Here’s The Thing: It’s O.K. For Public Radio Hosts To Have Political Opinions…If They’re Alec Baldwin

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about public radio hosts…and their opinions.

First, let’s quickly re-hash how we got here.

Host Lisa Simeone was fired ended her relationship with Soundprint, an independent documentary series that airs on a number of public radio stations after a Daily Caller story ”exposed” her involvement as a steering committee member of a group associated with Occupy DC.

Simeone is also the host of  World of Opera, a classical music program produced by NPR member station WDAV in Davidson, N.C. and formerly distributed by NPR. That is, until NPR parted ways with World of Opera after WDAV decided to not remove Simeone as host of the program.

This is not really a post about Lisa Simeone (Jay Rosen has a great one if you’d like to read more about that particular incident).

This is, however, a post about New York City public radio station WNYC.

Just days after the Simeone incident, WNYC dismissed part-time web producer Caitlin Curran. Curran was shown the door after taking part in an Occupy Wall Street protest in Times Square on October 15 and then pitching a story idea based on her experience to WNYC’s morning program The Takeaway.

She wrote (quite eloquently, I would say) about the incident for Gawker in a post published the following week (on October 28):

The next day, The Takeaway’s general manager fired me over the phone, effective immediately. He was inconsolably angry, and said that I had violated every ethic of journalism, and that this should be a “teaching moment” for me in my career as a journalist. The segment I had pitched, of course, would not happen. Ironically, the following day Marketplace did pretty much the exact segment I thought would have been great on The Takeaway, with Kai Ryssdal discussing the sign and the Goldman Sachs deal it alluded to in terms that were far from neutral.

This dismissal really started to get people talking, especially coming so closely on the heels of the Simeone incident. WNYC program On The Media even hosted a lively web chat on the dismissal and “public radio’s political conundrum.”

(Full disclosure: I love On The Media and Radiolab, both produced by WNYC. I have also donated to WNYC in the past and likely will continue to do so in the future)

So what exactly is “public radio’s political conundrum?”

A quick aside for those outside of the media industry: public broadcasting in general and NPR in particular have repeatedly been the subject of largely right-wing political attacks in an attempt to zero out their funding (NPR stations receive a portion of their annual funding from a congressional appropriation and then, in turn, pay a portion of this back to NPR as dues in exchange for the right to broadcast NPR produced programming).

These issues heat up every time a host or senior staffer is “exposed” for having “political” “opinions.” In fact, NPR recently named Gary Knell their new CEO. Among his first orders of business: depoliticize NPR (and good thing! A previous political attack played a large part in costing his predecessor, Vivian Schiller, her job).

So, to recap: public radio hosts with opinions (especially political ones) = bad. Impartiality in the pursuit of fair, accurate, truth based reporting = good.

We’ll ignore, for the moment, whether or not impartiality is even possible, if transparency is better or more desirable than objectivity, etc. and leave those issues for another day or another blog.

So. Alec Baldwin.

The same week as WNYC’s dismissal of Caitlin Curran, the station launched a new podcast called Here’s The Thing, hosted by, none other than handsome actor Alec Baldwin.

Here’s The Thing is a pretty straightforward talk show with new episodes every two weeks.Baldwin conducts interviews with artists, politicians and other interesting people he wants to talk to and lets us all listen in.

The first episode is an interview with actor/director/producer Michael Douglas in which Baldwin talks with Douglas about his childhood, his recent bout with cancer, his acting and directing career, etc.

Admittedly, Baldwin is no Terry Gross, but with some tasteful editing he’s off to a great start.

The second episode is the one that raised my eyebrow (a little), especially coming so soon after the Curran incident (this episode was released on November 7).

It’s another wide-ranging interview, this time with GOP political strategist Ed Rollins. I would encourage you to listen to the entire episode here, but I want to highlight one passage in particular (transcript below):

ALEC BALDWIN: You know, we, we look at these two wars and I think to myself if I was the President —forget about Iraq — I would have assassinated Saddam Hussein later on somehow or taken him prisoner and put him on trial. But I would have built the mother of all military bases, right, ‘cause Pakistan is the enemy, as far as I’m concerned.

ED ROLLINS: Sure, sure.

ALEC BALDWIN: Pakistan is the, the -

ED ROLLINS: Most dangerous country in the world.

