Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

In addition to comments, I'd love to have guest posts. Please send ideas or full-blown posts to me at

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More on the "Is PBS Liberal?" Question

A short, anonymous comment to an earlier post--"CPB versus BBC, and What It May Mean for Politics"--raises two important issues I wanted to reflect on, in two separate posts.

Here's the comment:  IMO [in my opinion] government media is going to be suspect and antithetical to conservatives whether in the US or UK.

More later on whether government-funded media is the same as "government media," but first, is this claim about the treatment of conservatives valid? 

I think this is more an article of faith than fact. 

Certainly in the UK, Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would disagree with the assertion.  See for instance Tony Blair's farewell attack on the media, in which he said, "today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out."  Clearly the BBC was square in his sights--and David Kelly in his memory--when he made this speech. 

Gordon Brown got an even rougher ride.  He--as well as his Government--was often put in the box of "worthy of ridicule" once his honeymoon ended and he was perceived to dither away the calling of a "snap election."  During the same period, the Conservative David Cameron, increasingly portrayed as the Prime Minister-in-waiting, was given much lighter scrutiny, at least prior to the final campaign month (yes, it's just a month long there, and no TV ads allowed).

What about over here?  I haven't seen an analysis that breaks down recent media coverage by cable versus networks versus PBS, but media analysis does suggest that at least in Bush's first term, foreign policies received fairly little critical treatment from the mainstream media.  It was only in the second term that the critical lenses got focused. 

And though it's just an impression, it seems more recently like there are weeks when NPR can't seem to get enough of Sarah Palin.

What the view may boil down to is this--and I have some very limited first-hand experience of the following hunch from hosting "The Campbell Conversations"--the overall audience for PBS and NPR is, relatively speaking, more liberal and less friendly toward conservatives.  People are aware of this fact and many take their bearings about the stations' content from it.  I can say, for example, that I tend to get more critical comments about my program when I have conservative people on the show. 

So some of the motivation for cutting off the CPB's funding is probably being driven by a perception of what the "constituency" for the programming is.  And that takes us back to Christopher Cook's observation about the BBC in my earlier post, that part of its funding security rests on its deep--and broad--appeal.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- Abby Gardner on The Vise of Political Information

(And yes, I could have titled it vice too.)  The following is a guest post by Abigail Gardner.  Abby served as then-Congressman Dan Maffei’s press secretary from 2008 to 2010. Two quick comments on her post.  First, as with all posts, the views expressed here are solely the author's, and not those of Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO stations.  Second, I think her observation about useful political information getting squeezed between political ads on the one hand and less substantive coverage by the local networks on the other is critically important, and as she notes, food for thought in light of the debate regarding PBS funding.  You can read her blog at

Record Breaking Profits

This recent story, Cash Clowns, from a Seattle alt-weekly paper describes a disappointing trend of record breaking political ad revenue for local television and the simultaneous decline of local news coverage of political campaigns- a trend I think we’re experiencing in Upstate New York as well.

Cash Clowns uncovered that the four Seattle local network affiliate stations made more money from political ads in the 2010 cycle, $47 million, than any previous election season. Considering this was a midterm election and not a presidential election year, it was an impressive but not shocking haul. The Supreme Court’s Citizen United vs. Federal Election Committee ruling allows for corporations to spend an infinite amount on advertising for or against an issue or candidate. Conservatives said this was a victory for free speech, but it seems it is actually a victory for local television sales departments.

While I don’t know the numbers for Upstate New York stations, I have to imagine they, like Seattle, had a very profitable 2010. U.S. Senators and Representatives, the New York Governor, Attorney General, State Senators and Assemblymen were all on the ballot. Additionally, outside groups with names you can’t argue with, like “Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity” formed overnight. They exist for the sole purpose of raising money to spend on political ads. Hundreds of thousands of those dollars flooded the Syracuse and Rochester markets to attack just one candidate- my former boss, Congressman Dan Maffei.  

Less Coverage

The story also focused on the hypocrisy of record breaking political ad sales while local coverage of political races is declining. I don’t begrudge media outlets for making money. They are a business that sells a lucrative product to clients trying to reach an audience of likely voters. While they’re raking in the ad revenue, however, stations are simultaneously doing less reporting on the actual campaigns. My first-hand experience varied greatly with Rochester and Syracuse stations. Some were very dedicated to political coverage, some did the best they could with limited resources and some chose to almost entirely ignore the campaigns in the area.

