Every few years I make an anthropological visit to my sister’s home out west. My sister—her name is withheld to protect the guilty—is a lifelong bureaucrat who’s never worked for anyone who had to show a profit, and she is deeply suspicious of the whole concept. She’ll drive miles across the city to poke through the out-of-copyright videotapes at the public library rather than spend two bucks to rent one at the Blockbuster down the street. She regards any financial transaction between two parties not employed by the government as vaguely shady, if not downright illicit.
Needless to say, she listens to National Public Radio.
Every morning that I stay at her house, I’m awakened at 6 AM by the droning baritone of Bob Edwards, the anchor of Morning Edition. The program stays on until 8:30, when my sister dashes to her car and switches it on there to listen to the final half hour on her way to work. And in the afternoon I usually have to leave the house to avoid being driven to homicide by the discordant tinkling of the All Things Considered theme, which echoes from her radio from 5 PM to 6:30.
Of course, lots of people have favorite news programs. I don’t think my father missed more than half-a-dozen telecasts of The Huntley-Brinkley Report in his entire life. But what moves my sister’s obsession with NPR from the mildly eccentric to the downright bizarre is that it’s her sole source of news. She never watches network television news, and she’ll tune in a local program only when she knows it’s running a story about one of her bureaucratic projects. She subscribes to a local paper, but only for the arts listings.
This has led to some grave disappointments in my sister’s life. She is still perplexed that the ERA didn’t make it into the Constitution, since, she told me, NPR reported that the election of Jimmy Carter made it a sure thing. And she was dumbfounded when the Christic Institute’s lawsuit, which alleged that the entire national security apparatus of the U.S. government was nothing more than a drug ring, was dismissed by a federal judge before coming to trial. NPR, she said, had made it all sound so reasonable. (The fact that the suit was filed by an NPR stringer, to my sister’s way of thinking, only confirmed its validity.)
Once in a while, I gently hint to my sister that her worldview might be slightly better rounded if she would acknowledge that perhaps Linda Wertheimer is not the final authority on everything under the sun. My suggestions are always met with scorn. “You can get your news from giant corporations if you want to,” she snaps. “I’d rather get mine from people who aren’t motivated by profit. I’d rather get my news from people who think like me.”
For a long time I considered my sister a harmless aberration—an upscale version of the guys you occasionally read about who think they get secret messages from Elvis through their fillings. But as the years have passed, I’ve met more and more people who share her fetish for NPR. In fact, NPR itself likes to brag about the cultish devotion of its listeners. The network’s 1991 annual report includes letters from a number of hopelessly fixated groupies who regard NPR roughly the same way John Hinckley regarded Jodie Foster. One listener boasts that he and his wife recently drove from Buckhannon, West Virginia, to Portland, Oregon, and back, listening to NPR every foot of the 6,500 miles. Another, from Randolph, Massachusetts, flatly declares: “If I am informed at all about anything current, it is because I listen to NPR.”
With my sister, these listeners share the peculiar belief that they’re better informed because they obtain all their information from a single source—that exposing themselves to an alternative would not only not add to their knowledge, but would actually subtract from it. Most NPR listeners, I’m sure, wouldn’t trust an economist who bragged that he accepted only the scholarship of Milton Friedman, or a politician who read only the works of Lenin. But somehow they think their own understanding of the world is enhanced by basing it exclusively on a news organization that labors in an antiquated, one-dimensional medium and whose entire staff wouldn’t fill the city room at the New York Times.
This is something of a mystery—that highly educated, well-to-do people (for that is what NPR’s listeners are, mostly) would adopt the kind of intellectual isolationism that we would ordinarily associate with survivalist cults holed up in the Ozarks. Like survivalists, NPR listeners are not exactly numerous—”There are more people falling off the face of the earth than there are listening to NPR,” observes Bill McCleneghan, ABC Radio’s vice president for research—but, like survivalists, their very existence is a troubling enigma. You always have to wonder: Do they know something the rest of us don’t?
Recently I decided to get to the bottom of this. I became an undercover NPR listener. To my family and friends, I kept up a facade of normality, reading my regular newspapers and watching television news. But, in the privacy of my bedroom, away from the world’s prying eyes, I got up every morning at 6 and listened to all three hours of Morning Edition (the length of the program varies from market to market). And every afternoon at 5 I mixed a stiff drink and settled in for 90 minutes of All Things Considered.
