Brian Montopoli

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This American Interview

Editor’s Note: Ira Glass is the host and creator of "This American Life," a weekly public radio show produced by WBEZ-Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International that draws 1.7 million listeners per week.

David Mamet wrote in Time magazine that Glass "seems to have reinvented radio," and the show helped launch the careers of writers David Sedaris, David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell.

Glass just finished putting together a "pilot presentation" -- a shorter and cheaper version of a pilot -- for Showtime, which is interested in turning "This American Life" into a TV series.

(Department of full disclosure: Interviewer Brian Montopoli has reported a story for "This American Life.")

Brian Montopoli: One thing I've always liked about "This American Life" is the way the stories, regardless of the subject matter, make you want to go out and make friends with strangers. And this is true, I'm not just saying it ...

Ira Glass: [laughing] I hope you include that in your rendition of this in print.

What? Where I say, "this is true, I'm not just saying it?"


Yeah, well, you guys would, so I guess it's only fair. Anyway, so to pick up where I left off, I was saying the show makes you feel that way because no matter what the story is, the storytelling just makes you feel like people are worth knowing, if that makes sense. Is that difficult to translate to TV, which doesn't operate the same way radio does?

I don't think it's difficult to translate to TV. The fact is, though, to make it translate, there are different factors that come into play. Just from making this little pilot, I feel like there are characters who come off better on the radio than they do on the TV, and then there are some characters who come off better on the TV than they come off on the radio -- simply by virtue of seeing their face.

And so you can still do it, it's just that the ingredients in the mix are different. Which is exactly what you'd expect if you take a second and think about it. Not that we did take a second and think about it.

But isn't there something about not seeing someone's face, on the radio, that allows you to sort of project a lot into whatever you're hearing? On TV, I don't know, I just feel like a little of the mystery just disappears.

No, that definitely is true. It's easier to make someone in the audience love someone on the radio. It's just easier, because the number of factors you're dealing with are fewer. You can do it on TV, but you just have to be careful how you handle it. On the radio, because you don't see the person, you empathize. It's easy to imagine yourself as them really, really quickly. Whereas on the television, from the get-go they are somebody else, and you have to kind of build up a different sort of bond with them. You can have a very fond feeling for them on the TV, but the first fact you know about them is they are not you, whereas on the radio, they appear to you for the first time as a voice in your head.

So what's it been like putting together the TV show? In the Times story that came out a couple weeks ago ...

You know, there's a much better story, actually -- well, I shouldn't say that on the record. There's a very fine story -- and the New York Times reporter did a very fine job too -- but there's a very fine story that was in the Los Angeles Times this weekend too.

You seem sort of ambivalent in that [New York] Times story, and I don't know if that was because of the way the Times framed it, or what. But you talked about how you weren't sure if you were going to walk away from the TV show or not, and how the heart of the thing wasn't there, and all this stuff. Is this -- are you just nervous? Is there something about the culture of TV that's just been a little bit frustrating? You don't really seem like an LA guy.

Well, we wouldn't be moving to LA.

Right, but still, you're in that world, I guess. Which is very different.

[laughing] If by "LA guy," you mean somebody with money, I would heartily agree.

You know what I mean, though. You guys are in your little public radio enclave in Chicago, and you're around all these smart, thoughtful people, and I sort of read that ambivalence [in the Times story] as maybe [meaning] you just haven't been so happy with whatever you've had to deal with in putting the TV show together.

Yeah. To be truthful, we have both a movie deal going with Warner Brothers, and the TV deal. And I find the people in the movie and TV business who we've been lucky enough to deal with to actually be, like, pretty smart -- really smart actually -- and kinda great to work with. And maybe we've just been lucky, I don't know.

So no real culture clash?

There hasn't been a culture clash. It would be a more dramatic story if there were, but there wasn't. There are people who have a different set of priorities, sometimes, than we do, because we're public broadcasters, and we exist in a very special space in our nation's culture -- you know, where we are actually completely exempt from all market pressures. And we can do whatever we want. Like, it's really, really different. They have very different things that they have to worry about to keep their jobs and keep their companies going. But that all seems very straightforward.

To actually answer your question, instead of mouthing off about things I don't know that much about, the reason why it's a tough choice about going into TV is actually because we have such a sweet deal in radio. I've talked about this with my staff, about how nobody gets the deal that we get, where we have 1.7 million people listening to us every week, so the audience is completely there. It's a huge, huge audience, and we're fully funded, forever -- we can just keep doing this until we all die. The funding is there, it's all set up, we're all good. The stations love us. We do great in pledge drives. We have complete creative control. We can do whatever we want. There's no adult supervision. And you just don't get that. Steven Spielberg doesn't have that. We have a huge audience, by journalism standards.

We're reporters, and for a reporter to get that many people -- that's bigger than most magazines and most newspapers. And so for us to go to TV, it has to be the right sort of setup, where they're giving us enough money to do it well, where they agree with our vision of what the thing should be, going in. And so far, so good, but it still hasn't come down to kind of like brass tacks.

With regard to the state of public radio in general, what do you think -- well first of all, let me just say this to whoever's reading this interview: NPR, PRI, and public radio are all different things. "This American Life" appears on PRI, and then goes over public radio -- it's not actually NPR. Now that I've gotten that out of the way ...

[laughing] That almost made no sense at all, actually.

