BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Holy mackerel. 20 years ago, that was our very first sign on. Since Brooke and I inherited a small, under-resourced program from our heroic WNYC colleague Brian Lehrer in January 2001. We've hosted more than a thousand shows and hundreds of standalone podcasts, along with our staff of fierce and curious producers, not to mention 400 some public radio stations, we have walked together in that two decade long journey, although, you know, we did most of the work. We've interviewed journalists, academics, activists, politicians, authors, and here and there, the odd demagogic clown seeking insight, perspective and accountability.
BOB GARFIELD Well, where is your market? And quick follow up question. What's the purpose of the great 2016 Glenn Beck empathy tour?
GLENN BECK This is the most remarkable interview I've ever done, and I've done some remarkable interviews.
BOB GARFIELD Thank you. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD We are, after all, ostensibly media critics. So as we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we should acknowledge at the outset our long history with varying degrees of patience, of finding fault, such as the moment in 2005 when Brooke confronted the CNN U.S. president, Jonathan Klein, about the channel's fascination with the so-called runaway bride.
JONATHAN KLEIN Oh, we've done all sorts of things. Anderson Cooper went to Lebanon and Syria to really chart the birth of democracy there. So we're running the gamut.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, let's talk about the other end of that gamut then. Let's talk about Monday, May 2nd, CNN Daybreak, The rundown had runaway bride; American Morning, Runaway Bride could face criminal charges; Live from CNN, runaway bride back home; Crossfire's, should runaway bride face charges. Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn, Larry King, Aaron Brown, all of them devoted at least part of their program to Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride. And, Jonathan, I have to ask you, does this fit into the roll up your sleeves storytelling that you have in mind? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But we've never limited ourselves to media in search of a straight answer. This was an encounter with an Exxon spokesman asked about the company's funding of climate denial groups.
EXXON SPOKESPERSON We don't find those groups. As the science has emerged and become clear, we're more committed than ever to researching this important topic.
BOB GARFIELD We don't fund them or we didn't fund them? You got out of the funding business 2009 or some such, but for 20 years before that, you poured –.
EXXON SPOKESPERSON I'm going to finish my thought here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Please clarify this for me. Are not funding or did not fund them?
EXXON SPOKESPERSON We are not funding. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And of course, sometimes we break into song.
BROOKE GLADSTONE [SINGING] There were waves in the ai, that were barely regulated. They were barely regulated, broadcast was new.
BOB GARFIELD [SINGING] Days of yore, 34, rules and regs were then enacted, but were almost all redacted. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Let the record reflect that Brooke is endowed with certain gifts and I with certain others, like parallel parking. This whole deal in the various dimensions of On the Media has been trying to meld our complementary skills, interests and worldviews without obscuring our differences, for 20 years. Like a marriage minus the joint checking account. Even with a spat here and there. This is from an episode we released the morning after Donald Trump's election in 2016.
BOB GARFIELD What I most hope is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What the F* does that mean?
KATYA ROGERS Me neither.
BOB GARFIELD What does it mean?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why would you want to end on the line of we're all going to hell?
BOB GARFIELD Perhaps I misunderstood, but if you wanted to know what I'm thinking and feeling and that's how we do, I have just told you. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But long before the Trumpiclysm, OTM was in the business of chronicling and adapting to a series of revolutions - including the digital one. Which vastly helped with the finding of information, but also devastated newspapering. We talked about that so much we made a jingle about it.
BOB GARFIELD We covered the rise of social media and the communities they enabled, healthy and toxic and the incestuous amplification of conspiracy and grievance in countless echo chambers leading to the post-truth age of alternate facts. And then finally, the big lie of a stolen election and adjacent poisonous delusions. These last four years have been especially unsettling. Trying to cover Donald Trump's assaults on truth without howling at the moon ourselves, which Brooke mostly succeeded at, and I often did not. But Trump and Trumpism did not solely define the period or our responsibilities. Only eight months before the president incited the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, propelling formerly disengaged Americans into the streets under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Anguish, civil disorder and cell phone video had combined at long last to peel the denial of structural racism and economic justice, laying bare the shaky architecture of our national ideals. But this reveal wasn't or shouldn't have been a surprise. This was Brooke's 2016 conversation with BLM co-founder Patrice Cullors.
