Quietly, Bob Edwards walks away

Red Barber with NPR’s Bob Edwards, Oct. 22, 1992. (AP Photo)

An announcement that didn’t get a lot of notice when it was issued on Friday a week ago prompts us to recall one of the most turbulent moments in the history of public radio — the day NPR canned Bob Edwards, the longtime host of Morning Edition.

He had hosted the program for more than 24 years — and was, arguably, NPR’s most visible and popular employee — when NPR decided to remove him from the program by making him a “senior correspondent” in April 2004.

Edwards, who had been in the business long enough to get the message, got the message and bolted for satellite radio. Legions of fans promised to follow him, vowing to never forgive NPR. It was ugly.

A year later, the audience for Morning Edition had grown by 800,000 listeners, and although some people swore off public radio forever, Edwards never again occupied a hefty part of the public consciousness, not anywhere near the clout he wielded at NPR anyway.

On Friday, he announced he’s done with his Sirius/XM show.


Edwards suggested he might do a podcast, but he didn’t sound as if he’s walking away from media, which is a good thing.

His 2003 lecture at the University of Kentucky, which some people insist is what got him pulled from the host chair at NPR, still stands as a declaration against the monopoly of broadcasting power.

Kentucky journalism and broadcasting have changed drastically since I left here 33 years ago. Back then, you owned it. Your major newspapers, television and radio stations were owned and operated by Kentuckians. Today home ownership is pretty much confined to small-town weeklies, KET and the public radio stations.

Your major daily newspapers are now provincial outposts for absentee corporate owners who expect profit margins of 20 to 30 percent. The managers of your TV stations report to bosses far away who care less about the stations’ community service and journalistic exposes than they care about how those stations are contributing to the share price of corporate stock.

Your radio stations, which once took pride in covering local news, just don’t do that anymore because they don’t have to.As for your friendly local radio personalities, a few of them still are — local, that is.

A great many are not local, but they’re pretending to be. It’s called voice-tracking. A fellow sits in a studio in Birmingham and does the same show for dozens of stations, occasionally dropping in some weather and other tidbits about your town that he’s plucked off the Internet. Half a dozen or more stations in a single town are owned by the same company.

An individual or a corporation used to be limited to five stations nationally and no two in the same town. Today, a single company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,250 stations across the country and is out buying more. One of the stations it owns is WHAS, the clear-channel, 50,000-watt boomer that I can hear in Washington when the atmospherics are right.

I used to listen on my way to work at 1:30 in the morning, just to hear a little bit of home. But now the man doing the overnight program on WHAS is nowhere near Louisville, and he may never have stepped foot on Kentucky soil in his life. He’s doing a program — from somewhere — for all the Clear Channel stations. So unless the Cards are playing late at night, there is no reason for me to ever again listen to WHAS.

It’s kind of a cruel, ironic joke. The rise of cable TV and the Internet were supposed to democratize the media and give us many voices and numerous points of view. Instead, market forces and deregulation have clobbered diversity. The networks and cable channels have the same owners — Hollywood studios, mainly — and the most popular Web sites for news are those of news organizations firmly established before the Web was spun.

We are currently a nation at war and the free flow of information and ideas is never more important than it is at times like these. But monopolies choke that flow, allowing only the information and ideas that facilitate that other flow — the flow of dollars into their pockets.

As exhibit A, I give you the Dixie Chicks, one of the hottest musical acts in the country — or at least they were until one of the Chicks, in a bit of anti-war fervor, said they were ashamed that the President is from Texas. The backlash against the Chicks for making that remark is fine if it comes from ex-fans who say they won’t buy any more records by the Dixie Chicks. The marketplace is a respectable forum for freedom of expression.

The Chicks have a right to their opinions. Music fans have a right to tell the chicks to go to hell and to boycott their concerts and refuse to buy their records. Free speech is never really free — it always costs something. But here’s what’s wrong with this picture.

The backlash against the Chicks is spearheaded not by fans, but by Clear Channel Radio, owner of 1,250 radio stations. Clear Channel is based in Texas. Clear Channel loves George W. Bush. Clear Channel would like the administration of George W. Bush to remove all remaining restrictions on the ownership of media properties. That is exactly what the Bush administration is considering.

The Federal Communications Commission, chaired by Mike Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is reviewing the last remaining rules restricting media ownership. Before he became FCC chairman, Mike Powell was a communications lawyer, making fabulous sums of money lobbying on behalf of the broadcast industry — the industry he’s now supposed to be regulating.

When he is finished regulating the broadcasting industry, Mike Powell will return to — the broadcasting industry. Now how tenacious is Mike Powell going to be in regulating the broadcasting industry while he is on this temporary hiatus from the broadcasting industry?

