Late in his lengthy profile of Jill Abramson, newly crowned as the first female executive editor of the New York Times, The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta raised the matter of her upbringing as the child of Upper West Side liberal parents. According to Auletta, Abramson responded, “All my years in Washington, and in some ways being attacked by conservatives, made me more conscious of how a story might be seen in the rest of America.”
On the face of it, this comment is puzzling at best. Clearly the question was intended to put her on the defensive. How can someone with her background expect to relate to honest, God-fearing Americans? But to this proud liberal Upper West Sider, her response was hardly less frustrating. How, after all, would “years in Washington,” coupled with attacks by conservatives funded by the likes of billionaires Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors and David Koch, help an editor to be “more conscious” of “how a story might be seen” in, say, Peoria, Illinois, or Petaluma, California?
OK, I get it. Both Auletta’s question and Abramson’s response make perfect sense in a media world where “Upper West Side liberal” is understood to equal “alien” and immediately demands an apology from those so accused. (Her predecessor, Bill Keller, was the scion of the CEO of Chevron: apparently a Beaver Cleaveresque upbringing by comparison.)
Recent events at NPR show a similar myopia at work in yet another allegedly liberal target of right-wing agitation. Having been conned by a James O’Keefe sting operation, NPR forcibly “resigned” its CEO, Vivian Schiller, and replaced her with Gary Knell, whose background is not in journalism but on Sesame Street. Knell immediately announced he wanted to “depoliticize” NPR. Alas, he appears to have done exactly the opposite, politicizing a program that previously had nothing to do with politics.
Lisa Simeone was, until recently, the host of Soundprint, a documentary show produced independently in Maryland, and World of Opera, produced by WDAV, a classical-music radio station in North Carolina—both of which aired nationally on NPR stations. Simeone is not a network employee, and neither program focused on politics. But when the NPR brass discovered that Simeone, among about fifty others, was part of the steering committee for a protest group called the October 2011 Movement, which is similar to Occupy Wall Street, they apparently went into a kind of panic. When it was over, Simeone had been fired by Soundprint. Meanwhile, World of Opera—whose producers refused to fire her, as she’d violated none of its rules—got booted off NPR’s schedule. According to an AP interview with Soundprint’s president, Moira Rankin, Simeone’s role in the protests contravened NPR’s ethics code, which Soundprint adopted because “listeners don’t know the difference between NPR and independent producers across the country.” But as Simeone told the Baltimore Sun, what NPR found objectionable was her “exercising my rights as an American citizen—the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assembly—on my own time in my own life.” Simeone is not, she notes, an NPR employee: “I’m a freelancer. NPR doesn’t pay me. I’m also not a news reporter. I don’t cover politics.”
Simeone adds correctly that the network does not restrict outside activities per se, even for employees who report on politics. NPR’s Mara Liaason is a paid pundit for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, which is an unofficial adjunct of the Republican Party owned by a parent company whose employees participate in criminal activity on its behalf. Cokie Roberts, together with her husband, Steve, accepts huge speaking fees from corporations and trade associations with clear political agendas, and serves on numerous boards and councils, including one appointed by President George W. Bush. And yet a nonemployee hosting a nonpolitical show is expected to forfeit her right as a citizen to participate in politics because of the potential for confusion among NPR listeners? If they are not already confused, it’s only because they aren’t paying attention.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the content of Simeone’s political activities caused NPR’s discomfort. Even though a majority of Americans approve of OWS, any association with it threatens to brand NPR as the kind of commie operation that right-wingers so successfully pretend it is. Deeply dependent on corporate support and under attack by conservatives in Congress, NPR’s new leadership apparently does not feel it can risk even a tangential association with a cause that calls these same conservatives and corporations to task. As Rankin implies, perception is all, and so long as the right’s constant “working the refs” succeeds in creating its own reality, it can act as a kind of perpetual motion machine, demanding one surrender after another.
The upside-down world conservatives have created with their relentless targeting of journalistic institutions can be seen starkly in a recently published examination of daily news coverage by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Studying the content of 11,500 media outlets, researchers found stories reflecting badly on Barack Obama exceeded favorable ones by a factor of four to one. This unfavorable orientation proved virtually impervious to actual events; coverage was negative even during the week when Osama bin Laden was killed. And yet those right-wing Republicans (including, especially, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain) who whine incessantly about an imaginary “lamestream” liberal media conspiracy—to say nothing of making a whole host of crazy statements about science, economics, the president’s birthplace and, let’s face it, reality in general—enjoyed largely positive coverage.
Amazingly, MSM journalists are puffing up candidates whose positions even Pat Robertson has deemed so “extreme” as to be “counterproductive.” And I don’t think he meant the smoked fish counter at Zabar’s…