March 9, 2011
NPR and our screwed up news industry
If I don't think about it too hard, I can almost understand today's ouster of Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR. Even if she wasn't the one who got suckered by a team of fake donors and made negative comments about the Tea Party, Republicans, and, awkwardly, the Jewish-controlled media, (though there's "not too much Jewish influence at NPR",) and even if the person who did make those comments made it clear that he was voicing his own opinions and not those of NPR, she's still the boss, so she's ultimately responsible for how NPR is perceived.
But at the same time, it makes me want to bang my head against a wall. This is in part because I personally agree with some of what Ron Schiller said while he was secretly recorded by con artists--the Republican party really has been hijacked by some extremists, and a lot of those extremists really do seem to be xenophobic.
It's also because members of the right-wing media loudly announce their irrational negative beliefs about Democrats and the left all the time. Roger Ailes can say that NPR is run by Nazis, and hosts of Fox News programs can call the Wisconsin pro-union demonstrators "union thugs" spewing "vitriol and violent rhetoric".
What makes Vivian Schiller's ouster sort of understandable is that NPR gets public funding, and Fox doesn't. OK. But that funding is only 1% of NPR's budget, and 9% of member stations' budgets. And the guy who made the questionable statements isn't a journalist or involved in news in any way; he's a fundraiser who's on his way out to his next job, and, frankly, he's probably already sort of mentally checked out.
In my opinion, NPR does real, thoughtful, high-quality reporting, without any identifiable political agenda. In my opinion, Fox News often falls far short of that. But Fox also seems to understand that there really isn't any such thing as pure, unbiased reporting. There never has been. The wealthy classes have always controlled major media in this country, and business interests are always central to news agency operations. I sometimes admire that outlets like Fox can so wholeheartedly embrace this, and not even try to pretend they're impartial.
But NPR and other public news services seem to strive for a noble, if ultimately illusory, concept of neutrality in reporting. I guess that's why Schiller had to resign: any evidence of bias in reporting lessens your credibility, if you believe that reporting can ever be free from bias.
What I really wish had happened is this: if all that separates Fox News and NPR and the standards we apply in the personal opinions their staff are allowed to voice is the little bit of public funding that NPR gets, I wish Vivian Schiller had stepped up and said that NPR was returning all the public funding it's received this year, and would no longer accept public funds. Let the public funds go only to local nonprofit stations, not to NPR itself. Yeah, it would be financially difficult, member stations would suffer, and her board would hate it. But if that financial freedom allows NPR to do its good work without getting harassed by a Congress that doesn't see the value of real reporting, it's worth it.
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