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Gary Eichten and the craft of journalism

Gary Eichten during his penultimate broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.
MinnPost photo by David Brauer
Gary Eichten during his next-to-next-to-last broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.

The most sincere tribute co-workers can give a retiring colleague is that, as his workdays draw short, everyone looks like their dog died. The MPR newsroom air was thick with wistfulness Wednesday, the day before the day before Gary Eichten’s last broadcast. A parade of nominal competitors, including me and KARE’s John Croman, watched through the soundproof glass as the Midday host gently quizzed Minnesota legislative leaders, wrapping up 20 years on the show.

As you’ve surely read by now, the 45-year MPR veteran is a prince of a guy, genuinely revered for his crusty decency and patient interrogatories. (His producer, Sara Meyer, who has worked on Midday even longer, says she’s attended “The School of Eichten.”) He’s a strapping guy — it’s not hard to visualize the cannon-armed center fielder of MPR’s softball team — but when Eichten is in his Midday cockpit, he slumps a bit, looking a tad like a skinnier version of “Up’s” Carl Fredricksen. It’s only then you really see a guy about to retire.

Eichten’s life story has been admirably told — here, here and here among other places — so I thought we’d spend our hour talking mostly about the practice of journalism.

Because radio is such an intimate medium, and audiences have been intimate with Eichten for so long, he is the epitome of objectivity — the “no rant, no slant” MPR famously advertises. We talked about that — the neutrality that New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen criticizes as “the view from nowhere,” limiting in its truth-telling — but also fun stuff like losing it with a guest, getting called into MPR founder Bill Kling's office, and why Jesse Ventura may have put the network over the top.

My questions are in italics.

Were you always in the "objective" mode of reporting?

Gary Eichten reporting from the 1988 DFL state convention.
Courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio
Gary Eichten reporting from the 1988 DFL state convention.

I came up in the old school, the Cronkite model — you can in fact have objective journalism ... which is subject to debate. I never had a sense that, “By golly, I’m going to become a crusader,” or anything of the sort. I cling to the notion that what I think about a story is utterly immaterial. I have my opinions, to be sure, but no one needs to know what they are.

Will people know once you leave here?

I don’t think so, if for no other reason than I’d like to do some things on occasion here at the station. So I’ll zip my lip, you know.

Do you value journalists who are crusaders, who have an opinion, who are more in-your-face? Or is that all going down the wrong road?

All of the above. I respect people who are good at it. I think history is replete with the muckrakers who really set out to change things, an important contribution. I also think there’s a purpose for that, a reason.

I also think it’s become too much of a norm — everybody’s got to stick their nose in, “I, I, I, me, me, me.” I think that’s bad. I think ultimately the listener, the reader, can be informed enough to judge. "This Brauer guy, he’s out to change the world, he’s got interesting ideas, so I’ll pay attention to him, but I realize what his agenda is." Well, that’s ok, nothing wrong that.

But — I hesitate to use the word amateur — but there are too many people into that sort of thing. I’m troubled that too often people are dismissive of the pursuit of what we used to call objective journalism. It’s not only that there’s nothing wrong with giving people straight, unbiased information — there’s a need for that. And to just to dismiss is as just … a view, is ridiculous.

The case that gets made against objective journalism is that when it's failed, it hasn't challenged conventional wisdom. You heard this talk in Vietnam coverage — the truth was too seldom reported.

Oh sure, you’ve gotta ask the tough questions. I think it’s a false equivalency to say just because you want to be civil and reasonable, open-minded, ergo, you’re not going to ask tough questions. I don’t see any contradictions there.

Good lord, if people had asked tough questions ... let me be blunt, David — if people had asked the right questions about Vietnam, my good friend wouldn’t be dead. So I feel pretty strongly about this stuff.

But that doesn’t mean, even then, that you have to crucify people; let’s get the information out. Ultimately, I think it becomes self-defeating if people are convinced you’re out there to score points. They’re going to dismiss the information you do want covered because, well, he’s loaded the dice, and more likely to dismiss what you have found out. So then you end up with these two camps yelling at each other.

One of the criticisms about Midday, and MPR on-air, is that they spend a lot of time with the power brokers, the establishment, but not enough with truly unconventional political thinkers who might change the way Minnesotans look at things. Do you think that's fair?

I think, yeah, probably. Decision-makers, the people actually making policies that affect our listeners — that really has been the goal all along. Or if they’re not making decisions, like the college profs, somebody who can inform what decisions are being made, what’s happening in the news. 

I suppose there aren’t as many other voices, other approaches heard on the air as there might be — but on the other hand, you only have so much time.

CEO Bill Kling, Dave Felland, senior producer Greg Barron and Gary Eichten in the MPR studios in the 1970s.
Courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio
CEO Bill Kling, Dave Felland, senior producer Greg Barron and Gary Eichten in the MPR studios in the 1970s.

