NPR, Among Others, Has Lost Its Way

I am very much a child of the Sixties and Seventies. I started first grade in the fall of 1969. The war in Vietnam was on the evening news, or so I am told. Jack, Martin, and Bobby had all died during my brief life so far. The Vatican II convocation had been over for years; I only remember masses in English, with the priest facing the congregation. The Equal Rights Amendment was still a possibility. Female lectors and soon eucharistic ministers weren’t unusual, although I never served as an altar boy with a female altar servant.

It’s not that racial prejudice had simply vanished. Even as a child, I knew that there were racists in America. I might have thought they were mostly confined to the South, but I knew they existed. I also knew they were wrong. They were behind the times. They clung to outmoded, wrong beliefs. My first political memory is from the fourth grade, watching a mock debate about the ’72 Presidential race and asking what made McGovern think he could end the war in 90 days or whatever his pledge was. So, I don’t remember George Wallace being shot, but I knew as a child that he represented that segment of society that clung to the past, to white supremacy.

The environmental movement was starting. I didn’t notice as an eight-year-old when the EPA was created, but I knew that things like Earth Day and my green ecology lunchbox meant that we were trying to save the earth. There didn’t seem to be much doubt that we had to repair the environment; pollution was awful, epitomized by burning rivers (OK, only one; I was a little confused as a kid) and public service ads on TV showing fish dead in rivers due to pollution. We might have to convince greedy corporations and greed people to do the right thing and change to prevent pollution, but there was no question that the environmental movement was at some level right and necessary.

As I grew up, things got more complicated. There were women who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, for some perverse reason. There was opposition to school bussing to achieve public school integration — even in the North. Before I graduated from high school, Ronald Reagan was taking the contrary view that government was the problem, not the solution. He didn’t say that racism in America was bad; he just implied that government efforts to address it did more harm that good. He implied that about lots of government programs. Two years earlier, Allan Bakke had sued one of the University of California medical schools, claiming “reverse discrimination.” Some whites were starting to push back when they felt they were the ones paying the price so minorities could be given the chance to succeed.

Reagan, of course, was elected President in 1980. The ERA wasn’t ratified by enough states in the time allowed for its passage; it wasn’t brought up again, but laws about women’s rights were pursued at sub-Constitutional levels. Reagan tried to neuter the EPA, but public opinion forced him to reverse that attempt.

Before Reagan’s second term was over, I completed my education and tried to become an adult, whatever that meant. I remember watching the network evening news in the fall of ’87 about that day’s stock market crash. However, I soon acquired the habit of listening to National Public Radio affiliates. They weren’t government broadcasts, although some received a minuscule amount of public subsidies. It was enough that they weren’t owned by corporations but instead were run as non-profit efforts. If they were more liberal than “mainstream,” corporate-owned TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers, maybe it was due simply to the lack or corporate influences on their choices of news items and how they were presented. The Wall Street Journal went in my eyes from a respectable major newspaper to a paper with a specific, visible slant in favor of business over other interests. Other mainstream, respected outlets weren’t so pronounced in their biases, but I’d hear rumors that GE had killed this NBC story or Westinghouse had somehow meddled with a story on one of the stations it owned. Such accusations against NPR were less common and thus more shocking the few times they came up.

I listened to NPR during the tail end of the Reagan years and through the George H. Bush years. I kept listening during the Clinton administration with its violent tug-of-war with Republicans in Congress who refused to engage constructively with the administration. Some “reforms” were passed, such as sentencing guidelines and welfare “reform.” This was also the time when traditional broadcasting and journalism were starting to be augmented by “the Internet.” By the time the Clinton administration yielded to the Gore George W. Bush administration, American politics were becoming sharply polarized. There were new channels and publications on the right that accused the mainstream media of being too liberal, never mind NPR or its even more leftist “public” rivals, such as Pacifica Radio.

My NPR affiliates changed as I moved, from the Binghamton, NY market to Elkhart/South Bend to Detroit to Washington, DC itself. I felt some sadness verging on anger as Bob Edwards was pushed out by NPR and soon ended up on for-profit satellite radio, for crying out loud! But, under Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43, NPR remained fairly consistent in its tone. It also remained fairly consistent as I bounced through Illinois during Obama’s rise in stature into the Presidency and my moves to Austin and then back to the upper Midwest, now in Madison, Wisconsin.

