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‘On the Media’ takes a hard look at TV news

National Public Radio show defies assumption that it has a liberal bias
/ Source: The Associated Press

“We just don’t care about Brad and Angelina,” says Bob Garfield.

Oh, maybe he cares. But not as a host of public radio’s “On the Media.”

Neither Garfield nor his cohort Brooke Gladstone stoops to everyday media-and-pop-culture coverage. Not celebrity gossip. Not box-office rankings. Not partisan politics disguised as press analysis.

Instead, “On the Media” — a weekly hour of interviews, reports, features and commentary — veers off the beaten path across the media landscape, surveying anything from the citadels of power to vanity license plates. (“Long before there was an Internet, there was an interstate net of license-tag message boards,” Garfield observed in a piece three years ago.)

“On the Media” has kept its eye on the unraveling CIA leak story. It has reported on the podcasting craze, on one man’s effort to archive the entire Internet, and on the government’s inscrutably revised food pyramid.

Smart but not wonkishOf all the words spilled after Dan Rather’s resignation as CBS News anchorman, those by Gladstone were perhaps the most incisive. In an affectionate if backhanded salute she declared him, among other things, “the first and only extreme anchor in network news.”

And Garfield, always ready to have a little fun, spoofed an announcement that the White House press offices were due for renovation with a sketch called “Extreme Makeover: White House Edition.”

Week after week, the Peabody Award-winning “On the Media” is smart but not wonkish. Entertaining but never “Entertainment Tonight.”

“The audience we’re trying to reach wants to fully engage in the cultural and political life of the nation,” says Gladstone, “and they want to be informed about how the media sausage gets ground out.”

Produced by public radio station WNYC, “On the Media” originates from jammed quarters in Manhattan’s looming Municipal Building, where its handful of staffers are joined electronically by Garfield weighing in from his Virginia home.

Garfield, a veteran journalist who also writes for Advertising Age magazine, teamed up with Gladstone, formerly a media reporter for National Public Radio, when the struggling program was relaunched in January 2001.

Even divided by hundreds of miles, they immediately clicked — “We’re somewhere in between Sonny and Cher, and Matthew Broderick and Jennifer Grey in ‘Ferris Beuller’s Day Off,”’ Garfield cracks — and now attract about 750,000 listeners weekly on some 200 stations.

Gladstone is happy to list some broad areas of inquiry embraced by the program in its current incarnation: journalism and advertising analysis; freedom of information issues; cultural trends as reflected in the media and, in return, the impact of the media in shaping the culture.

“We have done a lot of reporting on the Bush administration,” Garfield says. “Being so secrecy-minded, so manipulative with the message, it has altered the enabling condition in which journalism takes place. But we’ve been equally brutal on the White House press corps for not being sufficiently aggressive.”

No liberal slantThough sometimes accused of a liberal slant, “On the Media” regularly defies those expectations. It aired a story noting how the mainstream media make little effort to understand the pro-gun lobby. It has been tough on filmmaker Michael Moore’s factual accuracy. It even invited the corporate publicist for the Carlyle Group (the global investment firm slammed in Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911” and painted by mainstream media as a sinister force) to discuss the difficulties of getting balanced treatment from the press.

“We have a point of view on most stories that we do, but we’re not ideological,” Garfield says. “We’re not a show where everything comes from a left-wing perspective.”

“When people condemn the media as liberal,” adds Gladstone, “they misunderstand, or choose to overlook, what the fundamental role of journalism is supposed to be in our democracy: to challenge and be a check on power.”

This is the role “On the Media” has seized, while goading its press brethren to do the same.

But along the way, what role model do Gladstone and Garfield find inspiring? Columbia Journalism Review, maybe, or CNN’s “Reliable Sources”?

“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” they reply, almost in unison.

As Gladstone explains, “It does the kind of pungent, quick-response, unafraid media criticism that we’ve been trying to do for the past four years.”

“They don’t have to worry about context and fairness,” Garfield readily points out, “and they’re funnier than us.”

“But despite the difference in priorities,” says Gladstone, “the overlap is amazing.”