You can have 25 people waxing eloquent with their opinions, but if nobody’s listening to their opinions … I don’t know, it's just kind of an interesting conversation. But if you can get people who are actually make the decision in-studio and have an interesting conversation, then you’ve got a two-fer. 

Now, if you can also get the other voice on, that’s the better approach. I suppose we come up short in that area sometimes.

Have you noticed a change in callers since you've done Midday?

I think so, sure. As the audience has grown, you get a lot broader range of callers. We have people who from the ends of the spectrum and every stop in-between as callers, from the hardcore liberal/radical to the hardcore conservative.

I’m not sure that used to be the case because there weren’t that many people listening, frankly. And the ones who were listening tended to more carefully fit the traditional public-radio stereotype.

When did that change? When do you think MPR really took off? MPR News hasn't always been among the biggest local stations. Was there a person, an innovation, a thing where you thought, "Now we've got everybody listening to us?"

Two answers to that, David. One — no, it’s been pretty incremental over time. I remember making calls to people and they went, “Who? What?” And we were doing some pretty good work at the time but nobody knew we existed. That doesn’t happen now.

But then on the other hand, if you pushed me on this, I’d say, yeah, two things happened.

One is that Bill Buzenberg came [in 1998] as our news director, vice-president for news ... whatever the heck they call it. I think he really gave us a kick in the butt and got us headed in the right direction.

And the other thing that made a real difference in terms of the audience was when Gov. Ventura got elected. Because he was a great audience draw — just interesting, controversial, provocative. And who knows why, he decided this was a place he could come in and take the grilling and answer the questions. He was very religious about coming in on Midday every month, for example, and doing the governor’s call-in.

In fact, as I look back on my time here, one of the really stupid things I’ve done — or didn’t do — I remember Jesse Ventura came in right before the 1998 election, one of our Meet the Candidates show. I’m sure he’s never heard of public radio, much less the audience, and we did the show, and the lines were filled. You couldn’t possibly get in and ask a question.

Had I had any brains I would’ve looked at that and said, “He’s gonna win the election on Tuesday!” This, is, after all, public radio — this is not Jesse Ventura’s natural audience, and these people are just wild, just so happy and interested in what he has to say.

Well, of course, I didn’t put two and two together, but it did help us. That show was a great help to us because he went for a last couple days of campaigning, and he was in, let’s say, Thief River Falls, a long way away from the Twin Cities, and some guy from the crowd yells out, “Hey Jesse, I heard you on the public radio! That’s a good show!” Well, he was shocked, on a couple of levels — one, that you could get public radio up here, and you guys listen to that.

So I think the confluence of those two put us over the top.

And of course, in the ‘80s, when they decided to split the services, that’s when we started to grow. People who didn’t like one service didn’t have to turn us off.

I was thinking there are three significant figures most people could identify from MPR: There’s Bill Kling, there’s Garrison Keillor, and there’s you...

… Boy, that’s some pretty heady company, David … I’m sorry, I can’t ….

… Well here's where I'm going: Those other two have their detractors. I’m more cynical than the next guy, but when I talk to people around here about you, everyone around is super-grateful, super-appreciative, not an unkind word to say. I think that’s quite amazing. I mean, I know you’re irascible, you have an edge, but … where did that come from? Did your parents raise you right?

I don’t know … that’s awfully nice. I guess I just never thought otherwise about it. It’s the old Golden Rule stuff. I never, sounds very self-serving, I’ve never thought of myself as better than anyone else here. I’m just a guy.

We all know people who have a pretty inflated view of themselves, and I never felt that way. I love the people I work with … not everybody of course, some people I’d rather never see again … but thousands of people have come through here, and most of them I’ve liked a lot, so why wouldn’t you treat them nice? They’re good people — they’re smart … hell, they work hard, what’s not to like?

Those other guys, Bill Kling and Garrison Keillor, are geniuses for cripes sake. They are! I’m not. I’m a radio announcer fundamentally, and I’m proud of it, but I am not a genius. I don’t know what else to say.

I know Kling as a guy who's the smartest guy in the room, really successful, really competitive, sometimes needlessly so. You were present at the creation — what insights can you give about him?

Well, I don’t know I could tell you something other people couldn’t. But from the first time I met him, he was just … a single-minded focus on making this station the best that it could possibly be. It was ridiculous, there were five guys hanging around, none of us could figure out what to do next. But that was the focus, that was the goal, the whole point of what we were up to, and that’s never wavered.

A lot of times, it was really tough — in my brief stint as a manager, you’d really knock it out of the park and you might get a pat on the head, but more likely, you’d hear, "That’s nice, but what have you done for me lately?" And there was that constant pushing.

