Friday, October 22, 2010

NPR, The Left-Right War, and The American Project

It seems that every 4.5 weeks or so, a major media war breaks out in America because someone said something ill-chosen about a certain group of people, whether the remark contained a core truth or not. The point of this essay will not be to determine whether NPR was right to can Juan Williams; the fact that a public-broadcasting entity (not a cable network or a newspaper) occupied the center of a firestorm is what makes this issue worth blogging on at appreciable length. In this blogsite's ongoing attempt (albeit very occasional during college football season, when carpal-tunnel syndrome is a very real threat for me...) to foster Left-Right dialogue in the service of America, it's important to take the Juan Williams incident and use it to unpack macro-level concepts about a good society, and how Americans of all political leanings can participate in the struggle.

First off, let's clear the air about some misconceptions that might exist in the immediate aftermath of L'Affaire Williams. (If I was talking only to NPR listeners, I would have said, "Let me be clear," because, as we all know, that's Obama-speak and a coded attempt to rally the liberal base... *pause*... okay, did you think I was being serious there? That was a joke, just in case you were wondering. I'm wanting to defuse tensions here.)

I do not think that Williams deserved to be fired for the remarks he made. I do not think that NPR is terribly ethical, or that its national political coverage is particularly distinguished. I don't think the current reality of public broadcasting in relationship to public affairs programming - on television or radio - reflects a healthy or ideal situation. The work that C-SPAN does, and the coverage C-SPAN provides, should be provided by public television. The irony is that it actually once was, when the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour grew out of Robert MacNeil's and Jim Lehrer's coverage of the Watergate hearings.

PBS and NPR are at their best when covering all the bookish, cultural, artsy, science-rich discussions, talks, lectures, Q-and-As, and like events that, taken together, offer a rich font of public education outside a classroom setting. I owe much of my educational enrichment not just to St. Thomas the Apostle grade school and Brophy College Preparatory (located in Phoenix), plus Seattle University as well; I also owe my education to my two parents, who were both college linguistics professors (mom taught English, my late father taught Spanish), and to public television.

I learned about the history of the Kennedys on the American Experience in 1994.

I learned about the history of the city of New York in a Ric Burns documentary in 1999.

Bill Moyers' interviews with Joseph Campbell in the late 1980s have been repeated on public television pledge drives over the years, and I was able to catch several sessions in 2004, to my great spiritual enrichment and edification. (I recently tucked a Joseph Campbell reference into a review of a college football weekend, as a matter of fact.)

Bill Moyers' roundtable with various religious scholars on the Book of Genesis provided a stimulating, multi-layered exploration of Scripture in all its nuance, lending insights on the Christian, Jewish and Muslim monotheistic traditions.

I've watched several different documentaries on United States presidents, on Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; I've watched documentaries on baseball, jazz, and the Civil War; I've watched documentaries on World War II and profiles of countless figures in the world of American culture, from Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin and from Marvin Gaye to Carol Burnett; I watched Sesame Street at my grandparents' house and 3-2-1 Contact at home; I've watched many dozens of Masterpiece Theater series on the great books from the canon of English literature, enabling the dense writing of Charles Dickens - hard to grasp as a sixth-grader - to come alive in pictures and spoken words.

So much of what I've learned in a narrowly educational sense has come not just from textbooks and teachers, but from PBS programs. In the realm of expressly non-political, non-editorial content, PBS has made information - on culture, the great ideas, and fields of study - available to the masses. The realm of what Juan Williams stepped into - and which political bloggers of all stripes are arguing about - is a different matter, and one that the term "train wreck" would adequately describe. While C-SPAN provides the coverage model PBS and NPR should be using, the non-political realms of public broadcasting have largely fulfilled their mission of making vital information more accessible to the common person.

With all this having been said, here's where the discussion becomes necessarily political:

Other people I come across on Twitter with varying degrees of consistency - Brendan Loy, Cari Gervin, Amanda Carpenter, and Dan Collins, to name a few - could give you four nuanced and distinctly different takes on the particulars of public broadcasting, government funding, and what money goes where in what proportion. My task here is to not get caught up in those molecular or granular details and take the discussion to a more expansive place. What we should be asking ourselves in the wake of the Juan Williams/NPR incident is this: Is there a place for public broadcasting in a healthy democratic society?

