Commentary Magazine

Press Man: The OTM Machine

After several decades as an incurable listener to NPR, overcome with admiration and self-loathing by turns, I’ve developed some pretty strong opinions about its on-air personnel. By my calculation, Garrison Keillor has the scariest voice in radio, public or commercial—indeed, I predict his blood-curdling prairie purr will soon replace Vincent Price’s spooky baritone as the default option for frightening children in theme-park haunted mansions and future episodes of Scooby Doo. Scott Simon, host of “Weekend Edition Saturday,” has the most precious voice. Robert Krulwich, the onetime economics reporter who seems incapable of grasping the most elementary concepts of economics, sounds like he thinks he has the most amusing voice. (He’s wrong.)

And the most annoying voice? Nice of you to ask. It’s got to be the blackboard scrape of Brooke Gladstone. She’s the co-host, alongside Bob Garfield, of NPR’s “On the Media,” an hour of media criticism heard weekly on member stations throughout the country. Like most shows on public radio, “On the Media” crosses a minimum threshold of professional competence and sometimes airs stories of genuine merit. But it’s interesting mainly because it answers the question, “What happens when a notoriously liberal media organization takes it upon itself to cast a critical eye on other notoriously liberal media organizations?”

The answer, not surprisingly, is: “Not much.”

In my alternating currents of admiration and self-loathing, OTM triggers the latter much more often than the regard I frequently feel for “All Things Considered” or “Morning Edition.” Often it’s what Brooke Gladstone says that annoys me more than how she says it. Not long ago I was listening to OTM—“Shoot me now,” I told myself more than once—when she read this intro to a story about press freedom in foreign lands.

“Americans,” she said, “take freedom of information—or at least the idea of it—for granted. Since 1967, we’ve enjoyed the right, theoretically, to request and receive government information in something like a timely manner, and in the last decade or so, so-called FOIA or right-to-know laws…”

The italics are mine, but only because the medium Brooke Gladstone works in doesn’t accommodate italics. Trust me, the italics were there in her voice—the aural equivalent of an arched eyebrow. It’s a small thing, I know, and I’m willing to give her the so-called, but the smug knowingness implied in that theoretically and the at least the idea of it perfectly reflects the squirrelly method of OTM and, to a lesser extent, public radio as a whole. I said “Shoot me now” one more time and turned to address the radio: If, Ms. Gladstone (I get formal when I’m huffy), you do not believe that Americans enjoy freedom of information or have the right to request it from the government, or if you think the government is not delivering it in a timely manner, then say so! Enough with the insinuations! Out with it!

Listening to Brooke Gladstone and OTM, I often succumb to fits of italics. But she always starts it.

Any candid expression of opinion on the part of its hosts isn’t the OTM method. Their point of view is impressed upon the listener—inexorably, unendingly—by hints and indirection, as much by the things left out as the things dropped in. Getting the host to interview reporters from other news organizations about their original reporting is basic NPR methodology—it helps keep the NPR travel budget down—and much of each edition of OTM is taken up by interviews of this kind, not only with reporters but with people that the hosts and producers have deemed experts. The choice of interviewees is never subtle.

Last summer, for example, during Parliament’s hearings into the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals, Gladstone brought out a columnist from Reuters as expert commentator. Reuters is, of course, a competitor to Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. The columnist informed listeners that Murdoch has “clearly completely obliterated any semblance of independence of the Wall Street Journal.” And the Journal “was a very precious thing for many, many years,” he added, wiping the crocodile tears from his eyes. When a “performance artist” invaded the hearings and shoved a shaving-cream pie in Murdoch’s face, OTM found a left-wing activist to don the mantle of disinterested observer. He called the act “beautiful, elegant, appropriate.” I’d like to see him say that to Mrs. Murdoch.

Please note: Neither Gladstone nor Garfield said the pie-shoving was “elegant.” They’re just the impartial hosts who managed to find the only person on earth who would say that. Opinions aren’t their thing. In the same way, neither host took a position on Occupy Wall Street, which was, if you’ll forgive me, a preOccupation of the show for several months. The furthest Gladstone would go was to inform listeners that the message of the famously message-less movement was “economic justice for the vulnerable.” Who knew? She also took to calling Zuccotti Park an “iconic locale.”

But that’s it. For the heavy lifting of historical analysis, we got the left-wing historian Michael Kazin. For the public-policy implications, Garfield interviewed a left-wing congressman who has proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. To explain the press angle, the hosts brought in an Atlantic monthly blogger. (Now there’s a job title to send William Dean Howells spinning.) The blogger noted how much more comprehensive and timely foreign newspapers had been in their coverage of Occupy, compared with their U.S. counterparts. She cited, with charming insouciance, a handful of left-wing papers: Le Monde, El Pais, and Die Zeit, which devoted “six pages to sort of discuss the possible revolution in America.” She also noticed that Xinhua, the Chinese news service, was all over the story, too.

There aren’t many right-wingers filing in and out of the OTM studios—any, for that matter. Wikileaks has been often discussed on OTM, as you’d expect from a show of media criticism. But the discussion has been only among experts and reporters sympathetic to the Wikileaks enterprise. Perhaps Gladstone, Garfield, and their producers thought another debate among conservatives and liberals over national security would be a yawn. Or maybe they never noticed that their guests were all in general agreement with them, and with each other—running the full spectrum of respectable opinion, from A to B.

“You have right-wing news organizations, left-wing ones, and ones in the center, like public radio, which may commit fairness bias,” Gladstone once said on the air. She describes “fairness bias”—lovely phrase!—as “giving two unequal sides equal weight in order to duck the accusation of bias.” It’s a mistake you won’t find OTM making.

The OTM method is the liberalism that dare not speak its name, and it doesn’t help that it’s rendered with NPR’s brand of humorless jocosity, that chilling, forced cutesiness of “Car Talk.” OTM is “Car Talk” for listeners who fetishize the New York Times instead of their 1993 Volvos. The show’s method, however, is much older than the show or the network that carries it. Journalists used to call it the Witcover Rule, after the political reporter Jules Witcover, who in the late 1960s was once reprimanded by his editors at the Los Angeles Times for injecting too much opinion into a news story. They sent him back for more interviews—not to provide balance, but to allow him to write his story in the words of others who shared his views, thus preserving himself unblemished by mere opinion.

I remember a single instance in which OTM broke free of the Witcover Rule. It was the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. You could hear the creaking joints as Bob Garfield got up on his hind legs. “Led by the New York Times,” Garfield opined, “much of the U.S. media allowed themselves to be suckered by disinformation from Vice President Dick Cheney….The press would go on to regurgitate fantasy accounts of battlefield valor…” and so on.

It was scurrilous, ignorant, self-righteous, insulting—and thoroughly refreshing. For a moment the bias erupted for every listener to hear. Entranced, I didn’t once say “shoot me now.” I wanted to hug him.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, who wrote last month about Steve Jobs, is senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College.

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