The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Fallows on NPR

Following up on last night's message from WBEZ, James Fallows today linked back to a piece he wrote last October about why NPR matters:

In their current anti-NPR initiative, Fox and the Republicans would like to suggest that the main way NPR differs from Fox is that most NPR employees vote Democratic. That is a difference, but the real difference is what they are trying to do. NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced. NPR, like the New York Times, has an ombudsman. Does Fox? [I think the answer is No.]

... From the "State of the Media Report," by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism: "According to [industry analyst] estimates, the bulk of Fox News' spending was projected to be in its programming, as opposed to its general newsgathering and administrative costs. (The reverse is true for CNN). That appears to reflect the fact that the Fox News is built less around a system of bureaus internationally and domestically and more around prominent show hosts, particularly in prime time."

Fallows has a story in this month's Atlantic discussing today's media. In light of this week's events at NPR, it's timely.

The NPR kerfluffle

I'm about to turn in, but I thought this email from Chicago Public Radio that I just received noteworthy:

From: Torey Malatia, President and CEO of Chicago Public Media

Re: News from NPR

I’m writing this to you because you’re an investor in our work here at WBEZ, Chicago Public Media. We are entirely responsible to you, being a community-owned and governed public media institution.

I realize that National Public Radio has been in the news over the last two days.

NPR is a separate organization from us, of course. As a result, no one here has any more details about what has taken place than anyone else. We know what has been reported. But National Public Radio remains the nation’s premier producer of news programs that are sold to independent stations like us, so I wanted to pass on some reflections, and assurances to you about editorial standards.

This incident has resulted in considerable embarrassment for NPR—which is characterized by some as being biased against conservatives—and fueled the push for the defunding of Federal appropriation for the annual operating budgets of public radio and television stations.

This Federal appropriation supports stations, not producing companies like NPR and PRI. But, as I pointed out in a previous email to you, this hasn't stopped those who are advocating for the elimination of federal funding to misinform the debate by holding NPR’s perceived failings up as a reason for cutting support.

Here’s what I want to leave you with. We are aware that this story—along with Juan Williams’ firing, also by NPR some months ago—is being used as evidence by detractors that public broadcast stations are unworthy of federal support.

Do we think that a manager at NPR should have made a political stand publicly? Definitely not. Under no circumstances should a manager representing a product that is bought by public media stations offer his political point of view publicly.

The outcome may be that federal dollars no longer help support public stations.

But such distractions will not alter what is fact. As community institutions, public radio and television stations produce a great deal of the journalism practiced today that is worthy of the name.

Our staff here at WBEZ is rigorous in adhering to principles of fairness, thoroughness, and verification. Chicago Public Media is an institution devoted to fact-based journalism.

And I can tell you from the many times we have been fortunate enough to work directly with NPR journalists that those reporters and editors in Washington are also passionately devoted to well researched, detailed, fair reporting.

Public media journalism is not ordinary; it must be extraordinary. It doesn't see things in a common way, but in an uncommon, and potentially revealing way.

Journalism should function to expose and socialize issues, not to force agreement. Citizens can understand each other without agreeing with each other. They can find common ground without becoming of one mind.

Public media journalism rejects the notion of dualities. Human issues are complex. Thoughtful participation in a democracy requires us to at least understand multiple viewpoints of potentially equal validity. Some of these views we may never be able to embrace, but we should try to understand them as much as possible or we will never find common ground.

Our commitment to you is to produce our work—on the air, online, through our public events—in ways that advance journalism in our community as an extraordinary, uncommon public service.

Thank you,
Torey Malatia

My response:

I'm a Leadership Circle member because WBEZ provides the best local, national, and international news that a confirmed participant in the evidence-based community can hope for. NPR management screwed up the politics; crap. I wish they hadn't. But I have no desire to reduce my support for WBEZ nor for NPR.

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan today blogged about the difference between bias and propaganda. Does NPR have a bias? Does WBEZ? Of course. But both organizations work hard to present a fair and balanced view of the world. Other media, in particular those whose mottoes suggest fairness and balance, work hard to present their owners' views of the world irrespective of evidence. WBEZ management should trust that those of us who consistently support the station can tell the difference.

I'm unhappy with the NPR's self-inflicted wounds over the past few months, but I also know all organizations suffer institutional stupidity sometimes. Vivian Schiller did the right thing falling on her sword, as much as I hate to say it. But not for a moment did I think--nor did any other WBEZ donor who paid attention--that this reflected on Chicago Public Radio.

Consider this: what motive could large commercial interests have in choking off support for journalism? Not just NPR, but other organizations (the AP, the New York Times, even Al Jazeera). What motive could these commercial interests have in dissuading people from looking closely at the intertwining of government and business, in the spreading fjord between the wealthy and everyone else, in the perpetual sustenance of the military-industrial complex, in the ongoing assault on teachers?

