Brian Lehrer, host of the eponymous WNYC radio show, has been delivering daily news and interviews to New York and its neighbors for nearly three decades. While not as bombastic as some of the nation’s other media personalities, Lehrer’s never been shy about sharing his thoughts. Here, he discusses how biased news helps democracy, whether Jared Loughner should be considered a terrorist and Wikileaks’ short-comings.
[Photo Credit: marcoANTONIO.]
From Rock DJ to Rocking Democracy
“I first wanted to go into being a rock DJ, which I actually did for a few years, but I was also, even as a teenager, more interested than my friends in listening to the news radio,” recalled Lehrer, a native New Yorker who got his proverbial big break in 1982, when he joined NBC radio.
Seven years later, in 1989, Lehrer moved to WNYC to host “On the Line,” a show that eventually evolved into today’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” which features interviews with big-name newsmakers from around the country, as well as New York City locals.
While radio’s no longer the media player it once was, Lehrer and his team have had no trouble adapting to the Internet era, and have since supplemented their local news show with a national blog, It’s a Free Country, a site Lehrer he describes as “a politically diverse community, featuring bloggers from left, right and center, plus comments, polls, quizzes, live chats, and links to the radio show.”
But the website’s founding wasn’t simply a matter of media survival, says Lehrer. It was about cultivating democracy.
“The citizen journalism movement and just everything about how the web enables public participation in the discussion, without the permission of a professional news organization, is good for democracy,” an excited Lehner told me in his instantly recognizable intonation.
“Whether it is people out there trying to do investigations on their own, or whether it’s because almost every major news organization is expected to have a comments page, I think that’s all good for democracy.” Knowledge, after all, is power.
As for the sustainability of professional journalism, a persistent worry among media types, Lehrer doesn’t think citizen journalism’s at fault for the business’ decline, and insists it’s up to news outlets to find a fresh path to profitability, “The professional news business needs to find its business models. I don’t think that’s the problem of the citizens, I think that’s the problem of the news organizations.”
The Business of Biased News
But the professional news organizations have already found their business model, as Lehrer later pointed out: “Money matters to this, because commercial broadcasters have figured out that loud anger sells and loud conservative anger sells better—at least today.”
“So we get this polarization, and I think we need a mixed economy in the news business. A public broadcast monopoly wouldn’t be good for journalism, and for-profit news is very good at some things and terrible at others, so I think society really needs both.” That’s not to say, however, that Lehrer thinks partisan news is necessarily a negative.
Asked whether he believes biased news outlets can alienate viewers, Lehrer said, “Yes,” but insists the situation’s not so black and white.
“Even people who gravitate to those silos of the like-minded on the Internet read a lot more from the other side,” Lehrer asserted. “If nothing else, people will click links just to what they want to hate, and therefore get exposed to more information and opinion.”
“We probably had the apex of media civility when the big three networks dominated the news, and they were civil to appeal to a mass audience,” Lehrer continued. “And I actually prefer what we have today: Glenn Beck here, Daily Kos there, Fox News, MSNBC—even with the polarization. There’s just simply more speech from more points of view.”
Lehrer then added, “As long as there are things like public radio, too!”
On The Importance of Public Radio
“I see my role, working for a non-commercial public broadcaster, as being a bastion of civility, though hopefully not watering down the debate, while still creating an alternative space,” explained Lehrer of his position as host of a public radio program, a job he has described as a “public service.”
“The goal is not to make money, but rather to provide information and a politically diverse public forum. That way the media is used for community building, not divvying up the country into friends and enemies.”
Lehrer, who celebrates the “complexity of truths,” later remarked, “I try to acknowledge what’s right on both sides. That’s not something that commercial broadcasters are going to tend to do, but it’s something that I have the luxury to do.”
Lehrer and his team have certainly lived up to their ideals: they were awarded a 2007 Peabody specifically for “Radio That Builds Community Rather Than Divides.”
Not everyone agrees with Lehrer’s take on public radio: We all remember that NPR came under right-wing fire from Fox News, among others, for dismissing former host Juan Williams after he made questionable comments about Muslims while on Fox News last year.