But back to Clear Channel, which daily tells Bush and Powell that it loves them. Is Clear Channel’s move on those Dixie Chicks an expression of patriotism or a business decision? Should Clear Channel have the right to ban the Chicks from its 1,250 stations? I think what individuals do is fine — burn the CDs if you want. What industry does is another matter.

Clear Channel can say the Dixie Chicks are tools of Saddam if it wants to, but it should not be allowed to kill the livelihood of any recording artist based on politics.

We’ve had ugly periods in our history having to do with blacklisting of people our politicians didn’t like. I won’t spend a lot of time telling you about what actors, directors, producers, journalists and others went through in the Red scares of the 1940s and ’50s.

Creative people went to prison, had their careers ruined, their marriages broken up, and, yes, there were suicides, all because politicians found communism, or rather the fear of communism, a fruitful political issue. Ladies and gentlemen, you do not want to return to that era.

Witchburning is an ugly chapter in our history. It should not be revived, even if it’s good for business.

Here’s Exhibit B, taken from a story in The Washington Post of March 28. A Cleveland company called McVay Media describes itself as the largest radio consulting firm in the world. McVay developed a memo to its client stations advising them on how to use the war to their best business advantage.

Called a “War Manual,” the memo says the stations should “Get the following production pieces into the studio NOW . . . patriotic music that makes you cry, salute, get cold chills! Go for the emotion. . . . Air the National Anthem at a specified time each day as long as the U.S.A. is at war.” The article also quotes Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers,a journal for the radio talk business. Harrison says, “It’s counterintuitive for hosts and program directors to pay too much attention to the antiwar movement right now.”

Thirty-one years ago, I worked at WTOP, the all-news station in Washington. According to the Post article, WTOP’s Web site featured links to the following websites: Thankthetroops.com (“Ways to Help Troops,” “Sign Up to Thank Military,” “National Military Family Association,” “U.S. Central Command”), the home pages of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and the Department of Defense, the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, and email support to military. Another box read: “Support Our Troops. Send a greeting, a thank-you card or a donation.” Balancing all that were links to two peace groups.

As for television, here’s what the Post article had to say:

“The influential television news consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates recently put it in even starker terms: Covering war protests may be harmful to a station’s bottom line. In a survey released . . . on the eve of war, the firm found that war protests were the topic that tested lowest among 6,400 viewers across the nation. Magid says only 14 percent of respondents said TV news wasn’t paying enough attention to anti-war demonstrations and peace activities; just 13 percent thought that in the event of war, the news should pay more attention to dissent.”

Here again, the lack of diversity among broadcast owners is a factor in what information gets to the American public. Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project is quoted by the Post as saying, “with increasing concentration of ownership, if one or two big companies are using the same corporate-wide policy, or relying on the same consultants, there aren’t effective competitive forces” to ensure alternative opinions.

Many Americans feel they’re getting propaganda from the so-called embedded journalists in Iraq. Without question, the embedding program has been a PR bonanza for the military. And it’s not just me saying that — it’s the military, which is wondering why it didn’t think of this several wars ago.

I was one of those complaining that the military wasn’t providing access. Now they are, so I can’t very well complain. I do, however, want to see the embedded reporters supplemented by independent reporters, who are unfortunately referred to by the military as “unilaterals.”

Also, editors and news directors have to make sure that the stories filed by embedded reporters are given some context — and that readers, viewers and listeners are reminded that these stories from the front are little snapshots of a given unit at a particular place and time — they are not The War.

What we’re seeing on TV is the marriage of access with advanced technology. One morning I saw Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld answer questions at the Pentagon followed by Iraq’s information minister delivering a live harangue from Baghdad.

There were pictures of missile launches from American ships and pictures of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire moments later. Fires in oil fields. Iraqi troops surrendering, U.S. troops in a firefight and, of course, tank-cam. A live picture taken from a camera mounted on the lead tank of the invasion force as it raced north through the desert on its way to Baghdad.

You just have to marvel at what technology has meant for war reporting and note how it contrasts with our images of Pearl Harbor, Midway and Normandy.

But remember what the news looked like in the days and weeks before the war began? Television news was consumed with the fate of Elizabeth Smart and other kidnapped girls. There was a lot about that woman who accidentally ran over her husband three or four times with the family car until his cheating butt was good and dead. And then there were all those interviews with the yutzes who are on those so-called “reality” TV shows.

In other words, what passed for news was a lot of stuff that had no bearing on your life whatsoever. But it was titillating, and it might have kept you from reaching for the zapper and tuning in the ballgame — which is the whole point of doing tabloid stories and celebrity gossip and calling it news.

