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Corey Flintoff on NPR's role in a Changing Journalism Climate

[Editor's Note: I dropped in on my friend Steve Simurda's journalism class at University of Massachusetts to listen to guest speaker Corey Flintoff, of National Public Radio News, who has worked in public radio since 1974, first at Alaska Public Radio, and at NPR since 1990. Flintoff writes and delivers six hourly newscasts per evening, starting at 5 p.m.]

The news culture has changed drastically in my 27 years. One of the biggest agents of change is the advent of the 24-hour news channels: CNN, MSNBC, Fox. I used to be able to grade papers between newscasts. But we're driven by our competition to be a lot faster and more comprehensive. Political news is easily available in Washington. Now we're digital; we used to edit reel-to-reel tape with a razorblade. The sound took a couple of hours to get on the air. Now we can pull cuts from a speech before the person is done talking. You have to hope you're choosing the sound bite that represents what they have to say. Broadcasting is riskier because it goes directly into the news stream.

How NPR Developed Over the Years

We used to be an alternative network, started in 1971 to provide alternatives to the commercial news. CBS in particular had a very strong radio news department. After deregulation during the Reagan admin, they were no longer obliged to carry news. It's much cheaper to run needle-drop music programming. That's changing again because of iPods. People don't need commercial stations for music, so they'll have to back to a news and talk format. NPR's first news broadcast was in May, 1971. It happened to begin on the day of the biggest anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Washington, and that set the tone. It was the first time a live news show was bringing live sound from the street. Most of the staff were in their 20s, with very little prior news experience--so they were very innovative. They produced a sound-rich program that really tried to reach out across the country, voices you don't normally get to hear. NPR started with about 40 stations, grew to 400 by mid-1980s. Then they started adding a lot of feature material, drama, documentaries. People were very interested in layered sounds-the ambience.

In 1991, when the Gulf War came along, NPR took a quantum leap in the kind of coverage we could do. We'd covered the wars in Central America, but with individual reporters over terrible phone lines. But by 1991, satellite technology was coming in and we could send terrific reports. Suddenly our audience shot up enormously. People were hungry for news, our audience grew four times as large and stayed high after the war. Suddenly we grew to about 750 stations, a big money operation. We brought in a lot of good journalists from print media-but they didn't know about the sound; we became drier, more comprehensive. They wanted to make NPR the news network of record. But it doesn't work; radio is ephemeral. You're not going to find that kind of detail.

We did a lot of good work: Nina Totenberg on the Supreme Court. Nowadays, you can play back recordings of arguments before the court, but that's a very new innovation. No one had ever heard their voices. Nina would act out the part, she was great at it. Now she's playing cuts and it's very strange.

We expanded our programs, two hours each for Morning Edition and All Things Considered. We have two hours in he morning and two hours at night to fill, so we really have time for discussion. We like to have one piece about what happened, and then a talking head, an analyst, to talk about what that means. It's a consistent pattern: factual story, analysis. Even the 24-hour news shows operate on a much shorter cycle, maybe 20 minutes. They have to serve up their news in slotted segments--although CNN does a lot of talking heads. The chattering class, people who make their living commenting, tend to get all their information form other news media. They don't go out and report stories or experience the news directly. I think that's bad. They have no life experience and are only responding to what's in the news. They're not bringing in anything, they don't research, they don't read history.

CNN also grew enormously, made its name during the first Gulf War.

[Building reach on war coverage is a consistent trend in journalism over the decades.] At the turn of the last century, many great newspapers built their base on the Spanish-American war.

That changed the nature of our coverage. It was no longer "featury", no longer about places. But that has changed back. We've gotten new management that's really started to think about the possibilities. We can show you what people sound like as they express themselves. We can let you hear the accents, a politician's hesitation. You can't convey that in newsprint, or even very well on television [because gestures and facials color the experience]. We're moving back to sound-rich, character-driven.

News Gathering in the Days of George W. Bush

This admin is the most disciplined in its unwillingness to release information. Clinton's was the leakiest. With Bush, there's no info that gets out that's not approved at a fairly high level. It means we have to go outside the administration for sources.