It's a tough situation because you have two competing networks -- there's Public Radio International, and there's NPR. NPR makes the big news shows, and PRI does our show, and does a bunch of other shows. And everybody knows NPR's name, and nobody knows the other guy's name. And then the stations themselves run both shows.

Yeah, and then never really make the distinction.


But in any event, let's just talk about public radio in general. What do you think the state of public radio is, and what would you change about it if you could?

I mean, you know, like most people, if I were put in charge of things, I would enforce, incredibly selfishly, my own tastes. So I don't know if that would make public radio better. But I would enjoy it more.

I feel like public radio's in a situation where the journalism is great and has never been better, and there's never been as deep a bench of really great reporters, and enough money to put reporters wherever news is happening all over the world and still have people who were always geniuses at their job like Nina Totenberg and Robert Siegel and Scott Simon and keep them on the air. In terms of the news, it's great coverage. Where public radio falls down -- and any program director in the system will tell you this -- is innovation. One of the prices of success is that now it has a sound, and the sound is really predictable. And so what do you do, 30 years into the vision?

There isn't a lot of money that goes to innovation. I have a friend -- do you know the musician John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants?


OK, so, he did two pilots for WNYC. They're great. WNYC produces what I think is the single best new show in public radio, which is "On The Media," which is continually fresh and fun to listen to and smart and with original angles on all their stories. And this has the exact same feeling -- but it's about pop music. And he gets everybody, because he's a pop musician, so David Byrne is in the pilot, and -- it's been so long since I heard the pilot -- but I think it's Bikini Kill. And everybody agrees it's a great show.

And he finished it a year ago, and nobody can come up with the money to get it on the air. WNYC, which produced it, doesn't have the money. NPR literally doesn't have a programming fund. If you were to ask the head of programming at NPR, this guy named Jay Kernis, he loves the show, he wants to put it on the air, but he doesn't have a half-million dollars to just write a check with. The same thing with PRI. The woman there who's in charge of it, Melinda Ward, she doesn't have a programming fund, so she can actually get a show that she likes. She also likes the show.

So you have these three huge multimillion dollar entities -- NPR, PRI, and WNYC -- and they all like the show, which would have a natural place with the NPR audience. And honestly, I think they're all going to dick around with it for so long that Flansburgh is just going to say, "Well OK, time to make movies." This is exactly the problem in public broadcasting in general and public radio right now. You've got people, you've got innovative ideas, you've got programming executives who know what should be done next -- and, literally, there's no machinery to fund innovation. And so that's why you get one new show every four or five years.

Well, there's all that Joan Kroc money. Where does that go?

Yeah, well -- I mean, I don't actually know. [laughing] That would require actual reporting and I've never looked into it. Do you know what I mean though? I feel like what you have is a really successful network with a news product that could be doing a lot of other things with the audience it has and the talent it has, but it just isn't set up for innovation and it isn't set up to cultivate new ideas and it isn't set up to cultivate the next generation of things. And it seems like a waste to me. The Fox network is more innovative than public radio. FX is more innovative. Bravo is 10 times more innovative. And remember, it's public broadcasting's mission to actually innovate.

I've always had the impression that part of the problem is that the affiliates build around the tent poles -- "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" -- and that uniformity of sound is what makes the brand so strong, and so the affiliates think, we don't want to put on something quirky and innovative, because it's not going to fit.

But I think one of the thing's that's happened in the last few years -- and it started with the car guys, actually, and then continued with us -- is that when the car guys became the most popular hour on public radio, program directors had to kind of notice that it isn't like anything they do any other time during the week, and it's people's favorite show. And when we started our show nine years ago, we basically said, remember the car guys -- that's what this is. We were seen as a tremendous risk by stations in the beginning. And then we were fine. We were a big hit. At this point I feel like the stations actually understand that they need to do new stuff. There's space in the schedule.

At this point, the weekdays are pretty much done. NPR puts out a bunch of decent shows, other people put out a bunch of decent shows during the day that pretty much fill the day. And stations that have local programming have stuff during the day as well. The real estate that everybody's still fighting over -- that there's no uniformity about, or no consensus about -- is the weekend. ...

Where people are going on Saturday afternoons, if they're choosing not to listen to the public radio station, is they're going to music. So if somebody could actually do music on Saturday afternoons on the network level, in the way that feels right to the public radio audience, a lot of those people would come back.

I do think that a lot of the same people who listen to your show also listen to, like, "Morning Becomes Eclectic." Maybe they listen to it on the Internet. ...

Well if they're in a city where they can get "Morning Becomes Eclectic."

Right. Well, I listen to it on the Internet.

Well, most people don't listen to the radio over the Internet. You are part of a tiny elite. A vanguard.

Well, I'm flattered.

[laughing] But a very nerdy vanguard.

I listen to your show on the Internet as well. I don't even know when it's on in New York. I listen to it while I clean my apartment on the weekends.


I don't think that puts me in a vanguard, though. I think all the vanguard people all have cleaning ladies. Anyway, and feel free to just blow this question off if you want, but ...

Wouldn't it be weird if you were to ask me a question that is so offensive that I would actually like hang up? I would totally do like a Robert Novak on you and be like, "I'm sorry, I don't talk about that anymore." [laughing] I would love that.