My conclusion: I’d rather be a survivalist.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE TED KENNEDY TO LISTEN TO NPR, BUT IT HELPS
The charge that NPR’s newscasts have a leftward spin goes clear back to the network’s origin in 1970. Just two years later, Richard Nixon, angered by what he perceived as programming bias at NPR and its television cousins at the Public Broadcasting Service, vetoed their appropriations. He later reversed his decision, to the eternal dismay of conservatives, who’ve been braying about NPR ever since. “Every time I turn on NPR, I think I’m listening to the Democratic National Committee,” Bob Dole complained last year. Nixon and Dole, of course, are hardly arbiters of political neutrality. But the truth is that you don’t have to be a graduate of the Spiro Agnew School of Korrect Journalism to recognize a persistent liberal bias in NPR newscasts. The evidence is all over the place, and it doesn’t take a microscope to find it.
Take, for example, NPR’s coverage of the battle over Bill Clinton’s $16 billion “economic stimulus” package. During the week I listened (April 12 to 16), this was a hot topic. Readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and just about every other newspaper in America knew that Senate Republicans had—against all expectations—stuck together in maintaining a filibuster against the bill, and that it was in serious trouble.
But I’ll bet my sister and her friends had no idea.
All week, NPR portrayed an indomitable Bill Clinton riding a tidal wave of public support against a faceless and—more importantly, in the context of radio—voiceless Republican rabble. During the first three days of the week, NPR ran 11 stories on Clinton’s campaign for the package, all of them centered around speeches by the president or Al Gore. For three full days their voices echoed over the NPR airwaves, accusing Republicans of fighting to withhold immunizations from poor children and of being antiprogress. Often their sound bites were followed by the comments of NPR reporters, adding that audiences were “enthusiastic” or the president’s message “struck a nerve.”
For good measure, there was an interview with Cokie Roberts, noted NPR expert on you-name-it, in which she allowed as how there’s “more than a little racism” in anyone who opposes aid to cities. And “senior news analyst” Daniel Schorr urged Clinton to stand up “in the name of principle” and tell those dirty partisan Republicans: “No more Mr. Nice Guy. This is your president speaking.”
And where was the Republican rebuttal to all this? Well, it wasn’t to be found on NPR. It wasn’t until the afternoon of April 15, the fourth day that I listened to the network, that I heard a Republican voice on the subject of the filibuster. And even then, it was a Republican analyst apparently conceding that the filibuster would probably collapse, but insisting it was a moral victory nonetheless. The theme of reporter Elizabeth Arnold’s story was that Republicans had taken advantage of the fact that Clinton had been “briefly” distracted by the death of his father-in-law. (Those bounders!)
“But the candidate whose discipline seldom faltered during a tumultuous election year is back on solid footing,” Arnold reassured her listeners. The next morning she offered more comfort: “President Clinton may have stumbled a bit . . . but he’s not ready to take a legislative fall.” Actually, he was; the White House was already offering desperate compromises to moderate Republicans in hopes of salvaging some of the stimulus package, and in less than a week it would be stone-cold dead.
NPR took a similarly partisan course in coverage of another of the week’s big stories, the discovery of a document in Soviet archives stating that the North Vietnamese held back several hundred American POWs when the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1973.
All week, NPR stories quoted anonymous congressional staffers expressing doubts about the authenticity of the document. Fair enough; there are a lot of troublesome questions about its origin and contents.
On the other hand, there are also highly qualified people who argue that the document is genuine, including Zbigniew Brzezinski. And the Harvard researcher who found it, Stephen Morris, was in New York, where the New York Times, the Washington Times, and ABC’s Nightline all managed to find him.
But NPR either couldn’t find him or couldn’t be bothered to confront him. Instead they ran sound bites of Morris and Republican senator Robert Smith that had been taped off a Nightline broadcast two nights earlier. Theirs were the only voices that appeared on the radio all week in support of the document’s authenticity.
Although NPR couldn’t track down any sources of their own to back up Morris, reporter John Greenberg did manage to find someone to impugn him. Greenberg interviewed John McAuliff of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project, who dismissed the document as a fake because Morris has “been involved in an active polemic against people who favor normalization of relations [between Vietnam and the U.S.]. . . . He has a viewpoint.”
Now, if Greenberg had called some conservative think tank or political organization, he might have gotten an additional comment that sounded something like this: “John McAuliff has been involved in licking the boots of Vietnamese communists for more than two decades, first as a prominent antiwar activist and now as a professional apologist, and of course he can’t accept the document because it would prove that, for all these years, he’s either been hopelessly stupid or willfully deceptive in his depiction of the Hanoi government. He has a viewpoint.”