On both sides of the campaign, almost every appearance of a candidate has been preplanned and prestaged. This spring I was reporting on a holiday weekend, and it happened to be the first time Bush had made a foray into the hinterlands in a while. Democrats were complaining that he'd lost two million jobs. He scheduled an appearance at a door factory in Florida. I talked to the PR person, who was absolutely thrilled. But it turned out that because it was a holiday weekend, they had to bring in some workers on overtime, so they could be there packing boxes. They had brought in a crowd of his supporters to stand on the factory floor and be stand-ins for the workers. All the people you heard were actually the supporters. It had been preplanned months in advance. The onwer was a Republican operative and there was virtually nothing real about it. The Kerry campaign does essentially the same thing. It's designed to get media attention. And if the camera pulls back, you see this crowd is only about 30 people, and there's no one there. When you see something on TV or hear it on the radio, very often it's staged.

A good political marketer tries to keep the candidate on message. The reporters get fixated on that little gem of breaking news, the little sound bite, and they forget what's going on around that. PR people are generally former journalists. They change the speech so the message appears to be advancing, but it's not.

And the president or Kerry will come back and say, "I talked to a waitress in Montana, and she really needs an economy that's going to give her a good job." It's totally false. People are marched up in front of them for photo ops, prescreened by staff. We're not working for the politicians, but there's a slippery slope. You want to continue to have access to the candidates. I can guarantee you if you start being critical of the process, your access will be cut off. The need to put out something new is a false expectation. If politicians start to think out loud, you can be sure it will be used against you.

[A student asked: How does money play out?] Money plays out largely in our competition. Our competition is television. We get the same audience as newspapers, they're not competition. But after 7, most listeners turn off their radios and turn on their television.

But the big networks are so driven by their corporate connections--ABC and Disney. These links are why we see so much coverage of Disney movies on ABC. A lot of news programs are dedicated to celebrities, actors, to people who have a financial stake. The whole tenor of network news has changed to be more celebrity-driven. Now people's notions of news have changed so we believe what happens to Tom Cruise is important to the national wellbeing. We don't do that [at NPR], but we do a lot more lifestyle coverage. You'll hear a lot more movie reviews. But there is a competitive influence that makes us more celebrity-driven, and I think that's a bad thing.

[Do you consider manipulation of news as newsworthy?]

We have a program dedicated to that, "On the Media." It's rather stylish journalism. And we do it on our show. The media is a player in political life in a way that it never was before. We have arguments internally, but we do cover it. [Why radio instead of print?] Radio is a very intimate medium. You listen in a private way, alone in your car, in your bedroom, in the most intimate situations in your life, where you'd never allow a stranger. You sit in your underwear and listen. Everyone listens to it as an individual, as if the person speaking is peaking to you personally. TV, you're aware that you're with other people, an audience. Oral communication tends to reach into your mind in a way that even print doesn't do. You're processing at a very direct level. A good radio reporter can create images in your mind that are much more powerful than TV. TV shows a limited picture in a limited field of vision. Radio creates the image in your own mind, stronger, more effective, more long lasting.

Edward R. Murrow is our god, the man who created radio as we know it.

[What were your feelings about the footage breaking through censorship of coffins coming back from Iraq?] I thought they were treated with great respect, and I think the job of news people is to show what's happening, to show the sacrifice. The Pentagon had been banning photographers. The admin just doesn't want you to see American dead bodies. American news media should be covering that, and Americans should see what that amounts to in numbers. We do the casualty count a lot, and we try to make it more real by talking about individual soldiers, not just "700 soldiers."

[What's the relationship between NPR and the Bush administration?] At the moment, it's not very good. If an administration doesn't like you, they don't have to answer your questions. If you call up the press secretary and they don't like your coverage, they don't return your call. Because the Bush administration is much more disciplined, their ways of punishing are more effective. Nobody returns NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea's calls. The White House reporters have tiny offices the size of telephone booths. He's there every day among officials who will not talk to him. He's being punished for coverage that they didn't like.

It was Don who asked Bush if he'd ever made a mistake. He could do that because on television, it was obvious that he was standing up and waving his hand. So he asked the question. Guaranteed, he'll never get to ask a question again.