During the campaign for New York’s 25th Congressional seat between Dan Maffei and Ann Marie Buerkle, most stations hosted or aired a debate. At a minimum, every one covered President Clinton’s visit to Syracuse. However, depending on your station of choice for local news, you might not have seen a single other story about the race for Congress. Not that there wasn’t news to cover. The candidates disagreed on nearly every issue: the economy, health care, choice, education, energy, the environment, and on and on. Any station that wanted to produce a story focused on the issues had a myriad to choose from. Instead, some made the editorial decision to focus on Dancing With The Stars, crime, sports, and not on difference between two Congressional candidates on Afghanistan or climate change. Perhaps the lack of attention on the issues is why many people in Syracuse are surprised by the views of their new Representative in Congress.

Ads Cannot Supplant Stories

After the election, I asked a manager at one local TV station why I didn’t see them more often on the campaign trail. The answer was: "Well, our viewers saw so many political campaign ads, we don't want to inundate them with political stories too." I was shocked that a news organization thinks ads supplant stories. Ads are to persuade viewers, news is to present the facts. Ads obviously aren’t going to supply all the information voters need to make an educated decision. With newspapers shrinking in size and staff and the new Republican congress threatening to cut off funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it is more critical now that other media outlets step up, not back, their coverage. If local television news is going to accept record breaking amounts in ad revenue, they also need to accept their responsibility to inform viewers.

Feature Guest Post -- Mike Sutton's Interview with Howie Hawkins

The following is a guest post by Mike Sutton.  Mike has been a candidate for the Onondaga County Legislature's 9th district seat, and also recently contested for the City of Syracuse Republican Party Chair.  He's very active in civic affairs in his Eastwood community, and also finds time to write on a wide variety of topics.  This is a piece based on an interview he conducted with Howie Hawkins.

I recently was granted a interview with the one and only Central New York "Green Warrior", Howie Hawkins. I asked the L.A. native about everything from his 6 years of service in the U.S.M.C., to his run for Governor, to his future campaign plans,and just about everything in between. 

Though most of family are Republicans (especially his Grandmother who is staunchly so), Howie leans to the Left on most issues. He also tries to bring a common sense and practical approach with him, where ever he goes. What impresses me about Howie is not only that he genuinely cares about his fellow citizens, but that he always modifies his message to match the position he is running for. Though many local third party candidates like David Gay seem to struggle with pounding federal issues when they run for city, county, or state office, Howie does not. He easily made the transition from running for U.S. Congress, to City Common Council, to New York State Governor in consecutive years. Each time, his message match the level of government he was running for.

Another thing that attracts people to Mr. Hawkins is the fact that he will not compromise his values or message or "sell out" to get votes. He always seems to stay true to himself as he addresses the issues and presents his solutions. Though Howie does not seem to be a vote thief or a politician, he is very involved in the local political process and pounds his message, while standing up for the rights of the less fortunate.

Being that he is a rank and file member of the Teamsters Labor Union and works the third shift, Hawkins has plenty of time to campaign during the day and has turned politics into his social life, as well as his life's mission. He genuine enjoys meeting people and addressing their concerns.

Before I reveal his opinion on a few celebrities that Howie met along the campaign trail, I will summarize my views on his political past and future.

It is clear to see that he is an anti war protester and activist, even though he was a faithful U.S. Marine for six years. Howie favors a non-military approach to social justice around the world. He believes that protesting, demonstrating and changing legislation is the more effective approach. I do feel that he has had an impact on New York State as a whole and will continue to do so for many years to come!

Here are his answers to a few of my questions. 

Me: What is your opinion of the following people and what comes to mind when you hear their names?
Jimmy"The Rent is too Damn High"McMillan Howie: " Jimmy was quiet,and polite when I met him. I think his passion is real and he feels for the poor in our state. However; he doesn't seem to understand the political process and did not have a viable solution to the problems that face New York. His speech was a distraction from the real issues that Warren Redlich and I actually addressed and proposed solutions for." Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis. Howie: "I knew Al well and spent a lot of time with him when he ran for Governor on theGreen Party Line. He was a great man and cared more about his politics and social justice than he did his acting career. His only drawbacks were that he was very loud and scared the media at times, and went a little overboard once in a while. One time when he was talking about a toxic plant in New York State, he said" I want to take the chemicals in that plant, pour them into a glass and make George Pataki drink them". Our party didn't need that. But overall Al was great! He was a terrific "street speaker" and drew big crowds at his appearances.He was more of a character in real life than he was as Grandpa on The Munsters. Al was passionate and genuine" Carl Paladino - Howie: "Carl was friendly, but didn't remember people. Even though I was running for the same position, Carl introduced himself to me twice at the same event. I do think his anger was real and though he told Fred Dicker what many politicians want to say to Fred, Carl went too far. He didn't have the right temperament to be Governor. I think the loss of his son has had a lasting effect on Carl"

