Saturday Night Live used to have a running sketch called “The Delicious Dish” which relentlessly mocked the prevailing stereotype about National Public Radio: boring hosts, boring programming, boring listeners. This conceit was paired with another gag: the two hosts, played by Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer, were earnest but clueless, trading unintentional double entendres in pitch-perfect monotone. The episode with Pete Schweddy (Alec Baldwin), owner of a holiday bakery specializing in “popcorn balls, cheese balls, rum balls, you name it,” was an instant classic. Last year SNL resurrected “The Delicious Dish” when Betty White hosted and several former female cast members returned. If you thought “Schweddy Balls” was indelicate, well, let’s just say Ms. White’s turn on the show took the cake (or the, er, muffin)–which was in keeping with the old send-up of NPR as stuffy, cerebral, and sexless.
The heydey of this parody was the 1990s, long before the Tea Party and a tanking economy made NPR the object of a different kind of scorn. Now the charge is that “NPR is radio by and for liberal Democrats.” This isn’t a new accusation, of course. It’s been common through the years to associate public radio with political and social leftists. A favorite listener profile: Volvo-driving college professors.
I drive an aging Volvo. I’m a college professor. I love NPR.
I was long ago disabused of the notion that news reporting is objective, impartial, value-neutral. What gets covered, what gets left out–these decisions and a host of others are made by editors and writers dealing with everything from budget constraints to their own limited perspective on any given issue. There is no bird’s-eye perch that offers an uninhibited view of anything. Which isn’t to say that news reporting can’t be fair (and balanced). Indeed, acknowledging the biases inherent in the journalistic enterprise makes even-handedness in the researching, writing, and reporting of news more likely, not less.
It’s not news that one of the things that draws listeners to NPR is that it has the time to explore a news story in all its complexity. With no interruptions for Viagra commercials (broadcast network news), promotion of celebrity anchors (cable TV), or pitches for everything from mattresses to gold coins (talk radio), correspondents like Jason Beaubien, Pam Fessler, Don Gonyea, and Mandalit del Barco can actually get down to the business of reporting the news. Analysts can dissect, dispute, clarify, illuminate. Commentators can raise urgent, unsettling questions.
But undeserved reputations die hard, if at all. Repeat often enough the mantra that NPR promotes a partisan point of view and people will believe it. (If you were unfairly pegged in high school as the class clown or nerd or flirt, you can show up at your reunion 20 years later and still be expected to play the part).
And yet ultimately the undoing of NPR is driven less by a desire to paint it into a corner of hopelessly liberal bias and more by a strategy to exploit the fiscal worries of a nervous electorate. If NPR can be villified as an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, cutting its federal funding can look like an act of responsible stewardship. But it’s the worst sort of trickery since the government subsidies for public broadcasting are laughably small–and statistically meaningless–in light of the enormity of our $14 trillion national debt.
The other day a Facebook friend noted that, at $600,000 a pop, the 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles dropped on Libya work out to $66 million–two-thirds of the entire annual federal funding of NPR. If all the political rhetoric of late is to be believed, this is money we don’t have, but money spent nonetheless. Yet I doubt that the call to defund public broadcasting will cease. It just plays too easily in the heartland where, all things considered, Volvo-driving college professors and their news source of choice are what we really need to worry about.