Sadly, I don't think my question is anywhere near offensive enough for that. I did this fellowship at NPR a few years back, and when I was doing it, I told people that I liked "This American Life." And what everyone said to me was, "Oh, you know, Ira Glass took that show to NPR and they blew him off, and so he took it to PRI."

And then I would get conflicting reports about what actually happened. And I was hoping just once and for all, there could be the definitive account of, like, whether you were blown off by NPR, and then angrily, in a huff, took your show to PRI, or what exactly happened.

I'm sorry, I don't talk about that.

[Glass hangs up. Thirty seconds later, he calls back.]

I can't believe you actually hung up.

See, that felt good. I want to do that every interview now.

It would change your reputation, that's for sure. I just thought it was like a fake clicking noise, but it was actually a real click. I'm blown away.

I guess it sort of takes some of the spice out of it that I called you back.

Yeah, it does.

So the answer to your question is, you know, I didn't do anything in a huff. What happened is that we had been on the air for about a year. Here's the fact pattern. We were on like 112, 114 stations. We were on in 7 of the 10 largest markets. We were doing huge money in pledge drives, so stations really liked us. We had won a Peabody award. We were fully funded. That's the show that they had. So that's pretty good, that's pretty successful -- that's about as successful as you get, one year in.

And we were distributing it by ourselves -- WBEZ was basically distributing it, which means calling up stations on the phone, and saying, "Don't you want to take this show? Let's send you a tape." All of that. So that's where we were. And we tried to get NPR to pick it up. And I wanted it to be NPR because I had worked at NPR since I was 19 -- at the time I was 38. So I'd spent half my life working for NPR. Literally.

So I came to NPR and the people who were in a position to make it an NPR show -- they just didn't like it as a show. They didn't get it. They didn't see what was good about it. They didn't see what stations were liking about it. And so they didn't want to take it.

Those are people at a sort of vice president level. Meanwhile, remember I had worked there since I was a teenager, so I know everybody. The people who are turning me down are people I had actually worked for, in one job or another. And so all my friends from the news division, people I had worked with, basically -- the head of "All Things Considered," and the vice president for news, and Robert Siegel -- I had been a producer for "All Things Considered" for years, and a reporter for years, and those people heard the early shows.

And they went to management and said, "We own this. We created this. Ira is ours. Ira started here when he was a kid. Everything he learned he learned on the second floor of our building. Everything he's doing on this show -- from his documentary stories to David Sedaris -- he first put onto 'Morning Edition' and 'All Things Considered.' This came out of our incubator. We should be distributing it. This is the logical next step for what we should be doing."

And finally the president of the company sort of issued an order to the people who were in charge of making these programming decisions, and said, "They're right, make him an offer." And at the time, PRI very, very badly wanted the show. And they put together a really sweet offer for us ... and meanwhile we'd get on these calls with NPR and the people wouldn't make us an offer, and finally they just said, "Well, tell us what PRI is offering you, and we'll just match that."

And I just felt like, if it's going to be exactly the same offer, and you don't have any enthusiasm for this at all, I'm just going to go with the people who actually seem like they're going to do the job, rather than the people who are slowly, grudgingly coming around to this, who I'm going to have to deal with for the next ten years or twenty years of my life. It just seemed like a really obvious choice.

Were they surprised you turned them down?

I don't think they were surprised. Because they were doing such a bad job of pitching us. And I don't think they were disappointed either. And honestly since then, so many of the NPR brass -- people got fired over this ...

They got fired?

We were chief among a number of bad programming decisions. Like other things that got away. And since then, there's been much more competition. Now, any new show that comes along, there's very much a feeling at NPR, like, oh, they've made a boneheaded mistake. The person who now has that job, Jay Kernis, is actually one of my oldest friends, and periodically we'll go get drinks. And you get two drinks in that man and he's pretty much like, "Don't you think you should be leaving PRI?" And I'm always like, "Jay, it's going great with PRI. Let's talk about something else."

At various points, various NPR executives have come to me and said, please, if you ever want to come to NPR, we would very much like to have you as a show. And that's very, very nice. At this point, I feel like it doesn't really matter. If we were an NPR show instead of a PRI show, all the same stations would be running us -- it would all be the same. It wouldn't help anybody in any way.

Thanks for clearing this up. It's weird that there are all these rumors about it ...

I feel like it took on a symbolic meaning for people at the company, especially among the people who felt like NPR wasn't taking risks, and wasn't doing enough new stuff. There's a whole cadre of people at NPR -- young people especially, but some older people, actually, including some of the most experienced people, too -- who feel like the network is not doing a lot of things it could be doing.

And I feel like we fit neatly into that idea, as a perfect fable of the failure of NPR. And at the time, I think it was true. It absolutely illustrates a problem that was at NPR. I actually think NPR is better managed when it comes to that stuff now. That they would very much like to be doing more innovative stuff.

All right. Well, I have like a cutesy final question, but I don't know ...

Bring it. Bring it, bring it.

Are you sure?

I've already hung up on you once.

That's true. All right, well, as you told me over email, you're about to get married. And I remember when you did that story about your ex-girlfriend throwing clothing on you in the changing room. You think you'll end up doing a show about getting married, about, like, this whole process?

I absolutely do not think I'm going to do a show about getting married. 'Cause the whole relationship is off the record.

The whole relationship is off the record? Was that made clear to you from the beginning?

