Saturday, April 25, 2009

NPR, media, and stooopit

I don't listen to NPR often enough anymore to get the semi-regular delving into stupidity that I used to. It's not the news itself, it's how some of those boneheads mangle things in their reporting.

A few years ago, a guy was beaten to death with a baseball bat. I don't even remember the details. The thing I do remember was the whitebread NPR mouthpiece who had to tell us ignorant listeners that "wassup, nigga?" is the equivalent of "hail fellow well-met!" (apparently it had some bearing upon the trial of the killers). Hearing this hopelessly white "reporter" trying to say "wassup, nigga?" had me laughing for hours afterward. Think of the silly liberal white guy neighbor on "The Jeffersons" (or was it "Good Times"?), so desperate to show how hip and involved he was, who couldn't even say "right on!" properly.

What reminded me of that was this post, Ten Things I Hate About NPR.

Until my own example above, though, my previous "dumbest thing I've heard on NPR" happened back in the late 90s. Some reporter woman went to a little village in South America, some place where people make their own clothes and such. She's looking over a rug or blanket woven by the old woman she's interviewing and suddenly pops out with something along the lines of, "What about this, it looks kind of primitive, did you make this?" Sheesh. Stay classy!

I think that's when I started thinking that there's not so much a liberal or conservative bias in certain areas of reporting, so much as a stupid or ignorant bias. Reporters go to reporting school or whatever, and seem to suddenly think that they know more about stuff than most people. If they know so much, why do they get so much WRONG in the stories they report on?

MSNBC used to run a late-night "investigative report" show--your basic "video clip" show where some voice-over type reads a script while all sorts of exciting things are going on. In their "Are air shows DANGEROUS?" offering, they showed clips of aircraft doing all sorts of cool stuff, including crashing in exciting fireballs that seem to engulf a terrified audience. Makes for good TV, I suppose, but the person who cut the video and the numbskull who narrated should have gotten together to make sure they had some details right.

The narrator tells us that every stunt you see is made up of one or more of the three basic maneuvers--the loop, the roll, and the spin. Sounds good--but what they SHOWED as he's talking is a loop, a roll, and a roll. The supposedly-spinning plane was performing the same maneuver as the previous one, but at a different angle and direction. It's not like they didn't have footage of it--they apparently just didn't know enough about airplanes to tell the difference.

So how are these people qualified to tell me about airplanes, let alone air show safety?

They're not--but they know that. The so-called "investigation" was never intended to be anything more than a clip-show, like the "most exciting police chases EVER!!! Volume 3" stuff. Its real purpose is to get you to watch so that maybe you'll sit through the commercials. They can bring in a few experts to shine it up, but it's not really supposed to be educational or informative.

Could it be that NPR--and most of what passes for "news"--is more of the same?

Viva MP3!


  1. Stories about the handicrafts of a South American village aren't meant as hard news, they're human interest filler. The actual NPR news shows, for example 4-6am (central), don't include fluffy-bunny stuff. The Saturday lineup, of course, is full of those annoying things, but then NPR is exactly like PBS, and to keep receiving donations from people, they have to throw in such sops.

    Anyway, NPR was the only major source of information from abroad immediately post 9/11 simply because they were the only news organization that had enough people overseas who understood world events to be able to deal with the story. No amount of "This I Believe" or that god-awful show on Saturday with the guy referring to Act I, Act II etc ("This American Life"?) can detract from the news during the news hours.

    I can't imagine any of the news people saying that "hail fellow well-met" line; are you sure that wasn't a commentator of some sort? They do have a serious problem with supposedly humorous editorials from non-staff people, generally columnists from the LA Times or something.

  2. This guy was a reporter of some sort; he wasn't trying to be funny. Maybe he was new, maybe he was just tone-deaf.

    He wasn't one of the "name" anchors, though.

  3. There's a book you might like to read, _Breaking the News_ by James Fallows. It was written in 1996 and discusses exactly what you're talking about, only he sets a lot of it in the context of the '94 elections to show the talking heads fail to report substantive news.

  4. Sorry about that half comment. All of a sudden the wind kicked up, the rain was coming down horizontally and TV announced three shear markers immediately over my neighborhood so I thought it seemed better to shut down.

    Anyhow, Fallows has some interesting comparisons between questions asked by reporters and those asked by voters at town hall style events, with the primary difference being that the news people kept casting everything in political terms (will your support for the health plan help your party take more seats) vs. people trying to get practical details on how things will affect them (what kind of care would I get with your plan).

    On the surface, that's a different point than being just plain ignorant or too cutsy, but underneath it's all one problem, going for the easy story based on how someone feels about something rather than performing in-depth analysis of a given topic.