Do you think Greenberg made that phone call? Do you think pigs have wings? In the NPR dialectic, only anticommunists are suspected of partiality. So the broadcast made no mention at all of McAuliff’s background. Similarly, when Robert Siegel interviewed Eugene Terre Blanche, the head of South Africa’s Afrikaner Resistance Movement, he introduced him as a “right-wing extremist.” (Accurate, even mild.) But during the interview, Siegel referred to Chris Hani, the recently murdered head of the South African Communist Party, only as “a popular black public figure.” (Especially misleading because it appears Hani was killed less because of his race than because of his party affiliation.)
You might think that after two decades of threats from Republicans to lay waste to NPR, its reporters (or their editors, if such exist, which I doubt from the windiness of some of the pieces) would at least make an effort to be more circumspect about coloring their stories. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Several times I heard them tripped up by their own reporting. For instance, one morning reporter Kathy Lohr filed a story about the Operation Rescue training camp in Florida, where antiabortion protesters learn the tricks of their trade. Lohr solemnly informed her listeners that the camp’s executive director teaches antiabortion troops “not to use their own name” when gathering information about doctors who work in abortion clinics. But the sound bite from the executive director himself didn’t quite square with her interpretation:
“It’s just better if they don’t know who’s asking for the information. We can surprise them with information a lot better that way, and they can’t go back and try to cover their trail. So that’s important. Use other people that aren’t as well-known as you may be.” (Emphasis added.)
Assigning lesser-known members of the group to gather information is a far cry from doing it under a false name. Ethically speaking, it doesn’t even strike me as a close call. And I’ll bet that if Lohr were reporting on how prochoice people sometimes infiltrate antiabortion groups to gather information for lawsuits, she wouldn’t have condemned the practice.
Sometimes NPR reporters were so thoroughly contradicted by their own stories that it was downright funny. My favorite was a story about Clinton and the news media by Andy Bowers. The thesis of the piece was that “the first few months of the Clinton administration seem to have strained the bond between the people and the press” because reporters have been so rough on Clinton.
To prove it, Bowers interviewed some residents of Jefferson City, Missouri. Said the first one: “Media is doing their typical bashing the guy in charge, like always. It’s nice to see them do it to a Democrat.” Chimed in another: “They baby him. They follow him around, they really don’t challenge him.” Added a third: “I don’t believe George Bush in his first 100 days made near as many people mad as Bill Clinton.”
Yup, it sounds like the citizens of Jefferson City are just about ready to storm the offices of the TV networks with torches and pitchforks, demanding fair play for Clinton. Lest there be any confusion, Bowers interviewed University of Missouri journalism professor George Kennedy. He explained just what those untutored Jefferson City louts, with their poor command of English, were really trying to say: “There’s a fairly widely held sense in the public that there really ought to be a kind of honeymoon, that simple fairness dictates that the new president ought to have a chance to get his program up and running before we start picking it apart.” (I wonder if Kennedy thinks the public was well served when the news media let the Vietnam war get “up and running” before asking any tough questions.)
By the end of his report, even Bowers seemed hopelessly confused by what he was trying to say. He quoted a Los Angeles Times poll showing that two-thirds of those responding think the press is too chummy with the government. And there were more quotes from Jefferson City. “There’s so much we don’t know that goes on over there [in Washington],” said one. “The only way a reporter is gonna get on the inside is by playing the game,” declared another. It sounds to me like what Jefferson City wants is not a honeymoon but a divorce.
A HERD OF INDEPENDENT MINDS
Laurence Jarvik, a conservative critic of public broadcasting, once asked plaintively: “Why is it that there’s room at NPR for a practicing witch, but not a practicing conservative?” (By the way, this was not—as the uncharitable might have suspected—a reference to Nina Totenberg, but to reporter Margot Adler, who actually casts spells and stuff like that.)
This, I suspect, has a good deal to do with the ideological drift of NPR’s news. It’s not that the network’s editorial brain trust meets each morning to plot the day’s campaign to rid America of Republican taint. It’s that the newsroom is composed almost entirely of like-minded people who share one another’s major philosophical precepts. When my sister says that she wants to hear news from people who think like me, she’s put her finger on the problem.
Their thinking is apparent in both what they report and their approach to it. They believe that government is the fundamental agent of change, that government can and should solve most problems. They believe most of those solutions involve spending large sums of money. They believe that taxes are not only an appropriate way of raising money, but an important social responsibility. They believe that, although individuals cannot always be trusted to make correct choices, bureaucrats usually can.
