Wednesday, June 29, 2011

KUOWGATE.

Yesterday on KUOW NPR's Robert Segal made a pledge pitch. He said that public radio played an important role in providing honest, unbiased, and dependable information. There is no more central imperative for a public radio station, and as I will describe below, KUOW has failed in this critical matter.

Watergate, Lewinskygate, and yes, even Weinergate. It is always the same. Powerful individuals think they are above the law or societal ethics. They cover up a misdeed by providing misinformation. They blame others.

And the coverup is always worse than the original offense.

For a public radio station to provide incorrect information in a deliberate fashion to protect itself is worse than indefensible, it is breaking a bond of trust between themselves and their listeners.

Let us begin with Steve Scher's letter explaining why he terminated my weather segment, a letter widely distributed on the station's website:

To All,

With sadness I must announce that I have released Cliff Mass from his weekly weather and science segment on Weekday. For more than 15 years Cliff has been a regular volunteer, contributor presenting an informative and entertaining segment about science and weather. Over time Cliff began inserting his opinion on a wider range of issues outside of science and weather, most notably education. Although we value Cliff’s opinion I do not want the weather segment to become an opinion and views segment. Every Weekday we use a full hour to take up controversial issues which brings many voices with a variety of opinions and views.

I spoke with Cliff on several occasions about my concerns but Cliff disagreed that his science and weather segment should not include his views about other subjects. As a result I have decided to terminate Cliff’s weather and science segment. We will continue to look at other ways to involve Cliff on Weekday that will allow him to share his expertise on other issues. Below is the e-mail that I sent to Cliff discussing this relationship.

Sincerely,
Steve Scher


Much of the "facts" of this letter are demonstrably untrue or the truth was deliberately distorted by Steve. Lets consider it sentence by sentence:

"Over time Cliff began inserting his opinion on a wider range of issues outside of science and weather, most notably education. Although we value Cliff’s opinion I do not want the weather segment to become an opinion and views segment."

The truth is that EVERY SINGLE time I talked about another topic (99% of the time it was about education), it was with the permission of Steve. In fact, he ALWAYS was the one that asked me the leading question that brought up education. Our system was for me to provide him with a list of questions before each segment and HE decided which ones to ask. I NEVER brought up an education issue on my own. This can be proved by listening to the archive program on the KUOW website. During the last year and a half Steve never asked and I never brought up any education issue. This again can be proved easily by listening to the archive tapes.

So why is Steve bringing this business up when he always controlled what I talked about and the fact that for over a year education issues were never discussed during the weather segment?

I spoke with Cliff on several occasions about my concerns but Cliff disagreed that his science and weather segment should not include his views about other subjects. As a result I have decided to terminate Cliff’s weather and science segment.

This is particularly chilling and revealing. He decided to terminate my weather segment NOT because I was talking about other issues on air, but because we were of a different opinion on what was appropriate. He could not accept that I had another view and that was grounds for removal. Think about how extraordinary this is--particularly for a station supposedly dedicated to allowing the community to air varied opinions.

My segment was cancelled on Friday and over the weekend things went viral--with a Seattle Times article, thousands of emails, the creation of several facebook pages, and lots of coverage in the general media. The Stranger even had a poll that elicited nearly 1500 voters (92% were against the station).

Instead of pausing and considering that they had made a mistake, KUOW went into disinformation/circle-the-wagons mode. Steve cancelled the call-in portion of his morning show--unwilling to consider the listener's complains.

Ross Reynolds dedicated a part of his program--the Conversation--to the firing, and tried to use it as a transparent attempt to defend the station. He started the program with a clearcut untruth:

"Cliff wanted to offer his views on other subjects. Steve Scher said it wasn't acceptable. Cliff decided he couldn't work under those conditions."

Absolutely untrue. I NEVER said I couldn't work under those circumstances. In fact, I caved in completely and agreed never to talk about math education issues...the only non-weather topic I wanted to discuss. I did that in consideration of the listeners and the other avenues I had to express my opinions (blog, KOMO, KIRO)

Then Ross had several guests. And he would argue the KUOW side with people who agreed with me.

