A response to the big Radio Survivor piece on NPR liberalism

I love how other people’s blog posts can get me going. The latest was the widely-ready Radio Survivor piece called Radio’s Fall – Part Two: NPR’s ‘Liberal’ Identity Crisis and it is an awesome read. Just go read it. I’ll wait.

At the end of the piece I decided I needed to comment, but then I went on and on, so I wanted to bring the comments back over here.

A bit of warning: I’m not in public media anymore, so biting my tongue is not required. To say I’m blunt would be an understatement.

The firing of Juan Williams was years overdue. He hasn’t been a journalist (if he ever was) for decades and has instead been an ass-clown for both NPR and Fox for a very long time. NPR kept him around because he gave the place color, if you will. But he offered no useful insights on anything. Good riddance, no matter the reason, and even if it was deemed a gaffe by the prigs of the PR world. Viva la Schiller for sticking it to Williams and even dancing on his grave a bit. He deserved it.

Sadly, Williams is just the latest in a long line of clowns given air time at NPR.

Mara Liaison, anyone? No insights, no reporting. Sleeping with the enemy. Guilty. Get rid of her.

Though she’s gone now, Cokie Roberts was paid $80k+ for years just to sit at home in her bathrobe and slippies with an ISDN line to chat with the Morning Edition hosts on bullshit Washington topics once a week. No reporting, no insight, just chatter from the wonderful DC cocktail parties she attended. Beltway all the way, baby. And NPR paid for it — happily.

Daniel Schorr (did you hear? he was on Nixon’s enemies list!) was on the air for at least 10 years longer than he should have been, dispensing no-duh commentaries. Bob Edwards was shown the door for some good reasons, but was replaced with comparative children as NPR attempted to spruce up the Morning Edition tent pole with a “lighter sound.” Now they pay Inskeep and company $350k+ each every year to dispense half-hearted, half-the-story news. Oh, and they’ll ship him abroad every so often — like that hack Brian Williams — to make him seem worldly. (It’s not working.)

But NPR is guilty of poor programming choices as well as poor talent choices. The once-compelling and even unpredictable Talk of the Nation — it would dig into an issue for a whole hour, if you can believe it — is now just a compendium of issues that get about as much in-depth coverage as any story on CNN. Barf. I remember when Ray Suarez hosted and he would get audibly pissy with callers that didn’t read the book or made asinine comments. You had to play hard or go home. That show mattered. You might not have liked a day’s topic, but if you did like the topic, man there wasn’t anywhere else you wanted to be.

There’s this notion in programming circles that public media has to serve the broadest possible audience in order to remain relevant or worthy of public funding. Moving from 30 to 50 million listeners is the goal to become more relevant. Too bad numbers don’t give you relevancy, they give you advertising dollars that pay for a lot of corner offices.

I would argue that the goal should never be numbers (dollars or listeners) — it should be well-researched news gathering throughout society and sharing that information the most technically accessible way, not the most demographically palatable way. How many people utilize their community library every week? Every year? Yet we fund them. How many people utilize their local fire department or police every year? Have you visited every public park in your town in the last 5 years? We still pay for all those things. I pay for National Parks I’ve never seen, never will, and so do you.

Being publicly funded means you serve a public service that we, as a society, deem worthy of shared-sacrifice funding, and it’s something that for-profit corporations can’t do, won’t do, or can’t be trusted to do. If NPR (and the public media universe) commits itself to a worthy mission — worthy of public funding — the money will come, the support will be there. There is a deep and abiding need for well-researched and reliable news as the corporate hold on news gathering and dissemination grows ever tighter. There’s even a need for intelligent analysis and commentary, or at least curation of said commentary.

But dumbing everything down and keeping no-talent talents on staff because you’re too scared to dump them is no way to provide a valid public service.

NPR and all public media outlets must double-down on their public service mission, and let the demographic chips fall where they may. We need missionaries, not whores.

One of the smartest people I’ve known in my life worked at NPR for a few years, and another major nonprofit news service before that. Insightful, funny, down-to-earth, deadly serious about journalistic ethics, but not blind to the limitations those ethics can have. I would love to be informed about the world from people like that, in conversational ways and in ways where I knew I could trust the information and the research that went into it. The best people will give you their information and tell you how they got it and what doubts they’ve got about it, too. They’ll also come back and tell you when they were wrong.

NPR and even some of the stations have incredibly smart people there, people that can fulfill my dream of getting news from a friend that I trust. But if I listen to an NPR station today, I don’t get to hear much of those folks. They’re the exception, not the rule.

Radiolab is an exception. Ira Glass’ work is an exception. A few of the journalists can be pretty good. But NPR on the whole has lost me. The stories are thin and thinning. The coverage is blindingly beltway and bland. The “sources” and pundits are the same corporate-funded think tank blabbermouths we’ve heard for years. NPR is getting slicker and dumber by the year.

I know there are smart people there. I know there are people I can trust; people I want to hear from; people that do their homework and know their stories. But it’s looking like the spin doctors and the station mechanics have taken over. On the road to 50 million listeners, educated people will apparently have to settle for less information, less trust, and more corporate-sponsored looking-the-other-way.

So here’s the deal, NPR: If you want to go for 50 million listeners and the advertising dollars that come with that, fine — dumb it down and slick it up. But when Fox News says you should be defunded, I’m not coming to your defense. Because if you’re dumbed down and playing the corporate safety game, you’re not worth funding with tax dollars anyway.