Pesca — and his opinions — find forum in Slate podcast

Commentary by Adam Ragusea

If Mike Pesca were a food, he’d be a meatball sandwich – though one made with hand-ground New Zealand lamb shoulder and San Marzano tomatoes on toasted brioche, smothered in a bubbling aged Fontina. (The side? Fries. Just normal fries.)

In other words, Pesca is, at his core, the basic Northeastern American male; he’s big and loud, maybe a little boorish. You imagine him on the other side of your radio speaking from a couch, shirt untucked, beer in hand, game on mute. And yet, everything he does within that mold, he does superlatively well.

Pesca

Pesca opines on The Gist, his podcast that gives him latitude his former employer might be less comfortable with. (Photo: Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo, Slate.com)

He’s an everyman who happens to be smarter and more cultured than almost any man.

When people meet the now-former NPR sports correspondent, typically the first adjective that comes to mind is “quick.” Pesca is uncannily quick-witted; quick with a joke, a handshake, a friendship; quick to catch on to something new and become fascinated with almost any subject.

If a team of lab coats set out to engineer the perfect public radio host in a test tube, they would likely produce an embryonic Pesca, already balding.

And yet, Pesca had to leave public radio in order to do the show he was born — or possibly bred by Area 51 scientists — to do. That should prompt some uncomfortable introspection within our public media tribe about who we are and who we want to become.

As of this writing, Pesca is one month into the already-spectacular run of his half-hour(ish) daily news and culture podcast, The Gist.

It is the newest and brightest star in the expanding galaxy of podcasts from Slate, the hugely popular online magazine owned by the for-profit Graham Holdings Company, which until last summer also held The Washington Post.

Pesca was poached from NPR by Slate Podcasts Executive Producer Andy Bowers, himself an NPR émigré.

“I don’t claim any great insight on [Pesca’s talent],” Bowers told me in an interview from his home in Los Angeles. “People across public radio have been saying for years that Mike Pesca should have his own show. What was odd is that no one gave him one until we did.”

Pesca did pilot a sports program for NPR, though nothing ever came of it.

A possibly legitimate reason that nobody gave Pesca a show (aside from the short-lived NPR podcast On Gambling and his numerous guest-host stints) is that public radio hardly needs another program hosted by a middle-aged, straight white guy from the urban Northeast.

Though, as the saying goes, “There’s always room for one more good one.” (If only that aphorism held true for people of other demographics, but I digress into a different article that I should probably write.)

Outside NPR’s ‘comfort zone’

Pesca’s loving, lengthy, and true-to-form funny farewell email to his NPR colleagues (posted here by Jim Romenesko) contains a lone, gentle jab: “I have always wanted NPR to be a weeee bit more ambitious or daring, to be willing to take risks outside our comfort zone.”

Regardless of whether the risks Pesca had in mind included giving him his own show, The Gist feels like the logical evolution of his NPR work, unmoored from the network’s (understandable) desire to constantly appeal to the most general of general audiences and not stray too far or too fast from standards of objectivity.

“He can take ideas and go with them where he wants to go,” Bowers said. “There’s no one looking over his shoulder, either me as a producer, or the FCC . . . no member stations. No one is there to tell him he can’t say what he wants to say. And I think that that’s liberating for him, it’s liberating for me as a listener, and it’s exciting for the future of the medium.”

At first listen, The Gist sounds like the same old Pesca. His NPR stories usually came across more like reported columns or essays than standard, down-the-middle journalism.

But remember, he was covering sports. Traditional news organizations have historically granted their sports reporters limited leeway to explicitly or implicitly opinionate, in contrast to those journalists on more sensitive or consequential beats.

On The Gist we get to hear Pesca apply the same approach to every other topic under the sun.

“To some journalists, there is this journalistic imperative to, you know, always be so evenhanded that sometimes you wind up not saying anything real,” Pesca told me via ISDN from Slate’s New York podcast studio.

Pesca walked into an incipient mission statement for his new show on a recent episode (starts right at the top). “The Gist aims to be many things, among them the show that brings you that one extra sentence,” Pesca said, the “extra sentence” being a key observation or conclusion that reporters often omit to maintain balance.

His counterexample was a story on NBC’s Meet The Press in which Kevin Tibbles reported on polls showing that some Kentucky residents who oppose Obamacare also support their state-run health insurance exchange — “It’s the same thing!” Pesca guffawed. “Say the thing they don’t like is just another phrase for the Kentucky-rebranded thing they like!”

Personality with opinions

We can debate whether doing so would constitute the voicing of an opinion (neither I nor Pesca think so, and probably neither do most NPR editors), but The Gist contains plenty of unambiguous editorializing from the host.

The format is a conversational introduction and billboard followed by a couple interviews, and then “The Spiel,” a segment in which Pesca opines on whatever interests him that day — in other words, a regular opening of the flood gates that barely restrain Pesca’s brimming and boiling gray matter.

In one such Spiel (19 minutes in), Pesca pushed back on former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s argument that people shouldn’t criticize or dwell on the delays in building a 9/11 memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. “History will not record how long it took,” Pesca said, quoting Bloomberg. “He may be right,” Pesca replied, “and that is, I think, a shame.”

It’s hard to imagine Audie Cornish issuing such a definitive judgment on All Things Considered.

It’s easier to imagine Michel Martin, host of NPR’s recently canceled minority-oriented midday showTell Me More, expressing such an opinion. Pesca, a fan of that show, bemoans its demise.

Theorizing as to why NPR managers pulled the plug, Pesca told me, “Maybe it’s because they are of the opinion that no one listens to hear the opinions of the host. Well, I happen to know that a lot of people listen to radio to hear the opinions of the host, and it’s not even necessarily the opinions of the host, it’s the personality of the host.”

