NASA apps good, local news reporting bad

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Published on: February 9, 2013

Feb. 9, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, or so, I had the rare privilege of being on TV for about five seconds. My brief, far-short-of-15-minutes-of-fame appearance was part of a WFTV channel 9 news report by Vanessa Welch about NASA and its foray into the world of computer apps and gaming.

Now I should say for the record that working with Vanessa on this was a completely enjoyable experience. She was professional, accessible, interested in discussing both sides of the story and generally just a very friendly person.

The notes she sent me in preparation for the story were mostly taken from Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is known for publishing an annual “Wastebook” in which he calls out examples of wasteful government spending.

Now I’m not saying there isn’t waste in government, or that every project is a smart use of our tax money, but with these “Wastebook” kinds of lists they are almost always classic cases of pulling out single line items in a budget that make great headlines, but almost always miss the big picture of why they are in the budget in the first place.

For example, Sen. Coburn’s list last year noted an expense of $325,000 to create a “Robosquirrel” to test the interaction between a fake squirrel and a real snake; and nearly $1 million to see if a male fruit fly would be more attracted to an older female fruit fly than a younger one, or vice-versa. Both projects sound a little crazy, but maybe there is a good reason why knowing that would be helpful to us humans?

In this case, Channel 9 was choosing to highlight the senator’s inclusion of NASA’s efforts to develop mobile computer apps, fund massive multiplayer online gaming and cooperate in producing content for an online radio station that featured new and alternative musical groups.

Vanessa was looking for someone to say on camera that they agreed this was a waste. The problem was, not only did I think this was not a waste, I felt most of the facts in Sen. Coburn’s “Wastebook” entry about NASA were either wrong or grossly misleading.

However, since she still needed someone to say something on camera on the pro side, we agreed to meet and do an interview. She had no problem with me being a NASA contractor in terms of bias, and it was made clear I wasn’t speaking for the agency.

We wound up meeting at Space View Park in Titusville and talked at the base of the Mercury Monument replica that is on display there along the Indian River.

We talked for a few minutes off camera, exchanged pleasantries about our families and then we did our on camera interview.

When we were done I took off and she and her cameraman hung around at Space View Park and went over to the Astronaut Hall of Fame to get some “man on the street” comments.

A week later, Vanessa’s piece ran on the 5 p.m. newscast and when I saw it I just shook my head in disbelief. It didn’t really bother me that the story was decidedly slanted against NASA, or that of all the time I spent helping with the story and driving up to Titusville they only used about five seconds of what I said. Having once been a journalist, I expected as much.

What bothered me was how this story represents so much with what’s wrong with our local news media, and frankly with the audience that soaks up all the dribble and hype without question. What I’m about to complain about isn’t specifically Vanessa’s fault, by the way. This is just the way the news business is right now.

Let’s break it down a bit.

First the story starts with something along the lines of “WFTV has learned NASA is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into video games and apps.” Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it. “WFTV has learned.” You should know that within the news media that usually means they saw a story someone else did and thought it would be a good idea to do their own version. But mostly it’s just unnecessary hype. Who cares if you’ve learned something? You’re a news media organization, that’s your job. Just start out the story reporting “NASA is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into video games and apps,” and don’t say it with a tone in your voice that makes it sound like the world is ending.

Oh yeah, that’s the next thing. “Hundreds of thousands?” Oh my, that sure sounds like a lot of money. I’m sure we could all use a few extra hundreds of thousands of dollars. But within a budget for NASA of some $18 billion, or a federal budget of trillions, that is barely a drop in the bucket. It’s like saying “We have learned you are spending an extra 75 cents on a medium Diet Coke instead of a small.”

After presenting some conflicting information about exactly how much NASA is spending – including another line of marketing hype when Vanessa says “a private company told 9 Investigates,” which is a phrase that adds nothing to the story – we see and hear from the first person who is considered one of the critics of this effort that Channel 9 sees fit to quote on air.

His name is John Flyn, a senior citizen who I’m sure is a nice enough guy but whose only claim to any expertise about the subject of the moment is that he is a taxpayer and he happened to be in the right place at the right time while biking around Space View Park so Channel 9 could interview him.

Mr. Flyn tells Vanessa that the NASA games and apps are “not a good idea. They already did space. They can’t go any further.”

When I first saw that, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “They” apparently means NASA and apparently Mr. Flyn knows enough about science, engineering, and space policy to be able to tell us that in terms of space we have been there, done that and can’t do any better.

My turn came seconds later, and to be fair to Vanessa, with my words and Mr. Flyn’s, she can honestly say and report to her fellow journalists who worry about such things that she represented both sides of the story during her segment.

A few moments later we rocket into our big finale, with Vanessa choosing to end her attempt at an objective, unbiased story by saying “While some taxpayers think the public-private partnership is a win-win, not everyone is convinced,” and then making the last word a negative thought when we see a relatively animated Mr. Flyn, our senior citizen friend who I doubt has ever played any of the NASA-related games or apps, telling us, nay, imploring us that “It isn’t going to work. You can spend all you want.”

Unbelievable.

At least when the story finished, Channel 9 co-anchor Bob Opsahl looked at the camera and gave one of those ad lib lines saying “Pretty neat, though.”

So in three words, Bob completely undermined all the hype of the story in the first place, which while I actually appreciated, also underscores my problem with news in general these days.

Quit the whining and overly dramatic tone in your voice and body language and just tell us the facts. And when you have an informed opinion, which is just as welcome, tell us it’s an opinion. Don’t blur the lines between the two. I know this sounds a little old-fashioned and probably strange coming from a former journalist who was always accused of being biased in favor of our space program. But there you have it.

And oh, by the way, just to be clear, let me make sure I state my position on the subject of the story in the first place.

NASA’s work to cooperate with other companies and spend some of its own budget money on developing computer apps is absolutely appropriate and necessary to the overall goals of space exploration that NASA is charged with accomplishing.

As I said in the WFTV report, these kinds of activities are an effective way to reach out to kids and speak in a language that they understand, all of which will hopefully inspire them to study the science and technology and math that will lead them into those careers that are so important to the future of our space program.

And those are the facts, in my opinion.

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