'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Why I Don't Listen to NPR 

Going back to the early 1990s, I always found it aggravating to listen to National Public Radio. There was an undercurrent of condescension in the style of most of the reporters, a feature that, with the passage of time, became more and more obnoxious, a form of journalistic passive aggression that bespoke an incorrigible elitism. I used to carpool to work with someone from my office in those days, a stereotypical liberal who knew best, and, not surprisingly, he loved to listen to NPR. Personally, I found his preferred alternative much more enjoyable, Frank and Mike in the Morning on KNBR.

Listening to Frank and Mike rhapsodically muse about the joys of playing golf in the Napa Valley after they went off the air was more pleasant than being subjected to the swarmy smugness of most NPR reporters and commentors. Even a good guy like Daniel Shorr came off poorly there, probably because it was obvious that he was a token of gritty integrity in a place where it was otherwise noticeably absent. NPR was the gatekeeper for acceptable mainstream moderate to liberal opinion in the US. Government sources were given deference, and gently contested if the facts were against them. Other sources were generally limited to academia, business people and professionals. Together they conspired to create a boundary of what constituted an acceptable political discourse, based upon middle to upper middle income social values.

For example, opponents to free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT were generally described as well-meaning (everyone in the world of NPR is well-meaning, even Dick Cheney and Richard Perle), but ignorant people with a susceptibility to populist manipulation. Nothing was considered more alarming in the world of NPR than populism. Similarly, it was, let's be candid, a publicly financed mouthpiece for the Clinton Administration, with the administration's failings presented more ruefully than critically. Prior to the emergence of the Internet, it was a major influence upon educated professionals, as it paradoxically mirrored and molded their opinions.

As you might have guessed, I haven't listened to it for years. The Internet provides numerous sources of information that have broken the NPR intellectual monopoly, and I much prefer it. Apparently, if the people that do continue to listen to NPR are to be believed, little has changed, except that, in the post-9/11 environment, NPR now, much like the New York Times and the Washington Post translates the street talk of the Bush Administration into a milder, acceptable form for the gentle ears of pleasant, soft spoken Americans. In other words, NPR smooths out the coarser, belligerent patois associated with the "war on terror" so that it sounds more reasonable.

No doubt, you've asked, what has prompted me to post about this today? Two things that I encountered in my perusal of the news. First, consider this Fairness in Accuracy in Reporting comment about an NPR report on the fifth anniversary of the war, a report on the subject on the number of Iraqi casualties:

Here's how NPR anchor Scott Simon introduced a segment on March 15 in which senators James Webb and Jon Kyl talked about "what the war has meant and what the future might hold":

"This coming Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. So far 3,975 U.S. service men and women have died. Estimates on the number of Iraqis killed range from 47,000 to 151,000, depending on the source."

But what sources are those? The New England Journal of Medicine (1/31/08) published a survey conducted by the Iraqi government on behalf of the World Health Organization, which estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had been killed by violence between the March 2003 invasion and June 2006. This, presumably, is the source of NPR's 151,000 figure. The write-up in NEJM begins: "Estimates of the death toll in Iraq from the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 until June 2006 have ranged from 47,668 (from the Iraq Body Count) to 601,027 (from a national survey)."

Is the 47,668 figure from Iraq Body Count--a group that tabulates accounts of civilian Iraqi deaths that appear in Western news sources--the source for NPR's 47,000 number? There does not seem to be another major survey of Iraqi deaths that provides that estimate. Yet this is clearly described as a figure from June 2006--before the biggest peak of violence in late 2006-early 2007. Iraq Body Count currently reports that there have been at least 82,249 reported civilian deaths in Iraq; why didn't NPR use this number instead?

And if NPR is taking its lower estimate of Iraqi fatalities from the NEJM report, why does it ignore the higher estimate given in that same report of 601,000? That's the estimate made by the Johns Hopkins University school of public health, and published by the Lancet medical journal (10/11/06). It's a well-known study done by highly regarded scholars; indeed, when the 151,000 figure came out, NPR's All Things Considered (1/10/08) turned for comment to Les Roberts, co-author of the Johns Hopkins study, which NPR referred to then as "a survey that continues to be debated in the press and political circles." Between January and March, though, that much-debated study somehow vanished from NPR's collective memory.