PATRICE CULLORS We are front line news. It's terrible that it's black death, that's front line news, but the exposure has allowed for a new vision for what black life can actually look like. This is our moment to try to get it right. So that in 30 years, my child can say I'm living in a better world because of the work of Black Lives Matter. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD All of these convulsions fundamentally altered the work of the media that we were chartered to observe. So it was all on our beat. If we were to define today's OTM, it might be examining and cross examining the narratives of our time, which is a pretty far cry from where we began on our first show together. Back in January 2001, Brooke walked with a melancholy veteran of the New York Post's death beat. A relentless stream of fires, defenestrations, shootings and robberies gone wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't like your job?
REPORTER I like it and I don't like it. The thing I like about my job is that it's infinitely challenging. It’s a total 100% IQ test, 100 percent of the time. Outwit all of New York City and get the story in the paper. What I hate is empathizing with the people whose children have been hurt, and when people like that are just so stricken with grief that they can't talk and they can't cry, they make this sound they call it the Cri-du-chat; the cry of the cat. It's like a non-verbal, internalized, anguished wail that freezes in their vocal cords. And that stays with you, it, like, stains you. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And in a weird foreshadowing of the collapse of mainstream media to come, I documented the slow death of, obviously, Modern Ferret Magazine.
TRAINER So you come out and make a noise? You have to just wait for them. So he's got his little – he's having a little itch break.
BOB GARFIELD Also, it's a weasel and it doesn't understand what you're saying. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD At OTM's birth, yeah, a bit of mirth, but nine months later, nothing seemed funny.
NEWS REPORT We have a very tragic alert for you right now. An incredible plane crash into the World Trade Center here at the lower tip of Manhattan. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Things changed and so did we. Suddenly, and for eight years, we were cleaved to a project of skepticism and warning. A time when Dan Rather declared fealty not to truth, but to our leadership.
DAN RATHER This is a time for us and I'm not preaching about it. George Bush is a president; he makes the decisions, and, you know, it's just one American. Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Yikes. We weren't seeing the wisdom of journalists charging up that particular hill, and so one of my earliest primal screams.
BOB GARFIELD The issue is objectivity and credibility. If TV news wants to be genuinely patriotic, it must continue to be the skeptical voice envisioned by the country's founders. Journalism's job is to unravel, not to unfurl. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The wars came nonetheless, and with them the creeping incursions on speech and privacy. We did an entire hour on the USA Patriot Act where Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner acknowledged that the Bush administration took a murky piece of legislation and treated it as carte blanche for a security state.
SENSENBRENNER I was the chairman of this committee on September 11 and the author of the Patriot Act. I can say in no uncertain terms that Congress did not intend to allow the bulk collection of Americans records. The government's overbroad collection is based on a blatant misreading of the law. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Misreading, of course, can be a sin of commission or omission. We ourselves did not wish to view the world through our own assumptions and desires, and certainly not through a made in the U.S. soda straw. As the years went on, narratives came flying in from every corner of the world, so when we could afford to, we went.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm Brooke Gladstone reporting this hour from Liberia.
BOB GARFIELD I'm Bob Garfield, and those are street musicians on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE First stop, the city of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority.
BOB GARFIELD This is the ferry boat crossing the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In Shanghai, it's all in the skyline. Colonial stone soaring, steel spires sagging. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Also Russia, Jordan, South Africa, England. Yes, OTM crossed frontiers, but so did everyone else. Through the Internet, our news and our culture became borderless, requiring, among other things, a fundamental recalibration of journalistic assumptions. This we learned right here in our studio and a conversation Brooke had with New York Times reporter Donald McNeil about the movie Black Hawk Down. He had screened it in Mogadishu and witnessed the disconnect of Somalis trying to understand the heroic Americans storyline.
