NPR recently inspired a surprising number of listeners to self righteously declare that they will never contribute another dime to their NPR station. What caused this self-defeating outburst from the former fans? The fact that NPR issued an official internal memo forbidding employees to attend the Stewart/Colbert Rally for Sanity in Washington unless they are officially covering the event. Behind this action, of course, is the hoary mid century j-school notion that reporters should not have political opinions that might influence their coverage. Because no human can actually turn off the opinion-having part of their brain without rudely invasive surgery, journalism has often settled for what might be the worst of all possible worlds, the mere appearance of objectivity. As consumers of news we can either pretend we are getting an objective report or we can play the game of constantly trying to guess how the journalist’s bias is affecting their reportage. Unfortunately this results in a kind of bias amplification. Our own bias will multiply our perception of the reporter’s bias and distort the actual message we get from the story in dramatic ways.
You can see this clearly in the wide variety of opinions listeners hold about NPR in spite of said attempts to remain unbiased. Here are a few excerpts from just a short stretch of the comment beard under a Huffington Post story about this whole Rally for Sanity flap:
“I would have imagined such blatant anti-left bias would have disappeared at NPR by now. Yet every time I listen to All Things Considered, I end up turning it off in anger because of just that problem.”
“I stopped contributing and listening when you became another mouthpiece for the ultra-conservatives.”
“I try to stay away from NPR since it became a Republican propaganda organ.”
Even correcting for the road-rage-like hyperbole that seems to be a prerequisite for blog comments, we can see that a lot of left-leaning folks have begun to despise the bias they personally detect in current NPR content. I’ll leave finding the right-leaning hate speech against NPR’s liberal bias as an (easy) exercise for the reader.
Which brings me to one Mr. Juan Williams and a scrappy little up-and-comer known as Fox News. By adopting the slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide,” Fox News, intentionally or not, raised the bar for satirizing modern journalism to a level that not even the combined forces of Stewart, Colbert, and the Onion working with the ghosts of Dryden, Swift and Twain could ever hope to approach. It’s like the old definition of “chutzpah”: the guy who murders his parents and then begs mercy from the court on account of his being an orphan.
No, it’s actually worse than that. It’s more like the guy who kills his parents right in front of the judge and jury and, while standing over their still-warm bodies, says that he never had any parents and also he’s the president and founder of the Anti-Parent-Murder Coalition of America and also Obama is a Hitler-Stalin-Satan-Bin Laden chimera and the real parent killer. You’ve heard of that guy, right?
The elephant in the press-room is that everyone knows that Fox is outrageously biased. It’s a political organization to an infinitely greater extent than it is a news organization. This is axiomatic. They may deny it in their hilarious slogans, but their actions are unmistakable. They have content that is, to borrow a phrase from the late great Douglas Adams, almost but not entirely unlike news. They use this fishy news-like substance the same way republican politicians use Christianity. They aren’t interested in the meaning found within it, they are interested in the sui generis and ersatz authority it confers on them to use their really big microphone.
Why am I taking this opportunity to slam Fox News – other than the fact that it’s really fun? It’s because the fact that Fox news is an honest-to-Todd (Palin) propaganda organ is directly relevant to National Public Radio’s stance on the “Rally for Sanity”.
Let’s follow the logic:
- NPR would like its reporters be objective
- Being objective isn’t humanly possible
- Therefore NPR wants them to seem to be objective by not associating with activities that are political
- The Rally for Sanity is an event with an inherent political bias or agenda of some kind (precisely what is not identified by NPR)
- Therefore NPR employees should not attend
Pretty sound logic. Let’s use it again.
- NPR wants its reporters to seem to be objective by not associating with activities that are political
- Fox News has an inherent political bias and agenda
- Therefore NPR employees should not appear on or be paid by Fox News
That’s also sound and consistent with the first. Originally I was going to wield my plus-3 big red font of absolute denigration against NPR for their inconsistency in allowing the likes of Juan Williams and Mara Liasson to appear on Fox, but then they fired Juan Williams supposedly for comments he made about Muslims. Is the timing just a coincidence and the stated reason specious or are they suddenly reevaluating what it means to appear objective?
If the latter then Mara Liasson (and any other NPR employee who works with Fox) needs to make a very quick decision about butter and her bread side preference.
If the former then NPR is an awful corporate coward. If, for reasons of the appearance of objectivity, NPR reporters are not allowed to even attend the politically tepid Rally For Sanity unless they are covering it as a story then those same reporters really, really should not be allowed to take money from Rupert Murdoch to appear on Fox News.