THE RECENT CONTROVERSIES over NPR, have really upset me. Though to understand exactly why, I have to get past my reflexive response .
As I have noted here before, public radio has been a constant companion and major source of knowledge for me since I was in high school. This sounds so precious to say, I know, but I have almost "grown up" on public radio and am constantly amazed by the vast and innovative work it produces. (Coincidentally, though important to disclose here, I consulted professionally to NPR for several years in the mid-2000s, but, believe me, my attachment to it had formed long before.)
So, reflexively, I'm easily annoyed by attacks on public radio. What really gets my goat are the charges of NPR's (and public radio's) alleged "liberal bias." I hear this even from self-described liberals from time to time, but most definitely from self-described conservatives.
All I can say to them is, what!? Seriously? Because if you actually listen to it (and now I'm speaking primarily of NPR, but I think the same can be said for most local public radio stations), you will hear facts and information -- with the occasional commentary, some of which consciously gives air time to people from all points on the ideological spectrum, including, believe it or not, conservatives. It makes me wonder if these critics are truly listening to public radio or just responding to a cartoonish stereotype.
At a time when thoughtful, thorough and reliable news gathering operations are actually shrinking, NPR has expanded its reach, dispensing information that would otherwise be difficult to find about many different issues from many different spots around the world. Around major news events, Americans will be hard pressed to find the kind of reporting on the radio dial (or in many other places) they get from NPR. So why wouldn't don't Americans view it as the national treasure that it is, a great investment of public dollars?
(There are also the charges, from some of my good friends and others within the pro-Israel community -- of which consider myself a part -- that NPR specifically has anti-Israel bias. I remain mystified by these charges, but this is something for another time.)
To some ears, public radio's on-air personalities can be a bit ponderous and earnest at times -- some call it "snooty". Maybe that tone grates on the critics' nerves from time to time. Even so, I'll take it any day over the sensationlistic presentation of the news on our cable and broadcast news outlets anyday or the steady flow of crap about celebrities.
I defy anyone to explain to me where the bias is in NPR's straight news (not opinion) programs.Give me real, substantial examples of bias that anyone can agree on -- and not just one or two anomolies (like, say, the remarks of NPR's development director, which, by the way, some are now saying were distorted in the final edit). Give me real proof that the entire operation is shot through with bias (like, say, a certain cable news outlet whose begins with F and ends with x). If you can't or won't, please, don't waste your time trying to convince me otherwise.
All of what I've just discussed, though, remains within the province of perception or, perhaps, under the Latin maxim, de gustibus non est disputandum -- “there is no disputing about tastes.” Yes, that adage is reserved mostly for discussion of aesthetics and art, but I'd argue that political outlook is really another variant of taste -- formed both by experience, context and, I suppose to some extent, physiology (e.g. most of us recoil physically from foul smells and violent images).
My point is that debates like the one we saw the other day on the floor of the House of Representatives, which passed a measure to cut public funding for NPR -- ridiculous as they may be, are yet another in a growing number of examples of how disparate groups of Americans are perceiving the world in starkly different ways.
No, that's not an original insight. Plenty of other commentators and much of our public opinion research has made this point for a long time. I talked about it last year around issues such as acceptance of the science on climate change and the theory of evolution.
So, what's really troubling to me about the NPR debate and the rest of public radio is not that other Americans don't share my taste. Again, de gustibus non est disputandum, baby. Rather, it seems to have gone well beyond that. We're not even using the same vocabulary to talk about it or the same yardsticks to measure what we're arguing about.
My bias -- yes, maybe I'm living in my own unreality -- is that this growing gulf of perception is being driven by people with another agenda: to win elections or higher viewer ratings. Most of that -- again, my perspective -- appears to be coming from the political right, which has been masterful over the last generation in its ability to frame issues in ways that distort what the public debates should really be about.
For example, they argued during the '80s and '90s especially that if you're not for tough anti-crime measures, such as the death penalty or mandatory minimum sentences, you're a lover of criminals; they now have framed a false choice between efforts to limit sources of "so-called" green-house gases into the atmosphere and economic progress -- as if we can't have both; and they have so effectively branded "taxes" and "big government" as evil twins, that any politician who even thinks of raising a tax -- indeed, of not lowering one -- should be considered suicidal and public employees are likely feeling like enemies of the people. Then there's the argument that easy access to guns is good for us and that immigrants -- not just the illegal ones, but also the ones in our midst who have made it necessary for proud Americans to have to dial 1 for English and put up with bilingual operating instructions -- are somehow bad for America. And don't get me started on the lie that Obama is a Muslim, which one of our our highest-ranking public officials, the Speaker of the House, wouldn't even dispute recently saying, "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think." How ironic is this?
The smears about NPR bias are yet another part of this series of framed talking points. And they exaggerate the unpopularity of the radio network. Indeed, as the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism noted in its just-released "State of the News Media: 2011", NPR has a huge and growing audience: "National Public Radio continues to be a growing source of news for many Americans, its audience expanding each year as news disappears from commercial radio outside of the country’s largest markets. Overall NPR’s audience grew 3% in 2010, to 27.2 million weekly listeners."
What usually happens after I post a commentary like this is that those on the "liberal" side of things say, "Yo, right on," and those on the other side tell me how misguided I am. We all play our roles, as if the script is set and inviolable. Not that, if we are true to our own selves, we should do any differently. But I'm puzzled as to how we're ever going to be able to bridge that gap.