You guys generally do such a great job! But you made a very questionable choice today, and since second-guessing NPR is one of my most cherished self-appointed and under-appreciated jobs you know I’m obligated to interrogate it.
I’m not questioning the idea of having a conservative on your show for this purpose, I’m questioning your choice. Although Glenn Beck managed to sound calm and reasonable on your show – he only referred to himself in the third person twice – he has a very long and colorful history of saying bizarre and awful things. With good reason he is considered (sometimes even by the man himself) to be one of the most divisive, irresponsible, unhinged and inflammatorycharacters in the whole conservative freak-show. (I was tempted to use “Let Me Google That For You” for those links.)
By putting him on the air you are unquestionably lowering yourself and worsening the polarization and poisoning of the American political landscape, a tragic and potentially catastrophic situation you yourselves have bemoaned on previous occasions.
The fact that you chose Beck demands that we consider what your motivations might have been.
Was it stunt-casting to try to increase ratings?
Was it an attempt to attract sponsorship for your show from the merchants of gold, doomsday-prepper supplies, and ersatz male enhancers who support Beck’s poison-spewing media empire?
Was he the only conservative willing to criticize Trump in public?
Feel free to message me on Twitter with the actual explanation.
Journalists are routinely required to disclose conflicts of interest and even recuse themselves from stories or even their jobs. Michelle Norris, for example, left her position as host of All Things Considered when her husband took a position with Obama’s reelection campaign. Yet religion gets something of a pass in this regard. It is routine for reporters not to discuss their personal beliefs and practices even when they are reporting on religion. This is an obvious double-standard. How can a Catholic reporter, who seriously believes in transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Ex-Cathedra utterances of the Pope, etc., possibly be objective when covering Catholicism if the assumption is that Norris can’t be objective about Obama because her husband works for the campaign? I mean I sort of get it about Norris, although I credit her with having a totally independent brain from that of her husband and personally think she needn’t have stepped down, but a person’s religion is a deep part of their personal identity – not just something their spouse does.
I’m a bit of a purist on this issue and think that religious folks shouldn’t be religion reporters because they are, by definition, biased in favor of religion in general and biased against the tenets other faiths. But at the very least reporters should tell us what religion, if any, they follow.
As a strict agnostic I have a sensitive ear for bias in religious journalism. I don’t mean bias towards one religion or another, I mean the underlying, nearly axiomatic assumption by many American journalists that being religious is good per se. This is something the journalists themselves have a hard time noticing, because they swim in a sea of what Daniel Dennett has called “belief in belief,” which is the idea that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but it matters that you believe. Statistically I’m guessing most public radio reporters actually are religious/spiritual. I have no way of knowing across the board, but if they come even close to representing the American demographic histogram – nine out of ten Americans believe in God – they must be. I do know some of them are religious or constitutionally friendly to religion, and I’ll be listing them below.
One thread common among agnostic/atheist “believers in belief,” whether my own friends or public figures who go on record about their feelings about religion, is that they grew up in religious families and have an autonomic “respect” for those who are religious. I suspect some of them feel like their own lack of faith is a personal failure that they might manage to rectify in the future. (Bill de Blasio seems to fall into this category.) Sometimes I think such feelings can cause those who have lost faith to value those who have it even more than believers do. In any case religion-friendly journalists absolutely must check their bias when talking about religion. Otherwise you can end up with the kinds of stories I am listing below and will continue to update as I have time.
I’ve mentioned this situation in passing in many of my posts, of course, but I’ve noticed that when I make comments to this effect on relevant message boards the usual chorus of right-wing public radio-haters drown me out with brainless claims that public radio hates hates hates religion the way they must hate Mom and Apple Pie – because they are so LIBERAL!!!
It is beyond the scope of this post to address the dumb notion that public radio is radically liberal, as so many conservatives convince themselves. The purpose of this post is to provide the evidence requested by the trolls that public radio in general and NPR in particular are pro-religion in their coverage as well as in their personal lives.
I am going to continue to update this as time allows and as examples present themselves.
Side Note: No True Scotsman
“No True Scotsman” is a fallacy that many people, including journalists, engage in when they talk about religion. It boils down to assuming that religion is a positive force and then using that assumption to retroactively define negative religious forces as definitionally not religious. This is the heart of the tragically and willfully stupid “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam” assertion made by journalists and politicians alike from Reza Aslan to Bush to Obama.
Entire Public Radio Shows That Are Religious or Pro-Religion
On Being with Krista Tippett, (formerly Speaking of Faith.) This show is embarrassingly pro religion, hosted by a Yale Divinity School grad.
Interfaith Voices. Their treacly, obsequious-to-religion slogan on Twitter is “Approaching the world’s religions with an open, humble mind.” Hosted by a Catholic Nun. (I always find it ironic to approach religion with a “humble mind” given the unfathomable arrogance so many religious folks have involving their evidence-free certainties about reality and personal relationship to the infinite almighty.)
Shockingly I just heard the contributor credits at the end of Science Friday and was horrified to learn that the Templeton Foundation is a sponsor. The missions of that very wealthy foundation include trying to prove various religious notions like the efficacy of prayer, and to promulgate the misguided assertion that science and faith are compatible. I have not detected much bias in this direction on Science Friday, but I am not a regular listener. I don’t know when this unfortunate relationship began.
Public Radio Staff Who Are Religious or Pro-Religion
Ari Shapiro. I don’t have an opinion about him yet, but since he reports on religious subjects from time to time I asked him on twitter. So far no reply. He is gay, so that may inflect his feelings about groups like ISIS that hurl homosexuals and apostates off of roofs.
