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.