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Chicago Public Radio CEO defends Smiley & West cancellation, prescribes more civic discourse

Chicago Public Radio CEO Torey Malatia

Last week Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia published an Op-Ed piece in the public media journal Current, defending his station’s decision to cancel the syndicated Smiley & West program. Malatia’s piece appeared just days after Smiley & West returned to the Chicago airwaves on commercial station WCPT.

In his op-ed Malatia lays out his vision for the role public media journalism should play in the sphere of public discourse. He criticizes advocacy journalism, explaining that it, “elevates the voice of one citizen — that of the journalist — and frames the discussion with the intent of persuading the community to agree with the journalist’s desired outcome, whether it has real value or not.” He continues his attack, saying, “‘advocacy journalism’ is an unhappy meeting of two words,” and that in the case of Smiley & West, “the mismatched couple favored fare on the left side of the political menu.”

Instead of advocacy journalism Malatia offers up a “public-centered conception of journalism” that he says is informed by “practitioners and theorists from Edward R. Murrow to Jay Rosen.” In this conception he says journalism should “be dominated not by telling, but by listening,” where journalists do not “abduct the discourse,” but instead support “an environment of inclusiveness that provides an open stage for differences.”

Malatia goes on to explore the idea of “conversational democracy,” as described by the political scientist Iris Marion Young, in order to promote an inclusive civic discourse that is not dominated by those espousing majority viewpoints, who are privileged by position or have an advantage due to their ability to argue. He argues that this is the sort of dialog that public media should support.

It’s difficult to argue with Malatia’s prescription for public media journalism. It sounds a lot like what community media advocates have been promoting for decades. In fact, I would guess that Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and Amy Goodman–who Malatia previously referenced as the exemplar of advocacy journalism–would all agree with his conception. In his open letter to Malatia, Smiley described a feature of his show called “Take ’Em to Task,” in which, “everyday people all across America could call in to do just that —disagree with us over the airwaves.”

What is less persuasive is Malatia’s argument that Smiley & West represents a departure or challenge to inclusive civic discourse. In part, this is because Malatia does not offer up any concrete examples from the program that evidence the advocacy journalism he finds objectionable, nor does he offer a working definition for “advocacy journalism” that could be used to evaluate the program.

One can’t help but get a sense that Malatia is frustrated with the program, and his responses to it and critics of the cancellation seem personal. He says that the station approached PRI, the program’s syndicator, with their concerns, but doesn’t indicated if PRI responded. He does note that the program’s producers “mounted a write-in campaign accusing me of censoring views.” Malatia acknowledges that he received outraged comments, with some commenters advocating that “a left-leaning program such as Smiley & West represents the heart of the editorial mission of public radio.”

In my nearly 20 years in and around community radio I’m quite familiar with this view and the flak that station management get when programming is changed, whatever the reason. Community radio tends to embrace its left-of-center position more than public radio, yet most community station personnel still confront strident charges of being insufficiently left or progressive (or worse), nearly regardless of their best efforts and intentions.

In public radio, then, the divide is more pronounced, since most big stations do attempt to be more centrist and non-partisan, or, as Malatia would put it, “balanced.” And I do have some sympathy for the other kind of balance public radio managers have to maintain, in serving a broad audience that is not necessarily politically unified, keeping funders happy, keeping pledge dollars rolling in, and trying not to alienate any constituency if it can be avoided. That said, I’m not convinced that Malatia has made a solid case for pulling Smiley & West, nor made the smartest calculation in the way it was done and subsequently defended.

I suspect at least part of the calculation is that the actual impact on pledge dollars would be very minimal, despite whatever threats made by some Smiley & West listeners that they will withhold their donations. My experience is that only a tiny percentage of these threats are followed through, and that a not insignificant percentage of people making such threats don’t actually donate regularly to begin with. Nevertheless, I question the wisdom of alienating a segment of listeners with the degree of abandon that canceling Smiley & West appears to have done, whether or not those listeners are regular donors or not.

Even working within the institutional constraints of public radio, WBEZ has done some respectable initiatives that are intended to diversify the voices heard on air. These include opening up local new bureaus in Chicago’s more economically challenged south and west sides, to sponsoring the Race Out Loud series to stimulate community discussion about race. I hope that Chicago Public Radio is able to continue to follow through with Malatia’s prescriptions for bringing more public and civic participation to the station’s broadcasts.

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2 Responses to Chicago Public Radio CEO defends Smiley & West cancellation, prescribes more civic discourse

  1. Jeff December 8, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    Funny, my old station is in trouble for getting rid of Smiley and West while (one of) my new station WPFW is in trouble for trying to bring in Smiley and West. Love it.

  2. Gavin Dahl December 11, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    Smiley & West were critical of Obama on poverty issues and got cancelled ahead of the presidential election. Chicago Public Radio don’t play that. Literally.

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