The answer doesn't have to be "yes" - conservative friends might be surprised to hear that, but of course, I'm not going to let my friends on the Right get off that easily. Regardless of your answer to the question "Is public broadcasting necessary?", there is certainly a moral dimension to the ways in which a society makes information available.

In order to get at this question about the (lack of a) need for public broadcasting, let's realize that we are not just biological animals, but cognitive and emotive beings, linguistic beings, sexual beings, spiritual beings. We are not the hunter-gatherers our biological predecessors were. We are domesticated organisms immersed in cultures and belief systems and ways of life.

Differentiations in cultures are most profoundly felt from country to country and from continent to continent, but in America, the diversity of regions offers, ironically enough, a fairly substantial set of alternate universes in its own right. From Mississippi to Maine and from Ohio to Oregon, where you grow up (and, of course, how you grow up, but that's a different matter for another day...) determines a lot of the things you're exposed to at various stages of life - certainly not everything, but a fair amount to be sure. Variations will, of course, apply to specific individuals, but on a larger level, it's fair to say that the American South and the coastal/non-inland areas of the Pacific Northwest are very different places. The same dynamic applies to densely-populated urban centers and small towns throughout the Rocky Mountain, Central Plains, and Upper Midwest regions.

The point of outlining these basic facts of human life (within a specifically American prism) is to show that there are many highly conditional and culturally unique aspects of our lived-out existence as Americans. Growing up in one city or state never guarantees an outcome for each and every individual on a whole host of levels, but viewed collectively and taken on a wider scale, these things do matter and they will carry more than a little weight in shaping the futures of persons and, by extension, America at large.

From this diversity, this reality of geographical and cultural differentiation, one must be able to reasonably access - with minimal cost and effort - different perspectives if one so chooses. For the person who grows up in a liberal household but feels stifled and needs to break free (Andrew Breitbart felt this tension in his younger years), there needs to be a well of information and perspective that will provide an alternative viewpoint. For the person who grows up in a conservative household but feels the tug of competing views and needs to know what life is like on the other side of the divide (my mother would qualify here, although I hasten to say that my late maternal grandfather was a principled and honorable conservative; we simply had some VERY contentious Sunday lunch arguments over hamburgers and potato salad in my childhood), a good society should offer a portal to the expansion of the mind.

This is not a question of what kind of punditry or analysis a person receives. This is not a dissection of the Sunday talk shows or the way a moderator performs at a given debate. What IS being discussed here is the notion of having information that is not shoehorned or ostensibly linked to a given viewpoint. This is indeed about having a public font of information - on science, on the arts, on culture, on religion - in which ideas are not so much validated or pronounced to be good (or bad), but are instead merely presented and explored. The viewer of the PBS program, the listener of the NPR broadcast, should make the judgment about the content being provided.

Hopefully, you can see at this point that a sufficiently diverse amount of information should be there for people who grow up in contexts - both hyper-liberal and hyper-conservative - where cultural winds and market forces plus family dynamics can do and limit one's exposure to certain views. And in the expressly political/public affairs realm, American citizens should simply be able to see government as it operates and for what it does, i.e., as C-SPAN shows it.

Here's the real heart of this essay: I could perhaps be loud wrong on this, but it's my sense that we, as human beings (not Americans, but as human beings in general), most instinctively and reflexively think of food, water, clothing and shelter as basic needs, the things every society must attempt to provide for each and every person, at least as a starting point. (If people want to forfeit those provisions through autonomously-made dysfunctional choices that are unaffected by outside factors, that's a different discussion.) However, information - or more precisely, easy access to it - really should be considered just as essential.

