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Here's One Cut NPR Can Afford to Make
Published on Thursday, October 23, 2003 by the Madison (WI) Capital Times
Here's One Cut NPR Can Afford to Make
by John Nichols

National Public Radio is an imperfect but exceptionally necessary part of the American media landscape. For any democracy to function, it needs strong public broadcasting networks. And while NPR is not nearly so well-financed or so intellectually adventurous as it should be, the network merits more praise than criticism.

Much of what ails NPR has to do with what it lacks in staff. The network has been starved financially for far too long. But that doesn't mean that all cuts are inappropriate. For instance, NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dworkin definitely needs to look for a new line of work.

That was obvious when this arbiter of approved behaviors attacked "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross for asking television personality Bill O'Reilly a couple of tough questions .

O'Reilly is the host of the Fox News Channel's "O'Reilly Factor," as well as a nationally syndicated radio program. Despite the fact that he is on Fox, O'Reilly is not a Rush Limbaugh clone. He makes rare deviations from the network's slavish adherence to the Bush White House's talking points, takes a few think-for-yourself stands and puts together a program that gets high ratings because it's fast-paced and interesting.

About the only thing that is really off-putting about O'Reilly is his whining. He whines when guests disagree with him, he whines when comedian Al Franken points out his mistakes of fact and style, he whines when he is not treated as the king of cable. So it should hardly come as any surprise that he whined about Terry Gross' mildly challenging interview with him on Oct. 8.

After facing a round of questioning that was inspired by Franken's dissection of his television persona and background, O'Reilly told Gross, "This is basically an unfair interview designed to try to trap me into saying something that Harper's magazine can use. And you know it. And you should be ashamed of yourself. And that is the end of this interview."

It was all good theater. And anyone who has watched O'Reilly's program knew he would turn his huffing performance into fodder for his ceaseless campaign against public funding for NPR. In other words, it was a mildly entertaining moment that made for some good radio; nothing more.

Unfortunately, NPR ombudsman Dworkin decided to join O'Reilly's attack on Gross, declaring that, "Listeners were not well served by this interview. Unfortunately, the interview only served to confirm the belief, held by some, in NPR's liberal bias."

Talk about whiners! Dworkin and other members of the NPR hierarchy are so rattled by criticism from right-wing media pundits that they now criticize the network's own presenters for not treating conservative-leaning guests with kid gloves.

Dworkin's criticism of Gross for the "crime" of asking tough questions does far more damage to NPR than O'Reilly ever could. Instead of complimenting Gross for hosting an aggressively hostile guest, Dworkin took her to task for failing to conduct a vapid celebrity interview.

When veteran interviewers get the message that they are not supposed to ask the questions they think appropriate - either to avoid criticism from ideologues or to thwart threats of funding cuts from NPR's enemies in Congress - the pressure to soften the edges and narrow the discourse increases.

The last thing America needs is another broadcast network that refuses to ask tough questions and instead practices stenography to the famous and powerful.

Copyright 2003 The Capital Times


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