In short, NPR reporters are the kinds of people who voted for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton, not as the lesser evils but enthusiastically, in the firm belief that what the world needs is better social engineering.
Their umbilical attachment to the state is most clearly visible when it comes to stories concerning taxation. NPR reporters will have their eyes put out with red-hot pokers before they’ll question the sanctity of a tax—any tax. Consider a story filed by Daniel Zwerdling, NPR’s correspondent in Nairobi.
“Kenya’s government is close to going bankrupt,” Zwerdling said by way of introduction. “Hospitals can’t afford to buy medicines. The national telephone system is breaking down. Schools can’t afford to buy benches, so children sit on the floor. And when you call the police to tell them thieves are breaking into your house, the police say they can’t help you unless you give them a ride because they don’t have cars.”
And why is Kenya broke? “One root of the problem is that most of the people who are supposed to pay taxes never do,” Zwerdling explained. And it must be the most important root, in his eyes, because he never identified another. The rest of the story was about a new tax-collection system that has been blocked by Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.
In point of actual fact, Kenya ought to be able to make its government work without collecting a shilling in taxes. Until recently the country was getting a staggering $1 billion a year in Western aid, which ought to have covered the entire Kenyan budget with money left over for doughnuts all around. But in 1991 the donor nations began cutting back because of the breathtaking waste and theft that go on in Kenya’s 300 or so state-owned industries. (One particularly nimble Kenyan kleptocrat, former energy minister Nicholas Biwott, is estimated by the British government to have made off with “hundreds of millions of dollars” all by himself.)
Ask any foreign diplomat or independent economist in Nairobi for the top five reasons the Kenyan economy is crumbling, and tax collection will be at the bottom of the list—if it’s mentioned at all. But at NPR it leads the hit parade.
If NPR reporters were scandalized by the reluctance of Kenyan cattle herders to keep funding London penthouses for that nation’s thieving rulers, then imagine how they feel about comparatively affluent Americans who try to beat the tax system. As April 15 approached, NPR correspondents foamed at the mouth about the dire consequences of tax evasion. In North Carolina, NPR reported, the government will put your name in the paper. In Virginia they’ll put it on television. And stiffing Uncle Sam (who, coincidentally, funds NPR’s sugar daddies at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting)—well, don’t even think about it. “If you plan to miss the deadline or try to do some fancy paper shuffling on deductions,” warned All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer in her sternest voice, “you may want to think again.”
Her warning was somewhat undercut by the interview that followed, in which a Forbes editor said the IRS only audits 1 percent of all tax returns. But Wertheimer did perk up considerably when the editor agreed that “if they [the IRS] catch you, they can kill you.”
“What do you mean?” inquired Wertheimer excitedly. Her enthusiasm dampened only slightly upon learning that the word kill had been used metaphorically.
To their credit, NPR reporters do seem to have a vague notion that some Americans don’t share their zeal for taxes. So when the White House floated a trial balloon suggesting that Clinton is considering a value-added tax (VAT), they tried to soften the blow. Bob Edwards interviewed NPR reporter Patricia Neighmond about how the VAT works. After she explained that it entails taxing each and every step of a product’s manufacture, Edwards observed that as the taxes mounted, there would be “an increasingly higher price on the product.”
“Well, it would seem so,” Neighmond replied, apparently holding out some hope that friendly emissaries from the planet Zork would swoop down and pay the taxes, sparing earthlings the pain.
Later that day, on All Things Considered, Daniel Schorr carefully instructed his listeners that they shouldn’t blame Clinton for the VAT. “The fact is that, having in February rejected the idea of a VAT tax, Mr. Clinton is being forced to consider it again,” Schorr affirmed. Alas, this raised more questions than it answered. Who, exactly, was forcing the president? Did Hillary have her cattle prod out again? Was Janet Reno threatening to send FBI agents over to the White House to practice Texas fire drills?
Schorr, obviously constrained by national security concerns, wouldn’t say. But, he consoled, the VAT has its charms. “What makes it attractive,” he noted, “is what has made it attractive to European countries and Canada.” Here the veteran reporter was clearly the victim of a technical glitch. What he was trying to say was, what has made it attractive to European countries and Canada, compared to being sodomized by a herd of rabid camels. As the next morning’s Post reported, “It would be hard to find a person, institution or program in Canada that is hated more [than the VAT].”
