As for NPR’s more entertainment-oriented programming, the situation is frankly dire. To pick two examples, This American Life is an unlistenable tribute to narcissism and irritating nasal voices, and the game show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is hosted by a Jack Benny imitator of, it must be said, dubious talents. Even less comprehensible than this is the presence of Diane Rehm, an interviewer who, as the result of a tragic speech disorder, is barely intelligible. One of the greatest dangers of public media is, of course, its tendency toward nepotism and cronyism, and one imagines that the less competent aspects of NPR are largely a result of this.
More to the point, neither the means and extent of NPR’s public funding nor the quality of its programming constitute a convincing argument for why American citizens ought to be coerced into paying for it. Indeed, the real reason why NPR’s partisans believe the network deserves taxpayer dollars has yet to be voiced in the current debate, and likely never will be, largely because they themselves are largely unaware of it.
The truth is, that for its regular listeners, NPR is not simply a radio network. For members of the specific subculture it serves — mostly white, middle to upper-middle class, college educated, politically liberal residents of the coastal regions of the United States — NPR is something approaching a religious icon. They relate to it with the same intense emotions with which others regard images of the Virgin Mary or the sanctified structures of Mecca and Jerusalem, and they will defend it just as passionately. Indeed, Beinart’s remark about Britney Spears is not a coincidence. In a country in which this subculture sees itself as more and more besieged by ignorance, racism, close-mindedness, and commercialism, NPR constitutes essentially the only form of media they can relate to without alienation or shame.
The extent to which NPR dominates the lives of some of its listeners is quite striking. One is put in mind of an anecdote from linguist and Democratic Party media consultant George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant. When asked whether he has heard of conservative activist James Dobson, Lakoff asks, “Is he on NPR?” indicating, albeit inadvertently, that he essentially listens to nothing else. Lakoff, I think, is not alone.
Of course, every subculture has its objects of affection. Punks and hip-hop fans have their music, Trekkies have their TV shows and movies, hipsters have mumblecore, etc. The difference, of course, is that unlike NPR, none of these are funded largely by coercive means. And this says something, I think, about the liberal mentality. Put simply, liberals constitute the one subculture in the United States that consistently and often willfully mistakes its specific and particular preferences for universal truths.
The simple truth that liking something does not give you the right to force others to buy it for you is lost on a subculture that sees its likes and dislikes as moral imperatives that impose benefits and obligations on society as a whole. NPR is only one, relatively minor, expression of this, but it is a telling one, if only because, for those outside the liberal subculture, it is so obvious and glaring. The blatant hypocrisy and bad faith with which NPR has acted in regard to Juan Williams is, in microcosm, the hypocrisy and bad faith with which it acts in regard to all American taxpayers. And it should be obvious to all, even those who lack the most rudimentary capacity for self-reflection, that to act in such a manner toward those who are, in fact, paying your salary, is neither a smart nor an informed thing to do.