchor, and the lone public radio voice didn't have the knowledge to make a coherent argument about what next steps could be taken to bolster journalism, to bolster public media, to redefine the flow of information.

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