For instance, how can you eat if you're an unemployed homeless person who doesn't know how to access food stamps? Educating single moms from high-risk demographics has been a big problem here in Washington State; getting single moms and other people to public seminars on those kinds of topics - at community centers and other public kinds of facilities - represents a non-TV, non-radio form of the value of what can be called public education in a more expansive sense of the term. Private corporations should be able to make a buck, and private broadcast entities - i.e., private cable or radio networks - should be able to broadcast what they want. All this essay seeks to ensure is that there are at least a few outlets - national, accessible, low-cost, and non-partisan - which can disseminate not speech, but information; not ideology, but vital statistics and advisories; not indoctrination, but details about basic services; not expected behaviors, but opportunities for cultural and holistic enrichment.

As I have said before on this very blog, my Catholic background leads me to embrace the concept of subsidiarity, which is one of the pillars of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity is the principle that something should be done at the most localized level possible, with responsibility and action going up the food chain only if absolutely necessary. The desire of conservatives to localize and de-centralize government is noble, valuable and laudable. A good society should aim to dispense services and information in more localized ways. If liberals do militate against this goal, those liberals are wayward and misguided.

Now, with that having been said, here's the counterbalancing point: The desire to bring about more subsidiarity - more localized delivery methods for services - does not inherently or automatically mean that every situation or problem can indeed be addressed at a very localized level. Subsidiarity points to the most localized solution possible; sometimes, it is simply the case that the most localized solution simply isn't able to be terrifically local.

Maybe, if you're a conservative, you think that there's absolutely no place for public broadcasting. Given that NPR has been manifestly unethical in many different ways for quite some time - in ways that have upset liberals as well as conservatives - that's a perfectly understandable point of view. The actual reality of public broadcasting's performance in the coverage of current affairs certainly has not matched the standard set by C-SPAN, a private entity that has carried public television's water in the political world. Point conceded.

However, if you do think that there's no place for public broadcasting in a good society, a healthy democratic commons, here's the larger principle that must still be upheld: If government is to be de-centralized and if freedom of speech is to be truly honored - which it wasn't in the most granular aspects of the Juan Williams case (but was in a larger context beyond the immediate incident itself) - the flow of information, while justifiably privatized for most broadcasters, must find some kind of home that is not subject to the profit motive.

Before cable arrived in 1979 thanks to Ted Turner and CNN, there were five basic television options for the American television viewer: A local independent/unaffiliated station in your own market, along with ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. The first four options were privately owned, meaning that a combination of personal preference and market forces determined the kind of content a viewer would get on that given channel. For many years, the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) sustained a high level of journalism because they maintained a commitment to doing journalism as the public service that it is and was always supposed to be.

Today, however, things are different. It's true that even Edward R. Murrow fought market forces at CBS, but the folks at Black Rock under Bill Paley still produced and broadcast a lot of public-affairs programming at their own expense. Today, there is no genuine attempt on the part of the three broadcast networks to perform journalism as a public service. Journalism today is a profit engine - that's what it's set up to be, and that's what moves the needle in boardrooms and programming departments.

Therefore, if you are a person whose household stands on the edge of financial ruin, and if you can't afford anything more than the most basic, bare-bones cable package possible (in other words, getting an HD converter and nothing else), where are you going to turn for objective, spin-free information in various aspects of life and culture? If ABC, CBS and NBC are market-driven, and if your local unaffiliated television station has an owner who fills the days with Judge Judy or Rachel Ray, where are you going to learn about history or find appropriate viewing content for your children during the afternoon hours? There should at least be one outlet for this kind of person, and public broadcasting was always meant to fill such a need. In non-political realms, it has done so with great distinction and consistency, and that's why I will go to the mat for public broadcasting in expressly non-political forms of programming.

Here's what I want to get across to my conservative friends: As I mentioned earlier, the free flow of information - and more particularly, its liberation from the profit motive - serves to promote a more localized and subsidiarity-based society because it reaches past culturally and demographically specific situations pertaining to various cities, states and regions. To amplify my point - in relationship to the above paragraphs on the shift at the broadcast networks from public-service journalistic outlets to profit-driven outlets - it simply needs to be said that the quality of journalism today is awful. You surely agree with that; otherwise, mainstream media criticism wouldn't be honest. (I also think mainstream media is horrible, and I dare say most liberals would agree. The Left and the Right are surely in agreement on this larger point, just for very different sets of reasons.)

