When public radio goes bad

Last Friday, NPR’s All Things Considered aired its usual letters segment and many listeners complained that a five-minute segment on Mel Gibson’s latest transgressions was about five minutes too long. But NPR did not respond to the criticism that questioned whether public radio still stands for what public radio once stood for — smart information that can exercise the brain muscle.

Today, All Things Considered’s executive producer responded by way of a post by the NPR ombudsman. As they say on radio, we caution that what follows might be considered offensive to old-time public radio fans:

The Mel Gibson story is totally defensible,” said Christopher Turpin, ATC’s executive producer. “To me Mel Gibson is a huge international star. It’s a story that everyone is talking about. I was in the coffee shop and what were people talking about in line? They were talking about Mel Gibson. So I don’t think we can pretend these things don’t happen. I think because there’s a huge amount of business involved, there are very interesting questions about the entertainment industry, what happens to celebrities when their personality or character is undermined by their personal behavior.”

“Good,” as the man once said, “grief.”

Fortunately, Alicia Shepard, NPR’s ombudsman doesn’t let her employer off lightly:

While I understand that NPR programs struggle to find the right balance between serious news and tapping into the zeitgeist in the story of the moment, I agree with many who complained that NPR could have skipped this story and lost nothing. After all, NPR has built its reputation on in-depth reporting of important news and arts and entertainment coverage that rises above the ordinary.

Listeners generally do not turn their dials to public radio for the kind of gossip featured at the grocery store check-out counter. At the very least, if ATC really believed this story deserved airtime, something less than 4 minutes and 31 seconds would have done the job.

  • Jon

    Having recently switched jobs from an office where most people listed to NPR to one where perhaps no one else does, it is handy on occassion to know what “news” stories most of the country might be thinking about. And when NPR starts to feel itself above covering a story that many Americans would listen to (even if only as a “guilty pleasure”), doesn’t it start to earn its elitist stereotype?

    I do think it is old news that Gibson is unstable, and I really don’t care about the happenings of his life, but I do find some value in knowing that it is being talked about. That said, 4:31 is longer than needed.

  • http://portofdangerbay.com/ Jack Boardman

    I missed that segment. Call me an elitist if you wish, but if I want to hear that kind of story…commercial radio is full of alternatives. I listen to public radio for more substance than that.

  • Bob Collins

    //Americans would listen to (even if only as a “guilty pleasure”), doesn’t it start to earn its elitist stereotype?

    I think the question then is how you define “elitist” If it means smart, intelligent, well educated why is that a bad thing? There was a time when people actually aspired to that in this country. And I think by and large, public broadcasters have run from the label rather than embrace it.

    The fact is that news organizations of all stripes make decisions about what stories to cover every day. They all determine that they are “above” some stories.

    News organizations shouldn’t reflect what people already know. It should be telling them something they don’t.

    How are we any better off, how are we any better informed, what impact on our future does it have to know that Mel Gibson is a lousy husband, and hyperventilates while dropping “f bombs” on a woman?

  • tired

    Frankly I still haven’t forgiven NPR/MPR for the format change of taking breaks/doing program promotions at 20 minutes and 40 minutes after the hour (Or, adding a third half to every hour).

    If I wanted to listen to stories about Mel, I’d tune to Entertainment Tonight and tune out the pledge drive.

  • BJ

    Since I only listen (ok not 100% true) when Bob is on the air and that mostly comes from the google listen feed I have setup – and that seems rare these days – knowing that MPR/NPR cover ‘normal’ news stories is good to know.

    Personally “telling them something they don’t” know is good. But I really don’t care that much about some village in some country I have never heard of either (for what seems like way longer than 4:31).

  • Bob Collins

    Back when I was in the commercial side of the business — back when commercial radio had a committment to news — I often told my public radio friends. “You keep talking about longer stories. Longer doesn’t make it better. Longer makes it longer. Better makes it better.”

    They mostly looked at me funny.

  • tired

    Bob, shorter can limit better.