ALEC BALDWIN: I would build the mother of all military bases right on the Pakistani border, but while I was doing that I would fly around the world and I would get the leaders of the most reliable allies who had some funds, and I’d say to them, you must give us something. We’re gonna have a coalition of 12 or 14 countries, and if you don’t I’m gonna make your life miserable.

I wanted to have a half a million men on the ground in Afghanistan. You know, leaflet the whole place, say get out, we’re comin’ and drone ‘em. And if they make one move we don’t like, we go in and we just crush Pakistan with 500,000 people. What do you think of that idea?

ED ROLLINS: It, it’s – for a Hollywood liberal — [ALEC LAUGHS] — [LAUGHING] it’s pretty darn good.

Now, let’s assume for a moment that I don’t know anything about Alec Baldwin. He’s just another public radio host. Hosting an interview program. So, to me, this appears to be a public radio host taking an unapologetically partisan, political position. The taking (and airing) of that opinion is followed directly by a guest, literally, calling him out for being a Hollywood liberal.

Maybe this is unfair. Perhaps we can reasonably expect that listeners know that Alec Baldwin is an entertainer and not a journalist, or that he’s new to public radio. But I’m not convinced any of that ought to matter. He’s crossed over. Baldwin a a public radio host now. Not a guest or a commentator, but a regular host of an ongoing “news-ish” program produced by one of the nation’s largest public radio stations.

A public radio host. With opinions. Political. Opinions.

Personally, I wasn’t offended by this exchange, but it definitely got my attention. It’s worth examining what makes this situation different than the one that Caitlin Curran found herself in at the same station, just a week before this episode was released.

A couple of other things to note: Here’s The Thing is a podcast (online only) so not (yet?) on the radio, but…I’m not convinced that ought to make any difference in the application of ethics policies (and as far as I can tell from the rest of the content offered on WNYC’s website, the station doesn’t make a distinction here either between on-air and online).

Perhaps the more salient issue is that Here’s The Thing is not strictly a “news” program, so the same journalistic standards either do not apply or are just not as hard and fast as they are for “hard news” reporting.

And indeed, when I asked WNYC Publicity Director Jennifer Houlihan about it, here’s what she said:

No, the ethics guidelines do not apply to Alec Baldwin. “Here’s the Thing” is an entertainment/ interview program and Alec is not a journalist. The guests and the audience understand that.

Fair enough, but as a listener…I’m not sure I do understand that.

I asked a number of people if they consider Terry Gross (host of Fresh Air from WHYY in Philadelphia and distributed by NPR) a journalist. A fair question, in my opinion, and a fair analogue to Alec Baldwin and Here’s The Thing (at least based on the content and format of the first couple of episodes).

The answers I got were decidedly mixed. Some say the hosts of interview programs should be held to the same standards as reporters and hosts of “hard news” programs. Others say entertainment, arts and talk programs should have a little more leniency. (I should note that I haven’t asked WHYY what policies apply to that program in particular, but I think it’s safe to say that they would prefer Gross steer clear of political rallies or airing her political views on the program she hosts)

So, here’s the thing: reasonable people can, and oftentimes do disagree on who ought to be afforded the rights and privileges that come with being a journalist and what (specifically) constitutes an act of journalism.

Admittedly, these issues are not simple.

In fact, they’re difficult, complicated questions that a number of very smart people are grappling with right now.

In my opinion, it is simply not enough to say that the audience understands what is news and what is entertainment and to expect them to apply different standards to each.

I’m not really here to second guess the decisions made by WNYC, NPR, WDAV or any of the other stations affected by these recent flare ups. In fact, I think the attacks and attempts to paint public media as biased are often unfair, politically motivated and not terribly productive.

The vast majority of my friends and colleagues working in public media are doing great work with very limited resources. And they’re trying really hard to get it right. But they need some help in knowing where the line is and how best to avoid crossing it.

In any case, I do think these recent decisions raise some interesting questions:

  • Should the same ethical standards apply to the hosts of arts and entertainment programs as to those of news?
  • Are the standards different online than they are on-air?
  • Does it (or should it) matter if you’re full-time, part-time or a freelancer?
  • What types of offenses are sufficient to call your credibility into account in the eyes of your audience, thus making it difficult or impossible for you to do your job?

And finally, the question I’m honestly a little afraid to ask…does a Hollywood actor (or political commentator, or high value prospective donor, etc.) deserve different treatment than a part-time web producer or freelancer?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’d love to hear what you think.