Pretty much once you start to talk about your friends to a national audience, all your other friends make a declaration that unless stated otherwise, you're off the record. A person would have to be pretty insensitive -- even the story about the girlfriend in the dressing room, even that, I got her permission. You have to be kind of a creep not to.

Yeah. But still, like the story I did for you guys, was basically, you know, my friend had had something happen to him. It seems like an easy place to get ideas. But I can understand how it could put a strain on a relationship.

Well, she's an editor too, she's a newspaper editor, and honestly, if something came up that seemed like it was worth talking about on the radio, I would totally try to talk her into letting me talk about it. There's no question about it -- if something interesting happens, I would try to get it on the radio. But it's kind of a relief to have a non-reporting zone in your life. We don't have trouble coming up with material for the show. So I don't need to.

And honestly, something's got to be sort of spectacularly interesting in your own personal life to be worth talking about on the radio. And how often does that happen, anyway? And there's nothing more boring than a wedding, except to the people who are in it. But I mean, our wedding is exactly like everybody else's weddings, you know what I mean? And our feelings for each other are pretty much your standard feelings that people have for each other. They're huge, but there's nothing uniquely compelling about them as a story for the radio. We squarely fall into the category of stories that people often pitch for the show, which are, "that's really wonderful for you to have gone through that, but nobody wants to hear about it." And nobody recognizes that better than me and her. America doesn't need to know whether we're getting the pit bull, you know? America doesn't care.

Right. Like that you left the dirty dishes in the sink, and she was mad ...

[laughing] I mean, just for the record, she's the one who leaves the dishes in the sink.

Defending Time

Editor's note: For background on the flap, start here and follow links. Eric Alterman's response to allegations below can be found here.

John Cloud is a staff writer for Time magazine, where he has worked since 1997. Before coming to Time, he was a senior writer at Washington City Paper. He wrote this week's much-discussed Time cover story about Ann Coulter.

Brian Montopoli: First things first: Why did you write the story? Did you pitch it, or did the editors come to you and say, "We want to do a cover on Ann Coulter?"

John Cloud: Last summer, you know, we put Michael Moore on the cover. And, by the way, at that time we didn't get quite the reaction, certainly not from the left, which seemed rather pleased with the cover we did on Michael Moore. You get it from both sides.

As for how the story got suggested, I suggested it after the election. Ann Coulter [it seemed to me] had epitomized the way politics was discussed last year during the election. It was slash-and-burn, on both sides. Her side won, rather decisively, and it seemed the right time to figure out who was this force behind the way our political dialogue was being conducted. Ann Coulter is the person who is shaping the tone of this dialogue in many ways, and I thought it was time to examine her.

One of the criticisms that people have made is that Time has bottom line considerations [that go into] who it puts on the cover, and choosing to put Coulter on the cover reflected either a pursuit of conservative readers or a desire to just put a hot woman on the cover, which is pretty much what the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz said. And let me read you something from Eric Alterman, and just ask you to respond: "Time's cover story/whitewash of Ann Coulter ... will make it impossible for serious people to accept what the magazine reports at face value ever again. It is as if Time had contracted a journalistic venereal disease from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and is now seeking to lower itself to their level in pursuit of their ideologically-obsessed audiences."

Well, this is just absurd. A few weeks ago, we put Jeffrey Sachs' book on how to end poverty on the cover. I mean, is that going to be a huge seller for conservatives? We did a piece on television indecency that basically concluded that the FCC had gone too far in regulating television. That was on the cover recently. I don't pick the covers, unfortunately -- I don't have that much power here -- but we did Michael Moore on the cover last summer, we've done, over the years, incredibly flattering covers on Hillary Clinton, on both of the Clintons, multiple times. We did Ann Coulter because she's an interesting figure. I could not care less what conservatives or liberals think of Time magazine's covers, and if people read my work over the years -- I've been a journalist for ten years -- and if you read that body of work I think you'll see that I'm not trying to kiss up to conservatives. And if you look at Time magazine, even over the last month, this idea that we're kissing up to conservatives is wrong.

Plus, who are their sources for this? Did Alterman do any reporting before he made this assertion? I think a pertinent thing about Alterman is that he has said publicly that he will not engage Ann Coulter in debate. He won't go on television with her. So his solution to Ann Coulter is to act as though she doesn't exist ... I don't agree with that approach to people that we don't necessarily like. I think you engage those people in open debate, you get those people to talk about their ideas, and then you weigh those ideas. And my story does that. My story is very fair about her.

I think maybe Eric and Ann are in the same bunch. They also, by the way, use the same language. He calls Ann Coulter a name-caller, but he doesn't do anything in that screed against me except use sort of fancy name-calling. He says [the piece] is a "moral, professional, intellectual abomination" without making an argument about the actual substance of the piece. Instead, he picks up something from David Brock's Web site [Media Matters] and reprints it on MSNBC's website. Now David Brock is a very famous hater of Ann Coulter. They used to be friends, they're not friends anymore. He is also a serial liar. David Brock wrote a whole book saying, 'Oh, my other books? They were lies.' So I don't think David Brock has a lot of credibility on the question of Ann Coulter. And what they are doing is a smear job. That's his other history -- David Brock has a history of smear jobs. And this is a smear job against me personally.

