NPR ombudsman -- ombudsperson? -- Jeffrey A. Dvorkin has posted a very interesting column about listener reactions to the network's coverage of the life and death of Pope John Paul II. He says that hundreds of NPR regulars have written in to protest, saying that there has been too much coverage and that it has been wildly out of balance -- too positive. Here the letter that Dvorkin selected to demonstrate the tone, from a listener named Bruce Bradberry:
In your understandable attempt to show respect to beliefs that many of us may not share, I believe you are tending to lose both your objectivity and your vital mission to intellectually question any belief systems. (Your Web page currently shows a link to "The Pope: A Final Tribute.") While I don't wish to see important leaders, or their followers, kicked while they are (permanently) down, I hope that NPR will refrain from patronizing their views quite so generously.
I think this is a fair reaction, quite frankly. I, too, have winced at some of the MSM coverage. Many of the reporters are trying too hard to be respectful, when what they need to be doing is showing a range of reactions to the pope and his views. I'd like to hear from the pope's critics on the far Catholic left and from the traditionalist right, for example. Let 'em rip. Then let some of the cardinals respond. Just do it.
However, Dvorkin is clearly interested in why this issue has rubbed the NPR faithful so raw. He suggests:
First, it seems that any story that is ongoing for more than three days starts to grate on the listeners (and readers and viewers in other media). ...
Second, when it comes to stories on religion, many news organizations -- including NPR in my opinion -- are insecure about how to strike the right tone. The coverage sounded uncritical when perhaps the journalists were simply attempting to avoid any impression of anti-Catholicism.
Third, listeners were concerned that the "television-ization" of the story (the theatricality of Catholic ritual, the drama of the funeral and the gathering of world leaders) was influencing NPR's coverage, perhaps unduly.
May I dare suggest another reason?
Radio tends to be a niche medium, even when a network has as giant an audience as NPR. Perhaps the NPR flock contains a higher than normal percentage of those who were and are critical of this pope and his beliefs? Perhaps, in striving to sound reverent, the NPR staff ticked off its base?
Yikes! Dvorkin even said that some readers thought the coverage might help the church "to preach and to proselytize." With tax dollars no less. Then again, sometimes I listen to Fresh Air and I think I'm listening to radio evangelism.