Me: What did you want to accomplish in your campaign for Governor of New York?
Howie: I had three goals: 1. Get the line back for the Green Party in our state, so it will be easier for other "Greens" to run for local offices. 2. Strengthen the Green Party by raising enrollment and awareness. 3. "Expose Andrew Cuomo's real position or lack there of, on important issues like tax reform, hydro-fracking, and the unethical practices on Wall Street." Howie expressed a common sentiment that "Andrew would gloss over many issues, was very vague and would not tell us his true intentions with regards to hydro-fracking in our state."

Howie had stated that Andrew said that he was against unsafe measures to extract natural gas. The problem is, you can make something sound safe before you do it without seeing to it that it does not harm out water and the valuable resources that we have to offer new businesses in New York State. Howie told me that he believes that hydro-fracking should not be allowed in our state because it will provide a temporary "boom" to our economy and leave us with long term problems. "The companies that come here to drill will bring their own crew of workers, rather than hire locals. Therefore when they leave the area again to drill in another state, the benefits will leave too. The problem is that we have great natural resources here that will draw lasting corporations to our area. Why would we jeopardize out resources for a short term fix?"  Mr. Hawkins also told me that he believes that within a year, Andrew Cuomo will be pushing to legalize and will welcome hydro-fracking in New York State.

I also asked Howie what the 2 most frustrating things about running for our Governor were. He told me that the worst part was the fact that the media ignored him and followed Jimmy McMillan everywhere, and often would not take statements from Howie at all. In fact, when most media outlets quoted him they would say "the Green Party Candidate" said... without mentioning his name. He stated that in a forum in harlem the media followed Jimmy everywhere and even a German news outlet would not talk to Howie. "I asked the reporter if he wanted a statement from me since Germany has a Green Party too. The answer was no."  He also said that is was frustrating trying to generate support when the Green party only has a strong core of members in 5 cities in N.Y. "There are too many area's that we are weak in. Now that we have our line back, that should change."

Howie also stated that though he is not a native to Syracuse, he enjoys our University's sports programs especially basketball. "Our kids are fun to watch because now, they play together as a team.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Follow Up on The Egypt and Tunisia Interview

In this interview, I tried to pose a question to my guests about a possible, unintended relationship between the recent protests and the Bush Administration's prior actions in the region.  I did not frame the question clearly, and Bob K. correctly called me out on it.  He added his comment under the "Reminder on Comments" posting.  See his comment there, and my response to it.

Reminder on Comments

I warmly invite comments, especially those that disagree with me or the guest posts from others.  But they need to be civil and not contain personal attacks.  I removed one such comment today--from someone called "anonymous" of course--which was uncivil and personally-oriented, and which also contained some false claims about me.  Such comments will not be posted.  Thanks, Grant Reeher

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- Abortion in the American Health Care Debate

The following is a guest post by J. Lindsay.  Lindsay is a graduate student in public health at the University of Washington.  She is also a guest blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog, and a writer for the Guide to Online Schools.  As is the case with all posts, the views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO stations.

Advocates for reproductive justice were basically slapped in the face with the introduction of H.R. 3 or the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." This bill, introduced by anti-choice Congressman Chris Smith on January 20, 2011, would make the restrictions of the Hyde amendment permanent. Specifically, these restrictions deny taxpayer subsidies for abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, and when the pregnancy endangers the mother's life. In addition to finalizing these restrictions, H.R. 3 would prevent self-insured and employer-based consumers from receiving tax breaks if they buy insurance plans that include coverage for abortion.

H.R. 3 has received countless criticisms, not only for its restrictions but for its language, which specifies that "rape" must be of a forcible nature in order to be covered by public funding. This language, not to mention the entire bill, is absolutely preposterous in the opinions of many. In only covering "forcible rape," this bill has undermined the violation that occurs to a woman's dignity and mental stability with all forms of rape (including date rape, incest, and work-based harassment). Rape is rape, and each occurrence is bound by a lack of consent. It should not be redefined in an attempt to advance partisan efforts.

Having received numerous attacks from women's groups, House Republicans have recently decided to remove the incredibly offensive language from the bill. Representative Chris Smith has commented that the word "forcible" will be dropped from the bill and replaced with the original language from the Hyde amendment, leaving the bill to cover all forms of rape. The removal of this language is only a minuscule victory for reproductive justice advocates compared with the whirlwind of current events during the abortion debate, but at least it ensures that more women are covered.