Undaunted, Schorr continued: “On the plus side, a value-added tax could raise so much money that it might be possible to offer cuts in other taxes.” As he spoke, I could almost hear a sigh of relief echoing from Takoma Park and the rest of the NPR ghettos around Washington. Schorr had saved the day. Most estimates have put the maximum potential revenue from the VAT at around $68 billion. Meanwhile, estimates of the cost of Hillary’s new health program (which is what the VAT is supposed to fund) range anywhere from $100 billion to $150 billion. Only a steel-trap mind like Schorr’s could have performed the complex mathematical functions necessary to turn a $30 billion shortfall into a tax-cutting surplus.
Literally no subject is safe from NPR’s love affair with taxes. Even a piece on how name-brand products are losing market share to generics ended with a wild (and, of course, unanswered) tirade by an antismoking Nazi demanding a 40-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
The flip side of taxation is subsidy, and NPR reporters never question the need for that, either. I listened in amazement to a story by Dan Charles on a new half-billion-dollar handout to military contractors to convert them into civilian industries. It sounded like a piece on some kind of arts-and-crafts program for retarded kids, with arms merchants bubbling on about how they were learning to make golf clubs instead of missile launchers. Not once did it occur to Charles to ask a simple question: If it’s in the economic interest of these companies to convert anyway, then why should the government pay them to do it?
The reason he didn’t ask, I’m sure, is that he shares the belief of technocrats that economies and societies, deprived of adult supervision, will quickly devolve into chaos and bedlam. Social engineers view the world as a huge Skinner box through which they must guide us pigeons with little rewards and penalties.
It’s a vision enthusiastically shared by NPR reporters, who react with ill-concealed horror at any suggestion that the pigeons might seize control of the laboratory. One of the most telling moments of my ordeal-by-NPR came while Linda Wertheimer was interviewing a computer developer on what will happen when computers are linked into televisions—the so-called intelligent TV. He predicted the development of literally hundreds of new interactive television networks and services “that would give the individual TV viewer an incredible amount of power to program for their own tastes rather than have to rely on these programming guys.”
Replied a perturbed Wertheimer: “Is there any way we can dodge this bullet?”
The idea that the government might impede rather than advance societal development is utterly alien to NPR. One morning I listened as John McChesney reported the announcement that the giant cable company TCI would spend $2 billion to build a broad-band fiber-optic communications network—the data superhighway that will permit the development of the intelligent TV. McChesney made the astonishing assertion that TCI was undertaking the project not because of the incalculable billions of dollars in profits it may generate, but because of Bill Clinton’s “aggressive promotion of an information infrastructure.”
In fact, the private sector has been trying for some time to get the federal government to permit the creation of a data superhighway. MCI, AT&T, and Sprint already have the fiber-optic networks in place. But federal rules and regulations have prevented them from being hooked up to individual homes. McChesney is certainly aware of this—he even touched on the point later in his report—but that didn’t stop him from declaring that the private sector was acting only because the government told it to.
YOU WANT AN ALTERNATIVE, LOOK IN THE THESAURUS
NPR’s founders thought they were creating government-funded underground radio. Their original statement of purpose called for programming that would “promote personal growth rather than corporate gain,” and “not only call attention to a problem, but be an active agent in seeking solutions.”
If it had worked out that way, NPR news might be a lot more interesting. But it didn’t. NPR is not a national version of, say, a Pacifica station, where an announcer might analyze the virtues of different brands of LSD or urge people to go naked on Election Day. Instead, it’s a house organ of respectable inside-the-Beltway liberalism—news written by and for aging yuppies whose idea of adventuresome politics is telling Dan Quayle jokes.
In fact, NPR’s toughest critics these days come from the left, and they hammer away at this very point. Quoting Democrats instead of Republicans, the critics argue, offers an alternative in roughly the same way that Cheez Whiz is an alternative to Velveeta.
One of the most savage recent critiques of NPR news came from Charlotte Ryan, a professor of sociology at Simmons College and codirector of Boston College’s Media Research and Action Project. She studied every weekday broadcast of Morning Edition and All Things Considered from September through December 1991, reading the transcripts of 2,296 stories. (Her ennui threshold is obviously a good deal higher than mine.)
“NPR’s regular coverage mirrored that of commercial news programming,” Ryan concluded. “NPR stories focus on the same Washington-centered events and public figures as the commercial news, with the White House and Congress setting much of the political agenda. NPR’s sources often paralleled those of Nightline and other network public affairs shows, with a similar tilt toward government sources and politically centrist or conservative think tanks and publications.”
