Why NPR Matters (Long)

I have known and very occasionally worked with Juan Williams, and I don't want to say much about him. I think Andrew Sullivan is very astute in pointing out the difference between the complex way Williams wrote about racial stereotypes and racial differences early in his career (including in The Atlantic) and the blunt way he now talks about them on Fox News.

I have known and frequently worked with a variety of people at National Public Radio, and I do want to say something about them. The worst aspect of the Williams-NPR imbroglio is that it has allowed Fox and its political allies to position NPR as something it is not, and in the process to jeopardize a part of American journalism we can't afford to lose.


To get these out of the way: First, I think that the NPR leadership made a mistake in appearing to fire Williams in a snit, rather than not renewing his contract, at the next opportunity, because of longstanding differences in journalistic values*. NPR's Vivian Schiller was also wrong to crack that Williams should keep his views of Muslims to "his psychiatrist." Second, I am not a disinterested observer. From the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s, I did regular commentaries for NPR's Morning Edition. (I stopped when I signed on as editor of US News & World Report, a job that I thought made a commentator role inappropriate.) More recently I've made regular appearances on Weekend All Things Considered.

But I care about NPR not because of my minor role as a contributor but because of their major role in the American journalistic landscape. To hear the Fox/DeMint attack machine over the past week, NPR is simply a liberal counterpart to Fox -- a politically minded and opinion-driven organization that is only secondarily interested in gathering news. I believe that the mischaracterization is deliberate, and I know it is destructive and wrong.

Fox is unmatched at what it does, which is to apply a unified political-cultural world view to the unfolding events of the day. To appreciate its impact, you just have to think about how much more effective it is than the various liberal counterparts -- the now-departed Air America, the Olbermann-Maddow bloc on MSNBC. Rush Limbaugh isn't on Fox, but he showed them how it's done. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are technically as effective as Fox, but they are nowhere near as reliably pro-Democratic as Fox is pro-Republican. And they're only on for one hour total a day, weekdays only, rather than 24/7 for Fox.

"News" in the normal sense is a means for Fox's personalities, not an end in itself. It provides occasions for the ongoing development of its political narrative -- the war on American values, the out-of-touchness of Democrats -- much as current events give preachers material for sermons. This is why Fox's emphasis goes to its star interpreters -- Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, the "Fox and Friends" crew -- more than to expanding bureaus around the country or the world, investing in scientific, economic, or international expertise, or generally trying harder to place primary observers wherever it can.**

Isn't NPR just the same thing, from an different political perspective? No, and the difference matters.

NPR, whatever its failings, is one of the few current inheritors of the tradition of the ambitious, first-rate news organization. When people talk about the "decline of the press," in practice they mean that fewer and fewer newspapers, news magazine, and broadcast networks can afford to try to gather information. The LA Times, the Washington Post, CBS News -- they once had people stationed all around the world. Now they work mainly from headquarters -- last year the Post closed all its domestic bureaus outside Washington -- and let's not even think about poor Newsweek and US News.

Who is left? The New York Times, for one. The Wall Street Journal, with a different emphasis; increasingly Bloomberg, also with a specialized outlook. The BBC. CNN, now under pressure. Maybe one or two others -- which definitely include NPR.

It has reporters at state houses and in war zones. At last count, it has something like 17 foreign bureaus and 16 domestic. In much of the country, especially away from the coasts, it's a major source of local information and news. It claims that its total audience is some 27 million people a week; with all allowances for counting differences, it reaches a lot more people than Fox does. (Eg, a recent report put O'Reilly's usual audience at around 3.3 million.) NPR is increasingly important in state-capital coverage, as small newspapers have weakened. Because it can carry on-scene interviews and "soundscapes," it can convey an impression of realities from inside China, or Haiti, or Detroit, or Kabul in a way print stories cannot.

In their current anti-NPR initiative, Fox and the Republicans would like to suggest that the main way NPR differs from Fox is that most NPR employees vote Democratic. That is a difference, but the real difference is what they are trying to do. NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced. NPR, like the New York Times, has an ombudsman. Does Fox? [I think the answer is No.]