DONALD MCNEIL The film is told entirely from the side of these fabulous American heroes shooting their way through a continent of savages or a city full of savages. I mean, you know, and everybody is called skinnies, which is the equivalent of calling them dinks and slopes. Which is quite ugly as a portrayal of the Somalis. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It was the kind of obvious that makes you slap your own forehead. But it was also a foreshadowing, a glimpse in 2002 of the OTM we produced today. Examining narratives for obscured perspectives, especially once obscured by chauvinism and myth. That approach was eventually to find its fullest expression in Brooke's exhaustive 2016 reconsideration of poverty in America in five parts. Among those she spoke to was a young Cleveland mother who'd lost her job over her need to care for her premature infant and who was reduced to selling her blood plasma to survive.
MOTHER To have a needle in you sucking the blood out of you and then taking the nutrients and then pushing blood back into you and repeating the cycle is very uncomfortable. But feeling sad and feeling sorry for myself is not going to help the situation, is it? Does it upset me? Yeah, it upsets me. It frustrates me. But I am that person that takes responsibility for their actions. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD There's a texting abbreviation I- R- L; in real life. Brooke brought that home. Of course, the abbreviation is meant to distinguish flesh and blood brick and mortar from the virtual world of zeros and ones. But as we have all only too recently been reminded in the virtual spaces lurk life and death as well.
RALLY Jews will not replace us! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was the deadly Unite the right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Vice news journalist Elle Reeve recalled for us how she saw those seeds planted online two years earlier.
ELLE REEVE I was on 4chan the day that Microsoft launched a chat bot called Tay. She's supposed to be on Twitter and Instagram and learn from how people talked and interact with them to talk more human. And within, I don't know, maybe 18 hours, 4chan figured out how to turn her into a Nazi, and it was incredible. These guys all working together with this collective inside joke that was horrible. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD When we started in 2001, Mark Zuckerberg was a junior in high school. The Internet reached about six percent of the world's population. Twitter was a bird call. The cloud was where rain came from, but as we clicked our way through the aughts, the ramifications of these technologies for journalism, privacy and democracy began to pile up and piled further until it had engulfed newspapers, much of our civic discourse, and eventually even truth itself. When I traveled to Silicon Valley to size up digital dystopia. What did I find but a dark irony and a classic case in the annals of unintended consequences.
BOB GARFIELD Back in the 1940s, the computer age itself was ushered in largely according to the ethos of the philosopher mathematician Norbert Wiener, father of cybernetics. Wiener, says Stanford University communications professor Fred Turner, sought safe haven for democratic discourse in the wake of 15 years of fascism via the same architecture we now disparagingly call the filter bubble.
FRED TURNER In which freedom was imagined as being able to build your own feedback loops, as being able to enter into the world, seek the information that you needed, learn from it, and then change your action accordingly. In many ways, Google is the dream of Norbert Wiener from the 1940s realized. The trouble is once realized it doesn't necessarily bring us democracy, it brings us a new and different mode of authoritarian enclosure. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In some, our coverage aimed to unravel the double helix of technology and politics in service of our very hearts and minds. I guess you could say over 20 years we've appointed ourselves not just watchdogs of the watchdogs, but chaperones on a journey toward just plain remaining honest and free. Yes, not to get too sappy about it, a journey with you along for every step of the way. You know, over the years, you may have noticed we just love Wizard of Oz analogies. So one more time, here we go. Especially at this particular moment in history, I think of little Dorothy arm-in-arm with friends traversing the splendid and harrowing yellow brick road, pulling back the curtain and eventually finding the truth.
DOROTHY Oh Auntie Em, there's no place like home.
BOB GARFIELD Wait, did you say OTM? I think she did! "Oo-T-M," we'll look into that.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited... By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Adriene Lilly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme on the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And to you, Bob, a remote clink of champagne.
[GLASS CLINKS; SINGS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Cheap glass.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.