Juan Williams’s recent firing from NPR has occasioned yet another in the perennial series of arguments about the public radio network and whether it should or should not continue to be government funded. The debate so far, it must be admitted, has not been an edifying one, consisting mostly of the regurgitation of clichés.
At The Daily Beast, itself a formidable organ of the liberal establishment, Peter Beinart provided an excellent example of this, writing that “NPR is elitist, and it’s a good thing too” before trotting out almost every cliché NPR’s defenders have ever employed in defense of the network. “The people who run the station,” he writes, “believe that Americans should know more about what is happening in China and less about what is happening to Britney Spears, which in today’s media makes them downright subversive.” As proof of this, Beinart claims that “NPR now has 17 foreign bureaus compared to four for CBS,” and “NPR devotes 21 percent of its airtime to international news compared to 1 percent for commercial talk radio.”
Needless to say, these are not particularly helpful arguments. One is little more than openly acknowledged snobbery, and the other appears to make the bizarre claim that more coverage by definition equals better coverage, as if a patient were more likely to survive surgery with ten doctors in the operating room instead of one. Given the ready availability online of translated foreign media, moreover, one wonders why those interested would require their news filtered through an American radio network in the first place.
Beinart does, however, do us the service of reiterating NPR’s most beloved talking point: “NPR doesn’t get a lot of public money.” This endlessly repeated assertion is apparently so important that it appears on NPR’s own website, where it features prominently in the ombudsman’s frequently asked questions page. “NPR receives no direct funding from the federal government,” the network states. This begs the question, of course, of why — if the public money it receives is so minor — NPR and its defenders fight so ferociously to retain it.
The answer appears to be hiding in plain sight, in the networks admission that:
Approximately half of NPR’s funding comes from NPR member stations. In an average year, NPR funds about 45 percent of its operations with membership dues and program fees from member stations.
These member stations are, in turn, subsidized by local, state, and federal tax dollars. The manner in which NPR receives public funding appears, therefore, to be akin to that long-practiced method which in other contexts is known as “money laundering.” Indeed, one imagines there are drug cartels that run more honest operations.
None of this, however, makes or will make much difference to NPR’s core audience, and it is not too difficult to understand why. Put simply, NPR is for coastal liberals what Rush Limbaugh is for heartland conservatives: a means of relating to the world from within the confines of a specific subculture. The difference, of course, is that Limbaugh’s admirers do not force others to pay for it.
Nor, I imagine, are Limbaugh’s listeners laboring under the same illusion as NPR’s. Most of them probably understand that Limbaugh is giving opinions based on his political point of view, which is, to say the least, well known to his listeners. NPR’s listeners, on the other hand, are quite convinced that they are receiving nothing less than the pure, unvarnished, objective truth from the network. They believe themselves to be smart and informed, and thus the network they love must also be, perhaps by definition, smart and informative.
As far as I have been able to discern from my own, admittedly subjective, encounters with the network, this is largely a convenient illusion. Put simply, NPR’s reputation seems based largely on aesthetic considerations. Its personalities are articulate and employ a more extensive vocabulary than commercial radio; its programs are professionally produced, with a slickness that conservative media cannot match; and its reporters are generally skilled at sounding calm and objective, even when they manifestly are not. The more one begins to delve into the substance of NPR’s programming, however, the more one senses that the network is neither particularly smart nor particularly informative.
Listening to NPR during a recent ten-day trip to the United States, I was struck by how repetitive, unimaginative, and incurious the network seemed to be. Most of its foreign coverage was provided by the BBC, and generally consisted of what is colloquially called “disaster porn.” Shows like Talk of the Nation largely regurgitated liberal talking points at great length, but not in great depth. The most striking episode of the interview show On Point was ostensibly devoted to understanding the appeal of Glenn Beck, but consisted almost entirely of a monologue by reporter Dana Milbank, who has just published a book attacking Beck from a liberal standpoint. Neither Beck nor a single one of his supporters appeared on the show, an omission that appeared to be motivated more by journalistic laziness and a lack of intellectual curiosity than anything else.