A 2002 U.S. Senate debate featuring Norm Coleman and Walter Mondale, moderated by Gary Eichten and KARE 11's Paul Magers.
Courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio
A 2002 U.S. Senate debate featuring Norm Coleman and Walter Mondale, moderated by Gary Eichten and KARE 11's Paul Magers.

Sometimes it was tough, no question. But you don’t work for somebody for the better part of 45 years and not like the guy and not really appreciate what he’s all about. I don’t know that’s a deep insight, but that’s the one thing. We had our arguments; thank God he didn’t fire me — he had plenty of opportunities over the years, plenty of justification.

Really?

Oh yeah.

Really?

[Laughs.] Nothing that came around regularly. I wasn't ... as much of a cheerleader perhaps for some of the ideas that came down. And as it turns out, he was right about virtually everything, but I would pooh-pooh this and pooh-pooh that.

I remember one that really got my ass in the wringer. It was the start of the split service thing, started the news service on a little AM station and one of the weeklies, the Twin Cities Reader or City Pages, and they asked me what I thought about this. I think my direct quote was, “This is the nuttiest thing to ever come down the pike, unless we have enough money to pull it off in which case it will probably be fine.”

Well, of course, when the story was published, the way the quote was presented, they kind of dropped the second part. And this is not exactly what you’d call the company line. [Laughs.] And we had this company intercom system – you could push this button and you could say whatever you wanted to throughout the building. And the paper had no more than arrived and from the intercom it was, “Eichten! Come to my office!” [Laughs.]

Caught hell about that, but I think I was innocent on that. We had a few of those where I should’ve zipped my lip.

Have you always been a patient interviewer? Is that something you learn, or a temperamental thing?

I think a lot of it has to do with the format. When you have a full hour, you can let people stretch out a bit. I remember when I was doing [the late afternoon] “All Things Considered,” all of those interviews were three, four minutes, we did virtually all of them all live. You didn’t have time to stretch out, to let the guest wax eloquent.

But here, you get more chance to let people breathe — and ultimately, you get more out of that because people end up saying things you haven’t even asked them. They just start talking. And that’s the whole point. It’s just as if you had them over for dinner. Just because you asked them a question doesn’t mean that’s all the answer you’re gonna get. Pretty soon, they’re talking about what they did for lunch, and the person they met five years ago when blah, blah, blah, and you learn some interesting things.

Have you ever lost it on the air — with a guest, with a caller?

Gary Eichten
Courtesy of MPR
Gary Eichten

Well, I don’t know that I want to go into details and tell you who the guy was, but it was not too many years ago, there was a fellow who was propped up as a real expert on Iraq, he had been to Iraq, a personal perspective. We got him on, and he was, I don’t know what his deal was, but he was … lying wasn’t the right word, but he was completely full of misinformation.

Really bad information — stuff that was grotesquely wrong, American soldiers massacring, desecrating Iraqis, just ridiculous stuff and I finally blew up with him. Had to.

What did you say?

Don’t know, don’t remember. I don’t know what we put on for the rest of the hour but I wasn’t going to go on. It’s one thing to have an opinion, but to provide people with blatant misinformation and B.S., that doesn’t do anybody any good.

So you basically said, "We’re done."

Yeah. Thanks a lot, let’s go to commercial. [Laughs.] That’s the only one I can remember getting that angry.

Did you want to come to Midday from All Things Considered?

No, I was as happy as a clam doing that and I got fired from that job, so …

Seriously?

Yeah, sure! And the fella who gave me the ax, he said, well, why you don’t you do that Midday show, which at that time was well, let’s say it wasn’t the ideal assignment. We didn’t have a lot of listeners, it was kind of a goofy format, it wasn’t anything like it is today. And I thought, “Oh great, isn’t that wonderful.” But he made the fatal mistake of saying, “You can do with it whatever you want.” [Laughs.]

Why did you get fired?

I don’t know, actually. I’m not sure. Part of it of it had to do with a legitimate desire to get more women on the air, and something had to give, somebody had to get moved. So that was part of it. But I’m sure there were other things going on.

[I should note at this point that Sara Meyer pooh-poohs this version of events. "He didn't get fired," she says with the air of a spouse who's tired of hearing a well-worn tale. "They just wanted to rearrange the hosts" and thought he'd do better in a longer format.]

You've told other interviewers you don't consider yourself a journalist, which is insane considering you've been one for 45 years. I think journalism is like a craft — you can learn it by doing.

I have never been in a journalism class. I do not know a lot of things a professional journalist knows. I do a lot of news, kind of self-taught in that sense, but I’ve never felt like a journalist, or my perception of a journalist.