I realize you don't have a lot of faith in what the Media Matters people have been saying. But the one line [from the Time article] that seemed to upset a lot of people on the left was, "Coulter has a reputation for carelessness with facts, and if you Google the words 'Ann Coulter lies,' you will drown in results. But I didn't find many outright Coulter errors." I looked at the Media Matters stuff on Coulter. There were a lot of examples of what seem to me to be errors. Even if you don't think highly of David Brock, how do you respond to that?

This one sentence in a 5,500-word piece has been worried over more than any other. Which is fine, I'm happy to defend it. My piece does not say that there are no Ann Coulter errors. In fact, I offer some Ann Coulter errors that we haven't seen before, and I quote people like Ronald Radosh at some length on the problems with the more recent book of hers, which is Treason. David Brock, who knew Ann Coulter from years ago, goes to a book that's years old, and prints some mistakes from that book, and of course [there are] mistakes. And a lot of them are corrected. If you go out and you buy a copy of Slander now, you won't find those mistakes in it, because the publisher has corrected them.

Now, I had a choice of, do I want to, in my article, list every single Ann Coulter mistake ever made, even ones that have been corrected by the publisher -- which is, by the way, what almost every other journalist who has written about her has done -- or do I want to say something fresh and interesting about her? Do I want to engage her on issues and try to figure out what makes her tick and whether this is all an act? That was what my story was about. My story was not primarily about picking apart ... all 1,000 of Ann Coulter's columns or the hundreds and hundreds of pages that she's written in her books. My job in this story was not to be a fact-checker. I don't say in this story that she's never made a mistake. In fact, I point out some mistakes. This is a story that calls some of her writing highly amateurish. I say I want to shut her up occasionally. I quote a friend of hers calling her a fascist [and] another friend of hers calling her a polemicist. I quote Eric Alterman, Salon, James Wolcott, Andrew Sullivan, and Jerry Falwell all criticizing her. The idea that this is a puff piece is just absurd. And it's part of this left-wing attack machine that David Brock has invented for himself in his shame.

Ann Coulter has obviously said, as you well know, some pretty offensive things. There have been a lot of things on the blogs about why people are so upset. One blogger wrote ...

Are these conservatives or liberals who are upset? Because both sides are very upset with this piece.

I've been seeing the conservatives complaining about the cover picture and the liberals complaining about the content. One thing I read on a blog that maybe gets to why this is bothering people so much is, as you know, Ann Coulter said at one point that her "only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building." And one blogger wrote, "I reserve the right to be slightly upset about Time glorifying a woman who once expressed dismay that one of my parents wasn't murdered in a terrorist bombing. So please, with no due respect, fuck the fuck off." It obviously gets a little coarse. But, you know, Time has put on the cover a woman who a lot of people feel is sort of beneath contempt.

Brian, Brian, we have put Josef Stalin on the cover. We have made Adolf Hitler the person of the year. We are a news magazine. The cover of our magazine is not glorification. It is news. This whole idea is bizarre to me. If the New York Times did a front-page story on Ann Coulter, would it be glorifying her or would it be covering her? And, by the way, the picture that we used on the cover is apparently such a horrible image for conservatives that they can't even read the story.

As to The New York Times quote, our package has a whole list of outrageous quotes from Ann Coulter. It's called "What Did She Say?" and we have a whole list of them. The New York Times quote she said to another reporter, George Gurley. She said at the time that it was a joke. You can say it was a despicable joke or that it's not a very funny joke. But if she's kidding around with another reporter, and says something to him that he puts at the end of his article, am I then obligated to print that in my article? I mean, we've already seen that quote. Again, this is about trying to get a fresh look at Ann Coulter. I didn't reprint every outrageous quote, but, by the way, she told me outrageous quotes that are in my story. We don't need to go to the New York Observer to find outrageous quotes from Ann Coulter. They are in Time magazine.

We're obviously in a very different world journalism-wise than we were even five years ago, because you've got all these people with the instant analysis on the internet, and some of it is pretty vitriolic. I'm just curious if it's bothering you.

What I'll say is that I think Eric Alterman and Ann Coulter engage in the same kind of debate. They don't often make actual arguments. Instead, they throw names around. This is the point of my article. This is the way politics is engaged in debate now. And I think that his response to my article proves our point that this kind of dialogue, which is the Ann Coulter kind of dialogue, now holds sway.

No Life Support for You

For honest reporters, the Terri Schiavo case is something of a nightmare. Not so for ratings-obsessed cable news directors, of course, who must be delighted with the timing: they can now shift from the lives and deaths of Scott and Laci Peterson to the life and death of Terri Schiavo without missing a beat.

Real reporters and editors, by contrast, have to decide how much, or even whether, to anchor their reports in a larger context – a tricky decision when reporting about an issue that inflames cultural and political passions. And they know that media bias warriors are scrutinizing every sentence, ready to attack at the first sign of reporting that doesn't square with their worldview.

Example: Most everyone in Washington (and, for that matter, elsewhere) believes that grandstanding politicians are using the issue for political gain. But should that information be included in every story, or should news consumers be allowed to come to their own conclusions?

