Judith Lewis and Terry Gross

Of all the programs broadcast by MPB Radio, Fresh Air has caused the most consternation for Lewis, left, since she joined the network last year. When host Terry Gross, right, bantered about sex with comedian Louis C.K. on July 7, MPB dropped the show the second time in nine months.  (Photo of Lewis courtesy of Barbara Gauntt. Photo of Gross by Miles Kennedy, courtesy of WHYY.)

Uproar over Fresh Air in Mississippi

Published in Current, July 26, 2010
By Karen Everhart

After Mississippi Public Broadcasting abruptly dropped Fresh Air from its radio schedule July 8, its explanation of “recurring inappropriate content” in the talk show didn’t sit well with fans of the program.

Judith Lewis, executive director of the state-operated Mississippi Public Broadcasting TV and radio networks, decided to cancel Fresh Air one day after its interview with comedian Louis C.K., but MPB took a drubbing from angry listeners and snarky bloggers over the decision before conceding that host Terry Gross’s conversation with the star of the FX television series Louie prompted the cancellation.

Two weeks later, Lewis is reconsidering the decision, she told Current. MPB may put Fresh Air back in the schedule at a later hour. The state network needs some time for reflection “to decide what to do with a program that causes us consternation,” she said.

In her first year as MPB director, Lewis has received more complaints about Fresh Air than any other program, she said. “Most of the comments I’ve received have to do with the salaciousness of Ms. Gross. She talks a lot about sexual issues and the language she uses — a lot of people of Mississippi are not accustomed to hearing. They’re not accustomed to hearing word ‘orgasm’ on the air, and three o’clock in the afternoon is not the best time to air this.” 

Lewis didn’t deny that MPB dropped the show in reaction to a complaint from someone who heard the broadcast through a state university telephone system while waiting on hold, as reported by a blogger for lefty MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, but she wouldn’t confirm the tale.

However the complaint got to her, it was the final straw.

Cancelled again

It was the second time in nine months that MPB had yanked Gross’s cultural talk show from the air. Mississippi listeners who rallied to bring back the NPR-distributed series last year were quick to notice its latest disappearance, and reactions moved like lightning through the blogosphere July 15.

The Rev. Fred Hammond, a Unitarian minister in Tuscaloosa, speculated in his blog that Fresh Air lost MPB’s support because it didn’t treat gay people as “evil incarnate, bent on destroying the American dream, baseball and apple pie, too.”

Danny Miller, executive producer of Fresh Air at WHYY in Philadelphia, welcomed news that MPB is reconsidering the cancellation. “Programming changes are always difficult, and frequently controversial, so it’s good to hear that MPB is thinking about restoring Fresh Air to their schedule,” Miller said in an e-mail. “We’re happy that they value the program enough to consider bringing it back, and we’re grateful for the enthusiasm and support for the show which has been expressed by MPB listeners.”

Lewis said the cancellation was not an act of censorship, but a misjudgment about scheduling. “It’s my fault that I didn’t pay more attention to when we were running it,” Lewis said. When and if Fresh Air returns to MPB, it will likely air later in the evening and with a content advisory, she said. “We’re looking at all the options.”

“I’m not bending to the people who have cursed me, threatened me or said all manner of falsehoods about me,” Lewis said. “It’s the people of Mississippi who sent in thoughtful, helpful and sincere feedback — those are they’re ones we’re paying attention to.” 

The controversy put a harsh spotlight on MPB, which built up its radio news service and television production output under Lewis’s predecessor Marie Antoon, who retired last year. Under Antoon’s leadership, the state network won its first-ever national Edward R. Murrow Awards from Radio Television Digital News Association and national Emmys for Between the Lions, the children’s series it produces jointly with Boston’s WGBH.

Lewis, an educator and former U.S. relations director of the United Nations World Food Program, was appointed head of MPB in July 2009 after a national search. She is a native Mississippian and close friend of Gov. Haley Barbour, but she said that friendship had nothing to do with the cancellation or her appointment at MPB.