H.R. 3 is definitely not alone in its restrictive nature. On the same day that H.R. 3 was introduced, Representative Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania introduced the erroneously named, "Protect Life Act," or H.R. 358. On February 3, 2011, Representative Pitts  introduced a new provision to the bill that would allow hospitals to refuse to provide abortion services even if a woman is at risk of dying if she does not receive them. Unfortunately, it seems like there is no limit to the kinds of restrictions that will be introduced during this controversial time.

Right now, states are in the process of drafting their insurance exchanges that, according to the health care reform package, are to be implemented in 2014, and abortion-restricting bills are popping up in many of them. In particular, Pennsylvania has seen many abortion-restricting bills after the controversy surrounding Dr. Gosnell, who was arrested for performing late-term abortions in a horrendous manner. This case has been riling up anti-choice legislators to introduce more bans, but what Gosnell did only strengthens the argument that women need greater access to abortion services. It is tragic that women in their sixth, seventh, and eight months of pregnancy received abortions by Dr. Gosnell, but do you think they would have waited so long if they could have received an abortion shortly after conceiving? The answer is most likely no.

Regardless of where we stand on the moral issue of abortion, we need to realize that American women need access. Let individuals make the decision themselves of whether or not they will receive an abortion. The government--federal or state--does not have the authority to intervene during this decision making process. But by making abortion unavailable to countless women, lawmakers seem to be trying to convince women that abortion should be out of the question. Without insurance coverage, a woman may unable to afford an abortion, and she may result to drastic measures if she isn't free to make the decision about what's right for her and her family.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CPB versus BBC, and What It May Mean for Politics

Republicans in Congress have renewed their attack on public broadcasting, proposing that federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), currently at about $445 million annually, be entirely eliminated.  CPB funnels money to National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).  I've been reading through the commentary advocating the zeroing out, and I've been struck, once again, by the anger and disdain that NPR and PBS generate in some quarters.  Stripping that away, the case for not funding them seems to focus on two specific claims:  That the programming of the broadcast organizations is politically slanted--to the Left--and therefore shouldn't be funded by the government (the firing of Juan Williams is sometimes held up as proof of this bias); and that neither PBS nor NPR supply a distinct public service which is not already available through the market.  In addition, there's the more general objection that no media programming should be funded by taxpayers; NPR and PBS should instead be supported entirely by voluntary individual and corporate contributions (currently it's a mix of private and public support). 

Transparency before going further:  I host a program on a regional NPR station, and while I have an interest in seeing that program continue, I am not paid by NPR or the local station.

On the supposed Left bias, I guess I can see a slight liberal tinge, in two respects, neither of which is surprising or unique.  First, it's probably the case, as it is with a lot of media organizations (absent FOX), that the employees and the talent tend to be more liberal than the average citizen.  It's not clear that this means the content of the news broadcasts is decidedly more liberal, however.  Such a bent might come through, at the edges, at the moments when it's especially hard for the personal views of the broadcasters not to become intertwined with what they're doing on the air--for example perhaps Steve Inskeep's recent interview with Donald Rumsfeld, which was clearly more aggressive than his usual chat with a guest.  Rumsfeld stirred up some emotions for Inskeep--at least it seemed that way to me.

Where it's easier to see a liberal slant is in feature story selection, as NPR and to a lesser extent PBS search for the less reported, more quirky, and more diversity-oriented topics, and those are almost by definition less conservative (see NPR's mission statement below).

But the renewed attack on CPB funding got me thinking about the BBC, which I consume as my primary news source in the weeks during the summer when I teach a program in London. 

Granted, the BBC and the CPB have entirely different histories, reflecting the two nations' different views toward regulating the market and the kinds of things rightly considered to be within the public trust.  They're also structured differently, with the BBC being more centralized, and NPR more federated (again reflecting the nations' political systems).

And relative to the CPB, the BBC is "massively" funded, as the Brits would say, to the tune of approximately $5.8 billion annually. 

But there are similarities.

The BBC is funded by the government, but it is not a state media outlet--like NPR and PBS it is independently operated. 

They have similarly worded missions.  For the BBC:  To inform, educate, and entertain.  For PBS:  To educate, inform, and inspire.  For NPR:  To create a more informed public challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.

The BBC attracts criticisms similar to those of the CPB, and the mandatory license fee on televisions that funds it is a constant source of political debate.