Does NPR have a leftish bias? You betcha. Do they promote a leftish agenda? No. Because if they turned their bias into advocacy, their entire membership would demand they return to their journalistic roots. If you think we members don't know the difference, you should ask Juan Williams, who played politics so well most people outside the evidence-based community don't seem to care how much he deserved to get fired.

Thou shalt not kill

The State of Illinois has finally abolished the death penalty. The repeal takes effect July 1st, but Governor Pat Quinn ended it for all practical purposes today:

"Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it," Quinn wrote. "With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case."

"For the same reason, I have also decided to commute the sentences of those currently on death row to natural life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole or release," the governor wrote.

The ban comes about 11 years after then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions after 13 condemned inmates were cleared since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Ryan, a Republican, cited a Tribune investigative series that examined each of the state's nearly 300 capital cases and exposed how bias, error and incompetence undermined many of them.

Illinois joins 15 other states that no longer have (or never had) capital punishment. Note that the United States is the only developed country that still executes criminals. Other countries with capital punishment include our friends North Korea, China, Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe, and Syria. Countries that have abolished it include Venezuela, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, and Nicaragua—plus, of course, Canada, all of Europe except Belarus, Latvia, and Russia (though Russia has abolished it in practice), and the rest of NATO.

(An aside: apparently Illinois is the last place in the U.S. someone was executed for witchcraft, though this happened in 1779, before Illinois existed.)

I'm proud to have voted for Pat Quinn, and I'm glad my state has the moral courage to end this barbaric practice.

How many of us have passports?

More than 10%, it turns out; but of course it depends where you live:

One of the things I’ve often heard while living in the European Union is the meme that only 10% of Americans own a passport. (This assertion is usually followed by the quazi-urban legend that George W. Bush never had a passport before becoming president. This I’ve never been able to prove or disprove any satisfaction.)

I wondered aloud about this in my previous post, Work in Progress: The United States Explained' and a commentor, Alison, was nice enough to bring this data set about passports from the ever-awesome to my attention.

So, two thirds (68%) of New Jersey residents have passports, just over half (52%) of us in Illinois, and less than one-fifth (18%) in Mississippi. So...why is this?

Still a good view

This morning the view from my hotel room looked good. This evening it looks even better:

And this is using my little backup camera. Next week I'll bring the big guy. (Of course, next week I'll have a different hotel room, but I'm sure I'll find something to shoot in Boston.)

We're number...something

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed urging us to stop lying to ourselves about how great we are, and get on with fixing things:

America is great in many ways, but on a whole host of measures — some of which are shown in the accompanying chart — we have become the laggards of the industrialized world. Not only are we not No. 1 — “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” — we are among the worst of the worst.

Yet this reality and the urgency that it ushers in is too hard for many Americans to digest. They would prefer to continue to bathe in platitudes about America’s greatness, to view our eroding empire through the gauzy vapors of past grandeur.

The chart Blow attaches tells the story succinctly, and sadly.

More on teachers

Kain demolishes the Tribune's chart showing how long it takes to fire a tenured teacher:

First, this chart only applies to tenured teachers. Bad teachers can be weeded out much quicker before gaining tenure. School officials need to use this time window appropriately.

Second, the point of tenure is to protect teachers from arbitrarily being fired. Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts.

Money quote:

But the answer to that problem is not making all teachers easier to fire. This would undermine teacher recruitment. If you take away pensions, job security, tenure, the ability to unionize, and basically all the other perks of teaching, what you’re left with is a very difficult job with no job security, mediocre benefits, and relatively low pay. This is not how you attract good people to a profession, or how you guarantee a good education experience for your children.

I had an exchange with a friend after I posted a link to this op-ed on Facebook. He writes, "It is a good thing that nobody is talking about getting rid of pensions or benefits then...only contributing to the cost. Military and federal civil service workers do not have unions and they have fantastic pension and benefit packages. What value to unions add?" I responded:

Military and civil service salaries are set by Federal law, with COLA and other increases built in. Have you seen the scales, by the way? With all the money an E5 gets--or an O5 or GS12, for that matter--you can retire from either the civil service or military after 20 years with a pretty nice package.

But let's get to the point: the right are attacking teachers for, I believe, two reasons. First, because people generally don't know what teachers actually do (9 months? It's 11 months, just like everyone else), and second, because it's in the far-right's interest to have a less-educated population, making teachers a double threat. When someone has adequate education, he might learn logic or civics, and that would make it difficult for him to continue watching Fox News without yelling obscenities.

Even that wasn't quite the point. Unions protect people with little power (i.e., workers) from people with enormous power (i.e., employers). Do some unions sometimes overreach? Of course. Does that indict all unions? Of course not.

I would like more people to have better teachers if only so more people learned the history of labor in the U.S. from, say, 1870 to 1920. Do people bashing unions really want to go back to the days of The Jungle? I guarantee most of them don't, and the ones who do are the employers.

Update, from HP in Michigan: "Actually, there is a union for government workers - they have a bulletin board in the basement of the VA hopital where I work - the American Federation of Government Employees. They are part of the AFL-CIO."