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Can Cancer Struggle Make Good Radio?



Like a lot of media reporters, I got to know Leroy Sievers when he took over as executive producer of ABC's Nightline. Unusually forthright about issues involving the show, he was a creative storyteller, great interview subject and even presaged all the behind-the-scenes blogs now deployed by network TV news departments with a widely-read email update that truly pulled back the curtain on decisions at Nightline.

Squeezed out of working on the show amid the tumultuous revamp that also, eventually, encouraged longtime host Ted Koppel to hit the road, Sievers spent a year teaching, volunteering with the Red Cross and helping Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa before planning to come back to the news biz.

But his cancer had other ideas. He thought he had beaten colon cancer five years ago, but problems with slurred speech last December ("I thought no one noticed...but a friend thought I was drunk when we went to the movies together," Sievers says now) led to a chilling diagnosis: six months to live.

All of this wouldn't have risen above the level of news business gossip if Sievers hadn't also decided to share his struggle with National Public Radio's audience, crafting a pair of evocative, emotional commentaries on his struggle with cancer that Sievers says brought more public response than anything he did on Nightline.

On Monday, NPR will unveil a ramped-up version of Sievers' reports, debuting the first of a series of monthly commentaries for Morning Edition, along with weekly podcasts and a daily blog, all contained under the heading, My Cancer.

"One of the things you face is quality of life vs. quantity of life," said Sievers, who now has a 13-month prognosis and inspiration from a friend who has survived 10 years with a similar ailment. "Do you stay on chemotherapy and feel (bad) all the time? Do I get those new eyeglasses I need? I haven't bought clothes, because I'm not sure I really need them."

Given all the tumult in the media industry these days, this is a story that seems too small for consideration, I'm sure. But Sievers' commentaries have been moving and compelling, and I think if you spend a little tiem checking them out, you may find the education about life with a terminal illness worthwhile.

Traitor or Truth Teller? New York Times in the Cross Hairs Again

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum echoed the administration's strategy for handling yet another national security scoop by the New York Times: play the liberal media bias/national security card.

"I think it would be hard to come closer to the classic definition of publishing the departure time of a troop ship in war time and inviting the enemy to shoot a torpedo at it than this," said Frum today on Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz's CNN show Reliable Sources. "Here's a program where there's no allegation of abuse....Yes, look, there are a lot of people in the government who are disgruntled about the Bush administration's approach, and they have taken on a program of sabotage and leaking, but it wouldn't work without the complicity of the papers. This is as big a media scandal as it's possible to be."

The NYT angered administration officials by denying their request to kill a story on how they have kept tabs on the international flow of terrorist money by examining records of wire transfers using a wordwide network of bankers. The bankers have defended handing over the info to the U.S., and conservative pundits have gone apoplectic over the exposure of another spying program they believe is necessary to hold terrorists at bay.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich responded by noting that the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times also published accounts of the same program, and that the administration didn't begin to brief Congress about it, until they realized the newspapers were going to publish the story.

It's a classic conundrum for journalists, and one that I think the general public is often too dismissive of. Perhaps people assume their financial records won't be examined, but this Washington Post article examines the privacy implications of such a program.

Freedom of speech and privacy vs. security? This seems to be the question continually at hand as a secretive administration pushes more invasive surveillance programs and an aggressive press works harder to ferret them out -- facing subpoeanas for confidential sources and diminishing protection in the courts.

Supporters of the administration say the war on terror requires such measures. But this is a war with no geographic boundaries and no timetable. America-hating terrorists have existed for a long time: are we to accept secretive, undisclosed extensions of presidential and intelligence power until the last al-qaeda cell is vanquished? Or beyond?

I know that as a journalist I'm biased toward good stories and skeptical of government. But such revelations seem to me the only way to ensure such programs are implemented the way they are supposed to be. And, in the end, that's part of our job -- isn't it?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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