‘The Pub’ #52: Slate’s June Thomas reviews ‘Mercy Street’

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Thomas

Thomas (Photo: Sam Eifling)

The Sunday premiere of Mercy Street, PBS’s first original American drama in more than a decade, drew an audience of 3.3 million.

That’s a good start for a series that has two daunting jobs to do at once: A) replace Downton Abbey, the most successful drama in PBS history; B) prove that American public television can make great scripted TV instead of just importing it from the U.K.

Has this Civil War medical drama succeeded against that nearly impossible yardstick? I ask Slate culture critic (and native Brit) June Thomas. Short answer: No.

mercy st art

Josh Radnor as Jedediah Foster in Mercy Street.

“I just don’t think that this kind of fake prestige television will fool anyone,” she told me on The Pub.

This week, we hear Thomas’ take on where PBS’s big-budget effort went wrong, and contemplate the role of expensive dramatic series in public service broadcasting.

Also, Michigan Radio proves what public media is all about with its Flint water coverage, and I make an argument that is unlikely to win me friends: News people should stop referring to Martin Luther King Jr. as “Dr. King.”

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We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me at adam@current.org or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to adam@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

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  • Don Blohowiak, PhD

    RE: Stop Calling Him Dr. King

    I will leave it to others to comment on the value of style guides. On the matter of Doctor King, I believe you, Mr. Ragusea, and the AP (where I spent five years many years ago), have it exactly backwards.

    Before I offer that case, it is worth pointing out that virtually all news outlets, public media and otherwise, routinely extend titular honorifics to many in government. News reports refer to elected officials who earned their designations based on success at the ballot box. There’s Mayor Brown, Representative Smith, Senator Jones. Others on the public payroll get their titles mentioned in news reports because of the appointed posts they hold: Secretary Stewart, Justice Potter, Ambassador Zumbruski.

    So why should we not extend honorifics to persons outside of government (and those who graduated medical school), who rightfully have earned them: Reverend Jones; Dr. Gupta (whether she’s a DDS, OD, or DVM — that’s dentist, osteopath, veterinarian); or Dr. Gomez, who holds a PhD.

    (The AP’s inexplicable bias toward recognizing only physicians as doctors, confuses and misleads some of the general public into believing that the title “Doctor” is derived from, restricted or related to, medicine. That is not the case. The Latin origins of doctor mean “to teach.” Is it just me or do physicians rarely seem to find themselves in the role of teacher, especially in the era of managed healthcare?)

    Restricting the title “Doctor” to physicians alone seems both arbitrary and not helpful. It even could be harmful because of potential unfortunate consequences. I’ll elaborate.

    Not acknowledging the expert’s earned designation invalidates or minimizes the professional’s expertise. That can have negative repercussions such as the effect of implying that all opinions expressed on a matter in a story are equivalent. (Consider a piece quoting Dr. Rebecca Bluestein, a 33 year old well-published climate scientist, and Tom Johnson, a 60 year old protester. When pressed, Johnson would describe himself as “proudly scientifically illiterate.” They are referred to in the piece as “Johnson and Bluestein” or perhaps, unfortunately, as Tom and Rebecca. Such references, intended no doubt to provide non-prejudicial and respectful coverage, give their disparately founded opinions, the appearance of equivalent merit. “Flatland,” some call it.)

    This is a misguided attempt at egalitarianism. It obfuscates from the public (beyond the first fleeting reference describing the person’s credentials or qualifications) that the one credentialed source is someone who has spent several years acquiring expertise in the subject at hand. It denies that the expert has been rigorously reviewed by other scholars in the academy. It ignores that accredited source, having earned a PhD, has contributed original knowledge in the subject area.

    A source may feel passionately about an issue, but that does not raise his or her opinion to equal standing with one who possesses bon fide expertise.

    Credentials can help an audience distinguish genuine expertise from un- or less informed opinion. (Not all expertise comes with a credential, but a credential can help differentiate the expert from the less informed. After all, isn’t that the point of credentials?) A title such as Doctor can signal and remind a listener or viewer that the source behind the title comes with expertise and depth.

    Having a doctorate, of course, does not make that person’s opinion correct (and certainly not infallible). But an earned credential, when it is relevant to the topic at hand, is worth noting as a service to the audience.

    All sources are entitled to our respect, and should have their say.

    At the same time, journalists shouldn’t deny the credentials of those who have earned them. Doing so undermines discourse and public understanding.

    So let’s keep calling him Dr. King. And let’s serve our listeners by calling others by their rightful titles as well.

    Don Blohowiak, PhD
    (podcasting on psychological issues)

    • Adam Ragusea

      Don, I don’t disagree. I’m personally ambivalent about AP style on this question. All I’m saying is that once you have a style on honorifics, you should apply it consistently, lest your capriciousness reveal/reinforce discrimination of various kind.

      • Dru Sefton, Current

        I once wrote a story on the proliferation of honorary degrees, particularly doctorates. I heartily agree with AP on this one. Physicians are doctors; identifying everyone with a PhD as a “Dr.” is confusing to readers.

    • Mark Pugnar

      How about simply referring to people in the way they prefer? Call me whatever you like, just don’t call me late for dinner.

      • Dru Sefton, Current

        Newspaper style exists for consistency. It’s a service for readers.