DEENEY: How I Got Blackballed From Radio Times

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[Illustration by ALEX FINE]

jeffdeeney1.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY On Thursday May 19th, WHYY’s Radio Times was going to air a segment featuring me and a local psychiatrist talking about the alarming rise of PCP in Philly’s black and Latin communities and the massive social costs associated with a drug that can prove ruinous to chronic users’ mental health. You would have heard first hand accounts from the inpatient director of Einstein Medical Center about the steady stream of PCP-related involuntary commitments to the hospital’s psych unit, and the difficulties associated working with patients suffering from severe, acute episodes of profound drug psychosis. I would have given you the street-level look at what’s going in the Badlands, North Philly’s drug mecca where “wet,” as PCP is locally known, gets sold and used.

That is, until this morning, when I sent out the following five messages over Twitter:

“@whyy is ahead of the Philly curve having a mental health correspondent, but talking to Dan Gottlieb over & over is a lazy, poor use of it.”

“Today’s story was about MH outreach in the black community; Gottlieb does not work in the system providing those services. Not an expert.”

“Besides the point; there are black MH professionals in the community doing that work. Why talk to a white dude? Because it’s easy, in house.”

“Miken Scott, like other Philly journos, needs to get out of the office & into the community, build knowledge of systems that serve it.”

“@whyy editors should cut Miken Scott off from sourcing Dan Gottlieb, better informed & more interesting segments will result if work put in.”

Sorry, Maiken, for misspelling your name, I pulled over to the side of the road and was Tweeting from my phone and didn’t bother to look it up. The reason I pulled over to the side of the road and started tweeting @whyy is because for months I — wearing my mental health professional hat — have been frustrated by the fact that WHYY relies so heavily, in fact singularly, on Dr. Dan Gottlieb as a source for any and all mental health stories.

Do I dislike Dr. Dan? Of course not, everyone loves Dr. Dan. Do I dislike Maiken Scott? Of course not, I don’t even know her. I do know that WHYY’s having a dedicated behavioral health reporter is a fantastic innovation that other local news sources lack, but it’s not being used to its maximum potential. This morning’s story could have gone out into the neighborhoods where community mental health organizations are working on the ground to better engage the black community and meet its mental health needs. There is a wealth of black mental health professionals in Philadelphia’s black communities, who grew up in those same communities and have chosen to stay there to practice their profession. Wouldn’t listeners be better served by talking to one of those professionals with direct experience serving the communities in question, rather than Dr. Dan, who does not work in the community mental health system?

I felt that this was a substantive and important criticism, in fact, I’ve been holding off on criticizing WHYY for the past couple months as I’ve listened to Maiken Scott fall back on sourcing Dr. Dan to death for information on any and all subjects pertaining to mental health. Dr. Dan is great, but not so preeminent that he, and he alone, should command the microphone for every mental health discussion. This topic, particularly, rubs me the wrong way because it seems to me like Maiken Scott didn’t put the effort into engaging the black community and finding mental health professionals who work there to contribute to a story. More generally, single-source stories aren’t good journalism. At least, that’s what my editor tells me when I submit them, right before he makes me go back out into the community to do more reporting. I’m not subjecting Maiken to any standard I don’t have to adhere to in my own writing.

Then I got an email from a producer at Radio Times.

“(Your Tweets are) an interesting strategy for a possible guest on WHYY’s Radio Times. On a related note, I’m rethinking the 5/19 show as of this morning.”

“Those are my teammates you’re attacking ,” WHYY’s producer continued, “and I don’t take kindly to it.” I was told that “there are consequences” for public criticisms, and canceling my Radio Times appearance was mine. An increasingly heated email exchange followed, wherein I characterized WHYY’s response as unprofessional, petty and vindictive. I was informed that I wasn’t entitled to appear on the show; I was to be a guest and as such should not have engaged in what amounts to bad manners if I expected to be hosted, as I would in someone’s home.

I counter argued that there is in fact no attack here, that what I offered over Twitter was intended as constructive criticism — an attempt to nudge WHYY into presenting a greater diversity of voices to their listeners when it comes to mental health issues. This is, after all, listener-supported public radio — a format that is supposedly values input from the people that listen to it and help underwrite it. I think my going on Radio Times to discuss serious issues about drug abuse and mental health in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods is more a matter civic engagement that enriches its listener’s understanding of the city than an invite to a dinner party, but then again I’ve never been accused of being a savvy player of the media game.

WHYY’s singular obligation should be to provide listeners with the best and most informative content. They are not doing so by allowing their behavioral health coverage to focus so heavily on input from a single expert, no matter how knowledgeable that expert is. Nor are they doing so by keeping me off the airwaves in retaliation for criticising the practice. Honestly, I had no idea that public radio could be this thin-skinned and cutthroat; let’s hope they can maintain this new spirit of ruthlessness when it counts, like in the face of attacks from Congressional Republicans and conservative media shysters instead of what went out over some social worker’s Twitter feed.

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