Tongue Tied

I knew something was wrong before I heard any actual words about the subject.

It had already been a rough morning. My kids had missed their bus, so I had to drive them to school.

Then, I’d had to slog my way through traffic on I 94 to try to get from the north end of StPaul out to my job, near Ridgedale. But things were finally picking up; I was listening to PJ O’Rourke doing a book interview on the KQRS morning show. They got to a commercial break, and I flipped over to “Morning Edition”.

And I knew something had to be terribly, terribly wrong even before I heard a coherent sentence.

The NPR hosts were trying to ad lib.

Maybe you never think about this – the way people sound on the radio is pretty easy to take for granted. But even though in 2001 I hadn’t set foot in a radio station in nine years, that sound – NPR hosts trying to ad lib – grabbed me like a hand reaching for my throat out of the dashboard.

Remember in “Hunt for Red October“, when Fred Thompson says Russians “don’t take a dump without a plan?“ Public radio air staff don’t put a bagel in the toaster without a script. Everything you hear on the air on public radio is written out, and doesn’t get anywhere near a microphone until a chain of editors has picked it over. Those “spontaneous “ questions that the newscasters ask of the reporters when they’re talking about news stories? Scripted. Even the rare, occasional program that is made up of unscripted material – think “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me“ and Teri Gross and the like – is edited to a fine sheen before it gets anywhere near broadcast.

NPR people never ad lib – and when they have to, they are pretty much always terrible at it.

And so when events move too fast for the editorial process to keep up, and they have to ad lib, it stands out like Ozzy Osbourne at a Rotary meeting.

So when I flipped over to Morning Edition, and heard nothing but stammering and people trying to express the unthinkable in real time, I knew something had to be terribly wrong even before I actually heard anything.

And so while the news got worse and worse all day, I don’t know that anything really triggered my sense of alarm more than the gaping, stammering, confused not-quite-silence on NPR that morning. And of all the things that happened that day, that feeling – driving down 394, thinking “this has got to be real, real bad“ without knowing anything concrete about it at all – is still the memory that sticks with me when people asked “where were you that morning?“

Remember when your grandmother said “nothing good happens at 2 AM“? Nothing good happens when public radio people go off script.

12 thoughts on “Tongue Tied

  1. Wait, Mitch, are you saying that NPR/MPR on air talent are just voice “artists” without the heavy makeup of their TV counterparts?

    Does that mean their scripts have stage directions like;
    [snarky laugh here]
    [compassionate throbbing voice here]

  2. Lest we forget

    I would like to extend my best wishes to all, even the haters and losers, on this special date. September 11th./

    I really hoped this was a fake tweet and not originating from the president of the greatest country in the world…

  3. Yes, Emery. The President is coarse, vulgar and unpresidential.

    It’s been in all the papers.

  4. If it’s all scripted, then we would assume that you’ve got to get rid of just about everybody except the janitor to clean up the bias on MPR.

  5. I guess I don’t see what is/was wrong with Trump’s tweet. I mean, geez, he covered both parts of Emery, hater and loser 😉 Man, it’s like it was directed to Emery personally.

  6. Pingback: Late Night With In The Mailbox: 09.11.18 : The Other McCain

  7. JDM: I’m sorry, but this is still building straw men to be torn down. If political correctness were merely opposing the speech of Donald Trump there wouldn’t be a problem.

    What can usefully be said:
    1. Liberal societies require free expression of ideas

    2. All societies have informal speech codes, which change over time as that society changes

    These two principles, taken to sufficient extremes, conflict in a free society. In a despotic society, the state dictates many areas of forbidden speech. Free societies have to reach a consensus on the appropriate balance. There were many areas considered not acceptable for public discourse in the mid-20th century. Quite a few of those standards were challenged by the baby boomers in their youth (1960s-1980s), who rallied around exhortations of free speech to openly discuss previously taboo subjects like sexuality and birth control, race relations and the foibles of senior politicians. Since the 1990s, though, those who label themselves progressive have argued for more restrictions on speech, although in different areas than previously. They wanted the harsh language of the 1980s to be modulated to cause less offence as identity politics took hold, and campaigns to redress societal oppression of various victim groups gained popularity. It is important for those arguing for speech restrictions to remember how vehemently their peers in 1965 were arguing that social problems could never be tackled if we were not free to discuss them openly.

    In centuries past, if offensive language was used, matters were often settled with fists among commoners and swords or pistols among the gentry. We have changed those tactics to using sanctions like social ostracism and public criticism. It is entirely reasonable that with homosexuals and transsexuals allowed to live openly among us, and with women having joined the power elite, our standards of offensive language will change. The only question is how far. Nobody has a right to use the language his or her father used. Language changes as society changes, and this is for the best. A given group may have quite restrictive speech codes, enforced informally. If you don’t like those codes, you can argue to change them, but the only solution may be leaving the group. There is generally consensus found in small groups, less so in large ones, and at best a loose consensus in society as a whole.

    The internet has caused friction by exposing groups who would otherwise be hidden from each other to each other’s conflicting speech codes. Where most in the past lived in a world of one or two speech codes (I certainly always had different ones for family and for industrial sites where I worked), with the internet, groups and their differing speech codes are constantly in conflict. Conflicts which are manageable in a workplace or family are impossible to resolve with large numbers of generally anonymous people separated by distance, ethnicity, and various traditions. We have to learn that to have a productive discussion on the internet, we must be more careful with our language. Most people are much less careful. I’ve started to use my real name on the internet to remind myself to not say anything that I wouldn’t want to be held accountable for. For the internet to function better, and for society in general to function given diverse globalization, we all must learn to be more circumspect with our language, and to be tolerant of language and ideas that might be considered unacceptable within a family, a workplace, or any close circle of those with similar views. I think this problem will take a generation or more to subside..

    On the other hand liberalism is still worth defending. Nobody has the right to not be offended in the public sphere; that is incompatible with the freedom to express diverse political ideas, and thus all ideas. Identity politics is a political and philosophical dead end, and deserves only opprobrium. The use of violence or mob action to silence ideas truly invites despotism, as these are the tools of the despot. Express your distaste with those who offend, and disassociate from those who persist. If others do the same, change will happen. Collective action is different from mob action; it requires intelligent people to act similarly, but separately. You can change the speech codes of the world around you, and put a stop to offensive speech. But to be effective in expressing your displeasure, you must not cause more offense through your censure than was given by the original speech. Speak unto others as you would have them speak unto you

  8. That’s quite a long post, Emery. Where’d you crib it from?

    You realize, of course, that the final paragraph completely refutes your criticism of Trump’s tweet. It affirms that in free society, he has a perfect right to say whatever he wants to say and if you don’t like it, you’re free to ignore him.

    As we’re free to ignore you.

    Talk about your all-time back-fires.

  9. Well, at least Emery appears to be posting his long screeds during his lunch time. I’m sure his employer is most relieved.

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