WESA Revamped Daily ‘Confluence’ News Program Misses the Point

I heard a long time ago that local NPR affiliate WESA 90.5 FM was planning to launch a daily newsprogram. It seemed like a good idea. We need daily news here in Pittsburgh.

I wasn’t particularly thrilled that existing program The Confluence would be expanded rather than create a new program. The Confluence was originally a weekly show featuring local reporters recapping and discussing their reporting. It was fine as a program, but not something I regularly caught because it often felt like I had already read/heard/thought about most of the content. It was not really must-listen radio.

I tuned in Monday to listen to the new version. The first guest was City of Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert discussing the ‘turbulent’ peacekeeping efforts in Pittsburgh this summer. Schubert himself wasn’t horrible, but he’s not a great public speaker in general so it was an uncomfortable interview. But the symbolism of inviting the Police Chief to speak on a topic without inviting Police Accountability Activists on  was stunning. Having followed a lot of this summer’s protests very closely, the characterization of tumult seemed a bit exaggerated or perhaps more sympathetic to hapless suburbanites caught up in traffic snarls than to people invoking their First Amendment rights and moral obligation to resist injustice. It felt very much like a nod to potential new suburban listeners (and investors?) who love John Lewis but don’t want to see bridges being closed by Black protests in Pittsburgh. Ever. They have places to be and important white people stuff to do. And let’s not forget ambulances struggling to get through crowds even though there is not a single report of these particular protests preventing any emergency responder from getting through the crowd.

Sigh.

Then they had a panel on the Grand Jury Report in anticipation of the interview with Bishop Zubik on Wednesday morning. Panelists did not include survivors or survivor advocates. It did feature the editor the Pittsburgh Catholic, formerly religion reporter for the Post-Gazette. She works for the Bishop implicated in the report in case you didn’t know that. So she ducked most of her questions and focused on what she did 10 years ago at the PG. The ethicist and theologian from Duquesne University was rather on point and interesting. And a Washington Post reporter literally phoned it in for what was a jarring interruption of the local panelists.

Did I mention they are hosting Bishop Zubik on Wednesday? It came off as some sort of attempt at balance.  But it didn’t work.

I was thoroughly disappointed in the planning and execution of these segments. I was also angry. As a survivor of childhood sexual violence, I was very angry that Zubik’s voice is prioritized over survivors. As the aunt of two young Black male children living in the suburbs, I was angry that the police voice was the only one speaking about the shooting death of Antwon Rose and Constitutionally protected responses from the community.

This show took me back to when Tony Norman was their go-to-guy on LGBTQ issues and QTPOC issues. And it reminded me that at some point the Post-Gazette began to slide downhill and most of us probably failed to notice or take any concrete action.

Normally, I’d probably just roll my eyes at the clumsy soft opening of a new program. Host Kevin Gavin is an affable, intelligent man with a 35 year history in various news positions with this station. I don’t think this was on him. But it is his brand on the program so he’s part of the accountability conversation.

These choices aren’t just cringeworthy. They perpetuate a Most Livable Boosterism (h/t Vannevar Bush) promotional mentality that is not journalism. Pittsburgh is at the very heart of the most stinging indictment of Catholic conspiracies to protect sexual predators. It is a raw and traumatic moment in our history. Getting it right requires getting it right. Similarly, the racial divide of the ‘Two Pittsburghs’ is not just about the police, nor is the legacy of non-violent civil disobedience measured solely in terms of disruption.

I hope this show finds its footing and takes concrete steps to undo the harm of these segments.  I doubt it, but I urge you to think back to the moment you first noticed the Post-Gazette slide from a solid, quality newspaper into a rightwing travesty. Consider when you first took action. Consider how helpless we all feel now. Should we expect better from our local public radio news station? We don’t have many other options to fall back upon.

WESA can turn this around. I hope they do. I doubt they will. It is much easier to not listen to folks like me. It would be easier for me to just roll my eyes and move on as I’m sure to remain on the ‘do not invite’ list for WESA for the forseeable future. But being an ally requires me as a cis white lesbian aunt to speak out when someone’s actions threaten the welfare of my friends, neighbors, and family even if I feel uncomfortable.

If I get any guff, I just think about my young Black nephews who are growing up in a Catholic influenced white suburb. I hope one day that know that I resisting on their behalf. And know that it mattered.