Dear NPR

Hi, it's me.  I've felt increasingly estranged from you in recent days.  You might think it's because I'm becoming radicalized in this chaotic age, and we both know NPR is not for radicals.  I think it may be time to end the relationship, but there's so much to like about you that I'm just not sure.  Let's hash this out first and see if we can come to an understanding.

While this is not a breakup, I should probably see less of you.  Listening to you so often has reinforced my need to better diversify where I get my news.  It's the only way to keep from getting sucked into your maelstrom.  At best, you are a sensible voice where all others have grown reactionary and histrionic.  At worst, you are self congratulatory and unduly worshipful of incumbency and power, too adoring of explosively wrongheaded opinions in safe, sensible packaging.

Let's start by identifying the elephant in the room: your newsroom doesn't have a liberal bias.  Your affiliates, after all, air operas and antique shows.  Anyone considering a job in public broadcasting may be philosophically predisposed to so-called leftist values.  On the other hand, your National Newsroom is a different story.  It's elbow deep in Washington's beltway culture and I think it has both lent to and compromised your impartiality.  It's this very schism that I think contributes to your focus problem, and to my estrangement from you.

It's not just you, it's me.  Like I said, I'm radicalized.  Information overload does that.  There are a lot of sane voices pitching in - many of them on NPR - but there's also a lot of crazy flying around too.  There's much more of everything to digest, and that climate forces politically aware people to take a side.  In taking a side, I feel I've become radicalized.  I'm product and a victim of the new information age, where too much information can be harmful.  I'm less tolerant of reasonable, 'Fairness Doctrine' inspired news as I've gotten older and angrier and more liberal.  In that sense, it is me who has changed.  You, NPR, weather that information storm rather well when you are merely reporting the news.

Your approach to reporting to news as impartially as possible has resulted in a newscast as rife with schisms, contradiction, and confusion as the country itself.  Your calm voice belies the seething anger and conflict in the national dialog.  It is your job to report this, in all its maddening, distracting glory, and report it you do, despite your over-reliance on Wall Street wisdom to tell the rest of us how our lives are doing.

Where you really lose me is in your analysis.  This is the place where you are supposed to dig under the surface beneath all the flack and the political posturing.  It's one thing to report the news.  It's entirely another to frame your analysis with a certain level of acceptance of the status quo, which every news organization does to some extent.  In that sense I think you siphon your perspective too often from one source: Washington incumbency.  The analysts you summon often drift in through this massive rotating door of Washington hegemony.  These people are not necessarily the wisest, or the most right, but they have the best packaging.  They are often paid spin doctors, after all, who are best at avoiding the histrionic excess of talk radio, even if they are, ultimately, selling the same bill of goods.

I had hoped that beyond the mere reporting, your analysis might reflect a broader range of views beyond the lobbysts, Think Tanks and their pretend non-partisans.  I had hoped that you might more often use its news analysis section to dig under the surface of problems.  I hear little being added to the discussion about campaign finance and lobby reform, the issue of torture and unlawful detention, the issue of weapons of mass destruction, the issue of the class war being waged in this country.

It's tough being a national broadcaster.  You're dependent on various sources of funding.  While you strive for impartiality, it's no secret that you often run the risk of alienating a donor, or worse, alienating interests in Washington who could yank some funding with the passage of a single bill.  Your status as a public broadcasting organization, as opposed to someplace like Fox, keeps you impartial, it also keeps you from, to use one example, referring to torture as torture.

I am disturbed by your undue focus on Wall Street, a focus that bleeds out far, far past your excellent business programs like Marketplace and into every other news report I hear.  I'm hearing so much Wall Street that aside from the occasional anecdotal man on the street interview, I simply don't hear Main Street anymore.  Market performance frames your stories regardless of impact or relevance, and this pro-Corporate, pro-business focus underlies almost every major story you cover.

You are partially funded by investment houses like Charles Schwab.  I dont' say this to draw a conspiratorial line to your obsessive, minute by minute stock performance coverage, but the truth is, you must cater to Wall Street institutions, and this is certainly one way you do that.  Private and publics donors, listeners who pledge, corporations and to some extent, the Federal Government all have a stake in what you do and how you do it.  In turn, you have to create content that appeals to this base without pandering too openly.

