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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"Truth with Edge"

NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dworkin is a very thoughtful guy who has the unenviable position of calling them as he sees them inside of public radio's temple of news. It is the sort of job that does not make him popular in the NPR newsroom, with management or with listeners.

So, his column today really caught my eye. For those of us who value hard hitting journalism but scream at reporting that hides in the petticoats of mushy balance, Dworkin at last opened the door to another way of speaking truth to power:

...if my e-mail box is any indication, more and more listeners are finding NPR's traditional approach to reporting both sides of an issue to be increasingly unsatisfactory and frustrating.

I sense a rising anxiety and impatience among large numbers of NPR listeners who urge that the network take a more activist -- or at least a more openly skeptical -- role in the media landscape of the United States.

Here's one example from listener Andrew Pearson:

"When you're sitting around next with NPR managers, remind them of this: give your listeners some truth with edge ... if you can't do that, if your managers are always reminding reporters that they have to be balanced, NPR ends up giving us junk food for the ears. On the one hand this and on the other hand that -- that is the evasion of journalistic responsibility."

Whenever I mention this idea of "truth with edge" around NPR, many of my colleagues dismiss it as more blather from the blogosphere.

This is too simplistic a response, dear colleagues.

My good friends at the fantastic public radio program Open Source kindly followed my tip on Dworkin's column. OS host extraordinaire Chris Lydon and the OS crew crafted a fascinating and thoughtful hour.

Go ahead, listen. And post your thoughts on the blog at Open Source.

The National Journal's William Powers makes a great point in the program about the shoeleather work of reporting that many people do perform in Washington, DC---and how hard it is to get excellent, nailed-to-the-wall stories.

But NYU's Jay Rosen also makes the point that journalism doesn't set out to identify clearly 'who's responsible?' (thank you, Firesign Theatre). Brent Cunningham from the Columbia Journalism Review argues that "The country doesn't know why we went to war" and he suggests that aggressive reporting on this be 'balanced' by coming out with conclusions and then have a rebuttal. He calls it 'serial balance.'

Perhaps. But Lydon uses the term 'relentless' and that is an attitude that is too frequently missing. Instead of copying what The New York Times identifies as the story, NPR needs to stake out stories and go after them like dogs gnawing raw meat.

(photo from Jim Sines)


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