Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media's midweek podcast. This week for your delectation, I hope, a conversation with my longtime WNYC colleague Brian Lehrer for Interview Magazine. For those outside the New York area, although he has countless listeners elsewhere too, Brian hosts one of the best live news and call-in shows ever. The Brian Lehrer Show has held a huge and diverse community together and kept it talking after 9/11, the big blackout, Superstorm Sandy, the death of Eric Garner, the Trump presidency, you name it. Every day he offers two hours of principled and contextualized conversation about news, both local and global, with the people who make it and the listeners who have to live with the consequences.
Brian is a local hero. It so happens he was also the previous host of On the Media. In this chat, we share how we came to do what we do. This conversation appears in full on Interview Magazine's website with the headline, "Brian Lehrer points the mic at Brooke Gladstone." Who starts, Brian? [laughs]
Brian Lehrer: Who starts? When you have two interviewers in the same interview, both of our impulses would be to start, right? To serve rather than receive. Would you like the honor?
Speaker 1: No, you go ahead. You're better live.
Brian: [chuckles] All right. I'll reach back into a little bit of Brooke history. You were working for NPR as their first ever full-time media correspondent. That much I know.
Brooke: Prior to that, I had been an editor for most of my time at NPR and then for three years the Moscow Correspondent.
Brian: That was the mid 90s, right? For some reason at that point, or maybe I should say only at that point, did NPR decide to establish a position of a full-time media correspondent. What was going on at that time that triggered that?
Brooke: Well, I was in Moscow, so I don't remember much, but there was suddenly a proliferation of cable services. That wasn't brand new, but suddenly everything was moving to that space. We also had the rise of online media, digital media. Matt Drudge was a huge thing. All sorts of people were beginning to migrate to the web, if not as a primary source of information back then, a prominent one.
Brian: 1995 was sometimes mentioned as the year that the world wide web as we know it was really launched. Obviously that was a pivotal moment.
Brooke: Actually media criticism was a pretty tiny group before the web. The Voice had a media critic. Newspapers, a lot of them didn't. They may have talked about cool shows coming up, but there wasn't a lot of journalism criticism. I don't think they felt compelled to because there weren't so many people outside with eyes on them and with a platform to share their observations. Now, how about you prior to The Brian Lehrer Show? I know that you're a native Queensian and that your interests ranged from music to public health. tell me how you wound up at WNYC.
Brian: I grew up in Queens listening to a lot of radio, both music and news. My parents were politically aware and musical. In college, I majored in the campus radio station and minored in my courses. After college, I was able to get what I thought was my dream job, which was an FM rock show on an Albany radio station. They told me that besides my five day a week music show, I had to do something on the weekends. I said, "Well, can I just come in late Sunday night and open the phones?"
Brian: Too my shock, they said, "Yes." The reason was that in those days even music radio stations needed some kind of public affairs credit with the FCC to maintain their licenses. After a little while, I discovered that I was putting more energy into my once a week middle of the night call in show than my five day a week, five hour a day music show. I decided to go back to school for a master's in journalism and really focus on broadcast news. From there I gradually wound up at WNYC.
Brooke: Wow, that is interesting. A lot of stuff I didn't know. Surely you're familiar with Donald Fagan's song, Lester The Nightfly. It's about a late night DJ who opens the phones, and some of the saddest and strangest voices come through.
Brian: That particular call in show is a midnight to three show. The thing that landed me in the Albany papers one time was not anything incisive that I said about politics or the world. It was when I had a suicide call from a listener and another alert listener called the cops who came to the studio and asked me to keep the guy on the line and try to find out his address, which I managed to do. The cops got there, and they saved his life.
Brooke: It also may have been how you found out what the power of radio can be potentially. You were instrumental in saving a life.
Brian: I feel like I was a bystander, but it was probably more formative than I ever thought about at the time in terms of approaching the talk show that I have at WNYC as not just something that's public affairs in an intellectual sense, that's relational community building exercise and a tiny little relationship with each caller.
Brooke: What they call nowadays a parasocial relationship. There's more intimacy on the side of the listener than on the side of the speaker necessarily because we reveal so much more of ourselves then they are able to reveal of themselves. Nevertheless, there is a relationship, and it's one of trust and curiosity and, not to get too sticky, of service.
Brian: As it is in your case. You go deeper than people even think you're going to go when they're listening to On the Media.
Brooke: I'm grateful for On the Media for forcing me to think deeply. Otherwise, I'd probably spend a lot more time skating across the surface of things. I have a very low threshold when it comes to boredom, and I don't want to tell anybody anything that they already know.
Brian: Well, I think it's a privilege and a benefit of the jobs that we both have that it prompts us toward curiosity. One example in your case is that you wrote a book called The Trouble with Reality. Is it A Rumination or Rumination on Moral--
Brooke: A Rumination on Moral Panic in our Time, which was consciously highfalutin.