Krista Tippett of “On Being”, née “Speaking of Faith”. Never met a religion she didn’t love.
EJ Dionne is usually the liberal half during ATC’s version of point/counterpoint. He often mentions his Catholic faith. This is an interesting position that some in media critical circles have called for more of: Dionne admits his biases. I suppose this ghettoizes him sometimes as an editorialist, but it’s a good start. When he reports on the church at least we have a broad idea of his perspective.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a religion reporter for NPR and was raised as a Christian Scientist. What she is now I don’t know, but her journalistic output is consistently pro-religion and pro-religious figures. I’ll list some of her worst stories below.
Scott Simon (for whom I have otherwise great affection as a host) often speaks warmly of religion and religious figures, even some nasty ones like Oral Roberts. On August 1 he interviewed Nick Tosches, author of Under Tiberius which portrays Jesus as a villain. Simon once again revealed his naked affection for religion. As soon as the conversation became a bit critical of religion, Simon pulled out this:
I have been around the world in a lot of different wars and scenes of savagery. And in I believe all of them, you will find very selfless priests and nuns trying to help people.
The problem with this sentiment is that it represents the one-way filter used by people predisposed to religion. The claim is that when people do good things it’s because of religion, but when people do bad things, even in the name of religion, it’s somehow not because of religion. This is how the press in general and NPR in particular refuse to blame Islam for the actions of ISIS even as they give Christianity the credit for the good actions of Christians. They refuse to admit religion can be a bad influence, even though examples abound, from monumental atrocities of ISIS to quotidian indignities perpetrated against gays and women. Tosches gave him a pretty good answer:
I am saying that those same good human people would be behaving the same way without a god to tie it onto.
NEVINS: Do you know where you’re going? I don’t believe in heaven or hell. So…
SIMON: No. I know what I tell myself, but do I know that for sure?
NEVINS: What do you tell – what do you say?
SIMON: Oh, I – you know, I believe in a heaven and I’ll be reunited…
NEVINS: You think that?
SIMON: I’ll be reunited with my parents and with my lost sister and with, you know, every pet I’ve ever had and loved. And I’ll be up there waiting for my wife and children. Is that for real? Of course not. But that’s what I tell myself to get through the day.
This is totally fascinating. They say genius is the ability to hold 2 opposing ideas in your head at the same time, but I’ve always thought that was a stupid thing to say. Scott Simon basically just described a theology that I think is common to many intelligent “believers.” They’ll say they believe, they’ll even tell themselves they believe, but, if pressed by someone they respect they’ll often admit they do understand it’s all a fairy tale.
Tom Gjelten is now on the religion beat at NPR. Judging by one of his first stories (see below) he is pro-religion, but I don’t know yet if he is religious. UPDATE: Gjelten is a gentleman and replied thusly on Twitter: “Lapsed Norwegian Lutheran (ie, unaffiliated) but humble enough not to claim I grasp anything cosmic, respect those who do.” That last clause is part of the problem. Nobody is owed respect simply because they claim to grasp the cosmic. I would argue people who claim to grasp the cosmic deserve more scrutiny than those who profess ignorance. Countless people have fallen for con men who claimed to grasp the cosmic. I suspect he knows this and couldn’t fit more nuance in a tweet, but religion reporters must be more clear-eyed than others when they approach people who claim to grasp the cosmic. Otherwise you risk becoming Krista Tippett. I highly recommend Gjelten and any other religion-beat reporters go see Book of Mormon as a corrective.
(8/18/15) It has come to the attention of Muslim-despising Republicans that law school drop-out and AT&T sales rep turned presidential candidate Carly Fiorina once said some nice things about Islamic cultures, not long after 9/11. Fiorina was responding to the brief and predictable outbreak of various anti-Muslim hate crimes at the time. She did so with some well-worn platitudes about the contributions to world culture of the Ottoman Empire and other Islamic apogees. Discovery of Fiorina’s heinous crime against Republican orthodoxy caused a particularly inept rhetorican named Bethany Blankley to emit an incoherent tantrum-level diatribe against her. (It’s worth reading for her hilariously clumsy sophomoric metaphor usage alone.) This caused Tom Gjelten to defend Fiorina on Twitter with the statement “True words, and sorely needed.” I don’t dispute the truth of Fiorina’s words or that they were sorely needed at the time. I mention to this very minor incident simply because it demonstrates the eternal autonomic drive on the part of the press in general and religion reporters in particular to magnify positive statements about religion and minimize negative ones.
(5/14/15) Gjelten had a few revealingly odd moments hosting the Diane Rehm show episode dedicated to the recent poll showing Americans are becoming less Christian and less religious in general. He seemed alarmed by the fact that an online poll on the show’s website was showing listeners were 36% atheist and 19% agnostic. He hastened to point out that this didn’t necessarily reflect NPR listeners in general, just the ones who took the poll. Then, as if feeling guilty about the whole topic, he twice encouraged the Catholic Priest to explain to listeners why they should return to the faith, including letting the Priest have the last word on the show. Imagine if he had been doing a show on tobacco companies and encouraged their PR person to sell the listeners on smoking in the face of declining rates!
