Warren Olney’s “To the Point,” the PRI show carried by NPR affiliates across the country, has long struck me as a bit of a parody of NPR. The name, for starters. I can’t remember the names of any of the faux NPR stations in “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” but they’re all names exactly like “To the Point,” created by some sort of random NPR show name generator. But the problem is more how Olney hosts the show. He regards himself as a referee, rather than a host.* He’ll get a pair of guests, one on each side of an issue, and have them take turns talking. So if the topic is global climate change, he’ll have a climate scientist and an Exxon-funded lobbyist debate its reality. The lobbyist will say “climate change doesn’t exist, and there’s no evidence that it does,” and the scientist will say “actually, there’s really no question about it at this point,” and Olney simply has them take turns talking. No common ground is found between the guests; or, if it is, Olney really can’t take any credit. (Olney got in trouble for doing this in particularly awful form a couple of months ago, when he let an anti-gay bigot make hateful, outlandish claims and never once called him on it.)
Compare this to Diane Rehm. When she’s being bullshitted by a guest, she doesn’t just turn to another guest and say “John, what’s your take?” She says “Sara, what you’re saying isn’t true, you have to know it’s not true, don’t you?”
Olney had a pair of guests on a couple of years ago, and the exchange that they had was so extraordinary that I’ve been telling people about it ever since. One of the guests looked like an idiot, but Olney was the worst for the exchange—he came off looking like a buffoon for his unwillingness to acknowledge that his guest was a huckster.
On the January 1, 2010 episode of the show, the featured topic was Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I’m a fan of Ehrenreich’s work, and she used to live in Charlottesville, so I tuned in while I was driving somewhere or another. Ehrenreich’s thesis was that a lack of critical thinking was part of what led to the collapse of Countrywide and companies like it, touching off the recession. That the people who advance and do well in those businesses were the people saying “nothing can go wrong with bundling sub-prime mortgages,” not the people saying “I think this is a bad idea, because it could end disastrously.” Olney had a few different guests on the show alongside Ehrenreich, and one of them was John Assaraf.
I’d never heard of John Assaraf before, but a mere glance at his website makes obvious that he’s a shyster. He’s in the business of taking money from suckers by selling them the message that they simply need to imagine themselves rich, and then they will be rich. Of course, somebody listening to the show wouldn’t know this about the guy. They’d only know that he’s a “business growth expert and motivational speaker,” as Olney introduced him.
What Assaraf says is stunning enough, but it’s Ehrenreich’s surprising reveal in her response that led me to exclaim “oh damn!” to my radio while listening. I’ve trimmed this interview down to the illustrative bits, 2:18 in length:
For those who want to hear the entire, unedited portion of the show that includes Assaraf, here it is, 7:05 in length:
So Assaraf spends a minute making outlandish, utterly unsupportable medical claims, with absolutely no education or experience that would allow him to evaluate them—sheer bullshit—all about how disease can be stopped on a cellular level by thinking happy thoughts, and that’s when we discover that Ehrenreich has a doctorate in cellular immunology. Who saw that coming? Nobody! Nobody could have! It’s astounding! But you know who doesn’t care? Olney. Not in the least. He continues his “so what’s your response?” back-and-forth between the two, never acknowledging that Assaraf has been hopelessly owned by Ehrenreich, or that Olney or his producer have erred enormously in matching up a motivational speaker with a cellular immunologist to debate cellular immunology. Olney, presumably not having just fallen off the turnip truck, surely knew he was being bullshitted by Assaraf and that, by extension, his listeners were being bullshitted by Assaraf. But instead he followed his lousy script where he just has two people say their piece, and lets the listeners sort out who they agree with. But that requires honest actors, it requires evenly matched debaters, and it requires that the topic be something on which intelligent minds may disagree. This was not such a topic.
This is what’s wrong with journalism. Right here. Earlier this month, the New York Times‘ public editor publicly pondered whether the paper should point out when interview subjects are lying. The response was swift and vocal that, yes, that’s precisely the purpose of journalism.
It’s not just Olney, of course. This approach is standard, on NPR and elsewhere. I’m not holding him to a higher standard, I just found this incident to be so laughable, so egregious, that I’ve been telling people about it for the past couple of years. Incidents like this highlight why this approach isn’t just bad, but fundamentally dishonest. It allows dopes like Assaraf to stay in business, and surely makes people like Ehrenreich wonder what the point of a doctorate is if it doesn’t make her more of an expert in the field than some random person and why she should bother to be a guest on such shows again. Impartiality is great, but when a journalist is providing a forum for a liar to peddle his wares, it’s time for him to do his job and start ferreting out some truth.
* On reflection, this is not entirely fair to referees. Imagine if, in a game of tennis, Player A called a foul on Player B and, in response, the referee simply asked Player B if he thought he was guilty? My wife suggests that, in this tennis analogy, Olney’s self-assigned role is simply to act as the net. ↩