THE BLOG
09/23/2014 05:42 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Political Read: In DC, at Least We Have Diane Rehm

Howard Fineman

WASHINGTON -- The national media is in the midst of another season of self-loathing, and with good reason. The coverage of politics often is as trivial as politics itself.

The latest example is a storm of stories about a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Paul Davis, who visited a strip club 16 years ago when he was a single 26-year-old man.

This, sadly, was big political news in in the bombed out political wreckage that is Kansas -- but also across the country.

Even the formerly august New York Times gave it big play, bestowing yet another meaning on the phrase "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

No wonder the latest Gallup poll shows that the public's trust in the media is at an all-time low, down with the elected leaders we cover. It is a vicious cycle of viciousness. It's always been a part of our politics, but is seems out of control now.

So it was with a sense of relief and gratitude that I joined some 500 others recently at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington to give thanks for and pay tribute to Diane Rehm.

Even if you don't live in Washington and/or are not a politics, public issues or government junkie, you have probably heard of her.

She hosts a long-running, five-day-a-week, DC-based morning talk and call-in show on WAMU called... The Diane Rehm Show.

But the plain vanilla name and concept belies her importance, her outsized influence, her genial longevity, and the quiet but persistent lesson she offers the rest of us every day.

Here's what she does: she invites supremely knowledgeable people on to talk at length about what they know, and asks (and gets her listeners to ask) careful, incisive and shrewd questions.

The result is one of the most influential shows on National Public Radio, with 2.7 million listeners a week on 193 stations. The show has been on the air since the spring of 1979, and has aired more than 17,000 hours of programming.

Together with On Point with Tom Ashbrook out of Boston's WBUR -- which draws an audience of 1.5 million a week on 286 stations -- NPR is offering deep dives in quiet yet intense talk.

(I am proud to be among the hundreds of guests who make unpaid appearances on the show occasionally -- or more.)

Woe unto the Washington reporter who shows up less than fully up-to-speed on the complexities of the issues she wants to discuss.

I committed that sin once, and made some unsupportable offhand comments as well. She pundit shamed me with killer glances, and it was a long while before I was back.

At a charity event to raise money for her Foundation for Public Dialogue, I asked Rehm what advice she would give a new young journalist just starting out in the business.

She was celebrating her 78th birthday but was a full of beans as ever.

"Prepare, prepare, prepare," she said in her soft-as-velvet voice, which sounds all the more determined for that.

"Prepare and then ... LISTEN!"

"These kids do not know how to listen. They do not know the importance of it. They are told that what they need to do is EXPRESS themselves! Say it now, say what you think NOW!"

"But before you have anything useful to say, you have to prepare, and prepare to listen -- listen for the nuance, the detail, the revelation.

"You have to learn how to do that. Prepare and listen."

I couldn't agree more, even if my colleagues and I don't do enough of either.