One option is to simply put forth incontrovertible facts – say, by including in each story quoting a Republican lawmaker, the fact that a one-page GOP memo leaked last week called the Schiavo case "a great political issue" that would appeal to the party's base and potentially result in the defeat of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

That's not to say that there are not genuine values at stake for congressional Republicans, many of whom truly believe that removing Schiavo's feeding tube would be a moral wrong. If their actions are cynical, they aren't completely so, and reporters would be doing a disservice by suggesting as much – just as they would be by ignoring the memo all together.

There is one bit of context, however, that seems particularly salient, and it involves a six-month old boy named Sun Hudson. On Thursday, Hudson died after a Texas hospital removed his feeding tube, despite his mother's pleas. He had a fatal congenital disease, but would have been kept alive had his mother been able to pay for his medical costs, or had she found another institution willing to take him. In a related Texas case, Spiro Nikolouzos, who is unable to speak and must be fed through a tube because of a shunt in his brain – but who his wife says can recognize family members and show emotion – may soon be removed from life support because health care providers believe his case is futile.

The Hudson and Nikolous cases fall under the Texas Futile Care Law, which was signed into law by then-governor George W. Bush.

Bush, however, flew from Texas to Washington early this week to sign legislation authorizing federal courts to review Schiavo's case. The president felt that the Florida courts, which had reviewed the case several times over the past seven years, had failed in their duty: "In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life."

As Mark Kleiman, who brought the Texas cases to our attention, points out, "An argument of some sort could be made for the Texas law, based on some combination of cost and the possibility that an impersonal institution will sometimes avoid mistakes that an emotionally-involved relative would make." But, he adds, "What I can't figure out is how someone could be genuinely outraged about the Schiavo case but not about the Hudson and Nikolouzos cases."

The specifics of each case are different, but the central issue remains the same: whether the state should be able to sanction the removal of a human being from life support.

The fact that President Bush signed into law in Texas a bill that gives health care providers the right to end human life is then certainly relevant, given his decision to sign the Schiavo legislation and his rhetoric concerning a "presumption in favor of life." But do Hudson and Nikolouzos show up in stories about Schiavo? Very, very rarely. A Google News search of "Sun Hudson" and "Schiavo" returns only ten results, mostly from small outlets, and "Nikolouzos" and "Schiavo" returns only five results.

That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise since coverage of the Schiavo case has consistently skewed toward the emotional over the factual. And that has been to the advantage of those who want Schiavo kept alive. Most stories feature dueling quotes from Schiavo's media-savvy parents and her embattled husband, people whose anger over a difficult and emotional issue has been elevated to a national stage. More often than not, the tearful parents get top billing.

Then there are the dueling quotes from grandstanding lawmakers, with Republicans far more vocal and emotional in their appeals than skittish Democrats. (Typical is this comment by Tom DeLay: "Mrs. Schiavo's life is not slipping away – it is being violently wrenched from her body in an act of medical terrorism.")

Then there's the heartbreaking photo of Schiavo that has graced many of the web stories on the case, including those of CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. It shows Schiavo seeming to smile as she receives a kiss from her mother. (According to Schiavo's doctors, it's unlikely that her facial expressions reflect actual feeling.) The choice by news organizations to focus on this one photo from among the many available speaks to their priorities. Those who side with Schiavo's husband and the Florida courts might blame political bias for the choice of photo and the prominence of Schivo's parents – but the harsh truth is that news organizations simply want eyeballs, and the best way to get them is to tug at the readers' and viewers' heartstrings.

Unlike the moralists in Congress, we're not about to take a side on the question of what should happen to Terri Schiavo. It's an incredibly difficult issue for those close to her, and we feel for both her parents and her husband. But the behavior of politicians and the role of the press are another matter entirely. We don't think that newspaper reporters have an obligation to point out every day that federal intervention in a state court case flies in the face of traditional conservatism, or the fact that some of the same people voting for the Schiavo bill voted for Medicare cuts that may well have similar effects as the Texas Futile Care Law. Those points are best left to columnists and commentators speaking from a variety of platforms.

But journalists should at least make an effort to cut through the sensationalism surrounding the case and provide some context. We should hear more about the Futile Care Law, and news outlets should think twice before basing coverage on which side plucked the most heartstrings on any given day. With its performance to date in the Schiavo case, the press is displaying a tell-tale tendency for tabloid-style exploitation in the guise of serious reporting.

Ambush Politics

News consumers haven't heard much over the past couple of weeks about the economy, terrorism, health care, or Iraq. The talk has instead been focused on Vietnam, thanks to the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth.

The group has released two ads and a book denouncing John Kerry as a dishonorable man who lied to earn his medals, lied to Congress as an antiwar activist, and who ultimately betrayed his countrymen. Liberal commentators, not unjustifiably, are blaming the SBVFT for polluting campaign rhetoric with their loaded claims and harsh attacks.

The SBVFT may have a questionable grasp of the facts, but they have been extraordinarily sophisticated in their manipulation of the media. Their ads, after all, have appeared in just three states – and represent the kind of strident attack that might easily have quickly dropped off the national radar screen.

But the lion's share of the blame should not fall on their shoulders. To understand why this campaign has been hijacked by a small group of veterans bearing a thirty-year old grudge, it's worth examining the institutional susceptibilities of a campaign press corps that has allowed the SBVFT's accusations to take on a life of their own. The Swift Boat Vets may have put themselves in the game, but they were made stars by a flawed media.

