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‘Democracy’ denied: Why WXXI won’t air ‘DN!’

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Standing by their decision to keep Democracy Now! off their airwaves, WXXI officials are maintaining their stance that the show fails to meet the station's standards for balance and objectivity. City Newspaper placed calls to WXXI Radio News Director Peter Iglinski and Radio Vice President Jeanne Fisher, and our questions were referred to Creative Director Jon Haliniak. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.

City: Where exactly does WXXI stand now in regards to "Democracy Now!"?

Haliniak: We've all listened to Democracy Now!. We brought it up with our Community Advisory Board, and they've also listened to it. And we really thought it through a lot and decided just not to carry Democracy Now!. Our primary reason? It's centered on journalistic balance in all the news programs we air. As a public broadcast organization in Rochester, we try to provide our audience a range of opinions and voices to reflect a non-partisan, independent approach. And we've determined by listening to the program that Democracy Now! doesn't really fit that format for us.

City:What is it about the program that fails to meet WXXI's standards of balance?

Haliniak: To us, as a news program, Democracy Now! is a point-of-view program. We look at other programs we air, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. As a whole, they don't seem to have that very same point of view. But Democracy Now!, to us, as a whole entity, really does seem to carry a distinct point of view.

City: You do air "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered." Carlson [who also co-hosts "Crossfire" on CNN] is generally considered a contemporary conservative pundit.

Haliniak: I agree. We do. But Tucker Carlson is in no way said to be a news program. It clearly is a point-of-view program, in the same way NOW with Bill Moyers is a point-of-view program.

City: So you have encountered instances on "Democracy Now!" where the host, Amy Goodman, is expressing her personal opinions?

Haliniak: As a body of work, yeah. We get an impression of that.

City: We have the minutes from WXXI's May Community Advisory Board meeting, where "Democracy Now!" is discussed. Radio Vice President Jeanne Fisher says "'Democracy Now!' admits that host Amy Goodman has a political agenda and that the content of her program is driven by her agenda." Fisher also states "Amy Goodman was recently arrested in an anti-war protest in front of the White House for participating in the demonstration." I'm wondering what facts these thoughts are based upon.

Haliniak: Jon Greenbaum, [an organizer] with Metro Justice, attended our last meeting, and he did sort of want to make sure there was a correction in the Community Advisory Board minutes. She [Goodman] wasn't arrested as a protestor. She was arrested as a reporter. We have made that correction.

City: And what about the comment Fisher made about "Democracy Now!" admitting that the show is driven by Amy Goodman's political agenda? I haven't been able to find a place where "Democracy Now!" admits such a thing.

Haliniak: I think, again, that goes to the body of work. We listened to the program enough to get a sense of it. And it really is a staff-managerial-programming decision on our end. That's our impression of the program. A greater good is served by what we consider to be the most fair, balanced news programs we can offer our membership.

We're not in any way trying to block Democracy Now! from appearing in the Rochester market. It's just not going to be on WXXI. We've tried to be as fair as possible with this.

City: When you add new programming, how do you attempt to achieve the balance you're after?

Haliniak: We get so many offers for content. And we really consider all of them on a one-on-one basis. Normally when we add a new program, it's not at the expense of another show of its ilk. We just balance overall programming. We look towards ideology and content in the same way NPR (National Public Radio) gauges all its programming with a sharp eye towards balance. It's a diversity of viewpoints we're trying to get across. So over the whole body of work, we get an informed balance that our audience can make its own decisions on.

City:Public broadcasting has historically taken some flack for leaning too far to the left, at least in the eyes of certain politicians. But a recent study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) concludes that Republican sources outnumber Democratic sources in NPR reports by more than 3 to 2, and representatives from right-wing think tanks outnumber those from the left 4 to 1. It doesn't appear that this perfect balance has been struck quite yet.

Haliniak: If you look at the phone calls we get, people complain about us being too right-leaning, too left-leaning. We joke that since we're hearing an equal number of complaints, we're probably doing a pretty good job.

NPR at least monitors what they do to strike a balance on a consistent level, and we respect that. From our own perspective, we try to do the same thing. We get reports from FAIR and other places as well, how NPR is taken, how we as an organization are taken. We just try to strike as much of a fair balance of programming, and we think we're doing a pretty good job with that. For what it's worth, our last ratings period was as good as it's ever been. At least we're doing something right.

City:One of the criticisms I hear of WXXI's decision not to air "Democracy Now!" is that it's a sign the station is scared to challenge its audience's intellect. And when critics say this, they cite the fact that you guys are still airing reruns of "Are You Being Served?" and "The Lawrence Welk Show."

Haliniak: Those are clearly entertainment programs. And there's a large section of our audience that appreciates them. We get a lot of letters, a lot of thanks for programs like Lawrence Welk and Are You Being Served? People love them.

City:The other thing critics say is that WXXI should be presenting alternative viewpoints; that functioning as an alternative is one of the main roles of public broadcasting. And they consider "Democracy Now!" to be one of the best news shows at presenting views you don't get in the mainstream.

Haliniak: Being one of the last independently owned radio stations in the Rochester market, we really take that to heart. We have a certain responsibility. But, again, looking over the body of what we offer --- everything from Talk of the Nation to All Things Considered to 1370 Connection --- we do challenge our audience on a number of levels. We don't think we're lacking at all in that area.

City:Based on WXXI's standards for balance, how would you say "Democracy Now!" is any different from "1370 Connection"?

Haliniak: Our opinion is that Democracy Now! doesn't fit our format for fair and balanced reporting. We're committed to a sort of neutral balance in our news reporting. With the polarization we're seeing in the media right now, you know, left and right, we're striving to be an alternative to that polarization. We want to be a middle ground so all issues can be heard. And Democracy Now! is a program that we consider unbalanced. On our air, it would be swaying our balance. Our integrity as an alternative, non-polarized station would be harmed.

City: Can you cite any specifics that illustrate why "Democracy Now!" is not balanced?

Haliniak: I can't really give you exact words or quotes, because we're looking at it as a whole body of work. Putting it up against the rest of our news programs, this show has a point of view and doesn't fit our balance. And that's a decision we're going to stand by.

City: If more contributing listeners were to voice their desire to have the program aired on WXXI, would that change your decision?

Haliniak: At this point, no.

City: During WXXI's discussions of "Democracy Now!" was there any talk about the impact that program has had on fundraising for various stations?

Haliniak: Only the anecdotal stuff we've received that it outperforms Morning Edition in other markets. And I gotta tell you, we found that a little hard to believe. Our fundraising here is strong with Morning Edition. How Democracy Now! performs in other markets is not necessarily relevant to us. Besides, our programming decisions aren't based on what we think the shows can bring in. It's an integrity choice. The claim that Democracy Now! makes more than Morning Edition or other shows, there's really been nothing from our end to back that up.

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