I do honestly believe that people who are formally trained do know stuff that I don’t know. I’m just not that familiar with all the ins and outs of the First Amendment, stuff like that. But I think there’s some truth that you can do the work of a journalist without formal training. There is some truth to that.

Don't want to go without letting you say something about Sara Meyer. What has she done to make Gary Eichten Gary Eichten?

She’s done everything. I'm not exaggerating. She books all the guests, she's been my sidekick right along. She's made this program something it wasn’t when I got stuck on it. She has produced all of our special events coverage, all our election night coverage, all our convention coverage. She’s great. I wouldn’t have been able to do half the stuff I’ve been able to do, or get credited for without her. She’s just really good.

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Comments (13)

Nice interview. Just as humble as he's always been.

"from the hardcore liberal/radical to the hardcore conservative"

I think that sums up Eichten's he said/she lied objectivity fairly well.

Oh, and some unnamed guest claiming "American soldiers massacring, desecrating Iraqis, just ridiculous stuff...."

Yes, that does sound so incredibly unbelievable. Too bad Eichten conveniently forgot this guy's name so no one could fact check what was actually said or whether it was true or not. Yes, thanks to Eichten's remarkable objectivity I don't recall ever hearing a Midday report about US troops urinating on Afghan corpses, or what Blackwater/Xe did to the Iraqis before they hanged those Marines.

Gary Eichten: radically pro-establishment, and pretty darned intolerant of those who aren't. I hope he enjoys his retirement -- I know I will.

As a listener and a person who Eichten interviewed several times, I found him to be
a. A person who knew a lot about the subject
b. Able to ask important, piercing questions that represented what lots of folks would like to know
c. Unwilling to accept jargon or lack of clarity, regardless of who he was interviewing
d. To be really fair and to not take one side or another, but push the person he was interviewing to really justify her/his position.

I also found the callers to be very thoughtful. This is a guy we will miss. Not sure of who his replacement will be, but she/he will have a very tough job doing as well as Gary.

This man will be missed because of his rare combination of deep background knowledge of this area and its issues and his understanding of how to pose a question. As a former radio news interviewer myself, I have long admired his style: informed blunt inquiry coupled with a warm humanity.

"And with every escalation we come closer to the brink of cosmic disaster."

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

That said, I do wish Gary well.

Maybe this is the time to retire "Minnesota Nice"?

And then again...

I suppose there will always be journalists who believe there is only one side, the right side, for buttering bread...

Gary will be sorely missed. He is Minnesota's own Jim Lehrer.

THANKS, Mr. Eichten!

I too don't care for the current "I blog, therefore I must complain" style of journalism, but there is a problem with not promptly challenging B.S. when you hear it that MPR has. I'd like to see Bob Collins take over Eichten's Midday spot for that reason.

I hate to break it to Gary, but if his journalistic model was Walter Cronkite, he was being influenced by a solid liberal, which I am sure is a main reason he was able to stay 45 years at MPR. Here is the transcript from Chris Matthews’ 1996 CNBC show when Cronkite let the cat out of the cellophane bag: WALTER CRONKITE: Richard Nixon called me "the best of a bad lot." I don't know whether that was good or bad. I don't know. I was very much offended that I didn't get on Nixon's Hate List. But the, well, you know, I, I don't know. I suppose, in all honesty, I'm a liberal.”

If there had been the alternatives such as talk radio, Fox News and the Internet in the 1970s to expose Cronkite’s bias, he would be considered the same as Dan Rather, Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, Peter Jennings and numerous other network anchors well known for their liberal bias who are hardly role models for journalistic objectivity.

I was just thinking that too: put Collins on midday.

Tom, talk radio, Fox News and the internet exposed nothing. They just provided a safe harbor for those who can't stand facts that run counter to their ideological beliefs.

It’s really too bad that someone steeped so obviously in conservative hell as Mr. Edwards must be, finds so little value in truly professional journalism. How difficult it must be to be so unreceptive to the wide variety of information emanating from those outlets I’d call just the opposite of liberal a good share of the time. He should only listen to us for a few weeks if he can’t deal with MPR and the other revered journalists who fall short and to the right in our view.

Unfortunately, such comments too readily dismiss the fine work Gary Eichten represented on MPR. We were for a time, I’d laughingly submit, in competition when we were on Wednesdays at 11AM on KFAI, but, in all the years I’ve dwelled in the house of MPR News - because I’m a news junkie - I have rarely heard the dose of liberalism Mr. Edwards charges MPR with dealing. On the contrary - I’ve heard the tough issues and the voices that represent their effects – all but ignored. So I appreciate Eichten’s candor admitting that flaw in coverage.

I wish Gary the best as he steps away from his daily duties for a well-earned rest. And I commend Brauer for this interview, which got right at many of the questions the rest of us might have asked of Gary.