Ryan found that more than three-fifths of NPR’s domestic stories were reported from Washington, and only 10 percent from the midwest. The sources most commonly quoted were government officials. And, if you’re one of those people who like their news drawn from and delivered by a politically correct mixture of races and sexes, then NPR definitely is not for you; you may be surprised to learn that Ryan found that most of the network’s sources and commentators were the dreaded Pale Penis People.
Portions of her study must be taken with a grain of salt—Ryan is surely the only person in America who believes that Nina Totenberg’s coverage of the fall 1991 Supreme Court nomination was biased in favor of Clarence Thomas—but the week I listened to NPR, it sounded pretty much the way she described it.
The vast majority of stories reported on Morning Edition and All Things Considered come off the Associated Press wire or are rewritten from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Most of them are event driven: Clinton makes a speech, the Labor Department issues economic statistics, the U.N. issues a new warning about Bosnia, Janet Reno does a photo op. Anybody listening to ABC or CBS radio news would hear nearly all of this, and without the numbing repetition. (One day I listened to Morning Edition report nine different times that the jury in the Rodney King trial was still out, with no new developments.)
Only once during the week I listened to NPR did I hear a story of any significance that didn’t appear in all the other major news media. On April 15, John Nielsen reported, several days ahead of the pack, that the Clinton administration would sign the Rio de Janeiro biodiversity treaty that had been deep-sixed by George Bush. Good job. But mostly what the scoop illustrates is the precarious niche that NPR has carved for itself: It shuns the “alternative” label, but it doesn’t have the resources or the talent to successfully compete with the mainstream media. Breaking a single story in a week is hardly going to put the fear of God in Peter Jennings or Max Frankel.
Not even the most delirious NPR staffer would make that claim, of course. The standard—and cleverly hedged—boast of NPR people is the one NPR reporter Alex Chadwick made at a recent public-radio fund-raiser in Hartford: “We’ve evolved past being an alternative medium to being, I think, the dominant radio news organization in the country.”
To which the only sensible reply is: So what? Being the dominant radio news organization might have meant something in the days when Ed Murrow was broadcasting live accounts of Nazi air raids from London. But for the past 30 years, radio news has been on the scrap heap. A poll released earlier this year by the National Association of Broadcasters showed that only 16 percent of Americans consider radio an important source of news, compared with 69 percent for television and 43 percent for newspapers. And just 7 percent picked radio as the “most credible” news medium. (By the way, Chadwick is most assuredly not talking about numbers of listeners when he uses the word “dominant.” Morning Edition and All Things Considered have less than 3 percent of the radio audience at any given moment.)
Newspapers offer their readers depth and eclecticism. Television offers its viewers drama. Radio offers its listeners—well, not much. A headline service, to let them know what they can see on the evening news or read in the morning paper or find on CNN at any time of the day or night.
NPR reporters argue that they compensate for radio’s shortcomings by offering longer stories. Whether longer is better is a debatable point. “In theory, I think it’s great that there’s someone out there doing long, highly produced radio news stories,” says one industry insider. “But in practice, I don’t know. I was listening to Morning Edition the other day on the way to work, and they ran this story on a ballet company for autistic children in South Africa. It went on for seven, seven-and-a-half minutes. And finally I was thinking to myself, Who cares? It’s just too much.”
When NPR tries to cover hard news, its stories—even when they stretch on for six or seven minutes—are rarely long enough to rise above the sort of shallow sound-bite once-over for which television is so justly criticized.
John Burnett’s seven-and-a-half-minute preview of the special election in Texas to fill Lloyd Bentsen’s seat was typical. He reported that the interim appointee, Bob Krueger, would probably get into a runoff. But beyond that, it was pretty murky. Krueger “earned high praise in his two terms as a congressman.” From whom? For what? Dunno. His “brief record in the Senate has already come under fire.” Why? Well, the only thing Burnett had time to mention was that Krueger broke with Clinton over gays in the military. Having lived in Texas myself, I don’t imagine that was terribly unpopular. But we’ve already moved on to the Republicans. Leader: state treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison. She’s running because “I want to go to Washington and change it.” Into what? Sorry, gotta move on. There’s a candidate named Richard Fischer, a buddy of Ross Perot’s. He’s spent $4 million of his own money on this race. What’s his party? What’s his platform? Where is he in the polls? Too bad, we’re outta here.
But if seven-and-a-half minutes is too little for hard news, it is assuredly too much for most NPR feature stories. Did anyone listening to Morning Edition in Portales, New Mexico, or Senatobia, Mississippi, really want to hear Lynn Neary’s eight-and-a-half minutes on yuppie angst about living in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights? (Sample quote: Violence “sensitizes you to all the other abrasions in the urban environment.”) Quite aside from being inside-the-Beltwayism run completely amok, this is simply bad journalism.
