NPR misses the mark in Pat Buchanan interview

Pat Buchanan and wife Shelley acknowledge the crowd after their introduction at a rally in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas Saturday March 9, 1996.  Michael S. Green | AP

The toughest job in America today belongs to NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, who will have to come up with a plausible explanation for why NPR’s Morning Edition decided to give nearly 7 minutes of precious airtime this morning to the xenophobic Patrick Buchanan.

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Host Steve Inskeep, in a tweet this morning, suggested it was compelling radio.

Inskeep is wrong on a grand scale. Buchanan has no standing to hijack seven minutes of national radio time unless someone somewhere believes he’s a legitimate substitute for Trump, who has refused all attempts by NPR to appear on the network, a monumentally stupid decision that ignores the reality that in a vacuum, other voices will fill the space and define a campaign, however questionable the legitimacy .

Allowing that, however, is a journalistically questionable position, particularly when today’s interview consisted primarily of Buchanan being given free rein to do the victory lap he was denied in the ’90s. In other words: Buchanan is irrelevant and given a country full of people to interview, why turn to the same voices of politics past if the goal is to provide clarity, analysis, and insight of politics present?

Inskeep said only that Buchanan “was one [Trump’s] earliest backers.”

But his co-host concentrated on a book Buchanan wrote 12 years ago in which he raised concerns about an America in which the majority of the population is non-white.

“I look at Europe and I see peoples everywhere at each others’ throats over issues of ethnicity and identity,” Buchanan said. “Again, the United States of America… had high immigration from 1890 to 1920. Then we had a timeout where all those folks from Eastern and Southern Europe were assimilated. They learned English. I went to school with the sons and daughters of these folks and we created a really united country where 97 percent of the country spoke English in 1970. Now, in half the homes in California, people speak a language other than English in their own homes. Anybody who believes that a country can be maintained that has no ethnic core to it, or no linguistic core, is naive in the extreme.”

“But you understand how that language feels very….” host Rene Montagne said, beginning her question.

“I don’t care how that language sits with people. My job is not to make people happy. It’s to tell the truth as I see it,” Buchanan interrupted.

Which brought up the obvious question for the listeners. What exactly was Buchanan’s job on an NPR interview? Was he speaking for Trump? If not — and the question was never answered by the show hosts — why did Buchanan’s views merit amplification if not to create the impression that he was Trump’s surrogate on the matter?

“What you are laying out is an America that is white or…” Montagne persisted.

“It’s an America like the country I grew up in, which was a pretty good country,” Buchanan said, suggesting the country agrees by virtue of Donald Trump’s victories.

Unquestionably, there is plenty of evidence that some xenophobes and racists are attracted to Trump. But the interview seemed to frame NPR’s approach to the coming general election, and ignores — if you listen to the comments of political experts not named Buchanan — other reasons for Trump’s popularity.

And Trump’s opponents would be only too thrilled to have the campaign framed in exactly the way NPR framed it with today’s interview.

But this reliance on the usual suspects is also the sort of approach to national political coverage that earned the scorn of media watcher Jim Rutenberg in today’s New York Times.

“National political journalism… has too often lost sight of its primary directives in this election season: to help readers and viewers make sense of the presidential chaos; to reduce the confusion, not add to it; to resist the urge to put ratings, clicks and ad sales above the imperative of getting it right,” he said.

You don’t do that by culling through the Rolodex looking for the hacks of failed campaigns past who’ve never met a microphone they didn’t like.

How do you do it? Rutenberg provided a road map.

That’s all the more reason in the coming months to be as sharply focused on the data we don’t have as we are on the data we do have (and maybe watching out for making any big predictions about the fall based on the polling of today). But a good place to start would be to get a good night’s sleep, and then talk to some voters.

In such an important election, we deserve more intelligent and thoughtful coverage than self-anointed surrogates and seven minutes of Patrick Buchanan on a soap box.