NPR’s provincialism should make progressives worry

Firing Juan Williams invited the inevitable criticism from conservatives who have always bristled at NPR’s federal funding and leftward drift. But the more progressive-minded now have a reason to question whether they ought to continue citing NPR as a thoughtful outlet insulated from lowbrow market pressures.

The argument for NPR — from anyone who enjoys it — is that NPR offers a variety of educational programming that would not be possible if the station had to compete for advertising revenue. The education portion is apparent in its mission statement, to “create a more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.”

NPR’s patrons worry, perhaps correctly, that appealing to car dealerships (the main advertisers on radio) would undercut this mission. The network’s lineup includes, for instance, game shows about trivia, a show entirely about language, and long-form radio journalism punctuated by sound effects that help paint the picture. Between segments, bumper music exposes listeners to a variety of artists.

A focus on stories rather than the personalities of talk radio is the value-added, NPR fans argue — an opportunity to learn.

In fact, that’s why NPR hires a guy like Juan Williams. His views on race are nuanced — rather than play the easily caricatured Al Sharpton race baiter, he has written books on the civil rights movement while also criticizing the movement’s modern leadership. That Williams would associate with Fox News is more a testament to his own nuance and ecumenism — he’ll talk to any audience.

Which brings us back to those “market pressures” from which NPR is supposed to be insulated. NPR’s ombudsman admitted that Williams’ appearances on Fox News rankled the top brass and listeners — to the point that they asked he not be identified as an NPR analyst because they felt the appearances reflected poorly on the network.

Reflected poorly on the network? Isn’t brand preservation something you worry about when you’re a private entity and not a kind of public service? Besides, this is news analysis and opinion – Williams never claimed to represent the editorial consensus of his employer and that’s precisely why he’s valuable.

Not really — Vivian Schiller sent an internal memo to staff apologizing that the kerfuffle had to take place “during fundraising week,” and that to delay such a decision would be irresponsible. That Schiller would have to alleviate such concerns shows that the organizational culture isn’t so highminded as to ignore the bottom line.

In fact, the Associated Press reported that the Denver, Colorado affiliate’s president, Max Wycisk, said the episode could boost fundraising. “It might actually help, because it reinforces how seriously public radio takes its integrity.” That’s only if you define “integrity” as shielding your listeners from certain viewpoints.

If Schiller’s priority was to provide programming that “challenges and invigorates,” Williams would have appeared on NPR news show “All Things Considered” to explain. Instead, the only thing considered was the termination of his contract, he was canned, and Fox News wound up providing more airtime for Williams to thoroughly air his nuanced views.

It’s no wonder that Fox News fans now claim bragging rights as being more open minded. Censoring Williams has the added chilling effect of censoring every other person on NPR.

Just look at NPR’s curt press release about the dismissal: His statements were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” Schiller would later deride Williams in front of an audience for not keeping his views “between himself and his psychiatrist or his publicist.” (She would later apologize for the remark.)

How that might be has been left to pundits eager to discuss something other than the election. In the meantime management itself has followed up with no clear guidance, effectively warning everyone else not to say anything that can also be considered “inconsistent.”

NPR has just decided against fulfilling its own mission to create “a more informed public.” As a consequence, the public is no longer willing to continue funding it.

Beltway ConfidentialControversyJuan WilliamsUS

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