So, given our shared disapproval of the performance of mainstream media, it bears mentioning that mainstream media - while including PBS and NPR - is predominantly privately owned and operated. The irony of this week's NPR-created firestorm is that NPR is associated, and understandably so, with the rest of privately-owned mainstream media, whereas privately-owned C-SPAN performs the true function of a non-partisan public broadcaster.

Indeed, one of the great ironies of contemporary American broadcast media is that NPR has its own political identity and branding, which is exactly what public broadcasting, writ large and viewed on a conceptual level, was never intended to have. Public broadcasting should be cleaned up; PBS and NPR should be cleansed of expressly political taints in both directions - surely from its real and pervasive cultural liberalism, but also from its Establishment-friendly opposition to the use of the word "torture" to describe American military policy. NPR should not be in the business of providing news opinion or commentary - as Jay Rosen tweeted last night - but NPR should also ensure that its employees, left or right, are not associated in any way with expressly ideological organizations. (See "Mara Liasson" and "Barbara Bradley Hagerty" for examples of this.) There is much that needs to be reformed about the way public broadcasting is structured, and to not acknowledge this is to do a great disservice to the conservative viewpoint and its proper advocacy for both subsidiarity and the need for governmental restraint as a default position.

What we are left with is - surprise, surprise - a very difficult tension point, which is frankly what all political disagreements are all about: There is a definite need to localize government and make it more responsive to the workings of subsidiarity. Yet, there's also the equally powerful need to make information both accessible and free from the constraining forces of the profit motive. When activists stormed the mandated Federal Communications Commission hearings - held in several U.S. cities including Seattle (I was there) - in the fall of 2007, they might have felt they were sticking up for independent and alternative journalists from their own political/ideological camp, but they were in fact standing up for bloggers and local outlets with different views as well.

The debate about NPR in the wake of L'Affaire Williams (such as it is; it hasn't been much of a debate on either side of the aisle) has acquired the dimensions of a debate about government control versus a lack thereof. What we should be focusing on is the need to have at least one non-cable broadcast outlet be reserved for the sharing of educational material without expressly political or partisan components, so that economically limited parents and households can access information. When our poorest and most under-resourced citizens can access information without excessive or unreasonable hardship, and know that the broadcaster's content is not predicated on a desire to gain ratings points or market share, the public commons is enhanced. If America ensures that every single television in every market - on the most minimal cable package offered by any provider - has at least one channel that provides what PBS has provided in non-political realms (Sesame Street, Nova, Nature, American Experience) plus public-access-type content that simply points out the availability/eligibility updates for basic services, we can develop a country in which people are more empowered to make choices and exercise their democratic franchise at localized levels, without worrying that the information they receive is compromised by a private agenda or a profit motive (or both).

You don't have to be a conservative to realize that NPR is highly unethical, identifiably political (to its detriment), and actually quite capitalist in much of what it does, all of which undercut the whole point of public broadcasting itself.

You don't have to be a liberal to realize that the free flow of ideas and easy access to information are cornerstones of a society in which the populace can be more informed at localized levels, thereby creating a country in which a more de-centralized government can exist and, in turn, offer local community solutions to problems within a climate of subsidiarity.

If the Left and Right want to use the NPR/Juan Williams kerfuffle as a reason to only deepen animosities and reaffirm the worst stereotypes about their views of Muslims or Jews, well, we can continue that corrosive, soul-hardening, spirit-stifling, life-squelching, progress-inhibiting drama of mortal combat and mutually-shared hatred that will only lead our country into a deeper ditch and a darker place.

Or, perhaps, we can turn in another more constructive direction. Maybe we can use the NPR-Williams dust-up as a chance to reassess current weaknesses in the public broadcasting architecture so that we can revive long-dormant notions of giving all citizens the access to information, which is as basic a need as food, water and shelter.

It's your choice, America. It's your choice, lefties and righties. It's your choice: Are we going to have worthy public debates about the tension points raised by the very existence of NPR and PBS, or are we going to stand pat and not move one inch off our respective dimes?

The American Project, whatever we might think or feel about it, certainly won't be advanced if the Left-Right firing squad continues its crossfire without cessation.

Moreover, I think Juan Williams would agree.