Things were not going well for KUOW and public and listener reaction was growing. An inside contact in KUOW told me that staff was getting nervous and they wanted management to do something. And they got their wish...Jeff Hansen, the program manager stepped in with a series of defensive statements that were highly unfactual. They evolved in time to get more and more strident, so lets go to one of the later versions, released June 2: (my comments are in bold italics)
Dear Listeners,

At KUOW, our audience is our greatest single resource. We value your intelligence, your passion, your commitment and your curiosity. Our programming attempts to inform, inspire, challenge and touch you. We listen to and value every voice. And we believe the reason that you come to KUOW is because we stand for something. You come to us because we attempt to be fair and balanced, and to reflect the complexities of the world in an intelligent way. So for us, the way we program the station is not done through a series of random acts. There are rules that we follow, and there are standards of behavior that we expect of our guests. For a long time, Cliff Mass has been a valued contributor to KUOW. His knowledge and passion about the weather is something that we have appreciated, and that a portion of our audience has appreciated as well. But as is probably clear to most of you by now, we have not had the easiest of relationships. Over the years, Cliff has wanted greater freedom to say more on a variety of topics and was often bothered by the limitations of the weekend weather segment. (this is true, I felt that one or twice a year I should be allowed to talk about education topics--like Rick Steves can talk about pot legalization). Until recently, Cliff has also been involved in a lawsuit against the Seattle School District over their adoption of their current math curriculum. Given this involvement in that litigation we felt it was even more important that Cliff not stray into that very controversial territory during his regular weekly appearances. (why bring this up?--I never talked about the lawsuit on KUOW and agreed not to talk about education issues) There was a 2 1/2 hour face–to–face meeting between KUOW producers and Professor Mass to try to resolve the issue, and there was an agreement for a time. (the meeting was only 45 minutes, but who is counting?) But now we find ourselves back to square one. (this makes no sense....why back to square one? I NEVER talked about math education after the meeting as per my agreement with Steve)
In the last few weeks, Cliff has made some fairly serious accusations against KUOW. He has written that the decision to drop him from "Weekday" is "ominous and disturbing." (Well, I thought that a public radio station firing people for having a different opinion is ominous and disturbing, and it is!) He has accused the station of being deceptive, and he has insinuated that our programming decisions are being dictated by the "local education orthodoxy" at the University of Washington, the institution which holds KUOW's license. (remember, I talked about education issues, with Steve's permission for nearly a decade, it was only when some education folks from the UW complained about me that Steve and Katy put the screws on my ability to talk about such topics. I have second-hand reports that some UW education folks crowed how they "had shut Cliff up on KUOW." )


This is strong language, and it does not sound like it is coming from a person who either respects KUOW or who wants to continue to have a relationship with the station. Cliff says there are other places that have asked him to become a weekly guest and that would welcome his wide ranging comments on other topics. That sounds like it would be a better fit for him all around. (no, I made it clear that I wanted to try to work something out with the station and in fact I tried to do this before the public firing. And I have lost respect for a few individuals at the station)


We will absolutely consider inviting Cliff back to be a guest on other shows, if for example, we were to put together an hour on science or math education. But for now, our decision not to book Cliff on a weather segment stands.

To Cliff's fans, we're really sorry we couldn't make this work. For us it comes down to principle. (what principle? That only people that agreed with station hosts can be regulars?) We will not cede our programming decisions to any guest, even one as popular as Cliff. That's where we draw the line. (this is complete nonsense. They never ceded decisions to anyone. They ALWAYS had control control about what I talked about and I never talked about the education material during the past 1.5 years)


Jeff Hansen
Program Director

The surge of negative comments continued to increase and KUOW came up with another approach--they would do a news story about the situation! Great idea! Forget about the fact that it is a huge conflict of interest for them to report on themselves and that there was no way they could do it in an unbiased way.
They assigned veteran reporter Deborah Wang to the job. She came to see me after interview Steve Scher. I told her I could not see how she provide an unbiased report but agreed to talk to her (a big mistake on my part in retrospect). The story was very professional and slanted. Never did she ask why the firing took place when I had not talked about math education in years--which was the only issue that Steve and I talked about. At the end she made A BIG DEAL about how her draft was reviewed by an outside editor, with the clear implication that it all had to be true.
I could provide more examples, but I think it is clear that this situation is really disturbing on many levels. It shows the dangers when a group is left with great influence over many years with effectively no check on their actions. KUOW has become a shadow of what it could be. The UW is an intellectual powerhouse, yet so little of that energy and information makes its ways on to KUOW. Their main local program, Weekday, is now dominated by folks hawking their books and soft interviews of politicians. Arbitrary decisions are made by long-term hosts and defended with citations of "journalistic best practices". And the wishes of listeners are ignored. I really hope KUOW can find a new way-- listeners must now push the station to take a different path. ...cliff

18 comments:

  1. I'm with You, Cliff. "Public" radio is more concerned about not offending it's constituents and has degenerated to the realm of infotainment and true journalism has been lost. No more $ from me, KUOW.

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  2. I posted on your weather blog about education "administrators" in our state and how forceful they can be when someone doesn't agree with them.

    Recently in central Washington, a reporter wrote an opinion column for the daily she works for. The column was about behavior she'd observed at her local high school...including an inappropriately dressed teacher (she never named any names) and students who were screaming profanity in the parking lot (again, the writer didn't identify anyone).

    The upshot of her column was that she wouldn't feel comfortable sending her children to the school.