Campaign Desk has written many times about the perils of "he said/she said" journalism, the practice of reporters parroting competing rhetoric instead of measuring it for veracity against known facts. In the wake of the first SBVFT spot early this month, cable news programs for the most part offered viewers two talking heads, one on each side of the issue, to debate the merits of the claims. Verifiable facts were rarely offered to viewers – despite the fact that military records supporting Kerry's version of events were readily available.

Instead of acting as filters for the truth, reporters nodded and attentively transcribed both sides of the story, invariably failing to provide context, background, or any sense of which claims held up and which were misleading. And sometimes even that was asking too much.

According to Media Matters, the Aug. 4th editions of FOX News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" and MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" both reported and aired the ad without mentioning (1) that despite the ad's claims, those featured in it did not serve on Kerry's boat, (2) that the SBVFT has extensive Republican ties, dating all the way back to former Nixon protege John O'Neill, or (3) the fact that the doctor who claims to have treated Kerry in the ad was not the medical official who signed his medical records.

Why was the press happy to keep afloat a story so easily debunked?

There were several factors at work here. To begin with, the initial ad by the Swift Boat Vets came out in August, which had shaped up to be a slow news month, politically speaking. Issues like Kerry's health-care plan weren't capturing viewers' imaginations, there hadn't been a terrorist attack or notable capture for months, and Iraq – continuing U.S. casualties notwithstanding – wasn't generating much new news. With its natural bias towards ratings-generating conflict, the media readily embraced the SBVFT story, which, with its harsh allegations and clearly demarcated opposing sides, had about it the smell of blood in the water.

As radio talk shows and cable shoutfests seized upon the "story," the few outlets that initially ignored it or gave it little play were forced to ratchet up their coverage – a classic example of the elements of the media lower down the professional food chain effectively setting the news agenda. Yesterday, Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor of the New York Times, confessed to Editor & Publisher magazine, "I'm not sure that in an era of no cable television we would even have looked into it." James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, fretted in the same article about feeling forced to follow a story that he might not otherwise bother with – just because it received so much air time from the carnival barkers who populate daytime cable and radio.

That sort of impetus could have been avoided had news organizations been more aggressive in exploring the SBVFT when it was first launched. In May, without much fanfare, SBVFT held a press conference announcing the group's formation and laid out its agenda. In an open letter to Sen. Kerry, the group wrote, "Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own conduct in this war." It also announced its intention to publicly examine Kerry's war record in a press release.

ABC and NBC ignored the development entirely on their nightly news broadcasts on that day, while CBS provided a short report. On Fox News, political correspondent Carl Cameron delivered a report remarkable for its similarity to those seen on TV in recent weeks. He recapped comments from veterans both in support and critical of John Kerry, adding that some of the veterans who are now critical of Kerry previously supported him in 1996. According to Cameron, the Bush campaign denied any involvement in the attacks. Kerry, he said, was doing his best to stay out of the fray. And with that (after a few brief debates on "Hannity & Colmes"), the story was laid to bed.

In June and July, the press hardly moved the story an inch. By the time the SBVFT resurfaced in early August with its first ad, the story had lain fallow for three months. So the news reports that came out in the wake of the ad elaborated little on Cameron's original story. No news organization, it seems, had seen fit to launch a more thorough investigation into the veterans, despite their coming-out party months before.

The "fog of war" can cloud newsrooms just as much as it does battlefields, of course. But given the SBVFT's open letter and virtual declaration of war on Kerry in the spring, such investigations should have been conducted as a matter of course.

Throughout August, even as the Swift Boat Vets' book hit bookstores and a second ad rolled out, the campaign press mostly continued to frame the story as a "he said/she said" battle – at least until last week, when what had been an oddly quiescent press corps lurched awake and began to subject the story to closer scrutiny. The New York Times and Washington Post published articles highly critical of the SBVFT earlier this week, and the Times today meticulously laid out the connections between the Swift Boat Vets on the one hand, and lawyers, political strategists and donors to the Bush campaign on the other.

After countless unchallenged segments on the cable news shows and print articles repeating a variety of erroneous SBVFT claims, the mainstream press has belatedly awakened from its summer dormancy and measured spurious claims against known facts. But it has come far too late.

Reporters can, and do, argue that it is not their job to ascertain the veracity of such claims unless and until the Kerry campaign itself raises its voice in protest. But even if you buy that antiquated job description of a good reporter – and we don't – there's another ball that most of the press dropped in its coverage of the imbroglio. Once the Kerry campaign itself began to hit back by questioning the credibility of the Swift Boat Veterans' claims – and arguing that the group was doing the president's "dirty work" – the press failed to adequately scrutinize the competing arguments at hand. When Kerry called on Bush to condemn the Swift Boat ads, the White House pointed out that the president had himself been the target of harsh attack ads run by independent "527" groups supporting Kerry, and repeated its months-old contention that all such outside advertising should be banned.

The press dutifully reported this argument. But rarely if ever did reporters see fit to assess the validity of the comparison being made by the Bush campaign. The anti-Bush ad most often cited by the White House as comparable to the Swift Boat spot was a MoveOn spot questioning the president's service in the National Guard. But each one of the claims made in the MoveOn ad – that Bush used family connections to get into the Guard, that he was grounded after failing to show up for a physical, that he wasn't seen at a guard meeting for months, and that he was released eight months early to attend Harvard Business School – is not in dispute. The overall tenor of the ad is harsh, to be sure – so harsh, in fact, that Kerry quickly called it "irresponsible" – but there has been no real argument that any of its assertions are untrue.

