NPR is no host for liberals these days
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Who would have thought that the last bastion of "don't ask, don't tell" is American journalism?
No, there is no prohibition against being gay in this business. "Don't ask, don't tell" in this context refers to the institutional bias for straight news.
Straight news allegedly has no agenda or bias. Ideally, it is delivered by journalists or news agencies that operate in an environment uncontaminated by the odious intrusions of real life.
Straight news is opinion-free and takes no delight in either comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable. It is disinterested, grey and technocratic. It provides the perfect media environment in which a political and financial elite can operate with a lot to hide.
A journalist's opinion must never be allowed to seep through the permeable membrane of our ephemeral and forgettable news product. Journalists are devoid of the original sin of having perspectives on the things they cover.
Some of our biggest and most influential media institutions pretend that their employees are working embodiments of this ideal. Consequently, corporate-underwritten journalism has entered its most dispiriting phase yet.
As of last year, National Public Radio ceased to exist. It is now simply NPR, a name without official substance or definition. No one who has listened to it in recent years is surprised by this change.
NPR is committed to being the straightest media outfit in the country. It prides itself on producing the most objective and inoffensive pablum that corporate underwriting and your donations can buy.
It is easy to see how it happened. Persecution by the GOP made the once-indispensable news organization gun-shy and defensive to the extreme. NPR's budget is constantly threatened by know-nothings in Congress who resent public dollars subsidizing a potential ideological counterweight to Fox News.
NPR is desperate to prove that it is not the threat conservatives imagine it to be. It has purged itself of the progressive voices it once featured prominently. You can still hear breezy meditations on crickets in Montana, but don't hold your breath waiting for hard-hitting commentaries on disparities in wealth.
Last week, Lisa Simeone lost her job as host of "Soundprint," an independent documentary program airing on many NPR stations, because the show's producers objected to her political stands, though Mr. Simeone assumed that what she did on her own time was her own business.
Because of her knowledge of how the media operates, Ms. Simeone had become a spokesperson for the Occupy DC protests. This outraged conservatives who consider Ms. Simeone's advocacy for justice for the 99 percent a violation of NPR's standards. Though she is not employed by NPR, the makers of "Soundprint" adopted NPR's code of ethics as their own, and they gave Ms. Simeone the boot even though she wasn't a straight news reporter and didn't cover politics.
NPR also announced that it would no longer distribute "World of Opera" to 60 stations across the country because Ms. Simeone remains the host of that program. It doesn't want to be accused by right-wingers of tolerating outspoken lefties in its ranks.
Fortunately, North Carolina-based WDAV, which produces "World of Opera," refused to cave to NPR's pressure to bounce Ms. Simeone. The station will itself distribute the program nationally beginning next month while keeping Ms. Simeone as host.
In other NPR news, "All Things Considered" co-host Michele Norris announced that she is taking a temporary leave of absence because her husband has taken a job with the Obama re-election committee. His position is about as close to being an unforgivable sin at NPR these days as one can imagine.
Allowing the spouse of a pro-Obama official to remain in a prominent daily time slot would cause too many NPR listeners to wonder about her own opinions. This patronizing view of public radio listeners as sheep has turned NPR into an annoying and reactionary shadow of its former self.
But NPR isn't alone. Many journalists refuse to vote because they believe that participation in the democratic process calls their objectivity into question. Personally, I'd rather die than disenfranchise myself for the sake of public perception.
Journalism would be much more respected if, instead of pretending to be without sin, we admitted that we are citizens with perspectives and opinions about the news of the day that we would be more than happy to share in the appropriate forum.
Leaving the heavy lifting of democratic values and practices to others isn't a virtue. Pretending to be disinterested -- or worse, punishing those who give a damn -- is a flight from civic responsibility. There needs to be a space in journalism big enough for journalists to be citizens, too.
First Published October 25, 2011 12:00 am