Rachel Martin, talented host of Weekend Edition Sunday, recently tweeted that ex-Wonkette Ana Marie Cox’s Daily Beastlove letter to Christ, “Coming Out Christian,” was “worth reading.” This prompted me to ask Martin if she practiced a faith, to which query she generously replied “I don’t. But grew up in a religious home and have a lot of respect for many people who do.” I appreciate her addition of the word “many,” because it allows room for judgment in the cases of those who fake or otherwise mis-use religion.
Reza Aslan is not a staffer but is often interviewed on public radio as an expert on religion. He has the kind of animus for new atheism that middle schoolers have for the person who stole their boyfriend/girlfriend. Literally. Wait Wait Don’t Tell me broke my heart by recently featuring him as a panelist.
More to come…
Public Radio Staff Who Chose Not To Answer My Inquiry About Their Religion
Pro-Religion Stories in Public Media
– This ATC story about an increasing demand for exorcists in the Phillippines just takes it as read that demonic possession is, you know, a thing. A real thing.
– This one-sided treatment of a Catholic family’s decision not to euthanize their suffering daughter. As the blog Why Evolution Is True points out, when NPR ran a story about a woman who chose euthanasia they throughly covered both sides of the debate.
– This travesty was constructed of 2 parts speculation and one part Reza Aslan by Tom Gjelten. According to it there is a potentially violent group of extreme “anti-theists”. It’s laughable. Still waiting for more on this non-development. Hey, by the way, whatever happened to this case? Maybe brief spasms of Twitter outrage from the professionally offended isn’t the best way to prioritize production and air time?
– Every episode of “Speaking of Faith” and “On Being”.
– NPR is in the midst of a well-intentioned and well-produced (as usual) series about Muslims in Europe. Today’s story about an abandoned church in Bolton, England filed by Ari Shapiro is a good example. It’s an interesting story about a very ecumenical project that is just the sort of narrative people who are reflexively pro-religion love to promulgate. I don’t have a problem with the story itself, but its “celebrate diversity” and “yes, we can all just get along” message is practically the only one you’ll hear throughout this series. Yesterday there was the oddly-headlined and very sympathetic story “British Muslims Still Feel the Need to Explain Themselves” (filed by Audie Cornish) in which Muslims described hate emails they get from anti-Muslim extremists. It’s too bad about the hate emails, but until an anti-Muslim extremist walks into a building full of innocent artists and starts shooting up the place we need to keep things in perspective. (And shouldn’t we ask religious folks to explain themselves all the time?) I’m waiting for a story in this series about radical imams who encourage violence or the like, but I doubt we’ll be hearing one. It appears to be a “feel good” piece except for the parts where we are meant to pity the plight of European Muslims. Muslim groups in Britain are attempting to pass anti-blasphemy laws, for example, but nothing like that is discussed in this series. So far it is mostly an attempt to understand and reify the ways in which Muslims feel bad about living in their chosen countries rather than why those countries might have some difficulty with immigrants whose religious choices are antithetical to the founding principles of the host country.
– When Evangelical cash machine Robert Schuller died NPR once again, as with Falwell, delivered a pointless, timid press-release of an obituary.
– Giving Barbara Bradley Hagerty a 5-PART-SERIES about her book on science & religion.
MANY more items to come as they are produced and from the archives when I have time to update… (if you can’t wait just peruse old posts here.)
Religion-Unfriendly Events Ignored or Downplayed by Public Media
– In 2013 a numbskull named Richard Loewen tried to cause a whole bunch of carnage at the Wichita airport with a truck bomb – right before Christmas. Oh, yeah, apparently by total coincidence he also happened to be a radicalized Muslim convert. NPR published exactly two stories as part of the “The Two-Way” news disposal on their website. One was from the initial arrest in 2013, and the other was from his conviction. This means the story of what could have been a very major tragedy was never mentioned on air. (I’m increasingly concerned that “The Two-Way” is just some kind of plausible deniability landfill for not putting things on the air. Does anyone get their news from these pages?) Both stories are brief and minimize the Islamic terrorism angle. In neither story are the rather interesting and important issues surrounding his conversion and radicalization explored.
– It’s the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings that killed over 50 people. Morning Edition had a moving report about victims and responders today, but the event itself, while referred to as a bombing, was treated more like a natural disaster. There was absolutely no mention of the bombers or their motivations. That was a dramatic and obviously purposeful omission. Why did they choose to treat it that way? Were they worried that simply mentioning the Islamist terror that caused the bombings would seem “islamophobic,” or did they just not want to give the bombers the attention they sought in the first place? Guessing it’s the former. There will be more coverage on All Things Considered this afternoon and we’ll see if they treat the event the same way. UPDATE Sure enough the second report on ATC also failed to mention anything about the bombers. This is akin to journalistic malpractice.
– The documentary film “The Wolfpack” is about the strange isolated upbringing of the children of a Hare Krishna father. Scott Simon did an interview with the filmmaker and her subjects. It’s clear that one of the major sources of the bizarre and mentally abusive family culture was, as is so often the case with such families, religion, specifically the father’s interpretation of the Hare Krishna branch of Hinduism. This was never asked about by Simon in the interview. It’s too bad, because public attention to the role religion plays in nightmarish family cultures, from keeping gay kids in the closet all the way to murdering children by denying them life-saving medical care, could help diminish tolerance for such practices.
