Thursday, December 18, 2014

NPR may or may not need tax dollars, but it needs to man up

A pep-talk for NPR to "man up" in the face of right-wing attacks -- we won't defend you unless you defend yourself.

NPR may or may not need tax dollars, but it needs to man up

He's right. [NPR fundraiser Ron] Schiller comes across as an effete, well-educated, liberal intellectual – just exactly the stereotype that critics long have used against NPR and other bastions of the news media. It's also a stereotype that NPR journalists try hard to combat every day in their newsgathering.

-- NPR ombudswoman Alicia Shepard, writing today on the flap that caused NPR chief Vivian Schiller (no relation) to resign.

As a professional journalist myself, I'm scratching my head about how one goes about his work -- interviewing sources and dredging through documents and what not -- and at the same time proves that he's actually NOT well-educated or intellectual or doesn't share certain liberal values, like respect for human rights or for freedom of speech. Do you have to chew a wad of tobacco and drop the "g" at the end of words, or carry around an iPod loaded up with Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood? Ask a lot of stupid and unintellectual questions? Furthermore, I thought the whole reason for this Ron Schiller scandal was that he endorsed a stereotype of conservatives as stupid (and racist) anti-intellectuals, but here's NPR's ombudsman -- in voicing her fury at the former NPR higher-ups and their alleged stereotyping of conservatives -- endorsing a stereotype of liberals.

Excuse me while my head explodes.

This one bizarre paragraph from Alicia Shepard (and I'm a fan of her work, not just at NPR but her writings on a cherished subject, the Watergate scandal that more than anything else drew me into journalism in the first place) sums up to me the real story about what's wrong at National Public Radio, and what isn't. The issue is that while the journalists who work at NPR in 2011 do some of the finest reporting and storytelling of anyone left standing in my ever-shrinking profession, their organization has a pathological fear of standng up for itself, for who they are and what they do. And if they won't stand up for themselves, they shouldn't be surprised when their admirers don't rush to defend them, either.

What's more, the attitude on display not just in Shepard's revealing quote but in a string of inexplicable actions by NPR executives -- crumbling in the face of a dishonest and even once criminally liable right-wing non-journalist scam artist is just the latest and most outrageous -- poses grave real-world ethical risks for NPR. It raises the question of whether the public broadcasting network's obsession with not looking like effete liberals might cause editors and reporters to do exactly the thing they're afraid of being accused of -- slant the newa, but to please its conservative critics.

The tragedy is that both the national NPR and its local stations like WHYY here in Philadelphia -- producer of the top-notch interview shows "Fresh Air" and "Radio Times" and with a growing emphasis on regional news -- regularly produce some of the finest journalism in America right now. Some of the in-depth features on news programs like "All Things Considered" continue to produce what NPR has rightfully described as "driveway moments," and if they're a little more enthusiastic than other news outlets about telling me what's happening in Ivory Coast -- well thank God someone is telling me that.

Still, the distractions have been troubling and sometimes beyond strange. There've been growing signs of a culture at NPR that asks journalists to be robotic opinion-free castrati -- barred even from attending Jon Stewart's fairly innocuous Rally to Restore Sanity, with a job category of "analyst" in which journalists are asked to offer their expertise on what the news means but must do so while never having an opinion. This on top of its botched handling of the Juan Williams affair -- bottom line is that there were legitimate issues with Williams but he shouldn't have been fired in the way and for the reasons he was. And now the kicker, NPR's groveling response to a truly non-story of a report from the discredited pseudo-journalist James O'Keefe, whose flouting of the law, insane "sex sting" targeting a CNN reporter, and unethical reporting on ACORN should have been more than enough to stop NPR's top official from leaping to her career death -- but wasn't.

I'm not going to tackle the specifics of the latest O'Keefe caper at length -- John Cook, from Gawker of all places, did the best job of that, and you can read his piece here -- but I will wholeheartedly agree with his point at the end, that "NPR responded by pointing out that Schiller refused to accept the fake $5 million, plays no editorial role, and as an American is free to hold political opinions and to express them to people, even fake Mooslims, over lunch. No! Just kidding."

Just kidding...but that is EXACTLY what NPR should have done.

Meanwhile, some progressive-minded supporters of NPR have raised the idea that, in essense, maybe the right wing is chasing the right goal even if it's for the totally wrong reason. Maybe NPR, which gets about 15 percent of its funding from government sources, should forego tax dollars -- because the federal monies and the resulting politics from NPR's conservative enemies in Congress is exactly what causes NPR executives to act so stupidly every time these flareups occur.

Writes Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post:

NPR is hardly the only media organization with these problems, but they're the only one who a) keeps tripping headlong over them in headline-making pratfalls and b) have an extant need to keep a bunch of politicians happy. At some point, you have to wonder if the spectacles aren't exacerbated by the dependency.

He's probably right -- but as of tonight I personally remain an agnostic on this issue. I'd need to know more about what the end of taxpayer support for NPR would mean. If it truly crimped the remarkable work that's done in Philadelphia by my friends like Dave Davies, Marty Moss-Coane, Sue Spolan and others, I could not get behind that. Good journalism has already taken too many hits in the last decade.

But I'll tell what I'm not agnostic about. NPR needs to first let those great journalists also be sentient human beings -- who might actually laugh at a Jon Stewart joke or have an opinion on whether global warming science is bunk. And then what it really needs to do is, in the politically incorrect vernacular of 2011, is...man up! Keep doing great reporting and if someone thinks that you're looking like an effete liberal intellectual while you're doing it, just ignore tham, for crying out loud! And most importantly, fight -- for your values, and for what you do. Don't be afraid to call out your critics when their tactics are unfair or unethical, even if that means that you're only criticizing (gasp!) conservatives. Remember, your biggest fans are taxpayers, too -- and we're going to start wondering why the heck we're supporting you when you don't even support yourself.

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