It's worth noting that 601,000 figure from Johns Hopkins study and the 151,000 number from WHO both only go up to June 2006, and therefore also leave out the worst of the violence. The most recent survey of Iraqi deaths is the poll conducted by Opinion Research Business, a top British polling firm, in August 2007, which found an estimated 1.2 million deaths by violence among Iraqi households. If NPR really wanted to inform its listeners about the range of credible estimates of Iraqi deaths, it would have included this survey--but instead left them with the impression that the highest plausible estimate was one-eighth as high.

Where or where to begin? All of the failings of NPR coverage are condensed within this report. Deference to the government, in this case, Representative Jon Kyl and Senator Jim Webb, by relying upon limited sources of information that will not discomfort them. Anyone with a computer, a web browser and an ISP can readily find more information on this subject, and the fact that there are surveys that place the total number of Iraqi deaths at over 1 million, within about 10-15 minutes. If you are interested in this subject, just click on the Iraqi Deaths label a the end of this post. And, of course, we shouldn't ignore the possibility that NPR doesn't want to discomfort its listeners too much, either, by examining the actual catastrophic consequences of the war on a day where it was getting a lot of public attention.

Second, consider this article by Norman Solomon:

While the Iraqi government continued its large-scale military assault in Basra, the NPR reporter's voice from Iraq was unequivocal this morning: "There is no doubt that this operation needed to happen."

Such flat-out statements, uttered with journalistic tones and without attribution, are routine for the U.S. media establishment. In the "War Made Easy" documentary film, I put it this way: "If you're pro-war, you're objective. But if you're anti-war, you're biased. And often, a news anchor will get no flak at all for making statements that are supportive of a war and wouldn't dream of making a statement that's against a war."

So it goes at NPR News, where -- on "Morning Edition" as well as the evening program "All Things Considered" -- the sense and sensibilities tend to be neatly aligned with the outlooks of official Washington. The critical aspects of reporting largely amount to complaints about policy shortcomings that are tactical; the underlying and shared assumptions are imperial. Washington's prerogatives are evident when the media window on the world is tinted red-white-and-blue.

Earlier this week -- a few days into the sixth year of the Iraq war -- "All Things Considered" aired a discussion with a familiar guest.

"To talk about the state of the war and how the U.S. military changes tactics to deal with it," said longtime anchor Robert Siegel, "we turn now to retired Gen. Robert Scales, who's talked with us many times over the course of the conflict."

This is the sort of introduction that elevates a guest to truly expert status -- conveying to the listeners that expertise and wisdom, not just opinions, are being sought.

Siegel asked about the progression of assaults on U.S. troops over the years: "How have the attacks and the countermeasures to them evolved?"

Naturally, Gen. Scales responded with the language of a military man. "The enemy has built ever-larger explosives," he said. "They've found clever ways to hide their IEDs, their roadside bombs, and even more diabolical means for detonating these devices."

We'd expect a retired American general to speak in such categorical terms -- referring to "the enemy" and declaring in a matter-of-fact tone that attacks on U.S. troops became even more "diabolical." But what about an American journalist?

Well, if the American journalist is careful to function with independence instead of deference to the Pentagon, then the journalist's assumptions will sound different than the outlooks of a high-ranking U.S. military officer.

In this case, an independent reporter might even be willing to ask a pointed question along these lines: You just used the word "diabolical" to describe attacks on the U.S. military by Iraqis, but would that ever be an appropriate adjective to use to describe attacks on Iraqis by the U.S. military?

In sharp contrast, what happened during the "All Things Considered" discussion on March 24 was a conversation of shared sensibilities. The retired U.S. Army general discussed the war effort in terms notably similar to those of the ostensibly independent journalist -- who, along the way, made the phrase "the enemy" his own in a followup question.

Obviously, if anything, things have gotten worse since I stopped listening to NPR years and years ago. I'm not missing it, and you won't, either.

Labels: , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?