A scream inside public-radio world (updated)

the screamThere are many, many quotable passages in that famous letter by New York Times editor Bill Keller, in which he responded to a blue-ribbon panel that produced a study document entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust." But here is the section that GetReligion readers will, I imagine, recall most vividly:

... (Diversifying) the range of viewpoints reported -- and understood -- in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. ...

I also endorse the committee's recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

Amen. Preach it.

Here's why I bring this up again. If you were to list national-level news organizations -- other than the Times -- that provoke firestorms of criticism as well as almost reverent statements of praise, you would have to put National Public Radio, and the wider world of public radio in general, at the very top. And we had a lively discussion at this blog recently about bias in the wider NPR universe after an especially nasty skit about Catholicism and Mike Huckabee aired on the Fair Game with Faith Salie program from Public Radio International.

Some readers thought that, by airing any criticism of NPR & Co., I had joined the chorus of ultra-religious wackos who love to bash the network. Of course, my post had included statements from moi like the following:

Personally, I think that NPR does some of the best religion-news coverage that is being done today -- period.


Seriously, it's hard to question NPR's commitment to excellence.

Thus, some readers were convinced that I had gone too far in defending both NPR and some of the other organizations that cooperate with it in the whole web of public-radio affiliates and program providers.

None of these letters surprised me all that much.

But then there was this letter, from a person safely outside the Beltway, but in a public-radio newsroom. Needless to say, I cannot use this person's name, but I have corresponded with him or her enough to know that this person is for real.

the screamSo here is a slightly edited version of this letter -- I have removed some passages containing names -- which opens with another pro-NPR quote from my earlier post:

"It's way too simplistic to say that NPR people are all liberals and who are out to mock people like Mike Huckabee and the people who are voting for him."

Speaking as somebody who's been a public-radio producer for decades, it's actually NOT too simplistic to say this. NPR is easily the most monolithically liberal institution I know of in the media. Unless they've hired somebody recently I don't know about, they have zero conservatives or religious traditionalists. ...

They talk a good game about all views being represented, but the fact is that NPR really has no room for any worldview except that of liberals. To say that they don't understand believers is a huge understatement. And they have no interest in changing.

Not that they're bad across the board on religion. ... But I must stipulate that this by itself is not necessarily a sign of balance. NPR attracts a certain percentage of listeners who will fire off a scorching letter about any religion reporting that doesn't pass the Hitchins or Dennett test of doctrinal purity. ...

They do OK with "non-dogmatic" religion. If it doesn't make them feel as if they've done the things they should not have done, or left undone the things they should have done, and there is no good in them -- it'll probably get a pass. Consequently, Episcopalians and Unitarians and other tame Christians whose creed is the Washington Post Style section ring no alarm bells. If your religion strikes an NPR reporter as a harmless idiosyncratic hobby along the lines of doing macrame or collecting tin-can labels, you're safe. It's the serious Christians who make their hackles rise.

Even then, certain varieties of dogmatic religion are OK, as long as they're not perceived to represent a threat to the latte lifestyle. A Manichee in Macon, Georgia would be "colorful." A Baptist in Macon by contrast often seems to strike NPR as the kind of person who might be making fertilizer bombs in his basement.

I have wondered for a long time what might make NPR wake up to what's going on with the religious lives of most American Christians. I have concluded that nothing will make them change except the threat of irrelevance. The Internet has dead-tree newspapers quaking in fear. This and other new technologies may well smack NPR with the baseball bat of reality at some point in the future. But for now, they believe they know it all. And when you know it all, what can you learn from a Baptist in Macon? Or a Catholic in Baton Rouge?

In my original post, I had noted that many GetReligion readers seem to believe that "the whole NPR universe is somehow (a) anti-religion, (b) anti-traditional forms of religion, (c) anti-evangelicals or (d) some combination of the above." This journalist falls into the (b) camp, it seems to me.

Again, I think that this position is too simplistic, applied to such a large news operation.

the screamStill, I wanted to share the letter. Why? Because there is an issue at the heart of it that was also raised by Keller in response to the Times credibility study. It's an issue that we have discussed dozens of times here at this weblog.

The big question: What should mainstream newsrooms do to add intellectual and cultural diversity?

Conservatives can complain and complain, but do they really want to see some kind of affirmative action program for journalists who hold ancient, traditional, beliefs (Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, you name it) when it comes to matters of doctrine and moral theology? Does anyone really think that is what editors should do?

I should mention, at this point, that conservative educational institutions have -- for several decades -- hardly set the woods on fire when it comes to preparing young journalists who are ready to work in these kinds of newsrooms, as opposed to the "safer" arena of religious magazines and denominational wire services.

In other words, we need more traditional believers who love journalism and fewer who act as if they hate journalism. That's the flip side of the coin, the yin to the yang expressed in the painful letter that is at the heart of this post.

Let me end with a warning. Do not click "comment" if your intent is merely to bash the wider world of NPR or to bash the people who tend to criticize all things public radio. Click "comment" if you want to discuss the diversity challenge faced by the leaders of major newsrooms, such as the Times or NPR. I will try to spike all comments that offer more heat than light. So keep it clean, out there.

UPDATE: In addition to the comments building up on our site, Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher has written a lengthy post at his Crunchy Cons blog offering his take on this topic. Read it all.

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