My less than 2¢ on NPR’s current traipse through deep do-do

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At the bottom of this post is an addendum that spells out in detail why I am a fan of so much about my local public radio station(s), public media in general, and NPR specifically.

However, this post is focused on my donation of “2¢” worth of opinion about the controversy surrounding NPR’s CEO handling (or in my opinion, bungling) of the dismissal of Juan Williams (I’ll skip the background, just click over to that link to catch up with the story.)

While it doesn’t make her actions correct, or even understandable to me, I can understand the no-win position she perhaps felt (and still feels) from her belief that NPR was facing a pincer maneuver attack from the left and right extremes of the blogosphere. I totally understand the deer in the headlights, fight or flee, reptilian brain moment NPR CEO Vivian Schiller must have experienced.

And to me, the reaction from all corners has been fairly predictable: A chaotic mish-mash of hand-wringing over conflicting philosophies related to the role of a journalist vs. pundit vs. analyst; debates over the nature of “objectivity” (disclosure: I think it’s a term that’s been bastardized and a notion that is anachronistic); and, as we live in a time when, as Jon Stewart has said, we no longer understand that our opponent doesn’t have to be our enemy, the entire affair has turned into a touchstone event that is being used to prove there’s a conspiracy by either liberals or conservatives to turn the U.S. into either a fascist or socialist state (if it isn’t one of these, already) controlled by either George Soros or Rupert Murdoch.

This seems to be a difficult issue for lots of people: To say Juan Williams shouldn’t be fired seems difficult to those who will be able to parse the difference in “his punditry” and that of, say, a Nina Totenberg, when the right heads after her.

Even watching Fox News is an impeachable offense to some.

Likewise, some on the right think “NPR listening” and “chablis drinking liberal” are all a part of the same word: NPRlisteningchablisdrinkingliberal

But, be that as it may, my 2¢ is this:

In my opinion, NPR (the institution) isn’t ideologically liberal, however its programming is commissioned, created and managed by very educated urban-dwelling men and women for an audience they perceive is much like themselves: well educated, literate, informed, curious and not afraid to hear new information that might challenge their previously held beliefs. (And let me insert here, I do not want to imply that listeners of other stations with conservative talk shows or that play arena rock, for that matter, do not have listeners who are educated, et al. I’m merely saying that the programming on NPR has a tight focus on certain demographic. And furthermore, I believe that educated, literate people can be found at all points across the ideological spectrum.)

Does this mean “liberal”? In a classic way, perhaps, as in the way we use the word in the term “liberal arts.” But “L”iberal in the political sense? A look at the front of the NPR website seems evidence to me that there’s something more than ideology there when compared to, say, other radio airtime competitors like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, or, even Fox News, for that matter.

Educated, curious, urbane, lower-case “l” liberal, yes, guilty, as charged.

But I understand that much of the world equates that list of attributes to something called “elitism.” And, well, that’s a bad thing. (Granted, there’s a “hippie” cliche of a type of stereotypical public radio listener who might challenge this line of logic a bit, but stay with me.)

I believe NPR is definitely aimed at a formally or informally educated and informed and open-minded audience and can understand why there are those who might think that equates to liberalism or elitism.

But I reject that notion.

That defense of NPR said, I believe the CEO of NPR — and its board, if they are, as reported, “fully supporting her” — has failed completely in this situation, and in her understanding of what “objectivity” is (my belief: it doesn’t exist, nor should it matter).

Furthermore, I think she’s displaying a remarkable lack of judgement in expecting, two weeks before an election, there is anyone in the world other than her who thinks there’s no fodder for conspiracy theorists in her acceptance of a $1.8 million grant from George Soros on the eve of dismissing Williams.

Now, I believe I have the level of understanding necessary to compartmentalize gifts from George Soros to NPR. But I also have the capacity to appreciate the nuanced data points one must process when they learn about grants from Soros, or for that matter, that the hall at the Smithsonian dedicated to explaining human evolution was funded by and named for David Koch. (You know, David Koch.)

But unlike Ms. Schiller, I would never expect ideologists on the left or right to ever grasp such nuance. I believe Ms Schiller and her board have, in trying to uphold some level of impossible to explain or attain notion of objectivity while, at the same time, trying to simultaneously try to explain an equally impossible-to-comprehend notion that a directed gift from one of the nation’s most activist and outspoken billionaire ideologues of the left, is well, in military metaphor, “a bridge to far.”

Indeed, such cluelessness can only be grasped by, dare I say, an “elitist.” Perhaps that’s something that she should discuss with her psychiatrist.

Furthermore (note: this perhaps could have been limited to a tweet if I’d just said the following):

While I think that local public stations should still be recipients of public media funding (as a balance to their legislated mission and regulated revenue options), I suggest that, if as NPR’s CEO is currently saying, that only 2% or their funding comes from the federal government, perhaps it is time for NPR to cut that cord.

Later: Shortly after posting this, a friend texted to inform me that much of what I praise regarding NPR’s internet push (see “addendum,” below) has come during Ms. Schiller’s watch and reflects a vision she is championing. Because of that, I’ve decided to strike a sentence from this post that was a snarkish ham-fisted implication that I think she join Mr. Williams in being an ex-employee of NPR.

They could save money, also, by cutting the CEO’s salary in half — or, perhaps, cutting her free.

Addendum: I’m a fan of public media and NPR

I’m a longtime listener, supporter and fan of my local public radio station, WPLN. But today, it’s more than a station. It’s a website with lots of ever-changing features and content. It offers four “over-the-air” channels with four unique (but sometimes simultaneous) programming schedules, an FM, AM and two HD channels. Don’t have access to an HD radio or have a weak signal on that AM station: don’t worry, they have all of those streaming, 24/7 in various formats.

While WPLN is an affiliate of NPR, like most local public stations, it also purchases programming from such sources as Public Radio International (e.g., BBC World Service, Studio 360, To the Point); American Public Media (MarketPlace, A Prairie Hom Companion, Splendid Table). And, perhaps unlike other public radio stations, WPLN produces a couple of shows of its own: Studio C and Bluegrass Breakdown with Dave Higgs that is picked up by lots of other stations. The local station also produces (excellently, I should say) news inserts in FM stations’ morning and afternoon drive-time national news programming.

As for NPR, I believe no major media company based in the U.S. comes anywhere close to comprehending the opportunities of internet-distributed “content” more than NPR. Buried somewhere in their headquarters in Washington DC are some of the brightest and most creative minds I can imagine. If you have an iPad or iPhone and you’ve downloaded any of their apps they have multiple apps) you’ll already know what I mean — indeed, in my opinion, their iPad app sets the benchmark for media company apps. Even their iPad optimized website (what you see when using the iPad Safari browser when visiting NPR.org) is as impressive as most native iPad “apps.” And their recognition that the linear nature of radio programming does not necessarily sync with how we live our lives, has led them to brilliantly re-configure their programming into such niche-channels as NPR.org/Music (which also has an iPhone/iPod Touch app), and what I’d call “section fronts” for content on the website, for instance, Arts & Life.