I listen to NPR, almost the only radio station I do listen to. I like it for several reasons.
* It covers international news. I find the British news shows particularly interesting. My daughter lived for a time in Germany, France, and Taiwan. Those places regularly get mentioned on NPR, not so much in most U.S. media.
* NPR covers science. "Science Friday" usually raises some topic that doesn't show up anywhere else. I think science is important.
* They do breaking and in-depth news. Often, I hear something on NPR several days before I see it in the paper. They also dig into a story, not just present a 30 second sound bite. I found their coverage from China - right after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - riveting.
* Some of its shows, "A Prairie Home Companion" and "This American Life" for instance, often make me laugh, or present music and perspectives I appreciate.
Last week, I discussed the problem of "accidental extremism" -- what happens when you pay attention only to one voice in the political spectrum. It's fair to wonder: do people who listen only to NPR run the same risks as people who watch only Fox News?
The answer, of course, is yes.
Fox may have gone to court to defend its right to distort the news (as I talked about last week). But this week, we have the far more recent case of NPR firing one of its distinguished "news analysts," Juan Williams.
Why? Because while appearing on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" on October 18, 2010, Williams said, "...when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
Why was that a firing offense? According to NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, "News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts..."
Well, that seems pretty lame to me. Williams is a smart guy. His admission of discomfort at this moment in our history just makes him human.
Sure, "Muslim garb" can be tricky. Can you tell the difference between Afghani headgear and Sikh? I can't. But the comment reminded me of Jesse Jackson, who once reported that when he walked down an urban street at night, then was approached by strangers, he was sometimes relieved if they turned out to be white.
The issue here is lingering fear. Some of it may be statistical, or anecdotal, or even irrational. But all of us carry it around with us. Jesse Jackson wasn't arguing for racial profiling. Williams wasn't suggesting a new Crusade.
Firing Williams isn't censorship. NPR isn't the government. They can employ anyone they like. And in fact, Williams has apparently been offered a lucrative contract ($2 million over three years!) by Fox, who is delighted by the whole affair. Williams won't be injured by the deal.
The call from the conservative crowd immediately went up to end government funding for NPR. But that only accounts for about 2% of their budget. As any regular listener knows, most of the funding comes from irritating on air requests for pledges.
But they work. That means that the people who want it, pay for it. I do myself. At $15 a month, it's exactly three times what I pay for library services through my taxes.
If we're ending government funding for private concerns, does that include subsidies to oil companies, loggers, ranchers, and others? Which pot of money do you reckon is bigger?
Nonetheless, this flap does dent the credibility of NPR, at least in my eyes. It makes me pay a little more attention to them, to be a little more thoughtful, a little more critical, about what they tell me.
Ultimately, against accidental extremism, that's the only protection we have.
LaRue's Views are his own.