Brian: What led you to that and what did you mean by moral panic?
Brooke: Well, Workman, the publisher, came to me. We were working on another project, and it was right after President Trump was elected. Those of us who live on the coasts and in large cities were conscious of a high pitched scream, a wail as it were, coming from households and everywhere across the country, this sort of, "What the fuck just happened? This wasn't supposed to happen here." They said, "We want you to write something about that." I said, "Look, I know how the publishing business works. I write something. It takes two years to come out. The world has already changed three times. I will write this monograph. It's not a book, more like a large pamphlet in two weeks. You have to bring it out in two months." They did.
I was basically just answering the question, "What happened?" We've all had presidents elected that we weren't crazy about. I'm not a spring chicken. I've seen decades of presidential cycles, and I've had my fair share of profound disappointments. This, this was something else. Then what it came down to was an exploration of how we each construct our individual realities and how hard we work to maintain their integrity. How we're wired neurochemically to lie to ourselves if it keeps that worldview intact. This was a great shattering.
Brian: Something that maybe relates to both of us is we mentioned 1995 as a turning point. You were NPR's first full-time media correspondent. People reading this may not know that I hosted On the Media for the three years before you.
Brooke: [chuckles] Do you remember we had lunch, and I said, "Are you sure you don't want this job?" You said, "I assure you, I don't want this job."
Brian: Well, when they move from a part-time host to a full-time host and you became the full time host, people don't remember that I hosted it because it was much less memorable when I hosted it. You were a frequent guest when I was hosting On the Media. Looking back, I wonder if in those early days of the internet you had the same feeling that I did and have changed in a similar way because I was definitely one of those people who fell for the utopian narrative of what the internet could be. Even though I was a professional journalist, I thought it was great that journalism, the collection and dissemination of information, was going to be democratized where anybody could do it.
I thought it was going to bring people together, it was going to build community and have people move out of their cable news echo chambers and other media echo chambers into having to interact with people not like them because you could respond and interaction would take place. Now we know how polarizing the contemporary digital world has actually been. I wonder if you went through a similar evolution?
Brooke: I absolutely did. There and back again and back yet again. Then there and back again. Once I was on some PBS show and they said, "Rate the media, give it a letter grade." I said, "I guess I give it an A, B, C, D, and F." There's just so damn much of it out there and it ranges from the greatest that ever was to the worst that could ever be. The dark side of that is the Nazi who sits at the end of the bar in Topeka, say, can cry into his beer about how horrible the country is, but he isn't going to find at that bar 50,000 people who agree with him. He can find that online so that strengthens those voices.
One thing I think that we thought Brian, you and I and so many of the former Utopians, was that human nature is something other than it is. It's very plastic. I used to think, "Well, we just get the media we deserve. We suck, and therefore we get sucky media or we are drawn to sucky media." Now I realize, with a greater understanding of how these algorithms work, that our natures are plastic. It is profitable for these companies that rely on clicks and engagement to find eyeballs for the ads which support those services to create engagement with and anger is a great tool to create engagement. Fear is a great tool and so that we are manipulated not to be our best selves but our worst selves.
That, I believe, is baked in to the way that these social media platforms are frequently sustained, and that is something I came to much later.
Brian: The trouble with reality. Wow. If we're being so manipulated by these ultra powerful algorithms, what do we do with that knowledge? The relative few people who will stop to conceptualize it that way.
Brooke: Well, you can protect yourself. I think just like we need to be fair and accurate, leaving objectivity which has been I think pretty much killed as a word to describe what the best journalist is, because it's impossible to achieve. I would say fairness and accuracy is within all of our grasps and we can do that. I think we should do that as producers of news and we can also do that as consumers of news.
Brian: What's the difference between accuracy, which you embrace, and objectivity, which it sounds like you just threw overboard. Sometimes-
Brooke: I did.
Brian: -even though I realize we are all a product of our backgrounds, I bristle at people's denunciation of journalistic objectivity as a goal because I think that's what we're striving for. If we have any humility as journalists, we're trying to paint a full complex picture of reality for our audiences. We're trying to the best of our ability to be objective, not just indulge in our subjectivity. What's the difference between accuracy and objectivity that would discredit what I just said?
Brooke: Well, first of all, I don't think that it's a choice between objectivity and indulging in subjectivity. I think that a lot of this is actually a semantic discussion. Objectivity means that you go to everything with the blank mind. You haven't made any decisions. You haven't made any judgements. Well, people aren't like that. That's why I say it's impossible. We go through life, we have experience. We form judgements. We form values, that informs our work. It certainly informs yours but it never makes you unfair and it never makes you knowingly inaccurate. We all make mistakes occasionally. You make very few and usually correct them immediately.
