TV killed the political radio star.

31 May 2011 § 3 Comments

Alaska Senator Mark Begich played the guest guinea pig role for Talk of Alaska’s first live TV studio audience this morning. The weekly show’s eccentric host, Steve Heimel, conducted an experiment: record the show in front of a live TV audience, and take questions from the crowd as well as callers. Quite a feat for an NPR show, I thought.

Six people showed up.

Six people showed up in suits and ties and blouses and pearls. In my battery-acid-holy pants and a poorly sewn-back-together, quickly deteriorating hiking shirt, I was the most underdressed I’d ever been. And today of all days, I was going to be on TV. Great.

When it came my turn, I asked the democratic senator a politically correct, indirect, and frankly dumb question about Pebble Mine and how it might affect the Bristol Bay fisheries, and with the economy the way it is, how the state can pass up all those millions in favor of keeping a significantly less profitable (but sustainable) industry afloat as main source of income and culture for rural communities. Complicated, right?

After the show, Heimel asked me what I was trying to get at. The fact is, he said to me, that if Pebble Mine is dug, the biggest salmon run in the world will be severely compromised. In a few years, Bristol Bay will be just a dirty sea with impoverished villages along the beautiful but barren coastline of Southwest Alaska. We both knew this to be true, and I have a good feeling the senator did, too.

“Why didn’t you just say it like it is?” he asked me, only moments after Begich commented on how good all of the audience members’ questions were. Most of the questions asked by callers and other members of the audience centered on the regular current issues: oil and gas development, Medicare, and a blunt complaint from a gentleman in Homer about being sexually groped by a TSA officer recently.

The former Anchorage mayor answered them astutely and in a manner suited to a trusted politician. He maintained eye contact and spoke with confidence and knowledge. He knew the numbers and delivered the peaceful, neutral replies we might have expected.

Did we learn anything new? Of course not. One can look up on the senator’s website where he stands on many of these issues, and everyone, especially Heimel, who moderates the weekly show and frequently probes deeper into the more superficial questions his guests are asked, knows that Begich is always asked these questions.

Begich relayed a story about a man at the gas station who, when he saw the stocky, recognizable politician walking to his car, set the fuel pump to automatic, approached the politician and bombarded him with inquiries about oil and gas development in Alaska: When are the oil companies going to be allowed into ANWR? Why are the gas prices so high? What are you going to do about it? Meanwhile, gasoline flowed steadily into his truck, and the numbers on the screen flashed interminably.

Heimel, with his distinctive radio voice that oddly matches his eccentric, almost reckless, long frayed grey hair and quixotic goatee, told me with the same passionate tone I tend to rant about American apathy with that it is questions like mine that keep us from addressing the real issues. That, if we are going to solve anything, then we need to be direct, and to call out propaganda for what it is, instead of tip-toeing to politicians to ask questions we already know the answer to.

In the end, Begich gave me the answer that benefited all sides, but answered nothing: Let the science decide. If the EPA decision ends up lining the state’s revenue pockets, and all the villages in Southwest Alaska are abandoned for dilapidated housing projects in Anchorage (the loss of my own job the least of my worries), at least I’ll know this politician was honest with me.

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§ 3 Responses to TV killed the political radio star.

  • steven j says:

    Was he honest? Yes, he was saying science but it sounds like you take that to mean technocracy, or some sort of dismal calculus of profit.

    • The ‘leave it to the science’ reply represents a few things: first, it’s the biggest piece of the pebble puzzle that has yet to be placed. That makes it a very diplomatic and very neutral argument – it implies that if we’re a reason-based society (which we, at least, pretend to be), then we can depend on the EPA studies to tell us whether the mine should be dug or not. By replying the way he did, he didn’t have to take a position on the issue – that way, however the mine issue turns out, one who replies as such can go back and retroactively support whichever side they like.

      Secondly, the science is subject to humanity: we have the EPA conducting studies that are assumed neutral to begin with, taking only the science into consideration for their decision. They stand between two sides – one of which has also conducted many, many studies on how and why the mine will go about happening (the mining companies), and the other, the communities in Alaska that stand to be affected by Pebble, who seek only, it seems, to keep their way of life the way it is. The profit margins for both sides are what they are, but the element of human in the equation makes it a very unneutral fight: the EPA is no stranger to corruption, and could stand to benefit wildly from one decision, while a verdict in favor of the fish and the indigenous community would leave the corporate world lowering their head and walking away from the whole affair.

      In a capitalist society with our economy the way it is, with legislatures on both the state and federal level fighting for short-term answers to long-term problems (the ephemeral profits from Pebble Mine vs. sustainable (read: well-managed) fisheries a case in point), it seems unlikely that the latter situation will be the one to follow. I want to be wrong about that, and will fight to be, but the history there is as dependable as unbiased science. Should we let history decide, or science?

      • Steven J Heimel says:

        I see what you mean. To some degree it depends on how good the scientist is, but some of the better ones have trouble getting funding. But IDEALLY science could help here.

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