Christopher Cook, a media observer and critic (and also my colleague in London), notes that the political criticism the BBC receives comes from both the Left and the Right, but like the CPB, its most virulent criticism is found within conservative camps.  And like the CPB, a lot of that criticism is rooted in the perception that the personnel at the BBC are to the Left of the average citizen, even if the news coverage is not directly slanted.

Yet the argument to entirely eliminate the funding for the BBC remains a fringe position.  For example, David Cameron's Conservative/Lib-Dem government recently cut the BBC's budget by 16 percent over a four year period, while the average cut to government departments was 19 percent.

So how does the BBC maintain its safe position as a government-funded, public news organization, while the CPB is regularly tied to the railroad tracks?  According to Cook, the three most important reasons for the BBC's strength are:  First, a broad band of viewers and listeners--the electorate--like it and trust it; second, over the years it has become one of Britain's national institutions and therefore a sacred cow, so attacks on it are politically dangerous (think Social Security perhaps); and third, politicians recognize that their best bet for having politics taken seriously and covered in depth as a broadcast topic is the continued existence of the BBC.

Clearly NPR, PBS, and by extension the CPB never reached the threshold of viewership and support in our network and cable dominated landscape to become a similarly defining national institution, and their appeal has always been more limited.  But perhaps our politicians are a bit different as well--it may be that beyond the Left-Right debate, having politics taken seriously and covered in depth is not seen by them as something in their collective self-interest, or our collective self-interest, and this may tell us something important about our political culture.

Monday, February 14, 2011

More Insights on Egypt and Tunisia

Check out this Friday's Campbell Conversation interview, when I will be speaking with two faculty members from Tunisia and Egypt, respectively (see "What's Up on the Campbell Conversations" box to the right).  One of the guests has a specific interest in media and civic engagement.  I'll try to get behind and beyond the daily news reports of the situation to some deeper insights of why, when, and what next.

Friday, February 4, 2011

About the Jordan-Elbridge Interview

As I expected, there is some criticism of the interview I did with Mary Alley, President of the Jordan-Elbridge School Board.  You can find the interview podcast here

Let me write a few words about the purpose of the interview and the show--not just this particular segment, but also the program more generally.

I am not trying to sort out the tangled trail of what has happened in J-E over the past few months, and I did not approach the guest as a source to do that.  That is the job for a news reporter.  I did not try to get into the specific grounds for what the board has done, though I did want Ms. Alley to explain or confirm why she thought she couldn't discuss those actions--and she did that.  The hypothetical question I asked her about possible futures--should the board's specific grounds for the actions they've taken ultimately be shown to make sense--was to elicit her sense of the level of damage to the community that has been done to this point.  I did not suggest--and did not intend to suggest--a position on whether the principal or treasurer or anyone else should have been fired. 

I invited her on the program because she is an elected official at the center of this controversy, who could speak directly about the effects on the community, about what she thought the board could and should have done differently in dealing with the controversy, and about the experience she's had in all this as an elected, volunteer official.  The point of the interview extended beyond the specific facts of the J-E board actions to the nature of our political life.  The overall approach toward the interview was to create a civil, rational conversation.

I do not bring guests on the program to badger them or to argue with them, but rather to draw them out and elicit their views.  This opens the program up to criticisms of being too sympathetic to the guests when the guests are controversial, and this criticism cuts across the ideological spectrum.  Thus, I have heard similar comments after interviewing Eliot Spitzer and a Left-wing member of the British Parliament on the one hand, and Ann Marie Buerkle and local leaders of the Tea Party on the other.  The emotions are higher in the J-E case, and so the comments are more sharply edged--I understand that.

Here is an alternative standard I'd suggest to evaluate this interview--was there new information and some additional understanding provided?  Since no one from the board has yet spoken to the media in this way, I'd say the answer to this question would have to be yes.  Bringing this guest in to ask the kinds of "tough questions" that some have suggested to me would have resulted in no interview at all.  And note that I did ask her why she's waited until now to speak, what the board should have done differently, why they haven't communicated the grounds of their actions, and why they've apparently moved toward less public comments since the fall.

Here's a final consideration:  Members of the community have had numerous opportunities to voice their anger to each other directly, and through the media to the broader community and the greater Syracuse area.  And they've been taking advantage of these opportunities.  I heard two hours of them at the meeting in October.  They have been in the Post-Standard every week.  This was the first time that anyone has heard from someone on the board in any kind of extended format.  I think on balance the dial was moved in a positive direction by the interview, however slightly.

--Grant Reeher