I'm continually fascinated by the columns of NPR ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard, who regularly reveals what a bizarre, snow-globe universe her radio network's listeners live in. A couple of months ago she wrote about how they were in a frothing rage that NPR was accepting advertising (excuse me, "underwriting," public broadcasting's favorite euphemism) for a federal government program to detect illegal immigrants. This week she reveals that their newest jihad is against NPR news analyst Juan Williams, who's been spotted appearing on Fox News. The NPR is reacting roughly the way the pope would to reports that nuns were attending Saturday-night sock hops in Hell. Williams "dishonors NPR." He's "an embarrassment to NPR." And of course it goes without saying that Williams should be fired.
In recent days the NPR audience has been freaked out over something Williams said a couple of weeks ago on Bill O'Reilly's show. In a discussion of some of the minor flaps that have erupted in the early days of Obama's presidency, Williams warned that the First Lady could turn into a PR liability. "Michelle Obama, you know, she's got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going," he said. "If she starts talking, as [conservative bloggers are] suggesting, her instinct is to start with this 'blame America,' you know, 'I'm the victim.' If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross."
As predictions go, that one seems pretty tepid. Williams didn't say Mrs. Obama willgo off on a victimhood tangent, only that if she does, it will affect her husband's popularity. Given that she already ruffled some feathers during the Democratic primaries last year with her remark that "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country," Williams' remarks -- even if you disagree with him -- hardly seem like wing-nut raving.
Unless you're an NPR listener or news executive. Shepard writes that dozens of listeners complained and NPR bosses gave him a stern lecture about the Michelle Obama comments. Comments about first ladies, it seems, are just not the NPR way -- at least, not if they're named Obama. Reagan, that's another matter. "I felt there was no weight to her -- neither physically nor emotionally nor intellectually," NPR senior correspondent Susan Stamberg wrote of Nancy Reagan in her book Talk. "She was like a glass of champagne without the gaiety of bubbles. It wasn't that the champagne had gone flat. It seemed, instead, as if the bubbles had just never been there." If Stamberg got a lecture over that, it seems to have been strangely omitted from Shepard's column.
Of course, the real issue is not what Williams said but where he said it, as Shepard admits: "I question whether listeners, overall, object to whatWilliams says outside of NPR or the fact that he says it on Fox." Like a mass of Bubble Boys who've lived their lives inside in a plastic tent, NPR listeners shun the outside world as a potential source of lethal contagion, and anyone who's ventured onto a network that doesn't share their ideological orthodoxies must be considered a potential carrier. It's a bizarre worldview, but NPR executives don't seem inclined to challenge it. Williams has been instructed not to identify himself as an NPR analyst when he's appearing on O'Reilly's show. I don't know what Williams thinks about that, but Fox News seems singularly undisturbed. "We were doing NPR a favor by even plugging them," a Fox News spokeswoman said Thursday. "But we have no problem dropping the mention along with their exposure to millions of viewers."
Footnote: Bad news, NPR listeners -- run for the phone to cancel your Esquire subscriptions, and then burn the current issue at once. Bad enough that it contains a rather flattering profile of Fox News anchor Shep Smith.(Omigod! The man who coined the nickname Jihad Johnny!) But Esquire writer Tom Junod visited the Fox News studios in New York and claims he didn't see a single person with cloven hooves!
"The funny thing about Fox News is that it's almost a disappointment to visit it, especially if you're of the belief that it's a nefarious force in American life, a greedy beast from whose adamantine jaws the presidency itself had to be wrested," Junod writes. "The people are so nice. They're so accommodating. They work so hard. It's almost a Shangri-la of gainful employment, with everybody feeling remunerated and appreciated." One more name for the blacklist.