I occasionally get email asking me if I don't wonder about the mental faculties of people who watch reality TV shows. The answer: not nearly as much as I do about those of the people who listen to NPR. Public-radio listeners apparently exist inside hermetically sealed ideological compartments that cripple not only their powers of observation but their ability to reason.
Example 97,332: NPR is under siege from listeners complaining that it's running underwriting messages -- public-radiospeak for ads -- for the Department of Homeland Security's E-verify Program, a sort of electronic work permit that the federal government is employing against illegal immigrants. In fact, it's not just listeners. NPR ombudsmen Alicia C. Shepard reports that she's even getting grief from public-radio managers.
The complaints seem to fall into two interrelated categories. One is people who hate the E-Verify Program and don't want to hear anything about it except denunciations. "This program is error-filled, and is yet one more racist intrusion of the Bush administration into the business world and the private lives of all job-seekers,'' Shepard quotes one listener.
The second is critics who think that taking money from the Department of Homeland Security compromises NPR's ability to cover the news. Listeners who hear the E-Verify ads will have to wonder if NPR "can be depended on for independent critical coverage of this and other government agencies," an executive at a San Francisco public-radio station wrote Shepard.
Now, I'm second to none in my skepticism about the E-Verify Program. It requires companies to check with Homeland Security before hiring new employees, to make sure they're here legally. It's bound to create a bureaucratic hell not just for immigrants but for everybody: Just imagine the same government that does such a good job delivering your mail having to rule on the work eligibility of every single one of the 65 million or so Americans who apply for jobs every year, and you'll get my drift.
But the fact that I agree with the NPR critics about E-Verify does not make their reasoning any less cockamamie. Start with their belief that E-Verify is a Bush administration invention, a subset of the widespread conviction among NPR listeners that anything they don't like is by definition Republican.
In fact, the E-Verify program's roots go back to the early days of the Bill Clinton White House. And you can bet that the program is going to expand -- broadly and quickly -- under Barack Obama's government. His nominee for Homeland Security chief, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, has long been a loud voice for an aggressive federal crackdown on immigration. She signed a bill from her state legislature last year that contained some of the harshest penalties in the country for employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Nor is she the only Democratic Party hawk on immigration; one of the earliest and strongest advocates of fortifying and militarizing the U.S. border against Mexican immigrants was Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who's probably the most left-wing member of the U.S. Senate. President Bush, by contrast, was fairly moderate on immigration until he came under intense pressure from hawks of both parties. The immigration issue simply does not break down along party -- or even conventional liberal/conservative -- lines.
As wild as the misperceptions about immigration policy are among NPR critics, their conceptions of what public radio is or should be are even stranger. Should NPR only accept advertising (because that's what we're talking about, no matter what genteel euphemisms we clothe it in) from clients with a certain set of sociopolitical objectives? The lefty Ford Foundation si, the righty Scaife Foundation no? The Department of Health and Welfare but not the Defense Department? (Except when Obama starts pulling the troops out, Defense will be okay again?) The United Way is all right as long as it talks about Planned Parenthood-funded abortion clinics, but not the homophobic Boy Scouts?
Even more peculiar is the fear that accepting government advertising will compromise NPR's news coverage. Bulletin: NPR has taken hundreds of millions of dollars from the Bush administration over the past eight years. The money gets laundered all kinds of ways -- through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which depends heavily on congressional support; through fees to member stations, which in turn get the money from federal handouts; from outright federal grants. But in the end, a huge chunk of NPR's budget comes from taxpayer dollars, with the federal government's hand on the spigot. Has that money subverted NPR's news judgment?
For that matter, what about some of the other institutions that advertise on NPR? Does taking money from the ACLU mean NPR can't objectively cover criminal trials or the controversy over the federal lockup at Guantanamo Bay? Archer Daniels Midland, another frequent underwriter, lobbies ceaselessly for federal welfare for agribusiness. Does anybody worry about the impact on NPR stories on agriculture? Or affairs of the elderly -- AARP is another NPR advertiser. Then there's Allstate. Just ask Florida insurance customers if Allstate has a political agenda.
Reasonable people can no doubt argue both sides of these questions -- if they were ever even raised, which they aren't, because NPR listeners more closely resemble a cult than an audience. I doubt if E-Verify will ever work very well against illegal immigration, but as a deprogrammer, it seems to have some success.