And now we’ve come to the real secret of NPR news: Bad journalism is not just an occupational hazard, the occasional and inevitable accident that occurs in every news organization. Bad journalism happens on the quarter hour at NPR. Bad journalism is, often, policy at NPR.
How shall we count the ways?
The dull scripts, so formulaic that even the reporters privately make fun of them. Last year, when NPR was running a long, long, long series of stories on local people shunted aside by development in Latin America, several reporters formed a pool. Recalls one: “We bet on how long each story would go before it cued a strumming guitar, followed by a grandfather mourning his lost son, then singing long-forgotten revolutionary songs.”
The infatuation with ethnicism, to the extent that NPR stories are sometimes barely comprehensible. NPR reporters love to have exotically accented English in their pieces, even if it’s pure gibberish. Here’s the way Nexis transcribed a quote from a Thai official whose tape-recorded English-language comments were included in a report by Mary Kay Magistad on problems on the Thai-Cambodian border: “We have spent a lot of money to neighbor of Cambodia, like you see here, and the business along the border, like the business [unintelligible] with Burma, the same that the people who live along the border, their trip—their trip, you know? It is the nature of the businessman.” I’ve listened to the same quote three times on tape and I can’t translate it any better than Nexis did.
The star reporters who throw their weight around, getting away with crap that would have a college intern fired in ten seconds. Nina Totenberg (one of the three powerful NPR women—Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer are the others—to whom some male reporters refer collectively as “the fallopian jungle”) reported one morning on a topless dancer suing a Dallas club for age discrimination. She introduced her story with a crack about “sagging hopes.” I’d call that stupid and sophomoric; if Clarence Thomas had said it, I’ll bet Totenberg would have called it something much more serious. (In Totenberg’s defense, she’s certainly not the first allegedly feminist NPR reporter to use language that would be derided as sexist swill coming from a man. Susan Stamberg once opened an interview with novelist John Irving: “Mr. Irving, on the basis of your brilliant writing, and your photograph on the dust jacket of Garp, most of the women on our staff have told me they’d like to run away with you.”)
Circle-jerk journalism, when reporters interview reporters. I don’t recall the last time I picked up the Post and found a front-page interview of Ann Devroy by David Broder. The Post—and, as far as I know, every other news organization in America—reports the news by reporting the news rather than interviewing other reporters about the news.
That’s not the way it works at NPR. Eight times in five days I heard NPR reporters interview other reporters—usually other NPR reporters. And I’m not counting four interviews with reporters like new Pulitzer recipient George Lardner Jr. who were, at least arguably, actual news makers; nor am I counting several foreign journalists interviewed as part of larger stories about their countries. At best, these pieces were flaccid. I would be interested in what an economist thinks about the value-added tax. I might be interested in what a merchant thinks about it, or a truck driver, or a housewife. I am emphatically not interested in what an NPR reporter thinks.
But several of the interviews with reporters developed into something considerably worse than flaccidity. When Bob Edwards talked to Bill Sloat, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter covering the inmate takeover of a maximum-security prison in Ohio, NPR used the opportunity to pass along unattributed rumors and speculation that Sloat could never have gotten past his own editors. Sloat started with the observation that “I think [the atmosphere at the prison] has grown a little more tense overnight. I have nothing to base it on, but it’s just a feeling.” He bottomed out by mentioning that six inmates had already been killed and he had “heard rumors that some of the bodies were mutilated. Now, nobody will confirm that.”
Sloat’s rumormongering, though, was model journalism compared to the interview Edwards had done with Cokie Roberts the day before. Supposedly this was an interview about the Republican attack on Clinton’s economic stimulus package (Roberts being so much more knowledgeable about that than an actual Republican), but Roberts quickly shifted the subject to a special congressional election in the Mississippi Delta.
“There’s a black candidate versus a white candidate,” Roberts said. “And this is where you really see the words ‘city’ or ‘inner city’ become something of a code word for race. The white candidate, who’s a Republican, is saying that his opponent is a liberal from the city, as opposed to himself, who’s a conservative from the country. And that’s just sort of a way of letting people know that the opponent is black.”
