NPR’s On the Media offers up food for thought as they show “how the media sausage is made”

On the Media is simply the best program on radio today, and because of that, I could easily identify at least twenty segments that fall into my “favorites” category. Some of these favorites (like the March 2008 show devoted to deconstructing five years of Iraq war coverage) would fit the bill because they remind us of the importance of the press in a democratic society. Others, like Bob Garfield’s commentary, “I’ll Shoe You,” which aired last December, are notable for the fact that they poignantly give voice to the frustration so many people feel when the media collectively misses the point in a particularly significant story.

But because On the Media is more than simply a magazine that provides a fresh perspective on the stories dominating the news each week, when I tell other people why they should listen to the program, I often find myself citing Bob Garfield’s segment, “Health Craze,” which first aired on June 16, 2006, and was “repurposed” for the March 16, 2007 show. The piece, which is a somewhat wacky but incredibly interesting look at the role of “awareness months” (and weeks) in health reporting, is a favorite of mine in part because it contains two of the best lines ever spoken on radio. The first comes in Garfield’s introduction to the segment, which begins, “Edgar Allan Poe said it best: ‘At midnight in the month of June, I stand beneath the mystic moon and contemplate the cruel unfairness of scleroderma unawareness.’ ” Brooke Gladstone might classify this as her “audio equivalent of a raised eyebrow” (which she identifies in her “manifesto” at Transom.org); I like to call it, “Bob Garfield’s audible smirk.” Whatever you term the phrasing, it not only gives the listener a chuckle (or, in this listener’s case, a guffaw), but also illustrates a point: public relations gurus who work on behalf of disease foundations have a tough row to hoe when it comes to getting a disease in the news as often–and as extensively–as possible. How do you get scleroderma to make front-page–or even third-page–news when there are wars, elections, and ever-changing technological breakthroughs simultaneously vying for the public’s attention?

Later in the segment, Garfield interviews Fred Thompson, president of the Liver Foundation. The two briefly discuss the role celebrities and other public figures play in increasing public awareness of a particular affliction, as Katie Couric was able to do when her husband developed colon cancer. Recognizing this phenomenon, Garfield asks Thompson, “Do you lay awake at night wishing that Paris Hilton will get Hepatitis B?”

Now, I’ll concede that someone may hear other radio programs seeking to deconstruct the media’s approach to the Iraq war (other programs won’t do it as well as OTM, but they may still try), but I guarantee you that no one else in the news media is asking Fred Thompson if he hopes Paris Hilton will contract Hep B. In her manifesto, Gladstone notes that, “Listeners respond, actively, to the vocal transmission of amusement or fear” because when such a tool is “skillfully applied, it provides context far more intensely than an avalanche of words.” In other words, reporting with a personality behind it will go a lot further in helping the listening audience make sense of the material than all the information in the world being presented in a stiff, wooden, “emotionally neutral” way. And thus, with a few well-chosen words, Garfield gets the audience thinking about the peculiar kind of scheudenfreud Thompson and others like him must experience when a “high profile” personality suddenly contracts “their” ailment.

Of course, the show can’t be all smirk, all the time, and often the segments that resonate deeply are those that are somewhat disturbing. One such piece is, “Me is for Media” (April 20, 2007), in which Brooke Gladstone interviews media theorist Thomas de Zengotita about the “phenomenon of mediated self-consciousness.” In her manifesto, Gladstone explains that listeners count on hosts and reporters “to guide them through the story, paint the picture, explain the situation,” and to my mind, she does a beautiful job of doing just that in this segment, which centers around the ways in which Cho Seung-Hui–the shooter in the Virginia Tech tragedy–and his victims played roles dictated by previous school shootings that had been heavily covered by the news media. In her introduction to the interview, Gladstone tells listeners that, “to say [Cho] was playing a role is not to say he wasn’t also suffering, just as his fellow students in the days after experienced real pain, even as they dutifully played the roles they saw played in school shootings past.” By acknowledging the victims’ pain, Gladstone communicates that neither the interview nor de Zengotita’s research seeks to pass judgment on the students for performing these roles; instead, the segment focuses on raising powerful questions about what de Zengotita calls the “fused world of representation and the real that we’re all living in.”

In the interview, de Zengotita explains that “people have a deep-seated need to exist in the public square.” But now the “public square” is global–what happens in one small community can become an act of worldwide interest if the story is compelling enough. As de Zengotita points out, though, “that means we need to have a whole new set of concepts and a whole new set of ways of making judgments about what to do and not to do in that the world.” And thus, de Zengotita argues that when Cho sent his “press kit” to NBC, “there should have been a discussion about which one of those pictures to show at all. The aesthetic of his self-presentation is extremely powerful, extremely potent.”

OTM respects its listeners and always appeals to their intellect, no matter the topic. Because of this approach, Gladstone’s interview with de Zengotita does not seek–as so much criticism veiled as “media awareness” does–to argue, “TV is bad and people are stupid for ‘reenacting’ what they see on the black box,” but instead focuses on provoking critical thought and awareness of the implications of participating in our hyper-mediated culture, particularly if we do so without an understanding of how we are participating in it.

What more could you ask for from a show whose mission statement is to show its audience “how the media sausage is made”?

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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