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.”