Out & About: Tune in to the issues

The legal issues that captivate our country range from women’s rights to the role of religion in elections, gay marriage to national security, campaign finance reform to medical malpractice. And there’s one forum that ensures a lively, provocative discussion from experts on both sides of an issue—without the yelling and name-calling.

That forum is "Justice Talking," the radio show produced by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that airs on National Public Radio (Mondays at 10 p.m. on WHYY-91 FM).

It began as an idea from Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who wanted to create a model of civic engagement in which people who disagree—sometimes vehemently—could discuss issues in a reasonable manner. "We look for issues of law and justice where there is significant controversy," says Executive Producer Kathryn Kolbert, "from Miranda Warnings to public policy on guns to issues central to this year’s election."

While Justice Talking is broadcast in 95 markets on NPR stations around the country and the world, a central part of the show is closer to home—the live audience that is present at every taping. "Our audience is a key aspect of the show," says Kolbert. "They ask some of the best and hardest questions."

The "Justice Talking" home in the Kirby Auditorium in Philadelphia’s new National Constitution Center has room for 200 and the formal surroundings lend gravitas to the debate. "We wanted to bring the history of Philadelphia to the show," explains Kolbert. "The history of the Constitution is a critical underpinning."

But the show is only the beginning. Kolbert says it has created a series of educational initiatives for use in the classroom, a "Radio in Print" column and CDs of the show, distributed to libraries and jury waiting rooms that are meant to enhance the experience in those places of civic activity.

A risk worth taking

Kolbert admits it was a risk to design a show without the 30-second soundbites so popular in the medium.

"Controversy is the name of the game," she says. "(But) the public radio audience appreciates in-depth discussion." Because the show is lively (and because host Margot Adler keeps it moving), the audience has no problem getting and staying engaged in the topic. And the topics are engaging—before the end of the year, the show will tackle educational performance gaps, tort reform and gun maker responsibility.

At a taping on Oct. 12, when the issue was "The Future of the Environment," the audience filled the seats and stood against the walls to watch Fred Smith, Jr., founder and president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit that promotes free enterprise, debate Robert Kennedy, Jr., senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, on issues of the environment.

Adler asked the experts to discuss President Bush’s environmental legacy, mercury contamination, renewable energy sources and environmental racism, sometimes having to remind them to keep their answers concise. Smith argued that Bush is "not an extraordinarily good or bad environmental president," while Kennedy strongly disagreed: "George Bush is the worst environmental president we have had in the 20th century."

Adler also asked each guest what kind of car he drove (Kennedy drives a minivan and will soon drive a Toyota Prius, while Smith drives a Toyota Highlander), if they recycle (Kennedy does; Smith does not) and if they use garden pesticides (Smith does; Kennedy does not).

In response to an audience question, Smith argued that "the world is the healthiest it’s ever been. … Technological and economic growth have been the engines that have made us healthier." Kennedy countered that there is no conflict between sustained wealth and long-term environmental protection. "The time of greatest environmental advocacy was during the Great Depression, when we were the poorest ever."

For archived shows, free tickets and online discussion boards on the show’s topics, visit the web site at www.justicetalking.org. Information on classroom initiatives can be found at www.justicelearning.org.

Originally published on October 21, 2004