One of the odd little side effects of the Internet for journalists of a certain age is to see old stories rise up like ghosts on Halloween. As more and more publications put their archives online, stuff I wrote years ago and haven't seen since pops up out of nowhere. The latest example is a piece I wrote in 1993 about how much I hated public radio. Written originally for Washington's City Paper, it eventually appeared in eight or nine alternative papers across the country. (One of the dirty little secrets of alternative journalism is that a lot of editors hate their own readers and delight in running stuff that will offend them.) One of them, the Chicago Reader, recently started putting its archives online, and a reader passed along the link to me.
Some of the details in the story are anachronistic -- I smiled nostalgically to myself at the idea that Congress would regard a $16 billion stimulus package as spendthrift. (If only.) And a sad number of names in it -- from Richard Nixon to Peter Jennings to Ted Kennedy to, heartbreakingly, my sister -- are no longer with us.
But the thrust of the story, I think, remains valid. NPR remains a cultish echo chamber with a tiny audience anchored in a dying medium, funded almost entirely with money extorted from taxpayers. Other than that, public radio is great.
Every few years I make an anthropological visit to my sister's home out west. My sister -- her name is withheld to protect the guilty -- is a lifelong bureaucrat who's never worked for anyone who had to show a profit, and she is deeply suspicious of the whole concept. She'll drive miles across the city to poke through the out-of-copyright videotapes at the public library rather than spend two bucks to rent one at the Blockbuster down the street. She regards any financial transaction between two parties not employed by the government as vaguely shady, if not downright illicit.
Needless to say, she listens to National Public Radio.
Every morning that I stay at her house, I'm awakened at 6 AM by the droning baritone of Bob Edwards, the anchor of Morning Edition. The program stays on until 8:30, when my sister dashes to her car and switches it on there to listen to the final half hour on her way to work. And in the afternoon I usually have to leave the house to avoid being driven to homicide by the discordant tinkling of the All Things Considered theme, which echoes from her radio from 5 PM to 6:30.
Of course, lots of people have favorite news programs. I don't think my father missed more than half-a-dozen telecasts of The Huntley-Brinkley Report in his entire life. But what moves my sister's obsession with NPR from the mildly eccentric to the downright bizarre is that it's her sole source of news. She never watches network television news, and she'll tune in a local program only when she knows it's running a story about one of her bureaucratic projects. She subscribes to a local paper, but only for the arts
This has led to some grave disappointments in my sister's life. She is still perplexed that the ERA didn't make it into the Constitution, since, she told me, NPR reported that the election of Jimmy Carter made it a sure thing. And she was dumbfounded when the Christic Institute's lawsuit, which alleged that the entire national security apparatus of the U.S. government was nothing more than a drug ring, was dismissed by a federal judge before coming to trial. NPR, she said, had made it all sound so reasonable. (The fact that
the suit was filed by an NPR stringer, to my sister's way of thinking, only confirmed its validity.)
Once in a while, I gently hint to my sister that her worldview might be slightly better rounded if she would acknowledge that perhaps Linda Wertheimer is not the final authority on everything under the sun. My suggestions are always met with scorn. "You can get your news from giant corporations if you want to," she snaps. "I'd rather get mine from people who aren't motivated by profit. I'd rather get my news from people who think like me."
For a long time I considered my sister a harmless aberration -- an upscale version of the guys you occasionally read about who think they get secret messages from Elvis through their fillings. But as the years have passed, I've met more and more people who share her fetish for NPR. In fact, NPR itself likes to brag about the cultish devotion of its listeners. The network's 1991 annual report includes letters from a number of hopelessly fixated groupies who regard NPR roughly the same way John Hinckley regarded Jodie Foster.
One listener boasts that he and his wife recently drove from Buckhannon, West Virginia, to Portland, Oregon, and back, listening to NPR every foot of the 6,500 miles. Another, from Randolph, Massachusetts, flatly declares: "If I am informed at all about anything current, it is because I listen to NPR."
With my sister, these listeners share the peculiar belief that they're better informed because they obtain all their information from a single source--that exposing themselves to an alternative would not only not add to their knowledge, but would actually subtract from it. Most NPR listeners, I'm sure, wouldn't trust an economist who bragged that he accepted only the scholarship of Milton Friedman, or a politician who read only the works of Lenin. But somehow they think their own understanding of the world is enhanced by
basing it exclusively on a news organization that labors in an antiquated, one-dimensional medium and whose entire staff wouldn't fill the city room at the New York Times.
This is something of a mystery -- that highly educated, well-to-do people (for that is what NPR's listeners are, mostly) would adopt the kind of intellectual isolationism that we would ordinarily associate with survivalist cults holed up in the Ozarks. Like survivalists, NPR listeners are not exactly numerous--"There are more people falling off the face of the earth than there are listening to NPR," observes Bill McCleneghan, ABC
Radio's vice president for research -- but, like survivalists, their very existence is a troubling enigma. You always have to wonder: Do they know something the rest of us don't?
Recently I decided to get to the bottom of this. I became an undercover NPR listener. To my family and friends, I kept up a facade of normality, reading my regular newspapers and watching television news. But, in the privacy of my bedroom, away from the world's prying eyes, I got up every morning at 6 and listened to all three hours of Morning Edition (the length of the program varies from market to market). And every afternoon at 5 I mixed a stiff drink and settled in for 90 minutes of All Things Considered.
My conclusion: I'd rather be a survivalist. Read the rest of my story in the Chicago Reader.