    The superintendent of the district immediately accused the reporter of attacking the district, and wrote a letter to the newspaper demanding an apology. Sounded like the district even organized a subscription-cancelling campaign

    And not only did the newspaper apologize, the publisher concocted a ridiculous lie to cover his own behind...he said if he had seen the reporter's opinion column prior to publication he never would've allowed it to be printed. Way to back up your staff, boss.

    Even more troubling, the newspaper COMPLETELY WITHDREW the section on the opinion page where reporters weighed in on local issues.
    For those of us who are in our forties (and older) we grew up knowing that the media had enough power to print unpopular things about powerful people--and, in fact, that they took that responsibility seriously.

    That is not the case these days. Although KUOW doesn't appear to be hurting for money, it sure looks like someone put the screws to Scher to get rid of you--not because you KEPT talking about your opinions on the air, but because YOU have become synonymous with your opinions about math education. "Oh, Dr. Mass...yeah, he's that weather guy who thinks the state is doing a crummy job with math education and who is suing the school district."

    And that is probably the most troubling thing of all--when people get muzzled not for what they are actually saying, but for what the powers that be are worried they MIGHT say.

    The "old school" ideal of journalism regarding speaking truth to power is disappearing. It's now up to media consumers to 'follow the money' and figure out where the real truth lies--something that very few folks have the patience or motivation for (clearly evident on your blog--witness the whining about how you were talking about KUOW too much).

    If the media is unwilling to provide the truth (either because they can't afford it or because they don't want to stand up to political pressure), then it is up to the individual.

    I know of very few more unpleasant undertakings than to have to tackle something like this, Cliff. Remember that you're not just fighting KUOW, you're fighting the state's public education system--a tremendously powerful entity with a lot riding on how the public perceives them. Worse yet, you're also fighting against parents who really want to believe their kids are getting a decent education in our public school system.

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  3. Cliff first of all I miss your segments. It was interesting that when you first went missing on KUOW I realized for the first time how much a fan of your segments I’d become over the years without knowing it. That said there is definitely something seriously wrong with both KUOW and KCTS, they’ve lost their independence and seem to me to be increasingly putting forth an agenda rather than advocating for independent broad minded thought and discussion. I’m concerned and I’m skeptical of their motives, no more money for these guys from me.

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  4. Professor Mass, while I was a big fan of your KUOW segment, I don't believe you are being 100% truthful either. In general, when you accuse a party of being dishonest or misleading with their language, you had better be *absolutely* certain that you aren't guilty of the same crime. And by all means, as a scientist, I know you know better than to use the words "always" and "never". You write:

    "The truth is that EVERY SINGLE time I talked about another topic (99% of the time it was about education), it was with the permission of Steve. In fact, he ALWAYS was the one that asked me the leading question that brought up education. Our system was for me to provide him with a list of questions before each segment and HE decided which ones to ask. I NEVER brought up an education issue on my own. This can be proved by listening to the archive program on the KUOW website..."

    I heard Deborah Wang's story on this topic, and could hardly believe my ears when the Weekday snippet came on:

    Cliff: "Steve, can I make a comment about UW admissions for a second?"
    Steve: "Well you're violating the rules of you being a weather forecaster..."

    This exchange was not doctored in any way, but it doesn't square with what you wrote above.

    When you were first let go, I was very upset with KUOW. I joined the Facebook group and followed the story on your blog and through other media outlets. I don't particular like Steve Scher. I wish there were more diverse views on KUOW. And I certainly agree with you that KUOW has gone into spin mode on this episode. Over time, though, I reversed course. I respect Steve's authority to direct the conversation on his show, and it sounds like you overreached in this case. Please tell me what I'm missing so I could get back into your camp.

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  5. Fetlock, I was with you right until the end, when you said this: " Worse yet, you're also fighting against parents who really want to believe their kids are getting a decent education in our public school system."

    I believe that Cliff is fighting FOR the parents (like me) who want to see their kids get a decent education in the public school system.

    Fortunately, I live in Bellevue, where that is mostly the case.

    KUOW is a cowardly lion. I am disgusted by them and their underhandedness; no ethics at all! Money that I previously would have sent to KUOW I will send directly to Cliff's UW Meteorology program, with photocopies sent to KUOW so they can feel the impact (and not care).

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  6. You certainly have my support. And that includes my escalating donations via your blog's "HELP SUPPORT UW WEATHER PREDICTION RESEARCH" link. Keep up your good work, Cliff. Love you.

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  7. Thanks Cliff. I actually find following you on your blog much more enlightening and helpful than your segments on KUOW.

    But you have got to stop because this is getting old and tiring. It is not fair but you are not likely to change their mind. No organization is perfect but I can still enjoy KUOW and as far as I am concerned, they are forgiven.