One other factor affects my view of NPR. There are jobs where people are mainly motivated by the hope of big money. (Finance in general.) There are jobs where the main motivation is job-security. And there is a category of jobs where, as absolutely everyone recognizes, it makes a tremendous difference that "employees" care about something beyond pay, hours, and security. Teachers. Soldiers. Doctors and nurses. Judges and police. Political leaders, if they want to be more than hacks. And, people in news organizations.

I have felt privileged to work at the Atlantic through, now, three decades because, among other reasons, I know that every person in every job is doing everything possible to make the magazine the best it can be. Everyone is personally embarrassed if there's a mistake in the magazine, or if we cover a topic -- and someone else does it better. In the news business, this is the spirit that characterizes any first-rate operation, from CBS News in its glory days to the Washington Post of the 'All the President's Men' era to today's great magazines (New Yorker, NY Review of Books, many others) and broadcasts (eg PBS News Hour) and, yes, web sites. I have seen enough of NPR's operations to know that it has the same spirit.*** Most people there don't make a lot of money. Their compensation (as with a lot of people in journalism) comes partly in enjoying what they do, and partly in being proud of being on this team. Alumni of NPR -- reporters, producers, and hosts who learned their skills there -- are all over the journalistic establishment.

We don't have so many first-rate institutions -- in general, and especially in journalism -- that we can afford to let one this valuable be delegitimized. Its leadership made a mistake in its handling of Juan Williams, but people who care about the news environment should recognize how much it has done right and defend it against the current cynical attack.
* Difference in values? The only interview George W Bush gave to NPR while in office was with Juan Williams in 2007. It is general political-world knowledge that the White House's condition of the interview was that Williams conduct it. The full transcript is here, and it includes questions like this:

>>MR. WILLIAMS: All right. You know, people are praying for you; people - the American people want to be with you, Mr. President, but you just spoke about the polls and they indicate the public - and you know about what's going up on Capitol Hill with the Congress, some in the military. Even many Iraqis, according to the polls, don't like the idea of sending more troops into Iraq. So I wonder if you could give us something to go on, give us something - say, you know, this is a reason to get behind the president right now.<<

Imagine for a moment what NPR's Robert Siegel or Neal Conan or Scott Simon or Melissa Block, among many other long-experienced interviewers, might have done with such an opportunity. This is an illustration of different standards. More simply, NPR could have said: You want to continue being a personality and commentator on Fox? Fine -- it's your choice. That's a different kind of operation from ours, and we wish you all the best there.

Update: Apparently later in 2007 the White House offered NPR another interview with Bush, but only if Juan Williams would again do it. NPR said No, we won't take it on those terms; we want to choose the interviewer. Williams did it instead for Fox. Story here.

** From the "State of the Media Report," by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism:

>>According to [industry analyst] estimates, the bulk of Fox News' spending was projected to be in its programming, as opposed to its general newsgathering and administrative costs. (The reverse is true for CNN). That appears to reflect the fact that the Fox News is built less around a system of bureaus internationally and domestically and more around prominent show hosts, particularly in prime time.<<

*** Here are two illustrations of how I have seen the sense of personal embarrassment about something inaccurate getting on the air.

One: During early stages of the Iraq war, I was on "Talk of the Nation" in the studio with Neal Conan. I carelessly said "soldiers" when I should have said "troops," because the operation in question involved Marines. ("Soldiers" = Army; "airmen" = Air Force; "seamen" = Navy [better: "sailors"]; "Marines" = Marines. "Troops" = any and all.) A pained look came across Conan's face -- he didn't want his show to contain an error -- and, without saying anything directly, he steered the conversation over the next two minutes so that both he and I had several opportunities to talk about the "Marines" who were fighting.

Two: A few months ago, I recorded a discussion with Guy Raz of Weekend All Things Considered about increasing polarization and logjam in Congress. As an illustration, I said that Obama's stimulus plan had received "no Republican Congressional votes." What I meant was, "no votes from Republican Congressmen" -- ie, members of the House, which was accurate. But half an hour later, just before airtime, producers called back to re-record the segment at the last minute, so I could use proper language to clarify the House/Senate difference -- and note that in the Senate three Republicans had voted for the plan. They were that determined not to have an error on their show.