Friday, October 22, 2010

The NPR Debacle

All kinds of insights and lessons to get from the firing of Juan Williams from NPR.  First, I listen to NPR whenever I am in the car and one of their news programs is on.  I highly value its "old school" style that insists its moderates try to maintain a neutral position.  I highly affirm its insistence that its reporters not participate in pundit shows like O'Reilly's Fox program.  In that sense, I agree that it would be difficult for him to be on the "opinion circuit" and work for NPR.

The first observation I have is thus that this firing was a long time coming.  NPR had warned him and moved him around more than once already for dabbling in the much more lucrative and popular opinion circuit.  In these sort of situations, institutions often are looking for an excuse to let someone go.  Given the legal complications and potential lawsuits, the presenting reason for firing often is not the real reason.  It's a fine line institutions walk.

Was this the right moment?  A little weak, I think.  NPR and other shows disgrace their own code by only playing Williams' initial comments without putting them in their full context.  The CEO of NPR made another classic mistake by mentioning a "psychiatrist" in her explanation.  It is so hard to hold your tongue as an administrator of this sort when doing this sort of thing.  So she did exactly the same thing she is criticizing him for.

In a postmodern world, we know no one is objective.  It is a blogger's world where I can blog my opinions without anyone fact checking me before I post.  But we must have venues where moderators try to maintain objectivity.  I don't know what I would do without some news outlets where I can't tell what position the moderator holds.  I agree with the rule that says an NPR reporter can't appear on pundit TV shows.  It is not for this comment, but for going on O'Reilly in the first place that Williams should be let go.

Meanwhile the outcry from Republicans is a sham.  I am disappointed with the CEO of NPR, but NPR's presentation is one of the most objective I know.  Even earlier this week I was thanking the Lord for having a source of news in the middle, whose position on the issues they cover is not immediately obvious to me.  I was thinking it was because it is supported by donations from people like me rather than from advertisements and money moguls. 

When you do not know the position of the reporter or moderator--that is a truth seeking operation.  But when you know where the moderator stands and it is your position, you are most likely to be feeding your own bias and missing part of the bigger picture.  We learn the truth by hearing the sides we disagree with on their own terms.


Rick said...

A lot of people would disagree with you on how objective NPR is, and have for years. That is why it is getting so much heat. It is seen as leaning left, so their decision to fire him for his comment just adds to that perception of NPR.

Ken Schenck said...

I often wonder why this is a popular opinion. I would love an example.

Rick said...

From Wikipedia (take w/ a grain of salt): "A study conducted by researchers at UCLA and the University of Missouri found that while NPR is "often cited by conservatives as an egregious example of a liberal news outlet", "[b]y our estimate, NPR hardly differs from the average mainstream news outlet. Its score is approximately equal to those of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report and its score is slightly more conservative than The Washington Post's."[30] It did find NPR to be more liberal than the average U.S. voter of the time of the study and more conservative than the average U.S. Democrat of the time."

Now, using Time and Newsweek as the standards, that does not give much comfort. Likewise, the Democratic/liberal ties of such prominent NPR figures a Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer, such adds to the suspicions.

I listen to NPR sometimes in the morning and afternoon, but just this week heard the host go into what could be considered bias territory. In an interview on misleading political ads, the interviewer brought up Republican and Democrat examples. But the host, not the interviewer, went on to show the dangerous logic of the Republican ad. It gave the perception that he wanted to make sure the Republicans were singled out for extra rebuke, not the Democrats.

I appreciate much of the indepth information NPR gives, but like with CNN, Fox, NT Times, Washington Post, etc... I take it with a grain of salt and discernment.

Rick said...

Sorry, corrections:

those should read: "Linda Wertheimer, adds to the suspicions."

And should read: "the host, not the one being interviewed..."

Ken Schenck said...

I definitely agree that a critical eye should permeate all our thinking, including about our own, and certainly including our sources of information. One of the disappointing things about this debacle is that I am seeing the biases of the CEO which are normally behind the curtain (although I don't think her biases are as slam dunk obvious as others are making them out to be--in the actual clip she was not harsh in tone when she used the word "psychiatrist," and I suspect on the actual evidence I probably do need some therapy for feeling the same way as Williams when I'm on a plane. In other words, while Williams correctly captured the feeling most of us are currently having, she is probably right that we all need a psychiatrist). Normally I can't tell the NPR bias, although as you point out, moderators and reporters aren't perfect. But I like an organization that holds its reporters to a higher standard of public objectivity, regardless of their personal views. Maybe Cokie Roberts should be fired.

As for NPR being left of the populace and right of most liberals, that seems to be exactly the middle I am looking for. Truth is not a matter of popular vote. This was de Tocqueville's one potential critique of America, if I remember correctly.

::athada:: said...

Que viva NPR! I think there is something inherently distortive about how much ads lead media around by the collar. A non-profit, donor funded model can weaken that dependency.

Media enterprises need to make money to survive, obviously, but perhaps not everything (truth in media, religion) is optimized by the profit motive.

Brian Small said...

I saw some coverage of this on Fox last night and they accuse NPR of being far left. I don't listen to it, so I don't know. But sometimes media bias can also be detected by the types of stories they cover. When I flip through the news channels I always note which stories MSNBC is covering versus Fox; they are always very different.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Ken, I too like to listen to NPR, but they do lean left, and several of their correspondents do engage in political editorial outside of NPR that leans more than left, but is nothing more than downright name calling and demagoguery.

The firing of Juan simply smells. They didn't like his association with FOX, which when you think about it is counter-intuitive. If NPR doesn't like FOX's political leanings, one would have thought that they would have welcomed one of their correspondents going on the network to provide a moderating voice.

But the issue for too many is not the rough and tumble of free speech and debate, it's "Let our voice be heard and do what we can to snuff out opposing opinions."

Both the right and the left are guilty of this.

The state of discourse in our country is abysmal-- it looks more like the playground than the round table.

JohnM said...

Regarding the state of discourse, you get the impression Americans are divided into two camps that absolutely despise each other to the core. I wonder, is the media selling us what we want to buy or are we buying what they want to sell?

Ken Schenck said...

I've reflected a little tonight on the question of whether NPR is liberal and realized that when I say I find its moderators pretty good at staying neutral, I'm thinking of the news programs I listen to like Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Morning Edition. Certainly there are other shows I've heard from time to time where a liberal bent is clear, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, Fresh Air, especially This American Life. Those weren't the shows I was thinking of.

Rhonda feurtado said...

Ken, you talk about how the folks on NPR need to be neutral. How about the time when one of their commentators said that the world would be a better place if 4million Christians evaporated. That person was not fired. I feel they were looking for a reason to fire him because he does not espouse their far left thinking burgas a mind of his own. Incidentally,thatsame independent mind let's him disagree with orely a lot of the time. NPR I'd not neutral and has no terance of any View that is not theirs.

Ken Schenck said...

Let me guess where you heard that Rhonda? I searched for the incident and found it on the FoxNews site. In most cases mentioned, NPR apologized for the off comments of humorists who weren't on staff (your example) or other side comments.

The coverage of the Williams incident is a case in point for what I'm saying. The piece I heard on NPR was not perfect but it did not skewer Williams. The coverage on Fox has gone for the throat. No doubt there is bias in NPR's coverage because there is always bias. But the problem with modern media is that outlets like Fox do not even pretend to present things from a neutral perspective.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

If we really want to be honest, opinion is replaced by education. And what is education? Education is "propaganda" of a certain kind, where information is formed within a certain frame and approved by peer reviewed academics. The framing is important, as to what is to be an ultimate "end" it the environment, poverty, profit, or liberty??????