Simon was kind enough to respond to my tweet asking about this “I’m reluctant to label those beliefs Hindu, even if he does. A billion Hindus in the world don’t lock up their children.” Isn’t it interesting that he self-identifies as Hindu? This is the same argument that inspires NPR guidelines to specify that ISIS must be referred to as the “self-described Islamic State.” Just because most followers of Islam don’t behead people on a daily basis does not mean Islam doesn’t inspire some to behead people. Meanwhile the denial that religion inspires the small number of very horrible atrocities masks the fact that it indisputably inspires the millions of daily indignities and aggressions suffered by millions/billions around the globe.
– There are secularist conventions happening all the time all over the world, but you’d never know it listening to public radio. On the other hand every time there’s a political prayer breakfast or CPAC circle jerk you’ll hear about it for days. On the other hand given the snide tone public radio uses when it talks to or about secularists it may be better they stay away from such meetings.
– A classic today from Peter “The Non-Tweeter” Kenyon on Morning Edition. He did a whole segment on violence against women in Turkey without mentioning Islam. Yes, most cultures outside of Wonder Woman’s home island are rife with sexism, but Islam has ancient, terrible and unique problems with women. Not bringing this up in the context of a story in Turkey is nearly journalistic malpractice. (He did mention head-scarves.) I can only imagine internalized fear of accusations of Islamophobia caused this omission.
– On February 26 a Bangladeshi-American named Avijit Roy was hacked to death by Muslim Extremists who were unhappy with his writings critical of fundamentalist Islam. No word was heard on NPR, though their “Two Way” news blog did cover it. Meanwhile they did see fit to run a trivial Islamophilia story about a moderate German Muslim who encourages people to ask him about his faith.
– There have been several recent stories in the US and Canada regarding children who died because religious parents refused them the treatments that would have saved them. You wouldn’t know about them listening to NPR.
– Coverage of the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber on NPR routinely downplays or fails to mention the Islamic Extremist ideas behind the mass murder.
– (3-23-15) 7 children died a few days ago in a fire that was caused because ridiculous Orthodox Jewish tradition demanded a hot-plate could not be turned off on the sabbath. On numerous occasions today the deaths/burials were reported on NPR without the crucial information about the circumstances of the death.
– (4-2-15) Robert Schuler, the man who made himself and his family very wealthy while his Crystal Cathedral ministry went bankrupt, was pre-eulogized during today’s NPR News round-ups because he has fallen ill. The mini-bio mentioned his Cathedral and his “Hour of Power” TV show, but, as usual, failed to mention any hint of greed or financial misbehavior on his part.
– (5/18/15) Five days ago 45 reformist Shia were murdered in cold blood execution style on a bus in Pakistan by decidedly less reformist Sunnis. So far not a peep about this on any of the flagship NPR news programs. Somehow the news choosers for every major NPR show decided this hideous event wasn’t worth considering. On the other hand there was a hard hitting interview with the guy behind “The Bachelor” TV show. Priorities? It may have nothing to do with fear of being perceived as Islamaphobic, but it certainly does make one wonder.
On a Tuesday, this is Airbag Moments returning to air – or wifi anyway.
I notice with horror I made zero posts in 2014. I am tweeting a lot, though, so blame the siren song of social media and fear of the Riyadh Flogger for my lack of blogging. (@airbagmoments)
What has driven me beyond the 140 character restriction today, the first time in over a year? Only a brief list of weird/annoying micro-trends in Public Radio, especially NPR, that I feel need some publicity – so they can stop.
Let’s do the numbers!
1. The Daily Grind
Apparently Steve Inskeep feels our pain. (Well he doesn’t feel my particular pain, since he took to his fainting couch and blocked me on Twitter at some point – see below.) But apparently he feels the rest of you, because he has pioneered a new version of the useless day-of-the-week intro ritual (ie “on a Wednesday”) he and other hosts have adopted over the last couple of years. Now he’s taken to uttering pseudo-ominous inanities like “well, you’ve made it to Tuesday!” I think everyone out here in listener-land is pretty aware of what day of the week it is and whether or not surmounting the previous midnight is worthy of succor and sympathy.
I will go so far as to say I would not mind being calmly reminded of the date, Steve, which you never do for some reason.
2. Yay us!
NPR or its shows were mentioned in two nerdy inner sanctums in the past week, the game show “Jeopardy” and the NY Times crossword puzzle. Given the exuberant twit-storm about this from NPR staffers I can only deduce that it’s apparently everything they’ve been working towards for their entire lives. What will they do now for a second act?
This brings me to a more general annoyance, which is the self-aggrandizing vanity retweets many hosts and official public radio program feeds indulge in. I guess I’m glad that @doctormom420 cried in her driveway during the segment when Scott Simon sang “Danny Boy” to Draggy, GoryCorps creator and aptonym David Isay’s 2-legged Golden Retriever, but I don’t need to know about it.
Let’s make a deal: if you are going to retweet the effulgent praise then I expect you to retweet the trenchant critiques also, which you can find more easily if you unblock me on twitter.
Which brings me to…
3. Throwing a block
I try to be a resource for people by following every public radio personality and show I can find on Twitter, unfollowing them only when their feeds become choked with baby pics and vanity retweets.
Those of you who are familiar with the effete and grammatical pokes I take at public radio must marvel at Steve Inskeep’s (and EXCITING UPDATE “Vocal Fry Guy” Raz!) precious sensitivity. This is unbecoming in one who makes a living ostensibly asking tough questions in interviews. If Twitter actually notified users at the time when other users blocked them I could know which comment of mine tweaked Inskeep’s and Raz’s hair-trigger peevishness.
