This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

November 4, 2010 - NPR firing lame

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.


  1. Mr. LaRue,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Journalist or not, Juan had a right to speak his mind and if I'm not mistaken, this right is guaranteed. He didn't say that all Muslim's were extremists. He didn't say that all Muslim's were terrorists. However our society has been put on alert that some Muslims are in fact extremists and some are in fact terrorists. While this is true of every group of people, most groups are not so recognizable as Muslims are when they wear what it is that they wear and it makes those around them feel uncomfortable.
    What happened to the old saying: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do"? People would do themselves a HUGE favor if they would at least try to blend into our society. I would think that immigrants would know about our customs before they move here so they should not be surprised when they get here. Blend in. Learn our language. Embrace what it is that we stand for. Become an AMERICAN. It's really not that bad of a deal.

  2. Since every American now owes the Chinese and other nations/corporations/individuals over $43,000 (TRILLIONS of dollars of debt) perhaps your suggestion to end ALL government subsidies is worthy of consideration. What would happen if we let the free market economy pick winners and losers instead of the elite members of the ruling class?

  3. Thanks for your perspective on this Jamie, it reflects much of my own thoughts on the matter. Part of what i find most frustrating about "accidental extremism" is the tendency towards knee-jerk reactions to what you astutely noted are human misteps. I see this in national politics and increasingly at a local level. Sadly, we seem to be in a period where debate, conversation and even healthy disagreement are not practiced regularly.

    I was disappointed to hear Mr. Williams speak in what seems to me as an intolerant manner mostly because I have heard him speak so passionately and expertly about the civil rights movement in this country. It has been a reminder to me to be a critical consumer of the news but also to be mindful of how I think (and speak) about those who may dress, act or think differently than myself.

    I am also an NPR listener and supporter and believe they could have done better here. I intend to write them an email about my thoughts. I believe taking action and standing up for what you believe, in a gracious manner, may also be a dying art. Practicing informed productive activism is something I hope to pass to my children in word and deed.

    Emily Hansen

  4. Dr Ross, there's something a little disingenuous about this statement: "What would happen if we let the free market economy pick winners and losers instead of the elite members of the ruling class?"

    The ruling class is the MONEYED class. What would happen is that the rich would get richer and poor poorer. That's the usual result of the market. OK by you?