Compare that to the Swift Boat ads. Given that military records support Kerry's version of events, and that the credibility of many of Kerry's accusers is now in doubt, it would seem that if anyone should be on the defensive for lacking corroboration and documentation, it's those defending Bush's service record, not that of Kerry. No anti-Bush ad from MoveOn flies in the face of the preponderance of evidence in the way that the Swift Boat ad does. The press, then, should have pointed out the illogic of grouping the two spots as one and the same.

In the end, as always, the information that voters receive depends entirely on the way in which the press frames the story. The problem is that once an easy storyline is entrenched – that the issue is essentially a disagreement between Kerry and his detractors – too many reporters fail to press on. In this case, they neglected either to test the veracity of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or to compare their ads with those financed by other 527s like MoveOn.

There have been dozens of press failures during this presidential campaign. But this one, even given the Times' and the Post's belated efforts to get to the bottom of things, has to rank as a low point.

And it certainly did nothing to help the mainstream press' credibility with what is an increasingly dubious audience. The most telling comment on that front may well have come from the unlikely duo of Jon Stewart and Ted Koppel, who shared a telecast during the Democratic convention. Koppel, by way of introducing his own viewers to Stewart, complained that "a lot of television viewers – more, quite frankly, than I'm comfortable with" – get their news from Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

Stewart, seemingly trying to reassure Koppel, responded that what his fans were watching for was not news per se, but rather a "comedic interpretation" of the news. Koppel was unmoved. Stewart's audience watches him "to be informed," Koppel insisted. "They actually think they're coming closer to the truth with your show."

With that, Stewart pounced. "Now that's a different thing, that's credibility; that's a different animal."

Yes, it is.

Blogger Planet

Forty or so bloggers, clad in everything from coats and ties to jeans and t-shirts, gathered for breakfast at the Hilton Boston Back Bay this morning, and they got a taste of what it's like to be an object of curiosity.

There were more reporters present than there were bloggers, and they swarmed around their startled quarry, interrupting conversations to ask the same question – how do you plan to cover the convention? – and to get, for the most part, the same fuzzy answer: "We're going to try to do something traditional reporters don't. We want to bring a different perspective."

Organizers brought out the big guns to speak to the assembled crowd, including Howard Dean, Barack Obama, legendary Associated Press reporter Walter Mears. But the real story was the bloggers themselves, who were treated like a cross between contest winners, celebrities, and caged animals. As Dean spoke onstage, photographers ignored the near-nominee to take pictures of the dazed-looking bloggers listening to him. One cameraman zoomed in on the fingers of blogger Jesse Taylor, of Pandagon, who was taking notes on Dean's speech. He wasn't even blogging – the conference room, after all, did not have a wireless connection.

With 15,000 media representatives in attendance, the Democratic Convention is, almost assuredly, the most overcovered event of the campaign to date. Everyone knows what's going to happen – there hasn't been more than one ballot for the nomination since Adlai Stevenson won it in 1952. So reporters, desperate for copy, have been forced to squeeze yet more stories out of the bloggers, who have faced so many media inquiries that they complain of being tired of doing press.

The politicians also seem taken with the significance of the bloggers. The presence of keynote speaker and rising star Barack Obama at the blogger breakfast spoke volumes. But, like reporters, the pols don't know quite what to make of it all. Hearing mainstream journalists and party lifers talk about blogging is a lot like hearing John Kerry talk about rap music – he knows that "street poetry" is significant in some as yet undefined way, but you can't quite see him getting his groove on.

At one point, Mears, who started a blog yesterday for the AP, said that by the end of the week he hoped to be accepted as a blogger himself. At the table in front of me, a blogger laughed, shook his head, and mouthed to the man next to him, "No, you won't."

Seeing the bloggers at the convention brings to mind all sorts of unlikely (and uncomfortable) meetings between establishment and ostensible outsider – Steven King getting a national book award, Mick Jagger being knighted, the Sex Pistols finding their way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The bloggers, happy for the attention and a little taken aback by it, are still trying to maintain their anti-establishment cred, however awkward it may be.

As such, the laughter that greeted Mears' assertion that he is "objective" seemed a little heartier than really necessary. It was a subtle message, in case anyone missed it, that bloggers weren't here to be pale imitations of the journalists around them. Dean brought the house down when he told one blogger that she shouldn't take it as an insult that she wasn't considered a "real journalist," since real journalists simply weren't getting the job done – a message that reverberates daily around the blogosphere. Bloggers, he and the others suggested, were on the forefront of a journalistic revolution.

There's just one problem: They don't seem terribly sure what the hell to do at the convention. Having finally been given the proverbial seat at the table, bloggers here are finding that their plates, if not empty, certainly aren't overflowing. There are a lot of reporters in Boston, but not, however, a lot of stories. Bloggers are having their big moment at last, but with the deck stacked slightly against them. Had they been invited to an event with a bit more substance, they might have had an easier time taking advantage of their access.

Nonetheless, the bloggers, with their defiantly subjective perspectives and unwillingness to conform to the tired conventions of the mainstream media, could have something significant to add to the circus here in Boston. Of course, now that they are being toasted as the saviors of journalism, it's going to be hard to live up to the hype .