Then we come to On The Media, a show I myself have praised effulgently in this space. Yeah, they blocked me for some reason. Really, OTM? You are the show that hates censorship so much you have produced entire episodes about it. What could I, who have called OTM the best show on radio, have said to offend them so much that they would block me from their official Twitter feed? What does that even accomplish other than tainting the purity of my love for them? At least Brooke and Bob, the hosts, have yet to block me from their little-used personal feeds.
I admit that I do sometimes say things that don’t follow the public relations guidelines for human society known as “political correctness.” But I am not one of these ignorant, racist, sexist, conspiracist or wing-nut (left or right) knee-jerk public radio trollers you find in the comment sections dangling under so many segments’ web pages.
To those who block me I have this to say: no matter what you claim, vous n’êtes pas Charlie.
4. Same old pundits vs. Sarah Chayes
I have written before about how outrageous it is that Chayes, one of the most valuable voices about Afghanistan we have and a former NPR correspondent, has been ignored ever since she left her radio job to actually do something instead of just “getting a sense.” I have also written about how weird it is that smart voices only seem to appear on radio shows like Diane Rehm when they are coincidentally on a book tour.
Well the second phenomenon has, at least for a brief period, solved the first because Sarah Chayes is on a book tour, which is the golden ticket to get back on the radio. Yay!
Meanwhile most of the regular pundit slots remain filled with people whose responses are entirely predictable: either political talking points or conventional wisdom.
I’m out of time, but not out of bile, so stay tuned!
Black Friday has come and gone, but the sales of dime-store epiphanies remain brisk, ever brisk!
As every burlesque performer knows, to sell yourself, or at least something you’ve created, you just gotta have a gimmick. It’s the way you stand out from the crowd, the way to rapidly multiply among those precious viral growth medium slots in the public radio demograshpere like some kind of upper-middlebrow version of the disease in Contagion. You know the carriers: Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Morning Edition, and the Holy Grails: Colbert or Stewart.
We’ve seen gimmickless books fade away without that kind of invaluable free publicity:
Cokie Roberts and her unfinished Wellesley-theses-turned-book-club-also-rans about famous women in history. Susan Stamberg autobiographies. Scott Simon family tear jerkers. They all lacked that oomph, that one-liner pitch cum subtitle that will set those Christmas encrypted credit card numbers sailing along the Amazon.com Digital River when someone needs a gift for the retired former philosophy major or the not yet employed twenty-something soul searcher or Wall Street occupier.
But some public radio correspondents know how the game is played. They become proxies for our curiosity. They inhabit, or at least pretend to inhabit, some intellectually titillating aspect of the spirit of their audience for long enough to satisfy the dilettante urge for just enough exploration…not so deeply as to be boring or uncomfortable, mind you…just enough to limn the edges of a possible cure for the common mid life crisis.
Take for example Neal “Not the Barbarian” Conan. I don’t doubt that he was actually curious about devoting a year of his life to being an announcer for NPR’s official sacred pastime, the sport of baseball, especially as a break from arduous years as a foreign correspondent, but I have to imagine his gimmicky book plan was what allowed him to go through with it. And so he did, thus baseball fans out here on Planet NPR didn’t have to.
Conan’s quest (“Conan’s Quest”, amazingly, is not yet a video game title or second gimmicky book) is similar to Gimmick King AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically. In case you don’t know, AJ Jacobs is the guy who manufactured a different gimmick-based holiday-gift-ready codex about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (so we don’t have to.) From that “experience” he managed to land at least eleven (!) promotional spots on Weekend Edition. That might be a record, as it even beats the number of spots given to gimmick-queen Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s silly book about neuro-imaging the soul. (I did not make that up.)
Like Neal Conan, Jacobs also claims to have spent one year doing something supposedly holy, living according to the rules of the Old Testament (so we don’t have to): “Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year.” Why would you try to live according to Old Testament rules followed by no modern person if you were truly interested in “the relevance of faith in our modern world?” You wouldn’t. It’s a gimmick, and a pretty clever one. Gimmicks sell books. And while some of the promotional copy surrounding the book holds out the promise of epiphanies to be found within by “readers both secular and religious”, the book’s actual approach seems to be light hearted.
As we see from multiple examples, gimmicky books that delve lightly into subjects that public radio listeners find interesting get huge publicity from public radio programs. That probably seems logical and harmless to you, so let me explain why I think this is a pernicious trend.
Public radio has limited time, especially during their highest rated hours. As listeners we should expect them to use that time well. As monetary contributors (not looking at you, Sam Negus) we have a right to demand that they use that time well. In theory the best radio shows would present the most informed and most articulate voices speaking on topics of interest and import. Yet this almost never happens. The practice of presenting gimmicky book authors who happen to be on publicity tours is one of the reasons. Bookers and producers are either over-worked or lazy, so the temptation in either case to cherry pick from authors currently on book tours shilling their latest non-fiction gimmick-fest is irresistible.
Newspaper editorial page editors use a similar shortcut for filling column inches. Authors (or their publicist proxies I sometimes suspect) are only too eager to pen editorial-length versions of their gimmick books for placement in newspapers. I call these “advertorials”. They can be quite stealthy, but having read many I can usually identify them by the end of the first paragraph. There are a couple of give-aways. They are often on topics that must be awkwardly twisted to appear relevant to the events of the day, and they never fail to end with a byline that just happens to include the name of the advertorial author’s latest book, which just happens to be recently published and in full promotional mode.
