Wednesday, June 29, 2011


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.

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