Indeed, hosts across the public radio system (myself included) are constantly struggling to satisfy two irreconcilable directives from our superiors: Sound like a normal human with personality, but don’t let your opinions show.

Humans necessarily have opinions, and there is no way to sound consistently conversational without betraying your worldview and inner motives.

That said, Pesca’s editorializing on The Gist is usually modest in scope, and confined to what he calls “earned opinions,” a term borrowed from NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik. “If you have reported things out, and if you are really informed on this, you know, you could certainly give what would be called an opinion, but it’s an earned opinion,” Pesca defined it.

Earned opinions stand in contrast to what I’ll call “asshole opinions,” not only because they are so often voiced by people to whom that adjective readily applies, but also because they are, like assholes, something that everybody has.

Ann Coulter’s asshole opinion is no more valuable than the next person’s; therefore, there is rarely a legitimate reason to put her on TV.

Another practitioner of the earned-opinion arts, Pesca said, happens to still be at NPR — Adam Davidson, co-host of Planet Money. Pesca always appreciated when Davidson “talked about economics issues, and would say, ‘You know, the evidence really is on this side, as opposed to the other side,’” he said.

Davidson’s continued employment at NPR indicates management’s openness to this method of reporting. But that openness has its limits, Pesca said.

Imagine if left-leaning comic Jon Stewart wanted to settle into an NPR weekly after he ends his run on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (not really a far-fetched scenario). Pesca thinks NPR brass wouldn’t be comfortable with the idea, even though they should be.

“He’s gonna do interviews that are inflected by opinion, but we don’t mind it. You know, we cut him the break, and we don’t think he’s really doing hatchet jobs. He seems [to be] honestly seeking out what he defines as the truth of things,” Pesca said.

“And if it does make you nervous, then, you know, do the thing where you give William F. Buckley a show, too,” he said, noting that the conservative public TV personality’s death in 2008 likely renders him ill-suited to the position. I think Reihan Salam might be a good candidate with a pulse.

Can’t please pubradio ‘haters’

Of course, I myself sometimes argue that accepting taxpayer dollars uniquely commits public media to play it straight. To that notion, Pesca replies, “If it’s keeping you from doing compelling radio, then maybe that’s a problem.”

“Everyone who’s gonna hate on public radio is still gonna hate on public radio, no matter what they do in terms of evenhandedness,” he said. “I get a lot more of a charge out of reading a decent argument that tries to engage me, because these days so much opinion is just, you know, preaching to the converted.”

Therein lies the key distinction that can, should, and — to a limited extent — already does set public media staff opinions apart from others: We only voice them when our reporting has earned us the privilege, and only when we think doing so will make a constructive contribution to the public discourse.

We never stake out positions to pander to our existing audience, and we never let our position stop us from pursuing and presenting all sides of an argument with intellectual honesty.

Then again, the perpetual and universal hazard of editorializing is that it can alienate much of your audience.

In another recent episode (starting at 20:12), Pesca gets dangerously close to the line with his Spiel about former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson’s ugly ouster.

“Somehow this idea that rude, mean, dismissive, pushy or brusque behavior in [male] executives is universally seen as strength and directness is a laughable idea,” Pesca said at the top of the segment, pointing to examples of high-ranking men who’ve lost their positions, in part, for acting the way that some people say Abramson did.

You could just hear women across the country hurling their listening devices across the room, shouting “Maybe some men get blowback for being tough, but ALL women do! #YesAllWomen.”

Pesca, however, has the advantage of having a woman on the other side of the glass — his producer Andrea Silenzi, who confesses that the unobstructed view into her host’s mind sometimes makes her wince.

“But I like disagreeing,” she told me. “I don’t think the act of disagreeing in my head makes for bad radio. I think it makes for great radio.”

I agree. Luckily, the drama and tension in this story is preserved by the fact that many at NPR and other public radio institutions do not agree, at least when it comes to their reporters and hosts. And that’s why The Gist — despite being exactly the type of reach-out-of-the-radio-and-grab-you program that public radio needs — isn’t on public radio.

Not looking back — yet

Bowers acknowledges that some stations, still enamored of Pesca and hungry for a half-hour daily that could balance out Marketplace or a short local show in their schedules, may look to put The Gist on the radio, as WNYC has done with other Slate podcasts.

“We’re very open to that kind of partnership,” Bowers said. Open, but not eager anytime soon.

“What I don’t want to do is force Mike into the thing he just left, which is the strictures of a very hard and fast clock, of not being able to experiment,” he said. “I want this show to grow in its own way, in its own time.”

Pesca remains just a click away for those of us back in the old country that miss him, and hopefully we will be able to internalize and act on the lessons learned as he and Silenzi update their podcast feed every afternoon. (Yes, two people are producing a daily show by themselves. That’s another conversation, one you can listen to above.)

But the conversation about evolving standards of objectivity may be moot at NPR. The board structure that gives local stations de facto ownership over the network permanently and fatally tethers NPR to hundreds of radio towers across the country destined for near-obsolescence.

Demand for NPR-like programming remains hearteningly high, so people are going to gradually leave NPR (or in the case of young talent like Silenzi, bypass it entirely) and create similar programming at institutions better suited to the digital age, both in terms of platform and editorial approach.

No need to take my word for it — it’s already happening at Slate. And that’s an earned opinion.

Adam Ragusea is the outgoing Macon bureau chief for Georgia Public Broadcasting. In August he will become Visiting Professor and Journalist in Residence at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

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