Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Media: How Much Edge is Appropriate?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For all the time I spent in Seattle, I spent less than two hours listening to the alternative to National Public Radio's dominant Morning Edition, American Public Media's The Takeaway, which airs there early (5-7) on KUOW2 91.7 FM and somewhat longer (5-8) on KBCS 91.3 FM. Besides sleeping in, I wanted to see how the commercial stations I had grown up listening to--KIRO (now FM) and KOMO (now AM and FM) were sounding in their morning shows, which wasn't terribly enlightening--KIRO continues its slow decline and KOMO sounds pretty much like it has since Bill Yeend moved to mornings there in 2003.

I was rather impressed (see the 27-April-2008 entry at the linked page) with the debut of The Takeaway. However, as I predicted at the time, I have more locally-relevant programming to listen to in the morning, and I'm not really the targeted audience anyway, so I haven't been listening to the program for the past two years. I couldn't even tell you when Celeste Headlee replaced Adaora Udoji as co-host (okay, I read it was September 2009, after Udoji decided to become a full-time mother in May 2009).

In my brief sampling this trip, the program seemed essentially the same to me. The near-constant "sounders" of FOX-style sound effects didn't really add anything to the program for me, for example, but neither did they annoy me. They took on hard news, and the pacing was appropriate for Generation Y.

What really stuck in my mind, though, was a comment in the bottom-of-the-hour newscast. After reporting that Senator Orrin Hatch had stated that he probably would not have voted today for Thurgood Marshall to be confirmed on the Supreme Court, the anchor commented: "That sounds like something the senator needs to deal with internally."

My first reaction, probably much like the reaction of much of the show's target audience (educated 20-somethings and 30-somethings) was "That's about right." But, then I began to analyze whether that was really an appropriate thing for the news anchor to say. He wasn't really criticizing Hatch--the comment wasn't "what a dumb thing to say" and in fact was actually pretty astute analysis--Hatch does need to grapple with whether taking the position that Thurgood Marshall was not qualified for the Supreme Court is consistent with his principles, never mind its political viability. While it's not an idea that while I have not seen specifically polled, it would seem to be a minority opinion even among Republicans (a majority of whom do identify him as a "civil rights icon"), never mind the population at large.

Yet, by making the comment at all, the implication is that Hatch's mental state or judgment is questionable, which is not a proper journalistic thing to do without explanation. Even an introductory phrase would have done the trick, something like "Considering Marshall's popularity in the general population, the senator may be expected to engage in further introspection on this position."

The Takeaway may be trying to be "edgier" by making such comments after news stories, but it's in danger of losing its journalistic integrity in the process.

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