Since WNYC is an NPR member station, I asked Lehrer his opinion on the scandal. He had little to say, except that he “was not a big fan of laying off Juan Williams,” and “I didn’t think it was well handled.” I failed to ask Lehrer what he thinks about the “Wall Street Journal,” owned by the same company that owns Fox News, advertising on public radio.
Wikileaks’ Learning Curve:
Considering the relationship between information and democracy, how does Lehrer feel about Julian Assange and Wikileaks? Did the organization cross a line by releasing diplomatic cables and other classified information?
“I think Wikileaks is a news organization, and I think it should have the protections of a news organization, but I think that Julian Assange is on a learning curve,” he suggested, pointing to the fact that Assange worked with ‘The Guardian’ and the ‘New York Times’ to help redact people’s identities from his second document dump, a marked shift from Wikileaks’ initial disclosures.
But this development doesn’t mean Assange is in the free and clear.
“I don’t think that Julian Assange has the same values as a journalist, that, say, I do; I think that he has a political agenda to bring down the ‘United States empire’ as he sees it. He’s spoken openly about that,” said Lehrer.
“That’s his point of view, so he’s in it as an advocacy journalist, if he’s in it as a journalist. I’ve heard Assange likened to Dr. Kevorkian. The cause of [leaking information without fear of prosecution] might be right, but his ways about going about it might be over the top, although some important principles are getting established.”
State of the Union—And Disunion:
Lehrer whole-heartedly supports all examples of bipartisanship, like the aisle-crossing during last night’s State of the Union. He does not, unfortunately, have high hopes for the longevity of this “age of civility.”
“It’s probably going to end up collapsing, and probably quickly, because of the various pressures on members of Congress to be more polarized than they were in the past.” But it’s not just increased polarization that could doom legislative propriety to failure.
“[Lawmakers] seem to have lost the ability to sit down like grownups and talk to each other in a business-like way and make grownup decisions for the future of the country,” lamented Lehrer, who supports New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s recent calls for American nation-building.
“We need nation-building in the United States. We’re in such a transitional period. People need to look at the larger interest of and the longer term future of what’s good for the country, rather than what’s good for their narrow constituents,” Lehrer explains. “While lawmakers should definitely fight for the interest of their constituents, there’s got to be something larger than that in the equation, and I think that’s lacking now more than other times in our history.”
Jared Loughner, Terrorist?
That partisan acrimony appeared to explode on January 8, 2011, when 21-year-old Jared Loughner allegedly shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people, killing six, at a political rally in Tucson, Arizona.
Many people, including some of Lehrer’s listeners, have wondered why Loughner hasn’t been classified as a terrorist. Lehrer insists such a designation would be a misnomer.
“We had calls on the show from Muslims and from African-Americans who said, ‘Jared Loughner is not being labeled a terrorist because he’s white,’ and I actually don’t agree with that,” declared Lehrer. “I understand where that’s coming from, but I think terrorism refers to an overtly political act targeted at civilians with the intent of creating fear or terror in the population.”
“From what we know of Loughner, even though he tried to assassinate a Congresswoman, he was not doing it to achieve any political ends or to terrorize a community, so I wouldn’t tend to label that ‘terrorism.’”
As for as the role of race: “Clearly when Timothy McVeigh committed his act of terrorism, that was terrorism by a white American against America, and it got labeled as such at the time, but that [attack] seems to be different from this.”
“Humanize Each Other.”
Despite the troubles our nation faces, and Lehrer’s own doubts about sustainable civility, the journalist does see room for real progress.
The partisan grid-lock in Congress, for example, could indeed produce some legislative results. “Polarization could be good for government in certain ways. No incumbent wants to be seen as ‘do nothing’ is they’re in power.” And with the parties going head-to-head, everyone will take what they can get.
But those compromises will be happening on Capitol Hill, a world away from Main Street. The true responsibility for change lies with Lehrer’s favorite group, the public: “It is up to the people ourselves to put pressure on the leaders to humanize each other. One of the things that we do on the show is that we can all, as I do on my show, try to turn the debate inside out and find out what we have in common as Americans.”