To sum it up: smart people (think college professors) with deep knowledge are rarely heard at length on public radio unless they happen to have a new book to sell. Meanwhile people (smart or otherwise) with shallow knowledge get loads of airtime simply because they have a new book to sell. This is what happens when notions are productized. It’s a positive feedback loop, meaning it keeps getting worse.
Which brings me, at long last, to Eric Weiner and his new gimmick-book, Man Seeks God.
At this point I want to mention that until I did some research for this post I had little prior knowledge of and I have no animus towards Mr. Weiner. I recall his byline but could not name a single specific report filed by him. As with Scott Simon, I’m certain I’d enjoy a beer summit with him to try to change his mind about a few things, and as with Scott Simon this blog post will have to substitute. Speaking of “beer summit,” if you think I’m not shoehorning Henry Louis Gates Jr. (i.e. civil rights) into this before the end you must not be a regular reader.
As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the semi-official religion of public radio is what Daniel Dennett termed “Belief in Belief”, described by Christopher Hitchens as “the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.” Or, as I put it, in order to be thought of as a good person it doesn’t matter what clothing you believe the emperor is wearing, as long as you can’t tell that he’s naked. While Weiner does come out (spoiler alert!) as something like an Atheist at the end of his exhibitionistic spirit-quest, Man Seeks God seems vying to be the ecumenical Bible of Belief in Belief. He’s practically a Belief in Belief street preacher, as you will see.
The premise of Man Seeks God is little more than the title indicates. Mr. Weiner is, at least for the purpose of selling the book concept, hot to get some religion in his life. As a result he decides to take a grand tour of the world’s faiths (so we don’t have to) in hopes he can adopt one for himself. So maybe it’s more like he goes to the sacred animal shelter? Anyway, if you are a regular public radio listener you already know the rest: all of the religions offer something wonderful. But they all also present the Goldilocks dilemma: too this or too that, never just right.
While I found the idea of the book redundant with the seemingly infinite public personal (oxymoron?) spirit journey books we’ve had to date, with several hundred thousand unique titles from Jane Fonda alone, it was too innocuous for me to pay much attention to. When I heard the inevitable log-roll piece on Morning Edition I just sort of tuned it out.
But then came the final straw: Weiner’s advertorial was published in the New York [freaking -ed] Times.
It’s a minor Christmas miracle of awfulness, managing to be simultaneously insipid and bigoted, both trendy and old hat. Worst of all it was crass and commercial about its subject even as it inhabited the already crass and commercial form of an advertorial.
What’s not to like, aside from the arch but not arch enough writing style? He gets into trouble as soon as paragraph three where he demonstrates lazy, conventional, and frankly bigoted thinking when he divides his model of current religious discourse between “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists” (capitalization his). And yes I’m an atheist, and yes, this comment made me angry. But my point is that I wasn’t angry until he called me a name. In fact atheists aren’t generally angry until someone like Weiner points at them and yells to anyone who’ll listen “Hey, look how angry that guy is! He’s soooo angry!” Calling atheists angry is glib dismissal. The expression “angry atheist” generates mild fear and revulsion. It turns atheists even more into the infamous “other” through the language of warning. Growing up in the southern states I frequently heard many phrases that served a similar purpose. “Militant Blacks” and “Pushy Jews” are two such poisonous pairings which were used to mentally censor whole races and world-views, that could retard the “arc of history”, that could succor repression.
And do I really need to mention that there is more anger in a single homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protest than in all meetings of atheists and freethinkers throughout all time combined – even as gelato mongers near to an atheist convention hall refuse entry to the godless? (Hmm, denying groups of people access to eateries, where have I heard of that before?)
You might think that in spite of the ugliness of “Angry Atheist” Mr. Weiner was being quite fair because his phrase “True Believer” was also meant as something of an insult, creating a balanced pair of “others,” neither of whom merit attention. But the phrase “True Believer” has no essential negative character. People are happy to call themselves “true believers”. Many religious people are even happy to call themselves fundamentalists, and even to describe themselves proudly as “intolerant.”
This autonomic drawing of false equivalence between atheists and fundamentalists (often employing the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) adds nothing to the discussion and serves to obfuscate the profound difference between the entire thought processes of the two groups. The ultimate goal of this language is to seem to place Mr. Weiner, his book, his advertorial, his readers, and his interviewers in a privileged corporate suite looking down on all the silly culture warriors clashing by night. He does this explicitly by trying to coin a new meme for all the hep cats like him: “Nones” (capitalization his.)
“Nones” are defined as “people who say they have no religious affiliation at all” though, according to a poll (so it must be true), only seven percent of them are claimed to be straight up Angry Atheists. (At the None conventions the atheists should have separate but equal water fountains. That’s just science.)
Why Weiner includes the atheists in the “Nones” group I don’t know because he goes on to make a set of weirdly contradictory claims about Nones:
“Nones … drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”
“Nones are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God”
“Nones may not believe in God.”
So this whole “Nones” thing is a bit of a muddle. Like the idea of religion Nones supposedly enjoy it’s something like whatever you want it to be. Nones don’t care if a religion is “true” as long as it makes their mental trains run on time. The “Nones” thing is such a Thomas Friedman-like assignment of a catchy name to a superficially constructed model of something going on in this crazy modern world of ours that you can at least see why it was accepted by the New York Times.
Brief aside: atheism rarely posits things like “There is no god.” Such a statement often means nothing because of the difficulty of defining deities. Atheism usually takes the form of questions, such as “What do you mean when you say god(s)? Can you explain why anyone should believe he/she/they exist(s)?” So far, to my knowledge, there’s been no satisfying answer to this sort of question. (see the postscript)
But then the whole advertorial takes an unexpected and yet still entirely Thomas Friedmaniacal twist.