On social issues generally, our coverage of the president has been somewhat negative. On fiscal and military issues, it's been mixed. But if you look at the Clinton administration, the coverage we gave Clinton on gays in the military was overwhelmingly negative.

[What's the effect of journalists' perceptions of their relationships with their sources?] Cheney and Rumsfeld have adversarial relations not just with liberal reporters, but with reporters from the Wall Street Journal--but it doesn't seem to affect their coverage. Rumsfeld got a huge amount of coverage because he's colorful, he's a good talker, and he makes himself available. He speaks in lovely sound bites; there's a real temptation to use him a lot. And he has strong opinions. He's a media star, whether reporters actually like him or not. And they don't, because he's arrogant.

Public Perception of NPR

NPR has always been accused of being a liberal institution. I don't really think that's true. The job of any reporter is to challenge authority, to challenge the administration and ask, is it doing what they promised to do? We challenged the Clinton administration constantly. At that time, I heard very little about NPR being liberal. But now, all the conservative talk show hosts think we're part of the liberal axis of evil. The PR campaign on the part of right-wing talk orgs is being more successful, and we're getting lumped in with [Al Franken's liberal talk network] Air America by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. And now it's starting to turn up in places like the NYT. It's very difficult to counteract. And to some extent it affects news decisions. You try to overcompensate by giving a lot of attention to conservative spokespeople. We don't always do it consciously, but we're trying to prove to the public that we're really not the liberals they say we are. But you can't try to color your coverage one way or another; you just have to cover the story.

[Unabashedly left-wing radio network] Pacifica is very different. [Democracy Now co-host/producer] Amy Goodman really does seek out left-wing viewpoints, and makes no bones about it. I think that's laudable, she does a good job.

NPR, a bigger organization, has to come from the most unbiased position it possibly can. Our responsibility is different. We don't challenge the establishment from a particular perspective. We are now the biggest source of radio news in the US--mostly because the commercial networks have left the field to us.

Our median listener is probably around 42. Our median Internet user is about 38. This is an audience that has been listening a minimum of ten years, some of them for 30 years. Does that core audience accept the changes in our format toward lifestyle? The answer apparently is yes. We do get complaints from people who say you're going too light, but relatively few.

[What about the transfer of long-time morning host Bob Edwards, which was about to happen at the time of this talk?] The morning slot was always considered the most secure, because you'd burrowed into people's consciousness over the years. He gets up at 1:30 a.m., gets to the station at 2:30, and has been with the show since it started, 25 years. He got canned. He's 56 years old. NPR really didn't have a good explanation for why they wanted to get rid of him. So far, they've gotten 35,000 e-mails and phone calls protesting this decision. They're not going to change their minds. They were accused of ageism. They said they want a different kind of show, with a co-host from the west coast, and Bob refused to have a co-host. We're in the midst of this and nobody knows how they're going to overcome all this resistance about the departure of this beloved anchor. .

How the Internet Is Changing Radio

Now you can produce your own music show and put it on your iPod. We didn't have that; radio was our source of pop music. More people are getting their news on the Internet. Radio as it exists today is not going to exist in the next 30-40 years. We're trying to give ourselves as much presence on the Net as we can. We never send out a radio reporter without a camera now. And we use outtakes on the site. That's a great thing. It's not strictly American. In places where conditions of the 1960s obtain, radio is still important. But technological change--I spent time in Mongolia, teaching radio production. More than half the people travel on horseback, have no electricity, live in tents. And yet cell phones are pervasive in the cities. They skipped land lines. Radio is following the same sort of arc. There will be a generator and a computer. People are getting online. And the kind of radio we were teaching is very much based on the Internet.

Local radio is where you get your local news, traffic, and weather. But more people will go on the internet, and there will be less demand for local stations unless they do local news. A lot of local stations dropped their local news in favor of better produced national news. I think you'll find that will change. You can't get your City Council or college on national news.

Advice for a Career in Journalism

If you don't know what you want to do, go join the peace corps. Don't go to graduate school. I never had journalism courses; it was all on-the-job training. Take a variety of courses in college, do a variety of things. If you wanted to get out and work in journalism for a couple of years, and then come back and go to grad school in economics or politics, then go do it. That experience will help you go after what you really want.

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