Lately I’ve been puzzled by the nature of the news coverage on National Public Radio. But on Friday a friend was able to arrange for me to sit in on the daily editorial conference where they decide what stories to air that evening, and what angle they’ll approach the stories from. Jack made me promise to sit there with my notebook and keep my mouth shut. I thought it would be a tough promise to keep, but I was so busy scribbling that I couldn’t have said anything anyway. Here, for what it’s worth, are my notes.
Walt: I think we ought to run something on the Padilla story. Ashcroft pushed it pretty hard, and made a big deal of the ‘dirty bomb’ threat.
Trevor: How about something on the name thing? He calls himself Abdullah al Muhajir, but the government keeps referring to him as Jose Padilla. We could check on whether he ever legally changed his name.
Walt: That’s not a bad angle. We could get a psychologist to talk about the significance of name changes, do a follow-up story on prison converts to Islam. I like it!
Nigel: What about approaching it from the Puerto Rican angle? We could interview other New York Puerto Ricans and they could talk about how they love this country, are shocked to see one of their own turn against it, et cetera.
Walt: That’s good. It’s got the ethnic diversity, the melting pot idea, and it plucks all the right patriotic chords. Donna?
Donna: I know I’m just a summer intern, but isn’t there really just ONE story here? I mean, the guy’s a US citizen—born in the USA—and Bush and Ashcroft are throwing him in a military brig with no charges, no lawyer, no evidence, and basically saying they’ll hold him as long as they want! If they can do that, the Constitution goes out the window! You might as well use it as toilet paper!
Walt: Donna, can you tone down the inflammatory rhetoric?
Donna: Sorry. I just think there’s a danger that running all these peripheral stories will distract people from what’s really important.
Walt: Suppose you let people who’ve covered the news for thirty years decide if something is ‘peripheral,’ as you put it. We’re not into partisan politics here. Our job is to present the news objectively, and we like to come at it with an offbeat approach that gives our coverage a certain cachet.
Donna: What do you mean, partisan politics? It’s the Constitution we’re talking about, for cryin’ out loud! That thing that’s supposed to be the foundation of our democracy!
Walt: [Exasperated] We’ve all heard your opinion now, Donna. Could we move on? Anybody else got any ideas?
Heloise: Padilla did so much traveling. I wonder if we could do one of those travel-in-his-footsteps stories where we retrace his route, talk about tourist accommodations and little-known scenic spots people might want to visit along the way.
Basil: If we did that, we could accompany it with an international cuisine feature. Highlight exotic local dishes, have people with interesting accents give their recipes, and so forth.
Walt: [Laughs] You guys are always looking to get away from the office, aren’t you?
Donna: [Belligerent now] If you’re going to do an international story, why don’t you do one on how this story, and the war on terrorism in general, are being covered in countries not controlled by US media conglomerates? There’s a whole other world out there that thinks we’ve lost our freaking minds!
Walt: [Really ticked] Donna, this isn’t the place for you to air your own particular adolescent views. We’re just a bunch of team players, putting on the best damned news show anywhere, so could you suit up or shut up!
Trevor: [Attempting to smooth things over] Walt, maybe the Constitutional issue would be worth looking at. On a scale of one to ten, I’d give it at least a six.
Walt: As long as we’re talking numbers, Trevor, suppose you remember what the administration’s piece of our budget happens to be.
Trevor: [Laughing] As if I could forget! Think of it this way, Walt. We could lead off with Ashcroft’s announcement and the administration’s position, and then get some law school professors to comment on them.
Walt: [Grudgingly] That’d do it, I guess. We could get the usual commentators—Stanford, Yale, the University of Chicago….
Donna: [Over the edge] Chicago! Stanford! You can’t get any real critique from those guys! They’re spawning grounds for the administration! They’re to universities what Enron was to business!
Walt: [With exaggerated patience] Listen, Donna, why don’t you run out and get us all some coffee and doughnuts while the grownups finish putting together the show?
© Tony Russell, 2002