It was the same before Sept. 11. We had spent an entire summer consumed with Gary Condit and Chandra Levy, a so-called story that mattered only to the Levy family and the voters in Condit’s district in California. Then unimaginable tragedy hits New York City and Arlington, Va., and we all have to go back to journalism. Of course, it didn’t last long. Thank God for Brittany and the Osbournes. Then we had Ben and J-Lo to relieve our distress over the break-up of Tom and Nicole.

This war will pass and journalism will return to the trivial, the sensational and that which we really need not know to get through a day. Did Robert Blake think there were blanks in that gun? Does Winona Ryder have a receipt for that outfit? A Father’s Day frolic with Michael Jackson. Do trick-or-treaters ring the bell at Phil Spector’s house?

No one can be blamed these days for not knowing what passes for a news program or who might be a legitimate journalist. The old rules have been tossed out the window. The definitions have no meaning anymore. There used to be lines no serious journalist ever crossed. Those lines are pretty blurry these days. Television hires political operatives and makes them anchors. CNN got one of its anchors from the cast of “NYPD Blue.”

If the “Larry King Show” is the program of choice for politicians, then aren’t Larry and I in the same business? Young people don’t know that there were once people who were strictly entertainers and others who were strictly reporters. I read a comment by a radio consultant who said young people believe Howard Stern does a public affairs program because he sometimes talks about stories in the news.

It was nearly a career-ending moment for me when I read that. What’s the use of getting up at 1 o’clock in the morning to do news for that generation? Maybe I should become Master-Flash Bob E and rap the news.

But I really do want to work for that generation. After all, they’re the ones who are going to have to decide what to do about all of us boomers when we retire. I’m afraid they’re going to conclude that there’s just so many of us clogging up the golf courses that maybe euthanasia deserves another look.

I want them to be informed. They bring to mind a quote from Sydney Biddle Barrows. Do you remember Sydney? She was the Mayflower Madam, so-called because she was the product of several high society families and her hookers catered to a high class clientele. Or as Sydney put it, “I was in the wrong business, but I did it with dignity.”

Sydney had a lot of great quotes. She told her employees, “Never say anything on the phone that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear at your trial.” Sydney had this notion that the international bankers and other big spenders she cultivated wanted a young woman who would not just service them in the traditional way, but would also engage them in a conversation that would be up to their standards. . . .

Young people don’t have to know all the particulars of the Iran/contra scandal, but they should know that there is an International Monetary Fund, and they should know what it does. Apparently, many do — because the IMF can’t have a meeting these days without hordes of U-2 fans storming the building demanding Third World debt forgiveness.

If the young are getting their news only from MTV, who can blame them? Where are the role models for something better? Well, apparently not among the White House press corps.

Did you see that news conference last month? First of all you should never miss a George W. Bush news conference because they are as rare as comet sightings. This President has been in office for more than two years and he’s held exactly eight news conferences. At the same point in his presidency, George Bush the elder had held 58 news conferences. Of the current President’s eight news conferences, only two have been in prime time.

But last month’s news conference was remarkable for more than the fact that it happened at all. Reporters were ushered into the East Room in pairs — summoned two-by-two, like the animals boarding Noah’s Ark. Once the news conference got underway, the President did not recognize reporters who raised their hands. Instead, he called their names from a list prepared by news secretary Ari Fleischer, the man who told reporters after Sept. 11 that they should watch what they say.

When CNN’s John King attempted to ask a question, the President told him to wait because, the President said, “This is scripted.” Then he called the next name on his list: John King. Then he taunted King for daring to ask a multi-part question.

Among the names not called — and perhaps not on Ari’s Fleischer’s list of approved questioners — were the reporters from Time, The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek and Kentucky’s own Helen Thomas, who for decades has had the distinction of asking the first question and then closing the news conference by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President,” which became the title of her autobiography.

But Helen is no longer a reporter. She’s now a columnist, paid to give opinions, and one of her recent opinions is that George W. Bush “is the worst President ever.” Clearly, she did not watch what she said. Another White House tradition, the follow-up question, also appears to be history.

We can fault the President and Fleischer for all that — and I certainly do — but they are only part of the dynamic. You can’t hold a press conference without the press, yet President Bush nearly did. Where were they that night?

Some of those whose names were called might have bothered to ask a decent question. With the nation about to enter a war that’s decidedly unpopular everywhere but here, no one asked the hard questions. Instead, the President was asked if America should pray.

He was asked if he worried in the wee small hours of the night. The first black reporter to get a chance to question the President since his decision to support a rollback of affirmative action asked him, “How is your faith guiding you?” One critic said this was the journalistic equivalent of, “Mr. President, you look great today. What’s your secret?”

So, Bob, think you can do better? Well, yes, I do. So here’s what I would ask the President of the United States if he were here tonight.

“Mr. President, you’re asking for $76 billion to pay for this war, and you’ll probably go back to Congress to ask for more. Given the fact that there’ll be severe deficits for as long as you are President, why not let your tax cut slide?”