That means that you are willing to listen, that you are willing to interrogate, that you're conscious of your opinions but you also have values. I'm saying that as a word, as I understand it, it can't exist in a thinking person because a thinking person makes choices. That's why I say fairness as opposed to, leaving accuracy aside, that's why actually fairness is what I substitute for objectivity not accuracy, which I think any journalist who knowingly lies is not a journalist.
Brian: I accept that and endorse this message.
Brian: Can I ask you-
Brooke: Wait a minute, this is about me. I'm asking you something now.
Brian: Okay, go ahead.
Brooke: I want to talk about what makes your program unique in a maligned medium. Actually, we're all maligned, right? See, Shakespeare wrote in a play first, "Let's shoot all the lawyers." I've met enough people who feel that they should metaphorically shoot all the journalists. Talk Radio has a bad name, mostly because of AM when it's the most important community building mechanism we can have. The Brian Lehrer community is one of the smartest, best informed ones there is. It's partly because you rise above what might be expected in so many ways. You don't just give them a voice. You give them important things to talk about. Especially around election times, like now.
You give them this innovation, which I'm so proud of. I talk about it all the time, even though it's not mine, which is 30 issues in 30 days.
Brian: You say innovation in a way. It's just old fashioned public affairs.
Brooke: Not like that, not to let you do it in a run up to an election so people understand what they need to consider when they become the informed electorate that they're supposed to be.
Brian: 30 issues in 30 days was born during the 2004 presidential election cycle. This year, I was proud that we did that because, let's say in New York for example, where we both are, the race had become so much about crime one way or the other and then the media ran with that. Again, what about healthcare? What about housing? What about democracy? What about so many other things? Abortion was the other issue that was being discussed and of course we wanted to discuss that too. What we avoided, I think, was the temptation to indulge in red wave stories, which turned out to be false because we as a matter of policy, did not do explicit polling segments, as opposed to following the structure that we set up for ourselves where we were going to do an issue a day for 30 days.
Brooke: Its the polls and the prognostication that fuels every election cycle and, of course, proved to be disastrous this time around.
Brian: It makes me think again of the ways that you go deeper than people think you're going to go as host of a media show. I want to take this in a different direction, but I think it relates back to the trouble with reality and how we interact with the media. On your show, there's a show that was hooked around the emotion of fear and the obvious newsy angle was that Fox News had recently amped up their coverage of crime even though crime rates had not suddenly increased. Your take away from that, if I heard it right, was that they were doing this as an election strategy to help the Republicans win because ginning up fear of crime was proving an effective strategy in some cases. Then you went from there to later in the show, a segment about horror movies. It was Halloween week also.
Brian: I know you like horror movies. We've once had this conversation in the office, and I'm like, "No, I just want to look away." [unintelligible 00:20:43] something. Why do you like horror films again?
Brooke: Well, I think that I'm more naturally a fearful person than you are, Brian. I think a lot of what I do is motivated by fear, whether I'm conscious of it all the time or not. I think, therefore, I really crave the catharsis you can get by being scared in a safe place like a movie seat or on your living room couch. There's certainly that. There's a predictability to it as the person we interviewed discussed. That sense that you're going to be scared in formulaic ways, which makes it even easier to take.
Brian: It's almost like a COVID vaccine, or almost any kind of vaccine for the potential illness in question. A controlled dose of fear or horror.
Brooke: Possibly. After the piece I did, Rebecca Clark-Callendar, one of our producers did a piece on Black horror in particular. There was a maker of a horror film who talked to women who had horrible experiences during Jim Crow. He'd used some of those tropes in these films, and he said, "Too much, not good? Do you hate it?" They said, "No, we love it." It's so much easier to process when we see it this way than when it's a continuous pressure, a formless fear invading your life and your unconscious.
Brian: I think we've used our available time, and we should probably lift the curtain.
Brooke: We don't have an arc. Can I offer a tribute to you? I love your program. I love what you do for New York City. I love your Queen's accent, and I know that all of New York loves it too. I hope you never, ever try and get rid of it. At this point, it would be way too late in any case.
Brian: I love your show and the many spurs that it has created, including even one of your producers winding up testifying at the Oath Keepers trial because the reporting that he did in the context of On the Media revealed so much. Keep pulling back the curtain on our media and ourselves. We are so lucky to have you as host and managing editor of OTM and not me.
Brooke: Brian, you are so lucky not to have me host of The Brian Lehrer Show. Please keep building community and mending the community that is New York and all the listeners beyond New York, even as events conspire to tear it apart. You've built something really durable and growing.
Brian: I think they love your New York accent too, even in Arizona and Nevada.
Brooke: Well, [unintelligible 00:23:54] known for its accent. You take care, Brian.
Brian: And you.
Brooke: Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. You can read the print version of my conversation with Brian on interviewmagazine.com. On this week's big show out on Friday, tune in to hear about what it takes to uncover the real identity of a sleeper spy.
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