Lee Habeeb likes to tell human stories, but The Daily Beast smells culture wars

Lloyd Grove’s Daily Beast profile of Lee Habeeb and his Our American Stories venture in Oxford, Miss., calls to mind the aphorism that the late Clare Booth Luce kept on an embroidered pillow: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”

Many conservatives consider NPR, as Grove writes, “rightly or not, as inhospitable to anything that isn’t progressive or politically correct.”

For a good example of why conservatives should entertain such thoughts, listen to Terry Gross of Fresh Air anytime she welcomes Jane Mayer as a guest. The default setting is not to have conservatives speak for themselves, but to have one writer present speculations about why conservatives do what they do.

That NPR receives any federal funding for such programming becomes doubly galling to conservatives.

Conservatives have launched hundreds of programs on talk radio since the Ronald Reagan years. The difference in Habeeb’s effort is his emphasis on storytelling instead of political arguments. It’s a rare conservative radio host who will tell the back story of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, remember the late character actor John Cazale or give props to the rock forerunner Sister Rosetta Tharp.

Amid this programming, Grove inquires about the funding behind Habeeb’s nonprofit foundation:

The program is produced by a tax free nonprofit that Habeeb established in 2014, American Private Radio, which is supported largely by charitable donations (a cumulative $3.3 million in tax years 2015 and 2016, as reflected on APR’s publicly available 990 forms).

The program has begun to share advertising revenue with the local stations (three minutes of commercial time per hour, vs. five minutes for the stations). Habeeb, however, refused to discuss his financial backers.

“Donors have a right to privacy. I respect it,” he said in an email, citing several court decisions that protect the anonymity of donors to nonprofits. “They like the stories, which are positive, and love that we tell stories about American history, about people like Steinway [the piano maker] and US Grant [the Civil War general and president] and so on … I am waiting to see if you take a deep dive on such matters about Pro Publica and the host of left wing non-profits that arise, and will you be scouring the 990’s of those institutions?”

It’s fair enough to bring the gimlet eye to any person, but what difference does it make if this conflict-averse content is quietly funded by the Koch Brothers, Chik fil-A or Tom Monaghan?

More tedious, though, is the suggestion that Habeeb is a hypocrite because he has expressed political beliefs on other platforms:

Yet the 58-year-old Habeeb has arguably contributed to the venomous media zeitgeist — at least from the right-wing side of the equation — that he now decries.

As the executive producer of his University of Virginia law school classmate Laura Ingraham’s radio program from 2001 to 2008, and as the longtime vice president of content for the Salem Radio Network, which recently added glibly acerbic Donald Trump acolyte Sebastian Gorka to its roster of conservative hosts, Habeeb has possibly helped encourage divisiveness in the body politic.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, for instance, he collaborated on a YouTube video mashup that conflated Barack and Michelle Obama with the incendiary critiques of Jeremiah Wright and Malcolm X, the raised-fist black power salutes of Olympic medal-winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Public Enemy’s rap anthem “Fight the Power.”

If by some miracle Habeeb had become part of NPR’s roster with Our American Stories, perhaps he could now bask in the light of strange new respect.

But that’s not where Habeeb has landed, so he will have to settle for the insistence that you can check out of the culture wars for three hours of programming per  weekday, but you can never leave.

Photo credit: Lee Habeeb by Bruce Newman of The Oxford Eagle, via Wikimedia Commons

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