Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Cold Hard Facts of Life

It's pledge season on NPR, and the area station I wake up to each morning is having a rough time.  Usually their "challenges," where local businesses and other institutions offer to make a large donation if the station gets a certain amount in pledges or a given number of calls in an hour, are more or less successful.  But so far they're not making it.  I made a donation myself for one of these when I hoped my pledge would get them over the top, with only four more calls needed; but they didn't make that one, and for the past few mornings I haven't heard them getting even that close.  That's worrisome, because regardless of my reservations about NPR this station does a good job with local news and weather reports.  The announcers have voices outside the NPR standard, somewhat quirky, and I like that.  I hope they pull through.

I cringed, though, when they played a few audio messages from people who'd called in their pledge.  A recurring theme was praise for NPR's "fact-based" news coverage.  As I indicated, I'd apply that label to the affiliate's local coverage, but not to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, let alone The 1A.  Like its television sibling PBS, NPR subordinates fact to its self-consciously middle-of-the-road but all-American corporate agenda. Morning Edition, as I've often complained, is obnoxious in that regard: its hosts are not reporters but pundits, often obnoxiously perky or outright smarmy.  They can sometimes stand up to right-wing Republicans, but give them someone a wee bit left-of-center, or just rude to their corporate masters, and they get mean. Before I moved from Bloomington I hadn't listened to these programs for decades, and now I'm starting to hate them.  I loathe the quickies, where the pundit tells an upbeat little item over a perky, rhythmic little tune that ends with a twinkle. And, like most commercial news media, they devote far too much airtime to reading tea leaves, asking "what we can expect": from the President's upcoming speech, from Congress, from the stock market, from the economy, from the pandemic.  I estimate that at least a third of their nominal news airtime is devoted to this kind of speculation.  But hey, it wakes me up each day.

So where do these listener-members get their claim that NPR is "fact-based"?  I suspect they don't really know what it means, and just are just echoing NPR's self-estimation.  Just as the same sort of people gushed over the "competence" of Joe Biden's appointees without knowing anything at all about most of them, NPR's classiness and superiority to Those Other Networks is an article of faith.  It doesn't need to be defended, it just is.

Similarly, one of the pledge crew exalted one of today's Weekend Edition stories, about a young Kentucky punk rocker who'd turned to playing banjo during the pandemic, and tracked down the 90-something craftsman who'd made his instrument.  The story was pleasant, mildly interesting, if shallow, but the announcer held it up as the sort of thing you'd never hear from mainstream news.  On the contrary, similar stories from CBS or NBC are regularly recommended to me by Youtube. It's called Human Interest, and it's utterly standard.