Are you sitting down? Okay, read on:
The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.
Wow. I did not see that coming. But now that it’s here…still wow. We’re beyond Krista Tippett, folks. In fact this statement may allow us to finally create a complete scale of profundity of statements about religion:
The Sublime: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The Profound: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense..” – Carl Sagan
The Pseudo-Profound: “Mmm…I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the word pray rhymes with the word…play…mmm” – I’m just guessing someone on Speaking of Faith or Krista Tippett On Being has said that.
The Dumbest Thing Ever Said About Religion: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion.” – Eric Weiner
We need a Steve Jobs of religion?!? To the extent that sentiment means anything it’s a very bad idea. Steve Jobs was long considered a cult leader. Apple was maybe the earliest company to actually call its marketing people “evangelists.”
Weiner goes on, in the name of buzzwords, to further technocratize religion by calling for “a religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.” It’s just very creepy and so willfully ignorant of history. Do I really need to mention that every popular religious reformer in history has been their own “Steve Jobs of religion?” They’ve all come up with new ways of being religious. But as fun as it is to explore this, many others have already sharpened this particular point so I’ll move on to the next horror from this piece.
In evangelizing for his church of “Nones” Weiner puts this yucky chestnut out there:
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
Terrence said “you believe that easily which you hope for earnestly” but I guess he was wrong.
Where, aside from obvious parental/cultural guilt, does this desire to believe in God come from? And why not gods since polytheism is usually a lot more fun? Weiner claims to be an Enlightenment-loving rationalist, but he fails to understand that his statement sounds to the freethinking ear like “I’m not a drug addict but I hope to be one day.”
He seems to have taken the propaganda that you can’t be good without God so deeply to heart that he will be forever torn between his desire for belief (goodness) and his respect for his own powers of cognition which tell him clearly that a religion may do good but is, at its very core, a lie.
Mr. Weiner, if you read this, I would suggest you spend less time browser-window-shopping at the ebay of world religions and more time analyzing the origins of your personal need to believe.
Louis CK: I’m not an athiest. I think god [sic] is there and that he is watching and he made us. I just don’t give a shit.
Reddit person “Brenner14”: This will come as a surprise to many.
Louis CK: well i [sic] don’t “Believe in god” i [sic] have zero idea how everythign [sic] got here. I would personally say that, if i [sic] had to make a list of possibles, god [sic] would be pretty far down. But if I were to make a list of people that know what the fuck they are talking about, I would be REALLY far down. aids [sic].
Really, what else is there to say? If only Louis CK had listened to Ludwig JJW.
I’ve long noticed that NPR correspondents, with or without conscious intention, water down the language they employ in their reportage. I’m not quite sure why. I might imagine they were trying to create the journalistic equivalent of “easy listening” music – or maybe “new age”. But their selection of topics, war, disease, the economy, would belie this.
The “M”-word is the perfect example of this tendency. Whether from spontaneous groupthink or ironclad editorial edict, NPR reporters go out of their way to avoid the word “mother” the way an alcoholic avoids free wine tastings. Jennifer Ludden did an entire piece on the fertility of women in their 40s without once using the word. This is only possible due to her substitution of the much more popular word “mom”, which she uses four times.
One explanation would be a politically correct separation of biological motherhood from “family of choice” momhood so as not to implicitly stigmatize those who come by at least some members of their clutch in ways that are not, uhmm, “in-house” as you might say, Michele Bachmann style. But Ludden’s story, with its subject entirely devoted to the difficulty middle aged women encounter when trying to, ermm, “grow their own” so to speak, would be the perfect place for the biologically specific term “mother”. Its total absence in this particular story, along with the clumsily repetitive use of “mom”, means something else is going on.
Maybe it’s the fact that “mother” is sometimes used in a rather extreme piece of two-word profanity that, uhmm, let’s just say implies a globally frowned-upon form of over-parenting. “Having it all” so to speak. Sometimes to avoid inevitable bleeping, that epithet is shortened to “Mother-f-” or just “mother” on television. So is it this? Is the word “mother” now classed with “faggot” and “retarded” just because occasionally it hangs out in the wrong part of urbandictionary.com?
It turns out that theory is also wrong. The proof is that NPR reporters avoid the words “children” and “fathers” with as much awkward sidestepping and repetition as they do “mother”. They compulsively prefer “dads” and “kids” to party with all the “moms”. When a “father” shows up things can get ugly, as in the Loudon Wainwright song “Me and All the Other Mothers”.
Maybe, as with some profanity, it’s some kind of word origin problem? Is “mother” from some poorly thought of word root and “mom” from an original language that’s a bit more presentable in polite society? Turns out that’s not the case either. Both the hated “mother” and the beloved “mom” seem to originate from the same semi-universal infant sound “ma” or “muh”, which may itself derive from the satisfied “mmm” infants sometimes utter after a bout of nipple noshing. So there’s another theory shot-down.
Let’s examine the larger context. As their Twitter feeds attest, most NPR reporters *cough* Scott Simon *cough* are child or grandchild-addled. Or do I mean “kid” or “grandkid”-addled? (It’s so odd how different these exact synonyms can feel. One would never say “wicked stepmom”, “kid of the depression”, or “dad of our country”. At least not yet. “Mother’s Day” is holding on with 35 million Google results, but “Mom’s Day” is coming up fast in the rear-view with 357,000.)