MPB’s earlier decision to drop Fresh Air, shortly after Lewis took charge last year, was a cost-cutting move, she said, and was reversed when listeners stepped up their pledge contributions.

The explanation for cancellation this month — “inappropriate content” — played out differently, prompting ridicule of MPB and the entire state. “Mississippi has modernized itself quite a bit lately,” Gawker commented. “No longer are African-Americans required by law to wear chains, nor are women required to remain indoors. But Terry Gross’s NPR show? Smut like that is still not allowed.”

MPB confirmed that Fresh Air’s fatal offense was Gross’s July 7 interview with Louis C.K. The segment included the comedian’s self-deprecating explanation for wearing a t-shirt when he has sex — to cover his middle-aged body. Gross introduced a clip in which his TV character learns why the word “faggot” is offensive to gays.

The comedian then opines that gay men are intimidating to straight men because homosexual guys have come to terms with their sexuality — becoming “very confident people,” he said. “Heterosexual men have never been put through that test. “We don’t get — nobody goes, oh, my God, you like women?” 

Pubradio host Jesse Thorn defended Gross (“a personal hero of mine”) and Louis C.K. (“the single most insightful, ‘meaningful’ comic working today”) and announced on his blog that he won’t permit MPB to air his program, The Sound of Young America, unless and until it reinstates Fresh Air. MPB hasn’t been carrying it anyway, but Thorn announced the ban “on principle.”

MPB fires a leaker

Beyond angry posts on MPB’s Facebook page, criticism from within Mississippi was less strident. The Jackson Free Press, an alternative newspaper, cited an internal memo in reporting that MPB hadn’t given “careful consideration and review” to its Fresh Air decision. The memo, leaked to the newspaper by an MPB reporter, revealed that the network canceled the show within 24 hours of the broadcast of the Louis C.K. interview.

MPB Radio Director Kevin Farrell notified the staff July 8 that Fresh Air was immediately and permanently dropped from the schedule “due to content issues with the program,” according to the memo.

The memo-leaker, state capitol reporter Carl Gibson, was fired from his first job out of journalism school on July 16, the day the Free Press story hit the streets. Gibson told Current he forwarded the memo because he wanted to help the Free Press get the story straight. “I was not the only one leaking e-mails,” he said. “I was the only one that got caught.”

Leaking the memo was against MPB policy, Gibson acknowledged, but he mostly regrets sending it through his office e-mail account, which was traceable. He said MPB’s cancellation violated a more important imperative — an obligation not to censor or edit programs for broadcast “solely out of fear of complaint.”

Lewis isn’t bothered by what’s been written about MPB on blogosphere, and denied that the episode damaged MPB’s credibility as a news organization. “There’s a heck of a lot more to MPB than Fresh Air,” she said.

As a state agency that receives 50 percent of its funding from the legislature, MPB must be responsive to feedback about the broadcast service, Lewis said.

“We’re all trying to keep public broadcasting viable and funded and it’s tough, really tough.” Although defenders of Fresh Air descended on MPB’s Facebook page, Lewis said reactions have been mixed. “Not everyone is saying that they disagree with the decision.”

 Questions, complaints, leaks?

Web page posted July 27, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC


Between the Lions moves from Boston to Jackson, 2008.

MPB won RTDNA national Murrow Awards for news programming, 2008.

MPB fires cub reporter Carl Gibson for leaking memo on Fresh Air, 2010.


Fresh Air, July 7 edition

Jackson Free Press reports on cancellation.

Bloggers for Gawker and Rachel Maddow report on cancellation.

The Mississippi network's Facebook page

Mississippi Clarion-Ledger cartoonist Marshall Ramsey lampoons MPB

Jesse Thorn of The Sound of Young America bans himself from MPB "on principle."










Lewis on Gross:
“She talks a lot
about sexual issues
and the language
she uses —
a lot of the people
of Mississippi
are not accustomed
to hearing.”

Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States