I don’t think a deaf, dumb, and blind martian could have gotten this story more ridiculously wrong. First, the Democratic candidate had just survived a brutal and highly publicized primary election. So everyone already knew he was black. Second, everyone already knew he was black anyway, because Mississippi is the most race-conscious place in America. “I can’t think of an election of any importance in my lifetime when everybody didn’t know the race of all the candidates,” says Sallie Anne Gresham, a native Mississippian and the managing editor of the Delta Democrat-Times, the Delta’s largest newspaper. (Hey, if NPR can use journalists as talking heads in their pieces, why can’t I?)
Third, the majority of the voters in the congressional district are black. (So is Mike Espy, who resigned the seat to become secretary of agriculture.) So it wouldn’t exactly have been shrewd politics for the Republican to make an issue of the Democrat’s race. And he didn’t. Instead, the Republican embraced the black vote, spoke frequently of his respect for Martin Luther King, and tried to appeal to the social conservatism of rural black voters by pointing out that his opponent was a liberal from the city. The Democrat, by contrast, made race an explicit issue; he campaigned in large part on the platform that black people could only be properly represented by a black congressman. He won.
The practice of putting reporting positions up for sale. NPR people prefer to use the euphemistic term “underwriting.” Whatever you call it, eight of NPR’s reporters are fully funded by corporations or foundations, confirms an NPR spokesperson. I wonder what the founders would have said back in 1970 if they’d been told that someday NPR would have a science reporter paid for by Hewlett-Packard?
NPR officials insist that the outside funding has no impact on the way they report the news. But of course it does. NPR has eight, count ’em, eight reporters on its science desk. But it has no labor reporter, no crime reporter, and until a few weeks ago had no Pentagon reporter. Can you guess which desk has seven “underwritten” reporters?
Underwriting also accounts for the fact that NPR has a full-time reporter in Kenya doing stories about tax collection, while it relies on a stringer to cover South Africa, where one of the most exciting stories of the decade is unfolding. Daniel Zwerdling, the Kenya correspondent, is funded with a $100,000 grant from the Affinity Group for Southern Africa, a consortium of 50 or so foundations.
“It’s a group of foundations that are promoting economic development in southern Africa,” explains Michael Sinclair of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who coordinates the Affinity Group. “We went to NPR with a proposal to supplement their regular news reporting from southern Africa with regular reporting on economic issues.”
Now, the obvious question is: What if Zwerdling starts filing stories about acts of tyranny and expropriation in Zimbabwe, or an Iranian-backed secession movement in Tanzania-you know, things that don’t exactly encourage economic development? What if he reports that a lot of the governments in southern Africa are run by swindling brutes—and that economic aid only perpetuates their regimes?
“We don’t have any control over the reporting,” Sinclair says. But would the Affinity Group keep funding a reporter who did those stories? “I don’t think that would play a role in evaluating the funding,” he insists.
He sounds sincere, and I’m sure Sinclair believes his own words. I don’t know if I do. And I wonder if Daniel Zwerdling and his editors do.
OK, I’M CONVINCED. YOUR SISTER’S AN IDIOT. WHAT’S IT TO ME?
Well, you pay for it. That may come as a surprise; through a propaganda campaign that’s been successful beyond its wildest dreams, NPR has convinced most people that it no longer depends on tax dollars for its existence. The NPR claim that less than 3 percent of its funding comes from the federal government is accepted as gospel almost everywhere.
But what that figure really represents is a clever bookkeeping trick. In 1987, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—the quasi-independent organization in charge of distributing the annual $300-million-plus federal subsidy to public broadcasting—stopped funding NPR directly and started giving the money directly to public radio stations, which then hand it back to NPR in the form of “dues.” That covers about two-thirds of NPR’s $46 million annual budget.
Then there’s the matter of that $198 million satellite NPR uses to distribute its programming: yup, paid for with tax dollars. (NPR also makes a nice chunk of change by renting out the satellite’s excess capacity to a private paging company.)
And without taxpayer dollars, there wouldn’t be any public stations to run NPR’s programs. Of the total $377 million spent on public radio in fiscal 1991, nearly half was provided by local, state, and federal government. Taxes are the lifeblood of the entire industry.
So remember: You’re paying Cokie Roberts $60,000 a year for her half-baked ranting about racism in America. You’re paying Daniel Schorr $95,000 a year to demonstrate Martian mathematics. You’re paying Linda Wertheimer $97,000 a year for anti-tax-evasion public service announcements. You’re paying Carl Kasell $90,000 a year, Robert Siegel $101,000 a year, and Bob Edwards $134,000 a year to imitate the bloodless drone of HAL the computer.
Maybe you think it’s a good deal. I’m sure my sister does.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.