Something about the rise of Donald Trump, culminating in his election to the Presidency, shook NPR, as it shook many media outlets. The mainstream media, including NPR, consistently underestimated Trump during his primary campaign and his Presidential campaign. He was such a repudiation of fifty years of concern for the downtrodden and the minorities. He was the voice for the spiritual descendants of Allan Bakke, proclaiming that they were being held back because of considerations given to minorities. Never mind that automation killed more factory jobs than affirmative action, multi-lateral trade pacts, or illegal immigration. Here was Trump proudly making statements that might have gotten him tossed out on his ass during the Sixties and Seventies and were too extreme for widespread acceptance in the Eighties and Nineties. NPR and the rest of the mainstream media kept waiting for “respectable conservatives,” to figure out how to beat Trump, for Trump’s rising support levels hit a ceiling and for normal order among conservatives to be restored. They also struggled some with the rise of Bernie Sanders. Was the declared Independent really going to upturn the Democratic primary system and beat Hillary Clinton by running from her left? How far left was her left, anyway? Was she a moderate who was too friendly with Wall Street, or was she the progressive who had pushed for heath care reform in her husband’s early years as President, only to come up short, and later had spoken truth to power at an international women’s conference in Beijing?

The Internet gave all kinds of voices ways to find their audiences. In particular, it let well-heeled corporate influences attack the mainstream media with the rise of Fox News and conservative talk radio, and that in turn led to the rise of ultra-right, or white nationalists, or whatever label you’d like to give them to the right of the visible right. The break in the streak of forty-three straight white Christian men as President with the election of Barack Obama somehow energized those fearful of minorities. Mitt Romney spoke in 2012 of 47% of America that would never vote for him because they benefitted too much from government largesse. His comments were quickly and loudly denounced by the mainstream, but surely they added fuel to those far-right activists who were convinced they were victims somehow — or that they could get rich convincing others that they were victims, not merely unlucky in the changing economic tides of the world.

Karl Rove was wrong in 2012 on election night, when he was so damned sure that Mitt Romney had more support than the press gave him credit for, that he was going to upset the incumbent Obama. However, in 2016, those making similar claims about Trump proved right when Trump in fact pulled off the upset against Hillary Clinton. The mainstream media immediately went into a frenzy worthy of the title of this blog, “Overanalysis While You Wait.” Had Trump won, or had Hillary lost? Was she a poor candidate, or was she a victim of a quarter-century of right-wing smear campaigns dating back to the Whitewater scandal in Arkansas? Had the FBI, deliberately or otherwise, sunk Hillary’s campaign by giving legitimacy to the alleged scandal of her e-mail server? Had Russia somehow sponsored the leaks about internal Democratic e-mails that made Clinton look less like a progressive hero and more like a political operative who’d do whatever it took to win?

NPR, among others, decided to take the tact that Trump had won somehow on the merits of his positions in the eyes of the voters. Even as Trump stacked his transition team and eventually his administration with Wall Street billionaires, NPR and others decided to find those voters who had turned out unexpectedly strong and possibly against their own self-interest to vote for this populist-sounding candidate. Euphemisms like “economic anxiety” were invented as the reasons all these good American folk embraced a candidate with xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic views. Never mind that so much of what Trump had claimed from the first day of his campaign was demonstrably wrong. His supporters were treated as if their beliefs and their faith in him were rational and reasonable. Never mind that xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and religious discrimination were un-American and in some cases specifically prohibited by our foundation documents, including the almighty Constitution. “Economic anxiety” was presented as a powerful motivator, even as hate crimes against blacks, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, transexuals, and other marginalized people exposed the lie that this was somehow about “economic anxiety.”

Worse, NPR has decided, perhaps by default, to legitimize Trumps administration despite the vast catalog of lies told by Trump himself and by his representatives, such as Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka. They even refuse to label Trump’s untrue statements as, “lies,” claiming they can’t be sure enough of his intent to call them more than untruths or mistakes. When people like Spicer and Conway repeat Trump’s claims as if they are unquestionably true, even in the fact of evidence to the contrary, NPR continues to interview them and allow them air time, and they still don’t call them lies. This isn’t like eight years of opposition to the Obama administration. These aren’t policy arguments about whether healthcare should be universal or whether a President in the last year of his term can nominate a Supreme Court justice. The rate of self-serving lies, the number of policy changes being justified by demonstrable falsehoods, hasn’t yet caused NPR to stop treating these people as legitimate.

Journalists like to claim that their job is the pursuit and revelation of the truth. Some outlets, including the staid New York Times, have done so with enough gusto to become clear targets of Trump’s paranoid ire. If NPR has drawn Trump’s ire at all, it’s only by accident. They’ve forgotten the quote from Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations.”

NPR can’t be cowed by fear of criticism from the far right. They need to regain their old tone and adapt it to this age of routine deception by our incumbent administration. Challenge, challenge, and challenge some more, and for God’s sake, stop letting these liars and self-deceivers present their message directly. They aren’t NPR’s listeners, and they don’t deserve NPR’s consideration.

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