Anyway, to me all this linguistic pre-chewing smacks of parental and grandparental over compensation. The same way marketers force used car dealers to start referring to their jalopies as “pre-owned”, and realtors to start calling houses “homes”, parents continually try to spin reality to their children as something more palatable. It’s the difference between “shit”, if you’ll pardon the expression, and “doo-doo”. It’s exactly the relationship of Ray Liotta’s character to Jeff Daniels’ in the totally brilliant and allegorical “we’ve all got a darkside” Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” A word clothed uncomfortably in gym shorts and a t-shirt purchased hastily at a gas station is still naked underneath.
So is this the answer? Do NPR reporters actually know the difference between Shineola and that other nasty substance that isn’t Shineola, but they just don’t want to come out and say it in so many words? I really hope so.
The alternative is that they actually mentally inhabit this baby-proofed, rose-colored Nicey Niceland. In Nicey Niceland, Wall Street math-prodigy mountebanks aren’t prodigious monsters, they’re “number crunchers”. And in Nicey Niceland the politicians don’t “lie”, they “exaggerate” or “mis-speak”. When the lies come flying, the reporters at Nicey Niceland Today report on the public opinion reaction to the dishonesty rather than even noticing the rude fact of the moral unfitness of the liar. Nicey Niceland Public Radio (NNPR) reporters are so happy just to get a “sense” of things. Reality had them at “hello”.
In this formulation evil is real, and the banality of evil is to perceive and describe it in child-friendly gauziness. Like Jeff Daniel’s character, Gallant is so Gallant that he becomes Goofus without realizing it. (“Gallant lets his children starve to death because stealing bread is illegal.”)
Public Radio is a format that features vocal intonations sometimes too closely resembling the cadences of a parent reading a storybook to a child at bedtime. I hope they are at least explicitly aware of these linguistic habits, and that they have a good reason. I would also love to hear the reason. Journalism is the first draft of history, and that draft should not be written with sparkle pens and smiley faces over the “i”s.
Maybe the first step to fixing all this is for NPR staff to ban their kids (adult or not) from listening…
Scott Simon is a genuine NPR personality. He lets you know who he is, where he’s coming from. It’s not just some reporter covering a story, it’s the avuncular, sentimental, self-described “luckiest SOB in the world” giving us his take on things. Sometimes, from his tone alone, we can tell when he likes something (baseball) or when he’s not happy with something (genocide). This affect-laden delivery can be helpful and enjoyable.
I contend that one reason people love Stewart and Colbert is that their reactions to the nightly outrages in our world are expressed with the dismay and passion, through humor, that such events provoke in normal people. Simon practices this not through humor, but simply via his honest, folksy demeanor. Scott, and I’m guessing he never allows anyone to call him “Mr. Simon” (that’s his dad!), is clearly a genuinely great guy almost any NPR listener would love to have a beer with – including me so long as the drinking doesn’t take place in a sports bar and we can stay off the subject of sports.
Plus can anyone resist those puppy-dog eyes?!? Does he not perfectly resemble someone who’d think Obama’s use of the phrase “ass to kick” still qualifies as “locker room talk” from which children need to be protected in the year 2010?
But there are risks when a journalist/host wears his heart on his sleeve. The abandonment of the comforting myth of journalistic objectivity puts him in a foggy area along with Fox News. Are we hearing truth or spin? Another problem is that he risks alienating listeners who disagree with him. (Helen Thomas ring a bell?) He can avoid these pitfalls as long as he offers only studiously apolitical personal opinions. Scott has proved himself remarkably nimble in this regard, even with his dangerously prolific tweeting.
One of the many non-controversial opinions he has made pretty clear of late is his support for organized religion. This is not going to get him in much trouble in the USA, the most religious (by far) of all developed nations.
But it does have a tendency to annoy your humble, though easily annoyed, servant.
One of the ways Scott injects his personality into the show is by including his personal opinions in introductions of interview subjects, which could otherwise be very dry Curriculum Vitae excerpts.
His introduction of Mr. Hitchens (who I’m guessing allows the honorific) proceeded thusly:
He’s been a socialist who found Margaret Thatcher sexy; defender of the war in Iraq among leftists, a supporter of gay rights among rightists, an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.
That last bit bears repeating: “an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.” There’s quite a lot of subtext buried in that seemingly innocuous aside, especially in the context of Simon’s previous utterances (or silences) on the subject of religion. Simon employs the word “devout” in conjunction with atheism. This is a lazy and intentionally obnoxious category error frequently indulged in by irrationalists; kissing cousins with the meaningless expression “atheist fundamentalist”. The attempted juxtaposition of opposites pretends that skepticism is not, in and of itself, a laudable ideal but is instead a flaw of character whose redemption requires the leavening of ideals. Exactly which ideals are, as usual, not specified, and the stochastic menagerie of worldviews Mr. Hitchens has adopted, from sexy Cuban Communism to bellicose neocon paranoia, is too peculiar to be endorsed by anyone else. No, this is naked belief in belief, which I have mentioned before. To be a good person it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in six impossible things before breakfast. It doesn’t matter which designer’s clothes you think the nude emperor is wearing, as long as you believe him to be gloriously arrayed.
But I have some news for you, Scott, delivered in my own inimitable style: skepticism is an ideal.
It may be the best of all ideals because it guards against any of the others, including baseball and genocide, gaining too much power over the mind of man.