Vanity Fair on NPR

No doubt, the execs at NPR can exhale now that Vanity Fair’s long piece on NPR is out. It reportedly has been in the works for more than a year (“National Public Rodeo“),

To summarize:

1) Not liberal enough.

In the process, it’s gone decidedly mainstream. True, in story selection and sound, NPR retains a tincture of elite liberalism. (Anyone seeking evidence need only listen to the insufferable “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!”) But as its critics on the left contend (yes, there are lots of them too, every bit as over-heated as those on the right), on NPR these days there’s far more comforting the afflicted than afflicting the comfortable. NPR has traded much of its early edginess and eccentricity for reach and respectability, stability, and an almost compulsive inoffensiveness. (When, not long ago, Leon Panetta called Osama bin Laden a “son of a bitch,” NPR felt compelled to bleep out the “bitch.”) Apart from the occasional stories about gays or Palestinians (and maybe even gay Palestinians), there’s precious little on NPR these days for conservatives really to hate. For them, despising NPR and cutting off what amounts to the few pennies it collects from the federal budget has increasingly become more a matter of pandering, or habit, or sophomoric sport, than of conviction or serious policy. The editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, once confessed to former NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin that he really didn’t believe NPR was liberal; he just said so “to keep you guys on the defensive.” And that still seems true.

2) Pushed around by Juan Williams:

Three times in our hour-long interview, (Tell Me More host Michael) Martin called Williams “the most skillful manipulator of white people’s anxieties that I have ever met.” Sure enough, when I asked Williams whether he had spread himself too thin at NPR, he came back at me the next time we talked claiming I’d called him “lazy,” a lethally incendiary word in a racial context I’d neither used (the interview was taped) nor implied, nor had ever heard anyone else use or imply. (Williams is quite the opposite of lazy: he’s hyperkinetic.) Many journalists are surprisingly thin-skinned: to Williams, just about any criticism is ridicule, and personal, and maybe just a bit bigoted. “There’s no way that I could be me and be a phony,” he said. “It’s just too public, too highprofile. If I was in fact a charlatan who knew nothing and was over-extended and was a pretender, it would just be so transparent.”

3) And Juan Williams is asking tough questions at Fox that NPR should be asking:

In the Wall Street Journal/Fox News-sponsored debate among the Republican presidential candidates in South Carolina on January 16, the dilemma was on perfect display. In fact, to those who continue to follow him, Williams’s performance gave rise to an interesting sideshow, a debate within a debate. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Williams was a panelist alongside Bret Baier and two representatives from The Wall Street Journal. The topics ranged from foreign affairs to tax policy to “super PACs,” but with a couple of exceptions, virtually every question Williams asked that night dealt with minorities and their problems in an especially troubled economy.

In a hotbed of “states rights,” he asked Rick Perry whether the federal government should continue to scrutinize the voting laws of states that have historically discriminated against minorities. He asked Mitt Romney–whose father, he noted, was born in Mexico–whether his opposition to the Dream Act threatened to alienate Hispanics. He asked Rick Santorum if now was the time to address the extraordinarily high poverty rate among black Americans. He asked Ron Paul to acknowledge racial disparities in drug-related arrests and convictions. Whenever a candidate answered that blacks and Hispanics should receive no preferential treatment whatsoever, he received lusty applause, while Williams sat there glumly. Then, in a question that brought hoots of derision from the hand-picked, wealthy, white Republican crowd, Williams accused Newt Gingrich of belittling the poor by suggesting, essentially, that their poverty was their fault: they really didn’t like to work. Then, over more boos, he asked it again.

Summary: There’s not a lot of “new” in the piece, though it will rekindle previous debates.

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