The Face of NPR

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Last week I had the opportunity to attend a meet-greet-and-discuss with Stewart Vanderwilt, the new CEO of Colorado Public Radio (CPR), the state’s NPR franchise. Ambivalent about attending, I almost passed it up, preferring to relax with a cold beer after climbing one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks (there are 54) and suffering from leg cramps.

I’m almost glad I didn’t.

Vanderwilt’s audience was old, and about evenly divided between righties and lefties (or so I perceived . . . with at least two libertarians). One lady, the head of the organization sponsoring the meeting, opined sotto voce to her immediate neighbors that she no longer listened to NPR: “It’s too biased and too boring.” Hear, hear! I thought.

Overall listenership was dropping. To remedy this, he announced, NPR was adding new, more interesting programing.

Still, I tried to keep an open mind. After all, this was NPR’s CEO in Colorado (after stints in Indiana and Texas), and he trod gently, wanting to explain NPR’s raison d’être and knowing full well that he faced a mixed ideological audience.

Vanderwilt, a very ordinary looking and sounding fellow of average height and girth, began by stating that most people assume NPR gets its lion’s share of funding from the government — a useful straw-man gambit. “No”, he stated, “only about 2%,” further going into detail as to its funding sources.

He went on to acknowledge how polarized the public had become regarding the media, but insisted that NPR adhered to very objective standards. Noting, as a curious aside, that NPR franchises are divided into two formats — one consisting of mostly classical music stations and the other a talk show format — he said that during the Kavanaugh-Ford confirmation hearings many regular talk show listeners switched to the classical music format. It seemed to puzzle him. Notwithstanding that blip, overall listenership was dropping. To remedy this, he announced, the network was adding new, more interesting programing.

The New Yorker Radio Hour, added in late 2015, immediately came to mind. But to this mind that program is just more of the same old NPR pap (however well crafted). He enthused about a few other ideas, but none lit my kindling — I didn’t note them down and have since forgotten them.

Johnson surely pops a couple of “earnestness” pills every morning to help him seem engaged, objective, and authoritative.

What passes for groundbreaking, investigative, and — in NPR’s mind — controversial and edgy current events radio is shouldered by Joshua Johnson of the program 1-A, the inheritor of the timeslot inhabited by the late Diane Rehm show.

Johnson surely pops a couple of “earnestness” pills every morning to help him seem engaged — which he undoubtedly is — objective, and authoritative, while periodically reminding his audience that he’s both a person of color and gay. He prides himself in chairing debates so civilized that neither Bill Buckley nor Joe Pyne would recognize them as such. And his questions are so subtly stilted that the answers are boringly predictable; people are supposed not to be able to tell whether he’s a liberal or a conservative.

But back to Vanderwilt. He defended the existence of NPR by saying that the content of other media is driven by their owners, management, advertising clients, and ratings. What? NPR isn’t? Although there is some truth in those assertions, I disagreed strongly. Audiences have demanded that the media they read, watch, or listen to mirror their views . . . and the market has complied. Today nearly all media can be classified as having an identifiable political bent.

The questions are so subtly stilted that the answers are boringly predictable; people are supposed not to be able to tell whether he’s a liberal or a conservative.

Not so long ago — 30? 40? years — KFYI, a major Phoenix radio station (and anchor to the nationally syndicated Kim Commando Show), hosted conservative, liberal, libertarian, and “non-ideological, common sense” talk show hosts. Today it carries Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity throughout the day. KYCA, my hometown radio station, once tilted libertarian, carrying the Leonard Peikoff show and an agony call-in show based on the “rational basis of happiness,” a concept originally promulgated by Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist and Ayn Rand’s longtime lover.

Today there are no (to my limited knowledge) media that combine the likes of Joshua Johnson followed by, say, Tucker Carlson; or Rachel Maddow along with John Stossel; or Mark Levin and Chris Cuomo. Now those would be fun formats for NPR. Instead, the point-counterpoint (what little there is) is engineered by a process that includes a job my nephew once held before becoming an attorney. He was hired by cohost Janeane Garofalo for Air America’s The Majority Report to listen to Rush Limbaugh (yes, every day for three hours) and come up with opposing talking points. The show only lasted two years, while Air America, a left-wing, progressive enterprise, only lasted six.

Vanderwilt’s talk ended after a mere 20 minutes, at which point he opened the floor to questions and comments. My buddy Tom, a libertarian-leaning sometime listener, very diplomatically — even indirectly — said that NPR was both liberal (in the American sense) and boring; and that to admit it would at least slightly temper the boring part.

Audiences have demanded that the media they read, watch, or listen to mirror their views . . . and the market has complied.

Vanderwilt would have none of it. Like a seasoned pol deflecting an asked question with an answer to an unasked question, he glossed over the comment and artfully manipulated the word “liberal” into an interpretation akin to “inoffensive objectivity.”

This guy was good. So, building on Tom’s effort, I gave it a shot, using a dose of literary deconstruction (or what I thought might pass for it, the “discipline” being largely unintelligible to me) that might strike a chord with him. I said that I got most of my news from The Economist, which calls itself “a liberal publication” (in the European sense); and they’re of the opinion (as I’ve written before) that

Writing is seldom objective; reportage never is. Putting an idea into prose requires choosing words to convey the thought, while even selecting what constitutes a news story, deciding how to report it, or how much context to include, invariably slants it.

[But] ironically, the journal’s editorial stance results in much more objective reporting than that of an “objective” source such as NPR — for one thing, because a reader knows up front where The Economist is coming from.

Vanderwilt misconstrued my meaning, explaining that NPR’s editorial process strives very carefully to choose its words so as not to offend anyone. He added an apology in case that had ever occurred (being offensive, that is).

In that July 2012 article, “Check Your Premises,” I attempted a balanced analysis of NPR’s biases. This time I just surrendered to exasperated resignation. While driving in my car running errands I’ll just keep switching between NPR and what I jokingly call “right-wing hate radio.”

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