Saturday, March 3, 2018

Make Politics Boring Again: Political Podcasts and the Trump Era

The NPR Politics Podcast

On February 28, Matt House, Communications Director for Senator Chuck Schumer, pointed to a correction in The New York Times regarding a meeting between Donald Trump and Congressional leaders: “An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of a similar televised meeting. It was in January, not last year.” “The media pace of this presidency is captured perfectly” by the correction, he commented, and it’s hard to disagree. The relatively staid pace of normal politics has been swept aside and replaced by what feels like a bad plot from a later season of 24. Sickening though such developments might be for those of us who are living through them and wondering how they might turn out, they have at least been fodder for a host of podcasts that aim to combine the compelling narrative drive of non-fiction hits like Serial with analysis of the constant torrent of disturbing new headlines.

Given that the presidency has been debased to the level of a cut-rate reality-TV series, it’s fitting that attempts to recount and make sense of developments in Washington have themselves often come to resemble shows that recap something like Big Brother or The Apprentice. Some, like FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Podcast or The NPR Politics Podcast, tend to focus primarily on summarizing recent events. FiveThirtyEight’s emphasis on analyzing the news via a data-driven approach tends to make it rather drier, and at times it gets bogged down by founder Nate Silver’s tendency to focus on criticizing media organizations who adopt a less quantitative approach to politics than his own outfit. By contrast, NPR’s podcast plays it straight and earnest, particularly in their weekly episode, typically produced on a Thursday, in which they summarize the past week’s events and offer additional analysis for listeners who might need additional context for some of the discussion. The latter approach is more effective, allowing the rotating cast of reporters and editors who host the show a chance to delve into important stories without alienating those whose knowledge of politics might be somewhat more superficial.

By contrast, Pod Save America, which has grown immensely popular and been called a left-wing equivalent to conservative talk radio, tends more towards inside baseball. Hosted by former employees of President Obama’s White House, the show’s most impressive achievement is managing to strike a tone that somehow balances constant outrage at the depredations of the current administration with a center-left, slightly technocratic perspective. Rather than straightforward attempts at neutral analysis, the Pod Save America crew is openly partisan, and I’ve generally found myself listening more because I’m curious as to how the hosts will frame a certain issue and exhort their listeners to mobilize around it than because I’m expecting a particularly insightful take on recent news. The show serves a useful function in rallying those who are concerned about the degradation of American democracy and keeping them focused on righting the ship, but its tone often veers towards archness – all too often, the hosts have to pull themselves back from mocking the various members of the Trump administration to remind us just how deadly serious all of this is.

HBO's Pod Save America

Perhaps the most interesting podcasts to emerge in response to Trump’s White House are two newer projects. One, NPR’s Embedded, is an older show, but, in its latest season, titled “Trump Stories,” it has reoriented its focus to look at the ongoing investigation led by Robert Mueller into the 2016 election, as well as attendant questions about Russian interference. The other, Trump, Inc., is produced by WNYC and ProPublica and proclaims itself to be an “open investigation” into Trump’s business, as well as its resulting conflicts of interest.

Both of these podcasts are especially good at seizing on some of the storytelling potential of the medium. Embedded’s new season, in particular, seems to be aiming to capture some of the narrative momentum that made Serial’s first season so compelling. Host Kelly McEvers, joined by NPR correspondents Carrie Johnson and Ryan Lucas, lays out a clear timeline of what we know so far about the events that Mueller and his team are probing. While virtually all of the information that they present comes from older news stories, it’s nevertheless extremely useful to hear it presented as part of a linear narrative, rather than in the jumbled, incomplete form in which we first encountered it when it was breaking news. It doesn’t hurt that, coming as it does from NPR, the podcast’s production values are top-level, seamlessly fusing audio clips, narration, and atmospheric music in order to convey both the facts of the case and the grim, slightly paranoid tone that recent events evoke in many of those who are living through them.

Trump, Inc. is similarly professional-sounding (WNYC is, after all, a station in NPR’s network), but it also provides an interesting contrast with Embedded in its embrace of the unfinished nature of the stories that it’s telling. While the business conflicts of this administration may ultimately prove to be the most important in understanding it, it’s still hard to make stories about the Trump Organization’s complicated, arcane financial maneuvers compelling. Nevertheless, host Andrea Bernstein and the rest of the production staff manage to make these knotty stories interesting and fairly easy to understand. It’s also a show that’s reflective of some of the best journalistic impulses that have emerged in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory: Bernstein and her co-hosts end each episode with an invitation to their listeners to provide additional information that might help to clarify the things that they’re still not sure about, even if it’s something seemingly minor such as a billboard touting Trump-branded goods or services. It’s no surprise that the podcast recently had David Farenthold, who’s used similar tactics in digging into Trump’s ostensibly charitable activities for TheWashington Post, on as a guest.

Just as there seems to be no end of stories worth covering in the Trump era, there is a whole host of podcasts dedicated to exploring aspects of the current administration, and this is only a sampling of what’s out there. If there’s a silver lining to be found in the present darkness, it’s that a number of journalists have risen to the challenge of finding new, compelling ways to present complicated stories to the general public via podcast. Hopefully these fresh models of investigating and explaining important news stories will long outlive the immediate impetus for creating them.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory

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