    Go about your business, do it well and enjoy it. I am sure it is sad to say goodbye to KUOW but that is the way that life is. Embrace other opportunities or spend that extra time with your family, work, exercise or what ever.

    Be grateful for the opportunity that you had with KUOW and be grateful for whatever else comes your way.

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  8. I said this elsewhere, before I knew that the questions were provided in advance, but I have never understood why, if they were so worried Professor Mass was going to go off the reservation, KUOW didn't just tape his segment sometime earlier in the day and edit it to fit. They have recording equipment, right?

    I really don't think they care and if it's true that they were coerced into this position by some Ed department people, they should be ashamed. Commercial stations cave in to pressure but public radio stations are supposed to be better: after all, if they do their jobs and can demonstrate that they are bringing truly independent information to their audience, the audience will pay for that. As you point out, KUOW carries a surplus.

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  9. Adam,
    I think my post was absolutely factual. My agreement was Steve was about not talking about math education...which he didn't want me to do because it was my "opinion." On that day I was not talking about math education..just admission facts..and I never agreed to complete restrain my ability to speak. And even if you don't agree with me about this one incident, there is nothing else. In short, Steve was mischaracterizing our agreement and I note that he had put me on the week in review segment that week, where all participants could talk about anything...cliff

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  10. Why, Cliff, would some UW faculty want to shut you up on education?

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  11. What I love is the fact you brought this to another site.

    I hope that KUOW will eventually just admit to their HUGE and GLARING error in judgment on multiple fronts, and everyone move on.

    IMO, they owe you a public apology Cliff.

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  12. This — Cliff: "Steve, can I make a comment about UW admissions for a second?"
    Steve: "Well you're violating the rules of you being a weather forecaster..."
    — is a request. And the answer was obviously intended as a threat, as a warning, even if the topic under discussion — UW admissions and an erroneous newspaper report — had never come up before. And reading it now, it reads like KUOW were looking for a reason to get rid of the atmospheric science segment, the local weather, and replace it with something else. Why would you say, to a trusted colleague, "you're violating the rules" on air? And again, if this was such a big issue, why not record and edit it?

    And of course, why someone would come to the KUOWgate blog and bitch that Prof Mass keeps talking about this makes no sense: why visit a website whose existence you oppose and then leave a comment about how unhappy you are? It seems pretty obvious that KUOW has lost their focus. Not sure how long they plan to let this slide, even with their budget surplus. Time will tell.

    And reading this — you're also fighting against parents who really want to believe their kids are getting a decent education in our public school system. — gave me pause as well. I don't want to believe my kids are getting a decent education, I want to be sure. And if the only way to be convinced of that is to shut down the educators who work with the kids who come out of that system, who wants that?

    Prof Mass has said time and time again that he and other professors assess the numeracy and math sense of incoming freshmen and have noted a persistent decline. This should be a call to action by all of us and should have been a topic for KUOW to investigate. If they had a news director, they could have launched an investigation into how the state school systems compare with out of state students, how different districts within Washington compare, etc. But no. He brought it up and KUOW — your local news and information station — ignored it.

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  13. Cliff, I understand your stress and largely agree with you, but I also believe your opinion pieces were sometimes biased (or uneducated) against, well, business, capitalism, tax payers, etc. In a sense, you view the tax well as rather deeper than it is, and paint (if not actually revealing) yourself as a far liberal. To that end, while your removal was unfair, it is a bit poetic. He who lives by blind liberalism will die by it.

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  14. Progessive Crank,
    I really don't know what Steve meant about the "rules" of me being a forecaster. He knew from the beginning that I wanted to talk about more than the forecasts and they had let me talk about all kinds of stuff earlier. My ONLY agreement with him..made under duress....was to stop talking about math education.

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  15. It is sad that research scientists are now the only 'group' devoted to finding facts and interpreting them with reason. One interesting thought is: what happens to Cliff's main careeer if he misrepresents fact? He puts his whole identity/reputation as a scientist in jeopardy. Steve? Well he proves his institutional loyalty, in this case. Therefore, I'd prefer to trust the facts of a major research scientist than a major radio man. The set of incentives for truth is so completely in favor of Cliff (as it is for other active scientists).

    This whole KUOW situation is an excellent example of instutional 'logic' gone mad. Which is almost always the case when the facts threaten an institution. The only interesting wrinkle is that this situation highlights so well the structural problems with having such big and powerful 'journalistic' institutions.

    The journalists at KUOW deserve no more implicit credibility than others paid to move the story and collect the audience. The difference in process between KUOW, FOX and the Corporate PR departments has been reduced to matters of degree, not kind. They are pushing the story and collecting the audience - keeping the institutions alive. We are all at risk to believe that NPR broadcast journalists are in a different game or that they play by different ethical rules than any other kind of media institution.

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  16. NPR is meaningless. You are better on your own than clinging to that sinking ship. All the beat, Cliff

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