Columns » John Brummett

It's true what they say about NPR



National Public Radio delivers the most thorough and temperate broadcast news programming in the country. Put your dial there and soon you will find yourself soothed, informed, edified and tastefully entertained.

Amid the general decline of news media seriousness, NPR has added listeners by providing a haven for extended, substantive and properly modulated reporting.

But it actually is true what you have heard: NPR is for liberals.

That is not to say it is tailored that way. It is to say that NPR listenership, inclined toward the better-educated in urban areas, has emerged as an indicator of the cultural and political left. It's much like living in the Hillcrest section of Little Rock or shopping at the whole-grain market.

Liberals rely on NPR as a place of solace, safe from the mostly mean, simplistic and misguided right-wing bluster that has taken over much of our ever-debasing culture.

NPR's problem is not specifically that its member stations receive government aid passed through by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or provided via local government affiliations at the member-station level, usually with state institutions of higher education that actually hold the licenses.

Its problem is that, while existing as a quasi-government enterprise, it relies more heavily these days on privately raised funding from its devoted — meaning mostly liberal — listeners.

This amounts to a schizophrenic existence, offering a government-subsidized public service that is consumed inordinately by members of a political niche.

Liberals can be as intolerant as right-wingers.

Almost a decade ago some Little Rock left-leaners were sitting around sipping wine. A professional man of high and admirable accomplishment asked if anyone had heard the anti-abortion rant on the local NPR affiliate's irregular commentary feature a few days before. It had come from the chief editorialist for the statewide newspaper.

This liberal fellow said he counted on NPR as the one place where he could escape that kind of thing. He said the local public radio station would be hearing from him and getting reminded of the generous financial aid he regularly bestowed.

A few days later I got a call from a reporter with the statewide newspaper. She asked if I had any comment on the fact that the local NPR station was keeping me on the air every Friday to deliver state legislative review while, at the same time, discontinuing the occasional taped commentaries of this aforementioned editorialist who had dared to deliver a diatribe against abortion choice.

My subsequent inquiry revealed that, at that very moment, the local NPR people were meeting with the chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, with which the station was affiliated, to discuss this roiling controversy.

I took it presumptuously upon myself to invite the editorialist to join me each Friday afternoon on the legislative review segment. He accepted, the station went along and our obligatory yin and yang lacked any particular yin or yang.

So now the national NPR has fired Juan Williams, ostensibly for giving opinions on Fox when his contract called for him to limit himself to news analysis. His saying Muslim garb scared him in airports apparently was the last of several straws.

This was a thorough political mistake on NPR's part, so clumsy as to be inept. The network should have disassociated from Williams long ago on account of his Fox conflict or waited patiently for his contract renewal.

Then came the predictable outcry from conservatives to discontinue federal funding for NPR owing to its liberal bias and to its censorship of free expression.

Actually, if NPR's dependence on federal government money has indeed become as minimal as it says, less than 10 percent, then it should be willing to take the bold final step to full independence, at least of federal money.

The local support of a public university as licensee would be a costlier and harder divorce. It's also a less controversial association, not much different from the University of Central Arkansas absorbing the Oxford American magazine.

NPR should be willing to rely wholly on listener donations, local licensee support, the corporate advertisers that NPR insists on calling underwriters and the well-meaning foundations such as the one that recently and admirably donated a large sum so that NPR could enhance vital and ever-declining coverage of state governments.

It would make life a lot simpler, it seems.

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