NPR Confronts Its Own Tea Party

Mona Charen

10/26/2010 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

I appeared on a public radio program, "On Point," this week with National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia Shepard and listened to her defend NPR's firing of Juan Williams. NPR, the listener is invited to conclude, has no bias, but Williams, a liberal with occasionally heterodox views, is too conservative for NPR.

Shepard was in an impossible position and seemed to know it. Right out of the box, she acknowledged that the "manner" of Williams' firing -- a phone call with no face-to-face discussion permitted -- was wrong. The actual termination, she went on to assert, was completely justified. It wasn't just what Williams said on the Bill O'Reilly show but a "pattern" of comments over the years. This was the "last straw."

But Williams' comments were not a "straw" at all. He was acknowledging a feeling that is universal and not irrational in light of the scores of attacks (accomplished and attempted) over the past several decades. Williams introduced his comments (which included a caution against regarding all Muslims as potential terrorists) with the warning that "political correctness" can "lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality." To maintain, as NPR does, that this was beyond the pale of civilized discussion amounts to authoritarianism -- and completely lives down to Williams' prediction.

Challenged to identify the other departures from NPR standards of which Williams was guilty -- any employer who terminates someone should have a file --Shepard promised that those would be forthcoming. In the meantime, she could assure listeners that Williams' offending comments were inconsistent with (wait for it) NPR's "impartiality" and "neutrality." NPR and Fox News are "two different worlds," she continued, the former representing the dispassionate search for truth and the latter representing "yelling" and extreme partisanship.

Yes, they really are that parochial. Vivian Schiller, NPR's CEO, betrayed the surpassing arrogance of the subsidized by suggesting, after peremptorily canning Williams, that he discuss his feelings with "his psychiatrist or his publicist." Ah, the dispassionate search for truth!

Schiller later felt constrained to apologize, saying, "I stand by my decision to end NPR's relationship with Juan Williams but deeply regret the way I handled and explained it."

Well, OK, we've known for decades that the liberals who run major networks, universities, foundations, and newspapers do not recognize their own tendentiousness. Diane Rehm, Terry Gross, Garrison Keillor, Nina Totenberg, and Daniel Schorr are down-the-middle moderates, whereas you are a right-wing ideologue. (I have complained in the past, after appearing on NPR programs, that I was labeled a "conservative columnist" whereas my fellow guests, liberals all, went unlabeled.) But something is afoot this time that is new.

Embedded in Schiller's apology is an acknowledgment that NPR is reeling from unexpected and vehement public anger. "I regret that we did not take the time to prepare our program partners and provide you with the tools to cope with the fallout from this episode. I know you all felt the reverberations and are on the front lines every day responding to your listeners and talking to the public."

Translation: For the first time in living memory, NPR is getting blowback.

Shepard confirmed this, noting that the Williams firing unfortunately coincided with "pledge week" and that volunteers manning the phones to take donations had been deluged with complaints instead. It seems that NPR has been hit with its own little tea party.

Here's the way to think about public radio and public television: They are testimony to the power of special interests. The taxpayers are subsidizing programming for a minority of left-leaning Americans. A June Pew Center study found that 61 percent of NPR's audience calls itself "progressive" compared with 41 percent of the overall radio audience (and, according to a Gallup survey, only 12 percent of Americans generally). Fourteen percent of NPR listeners call themselves Republicans, whereas 40 percent self-identify as Democrats, and 41 percent as Independents. Why in the world is the government using your taxes to subsidize the radio preferences of your liberal neighbors?

In the 1990s, Republicans made pathetic stabs at defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, and NPR. They retreated -- which told you pretty much all you needed to know about the last Republican majority. A new Republican majority is rumored to be in the making. Its handling of this special interest subsidy will be equally revealing.