NPR’s carefully crafted tales — and why I don’t listen any more

When I left law school, a switch tripped in my brain. Whereas before I’d listened only to top twenty music, I suddenly got bored with music and switched to news. But not just any news. NPR news. Whenever I was in the car, I had my radio tuned to my local public radio station. In those days, I spent a lot of time in the care, so I listened to a lot of the stories flowing from that station. I considered myself extremely well-informed. Oh, and smug. Very smug. As far as I was concerned, NPR made me an informed person.

One of the things that made NPR so appealing to me was the story arc. Their news stories always came in beautifully presented, neat, tidy little packages. I’ve always loved tight narratives (i.e., stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, and, if I was lucky, a moral too), so NPR was perfectly suited to my temperament.

The guy or gal who functioned as a given show’s Master of Ceremonies would give a neat little promo in his or her warm, erudite voice: “In the wake of last Tuesday’s midterm election, House Republicans, relying on the Contract with America, have vowed to shut down welfare, denying funds to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. For more on this story, we have Harvard-grad reporter Louis Liberal.”

Louis would then come on, and in that same warm, erudite tone, give a neat, three-sentence intro detailing how the House Republicans had a plan to deny necessary funding to hundreds of thousands of hungry children. Louis would then say, “Harvard economist Pol Klugmen explains that, if Republicans are successful in ending welfare as we know it, studies show that there will be dead bodies lying in the street.” We’d then hear Prof. Klugmen, in warm, erudite and scholarly tones, explain about all the dead bodies. Louis would then introduce another expert, perhaps from a liberal think tank, explaining that the only way to reform welfare is to pump more money into it. That expert, too, would give a short, sweet, scholarly statement on the subject. Louis would then add, “Leading house Republicans deny this charge.” Next would com a swift Newt soundbyte: “That’s not true.” Louis, in his erudite, patrician voice, would end this tight story-line by saying, “Only time will tell if the Republican plan can be implemented without causing catastrophic failures amongst the nation’s poor.”

Each story was such a neat little package. There was no thinking required. We were told the thesis; the good view was identified, with nice neat soundbytes; the bad view was identified, with meaningless soundbytes; and the wrap-up warned us of the horrors awaiting if the bad view prevailed.

I bought into these morality tales with wholehearted fervor. The good guys, the Democrats, wanted to protect the poor; the bad guys, the Republicans, intended to leave them starving in the street. And even worse, because the stupid American people had given those evil Republicans power, poor, long-suffering President Clinton, who’d been dogged by those nasty lies about his over-the-top sexual escapades, would be forced to put his imprimatur on a bill leaving the homeless more homeless than ever.

There was only one problem with this neatly enclosed little universe: Israel. You see, unlike stories about domestic politics, where my only understanding of the facts came from NPR itself, when it came to Israel, I actually knew one important thing: Israel wanted to live peacefully on the small plot of land given her by both the League of Nations and the UN, and won by her in subsequent wars; and the Palestinians wanted every Jew in the world dead. This meant that all the spin NPR put out about Israeli brutalities against innocent Palestinians, and the poor, suffering, peace-loving Palestinians, didn’t touch me. I knew NPR was spinning or, worse, lying.

The problem is that, once you realize that a narrator is comfortable abandoning the truth, you start to wonder, “Where does that end? I know NPR is lying when it tries to make a moral relativism argument re Israel or, worse, when it presents the Israeli military as an out-of-control killing machine, so I have to wonder if it’s lying about other things too.”

After 9/11, I got some further reality checks regarding the NPR world view. I didn’t like the way NPR kept trying to exculpate Islam from the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. That made no sense to me. I also didn’t like NPR’s relentless negative war coverage. I actually agreed with Bush: when a nation supports mass murderers, you bring war to that nation. I also had a hard time understanding how, despite the fact that Bush spent a year begging the UN for help, eventually ending up with a coalition, NPR could keep selling little story packages that presented Bush as an out-of-control, go-it-alone cowboy. The spin was inconsistent with the facts on the ground.

Eventually, I started cross-checking NPR stories. They’d say one thing, and I’d go on an internet search for more information. That’s when I stumbled across conservative blogs. What fascinated me was that, using the same facts NPR reported, or sometimes just alluded to, the conservative sites would reach conclusions that were — surprise! — consistent with those facts. There was no bending and stretching, there were no contortions. Facts and conclusions flowed logically, from one to another.

The biggest surprise, though, was the way the conservative blogs opened themselves to the opposing point of view. Where I expected an echo chamber, I got huge quotes from and links to NPR, CBS, NBC, and all other mainstream outlets, along with detailed analyses explaining the flaws in the reasoning or the factual errors and omissions. Unlike the tight, one-world view of the NPR story packages, this was all out intellectual warfare. Suddenly, that seemingly trite phrase “the marketplace of ideas” made big time sense.

From blogs, it was a short stop to radio, and that’s when I definitively abandoned NPR. I realized that those neatly tied-up story lines weren’t a sign of sophistication and erudition, they were a sign of cowardice. NPR was the intellectual (and news) equivalent of the three monkey, insofar as it religiously assured its audience that, when it came to the liberal viewpoint, there was no evil to be seen, heard or spoken.

The courage was with Rush Limbaugh, or Dennis Prager, or Hugh Hewitt, or Michael Medved, or a host of other hosts, all of whom welcomed opposing views on their program, whether in the form of actual guests, ordinary citizens calling in, or lengthy playbacks of liberal arguments and speeches. The conservative blogs and radio shows were sufficiently secure in their viewpoints, and in their ability to support those viewpoints, that they’d take on all comers.

Suddenly, I was out of the bubble — and I’ve never looked back. My liberal friend accuses me of still living in the bubble because I read so many conservative sites. What he doesn’t understand, because he lives in the liberal media world, is that these conservative sites take the same news the liberal media sells, and then give added value, in the form of criticism, analysis or additional facts. They pierce the bubble at every turn.

More than that, because conservative media openly admits its bias, I can separate facts from viewpoint with relative ease. Such is not the case with NPR, which stridently asserts its perfect objectivity, allowing it to present its conclusions as objective facts. As Benjamin Kerstein says:

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.

As someone who listened to NPR for almost two decades, I can assure Kerstein that he is absolutely right.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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