PRESS MAN: They’ll Always Have NPR
For anyone who’s wondered about the spectacular failure last year of Air America, the liberal radio network that tried to ape conservative talk radio in its every grunt and bellow, the recent firing of the NPR news analyst Juan Williams might offer some clues. Many millions of words were written and broadcast after NPR terminated Williams’s contract, of course. But the most interesting were those generated from within NPR itself. They offered a view of public broadcasting and the people who run it that the public—the institution’s patron and namesake, after all—rarely enjoys.
As most of the civilized world knows, NPR’s president, Vivian Schiller, decided to fire Williams after he appeared on Fox News (shudder) and told Bill O’Reilly (gulp) that he was made uneasy by seeing people “in Muslim garb” get on an airplane with him (spit take). Williams made the comment on a Monday, he was fired by Wednesday, and by Thursday evening word had spread from the kinetic world of the blogosphere and cable TV to the sober pages of the New York Times and the humid air of the networks. Grateful editorial writers, columnists, and media critics kept the controversy jumping for several days, making it perhaps the most enduring crisis of the century in recent weeks.
For many years, Williams has been a double dipper from the bottomless well of punditry. He made his living as a “correspondent” or “analyst” on NPR and as a “contributor” on Fox News, where he sometimes could be seen guest-hosting The O’Reilly Factor (brain aneurysm). This matter of job titles formed the crux of the argument that Schiller put together when, with diminishing success, she defended the firing to embarrassed colleagues and the uneasy management of local affiliates. NPR had fitted Williams with many job titles during his decade on the public airwaves. First he was a “host,” running one of the network’s countless talk shows; then the host was named a “national correspondent,” only to lose the “national” on his way to becoming a “senior correspondent.” (A correspondent who’s both senior and national gets a corner office.) After Fox signed him as a contributor, NPR management decreed that while he was no longer fit to correspond, he was free to analyze. Williams became an “NPR senior news analyst,” and so he remained, even as he was casting a worried glance at those Muslims in the airport.
Such distinctions in job title were critical, according to Schiller. The firing, she said, “was not a reflection on his comments” about the Muslims and their garb. After all, NPR offers “views of all kinds on air every day.” But “NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities,” she wrote. “This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take a personal public position on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts.” And the ban extended to other media as well. She cited NPR’s 6,000-word “ethics code” (who knew?), which forbids any NPR journalist from “participating in any shows that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
Paradoxically, it was on the facts that Schiller’s argument was weakest. NPR analysts like Cokie Roberts and Nina Totenberg appear on TV chat ’n’ scratch shows and spout off on “controversial issues” as reliably as Old Faithful. And even the most distracted listener could discern the “personal public positions” of the late Daniel Schorr, embalmed by NPR even before his death as a model of truth-to-power journalism. No, the more revealing point of Schiller’s self-defense lies in her characterization of NPR news itself. She evidently sees it more as a temple than a newsroom, staffed by a journalistic priesthood of disinterested observers—and sees herself, the president, as the official charged with preserving their purity, standing like the pontifex maximus between the Vestal Virgins and the leering rabble.
A few weeks before firing Williams, she pointed out, she had been moved to issue a memo to all NPR staff warning them to stay clear of the Jon Stewart–Stephen Colbert rally soon to be held on the national mall. “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers,” the memo warned, if they are “to maintain journalistic objectivity.” Nor could NPR journalists plant political signs on the lawns of their refurbished bungalows or slap bumper stickers on the family Prius. “Please think twice about the message you may be sending about our objectivity,” Schiller wrote.
Williams’s firing stirred professional conservatives and Republicans against NPR for the first time in years. They rushed to the doors of their dusty wardrobes and dug past the mothballs and pulled up the rhetoric of 1994: they accused the network of liberal bias, and they called for an end to its small but vital federal subsidy. “A left-wing radio network” is how Republican leader John Boehner described it.
Boehner was wrong. “Left-wing” implies a kind of radicalism that could never survive in a large, efficiently run, and painfully cautious enterprise like NPR. But public broadcasting is indeed an institution suffused in the conventions and assumptions of American liberalism, namby-pamby variety, and in the way she chose to deny this obvious fact, Schiller simply confirmed it. Nothing could reveal the culture of NPR so well as her ostentatious embrace of this slippery concept of objectivity. It is a hard notion to pin down. Is it the absence of opinion or the habit of keeping opinion in check? Schiller has never explained, and the definition is as obscure—as subjective, you might even say—as the distinction between “analyst” (good) and “commentator” (bad).
An outsider might wonder how attending a Jon Stewart rally on Saturday could make an NPR journalist less “objective” on Sunday than he was on Friday. Some journalist this is, so easily swayed that he can’t be trusted to resist the slick talk of comedians! Would the poor airhead be prohibited from watching the rally on TV in the privacy of his home, where the effect might be just as persuasive?
The answer to the last question is, I suppose, no. NPR’s guidelines—the rules that Juan Williams somehow violated—impose an etiquette merely of appearances. “Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record,” they say, “NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist’s impartiality.” We can assume that “since” means “because.” And it does raise a thought experiment. If contributions were no longer part of the public record—if the record were locked forever in the basement of the FEC—would an NPR journalist be allowed to make one?
The appearance that Schiller and the NPR ethicists hope to preserve is highly improbable. It’s of a workforce blessed by a superhuman immunity to the pettiness of partisanship and ideology, indeed an indifference to political opinion of any kind. This matches the defining conceit of the short-lived Obama era, back when—remember?—liberals were no longer liberals but instead unblinkered observers and chroniclers of the world as it is; “the reality-based community,” as it was known.
“Facts and science and argument does [sic] not seem to be winning the day,” the president lamented on the eve of the Republican landslide. “Truth and science and facts don’t seem to weigh in,” John Kerry said a few days later, wondering how to account for all these voters who disagree with him. Schiller topped them all by suggesting, in a comment she later apologized for, that Williams might want to discuss his now-famous comments with his psychiatrist.
This is why Air America was doomed from the start. It presumed that its audience saw itself as a mirror image of conservatives. But most liberals, to judge by the ratings, were repulsed. With the shouting, the bellicosity, the opinions roaring back and forth—Air America was too, too ghastly. America already has talk radio for liberals; it’s called NPR, and it offers fact-based analysis and impartial information exclusively. Opinions are what other people have.