I think if we let that community know that we’re out here and that we’re doing stories on a subject matter that it feels it’s not getting enough of, those people will beat a path to our doorstep. Because the honest to goodness truth is that mainstream news organizations—the twenty four hour cable news—don’t cover science because it’s hard to turn complicated scientific concepts into stories that are engaging and relatable to people. You’ve got scientists and engineers who are not known for their communication skills, you have subjects that are a little bit esoteric at times, and it requires some extra work. It’s a lot simpler to throw on a couple of pundits and have them bat around the Tea Party for eight or ten minutes on cable news. It’s a lot cheaper and it’s a proven ratings winner. It’s the same reason why local news operations chase bodies on the streets instead of going to City Hall and actually covering some bona-fide issues that are more relevant to the people in the community. It actually takes time to do the reporting if you go to City Hall. If you go shoot the body, it’s simple. It’s easy, it’s done, and you’ve filled up your time.
So I’m a little bit of a cynic, as you can tell. There is a whole disenfranchised audience out there that I’ve been trying to reach through alternate means, but it’s nice to have an audience—a smart audience—already there that is going to be watching, and we’ll bring in some more people. Look at the ratings—1.1 million people watch that show every evening. In the cable news universe, you would kill for that number.
In terms of your coverage, I have to ask about a couple possible conflicts here. You are the chair NASA’s Education and Public Outreach Committee and the NewsHour’s new science unit is receiving funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Will you be able to cover the U.S. space program or HHMI at the NewsHour?
Well, we’re pondering this issue even as we speak because my role at the National Advisory Council [which comprises nine committees, including Education and Pubic Outreach] is to advise strictly on education and public outreach issues. I don’t get involved in policy because, you know, I’m not a rocket scientist. But, having said that, as an advisor to NASA, it could be confused and create the appearance of a conflict, so we have to work through that. The issue for me is, I tell NASA how to better tell its story. I’m not sure if that’s a direct conflict if I’m doing a story about the next mission they’re going to launch to Venus or whatever, or about a shuttle launch. Now, if I were advising the NASA administrator about what sort of rockets should replace the shuttle, and how long the space station should stay in orbit and what experiments should be on there, it’s clear that would present a conflict, because if I’m doing a NASA policy story, that’s right in that area. So, we don’t have it figured out just yet. Admittedly, it’s a grey area and right now we don’t have a story that’s forcing us to contend with it. But I’ve had some discussions with Linda Winslow and Jim Lehrer about it to see what we’re comfortable with. I would hate to recuse myself from space stories, but I have also enjoyed my role in trying to help NASA engage the public a little better. So right now, frankly, I’m in the middle of a bit of a quandary.
And HHMI – do you think there’s an issue there?
Well, we’re not going to cover them directly. It would not be good form to get involved in telling the story of a specific funder. I think it’s a much more clear-cut situation—as opposed to the one with NASA—when a funder is linked to a story. But, you know, will biomedical research be an area we discuss? Of course. Will we be trotting over to the HHMI to see what they’re working on? We can’t do that, obviously.
Speaking of your widely acclaimed coverage of the space program, after PBS’s announcement last week, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit griped that you were so good at it, you “got plunked in the anchor’s chair a lot.” Obviously, he’d like to see you wear the reporter hat first. How do you plan to strike a balance between interviews and analysis and in the studio versus chasing down stories on the beat?