“You offered an attractive bribe to Turkey in exchange for permission to use Turkey as a base from which to invade Northern Iraq. Was the vote of the Turkish parliament to refuse the offer an example of the democracy you’re trying to establish in the Middle East?”

“How did you expect to win international approval for your plan to invade Iraq when you have repeatedly told the rest of the world that the United States is ready to act alone in virtually every field, as witnessed by your withdrawal from international treaties and agreements having to do with the environment, war crimes and other matters that the rest of the world considers important?”

“Mr. President, at your news conference last month, you mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks no fewer than eight times, even though no one asked you about Sept. 11 — they were asking you about the invasion of Iraq. The Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. Will you please elaborate on the connection, if any, between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, who, if his videotapes are to be believed, has about as much affinity for Saddam Hussein as you do?”

“Mr. President, you have spent billions of dollars on homeland security to see the nation’s capital paralyzed by a North Carolina tobacco farmer driving his tractor onto the Mall. Did [Homeland Security] Secretary [Tom] Ridge miss a memo or two?”

“Does pre-emptive military action without provocation set a bad example for other countries who can claim actual provocation? India and Pakistan over Kashmir, for example. Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. South Korea, provoked almost daily by North Korea.”

“And speaking of North Korea, Mr. President, who is the worse dictator — Saddam Hussein or Kim Il Jong?”

“Kim is weeks away from turning North Korea into a nuclear power if he hasn’t already done so. Saddam only dreams of becoming a nuclear power, so why is he a bigger priority than Kim? And why don’t you send your so-called precision bombers to take out the one plant in North Korea that you know to be a potential source of nuclear weapons?”

“When I interviewed your wife, Mr. President, she said the best byproduct of ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan was the liberation of Afghan women. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told me the same thing when I asked him what the U.S. achieved in its war in Afghanistan. If the liberation of Arab women is so important to your administration, then why is the United States not invading Saudi Arabia?”

“Sir, would you say your policy of non-involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is working out? If so, for whom?”

“Is it possible that the war in Iraq will result in regime change in Great Britain?”

Well that’s just a sampling of the questions I’d ask, though in more peaceful times I’d be likely to ask about labor laws, media ownership concentration, freedom of information, government secrecy, suspension of civil liberties, the environment, energy, corporate corruption and most assuredly health care reform.

Now why are the tough questions not being asked? Do journalists wearing their flag lapel pins on TV not want to appear unpatriotic in time of war? The answer is yes. Av Westin said it very well last month. Av Westin goes back to the glory days of network television news. He was a producer at CBS for 20 years and a producer at ABC for 21 more years.

He said, “Since 9/11, the press has been watching the opinion polls almost as much as the administration, which explains why it has taken quite a while to assume the kind of normal adversarial relationship, much less the kind that was rampant during the Clinton years and the Nixon years.” He added, “There is a considerable amount of self-censorship going on in terms of pushing government officials on certain topics. But I’ve always believed our job was to ask questions that need to be asked, regardless of official reaction or public opinion.”

He’s absolutely right. Being popular might be good for business at a time when newspapers are losing readers and TV networks are losing viewers. And the owners of today’s media, who are business tycoons, not journalists, would like us to be good representatives of the corporate brands.

But that is not our job. We are supposed to be surrogates for the public — the eyes and ears of citizens who don’t have the access we have. We are to hold public officials to account, and if that makes them angry at us — well, that just goes with our job, and we have to take it. If pointed questions make public officials squirm — well, that just goes with their job, and they’re supposed to take it. That’s the price that comes with the privilege of serving the people.

The press didn’t wait until the intern scandal to ask tough questions of Bill Clinton, so why is the incumbent getting a pass? The country deliberately decided not to have a king. We show the President some deference because of the office he holds. We call him “Mr. President.”

It is NPR policy never to refer to an incumbent President by last name only. He is “President Bush” or “Mr. Bush” — but never just “Bush.” Yet he is not a king. He is a citizen temporarily serving us, living in our house, drawing our pay, spending our money and acting in our name. We have the right and, yes, the duty, to expect him to perform at a high standard. If we don’t do this, we’re performing below the standard that should be expected of us.

When we were little, we thought it would be really cool to be a newspaper reporter or a TV or radio correspondent. Well, sometimes it really is cool.

But we don’t deserve to enjoy the cool part of the job if we’re not willing to do the heavy lifting that sometimes comes with it. Public officials are measured by how well they perform in times of crisis. If they can’t take the heat, they should be in another line of work.

It should be the same way with journalists. We cannot take a dive just because the country is at war. Indeed, our responsibility grows in times like these. It is not unpatriotic to expect the best from our leaders. Likewise, the public should expect no less than the best from us.