The way that Washington and Wall Street looks at success and performance - a numbers driven game as dynamic as a horse race - are wholly different universes from the world most people exist in.  On 'Main Street,' success and survival is not just a numbers game.  In the ethos of the Global Economy, however, success is largely dependent on the appearance of things.  Company is doing fine but appears to be suffering?  Stock goes down.  Unfortunately, just as the appearance of good performance from a corrupt company can allow it to reap financial rewards without punishment, the appearance of unchallenged conventional wisdom can keep a wrong-headed policy or point of view in the blender for months if not years before its spotted as a fraud.

While this numbers game is far from the life the majority of Americans experience day in and day out, NPR probably feels it's important because what happens on Wall Street and similar institutions abroad supposedly trickles down and is arguably a predictor of economic factors at ground level.  That said, these lofty machinations should to be reported on with a more critical eye.  You probably feel you sometimes have no choice but to stay content with reporting on the appearance of things and going no further.  Maybe this fortifies your image as an impartial news outlet, especially now that you're besieged by accusations of liberal bias.  Maybe I"m being too hard on you.

I know the general public expects you to cover the news as impartially as possible, but I think your impartiality is most definitely a pre-emptive defense against accusations of liberal bias. If deliberate blandness is your way of pre-emptively responding to these accusations, then you have succeeded mightily.

Please don't misunderstand me: blandness is not always a bad thing!  Tune to the National News coverage on CNN or MSNBC or Fox or even ABC, CBS or NBC news, and then turn back to NPR, and you will see just how well this blandness works for you.  For instance, you often feel cautiously around the edges of disasters and controversies, giving them proper weight.  The Japan Disaster is a good example.  All we heard from you about the first and second day was the disaster's effect on global markets.  Global Market analysis is your bread and butter, so it was no surprise you were going to launch into this first.  As it became clear that the disaster was much worse than expected, you began putting out more human interest stories and discussions about the implications of the disaster rather than solely its effects on the US Market.  (That said, now that the tragedy's almost a week old, you have reverted - like an addict ambling back up a dealer's front porch - back to stories on how the disaster impacts market forces.)

However well you do this with the high profile stories, your fixation on pandering to the business community and maintaining the appearance of impartiality continues to give voice to issues the experts agree are nothing more than economic and political theater.  It is, perhaps, your entrenchment in and adoration for the world of insider politics and inside economics - far removed from the 'real world' - that lends undue credence to something most Americans are sick of.  At your best, you give me a ground level view of the political process and its stunning lack of reflection on its own tendency to create an echo chamber of vapid, generalized platitudes.  At worst, you reinforce that echo chamber and actually lend to it.

A good example of beltway blandness is David Brooks.  Each day you bring him on the air, and his smug, elitist and generally unprovable assertions are afforded a great deal of respect and latitude.  He goes on about how most Americans just want their yearly vacation to Europe and their $6 morning espresso, and before anyone can respond he's back out polling more affluent Americans about what's best for the poor.  I'll admit, David Brooks is a perfect friend for NPR, but he's part of the problem.  His kind of myopic pontification never stays relevant for very long, but you keep inviting him over.

My largest grievance with you is that pesky incestuous relationship with Washington. All your dalliances with sitting politicians, beltway insiders and think tanks has colored your journalistic focus.  It's arguable that all your analysis of any and all current events is filtered through these sources.  This is a blessing and a curse.  On one hand, you gain professional credibility when you get analysis from those who are intimately involved in the process.  If you're going to accurately report on Washington, it's a good idea to talk to someone who actually has presence and experience there.  On the other hand, if person X from policy institute Y is talking to you, chance are their very job is to help craft policy, and even someone of the 'non partisan' variety is rarely without an agenda.  In fact, people like that are trained and paid to obfuscate their agenda behind a wall of spin.

It's no secret that many think tanks - despite the non-partisan labels most have - aren't non partisan.  they exist to help craft policy.  Insiders in Washington all have an angle.  If your analysis is coming from these sources unchallenged, then we aren't seeing the filter.  Your level of access to Government is a double edged blade.  On one hand, discussing a vote with a sitting Senator makes sense.  On the other hand, if public servants have an agenda not in the service of their constituents, you can treat them like royalty or you can be critical with these public servants.  If you aren't responding with the right questions and challenges and instead gravely nodding your head, then you are enabling the problem.  You must have faith that every opinion can simply be countered by the differing opinion, and you probably do your best to present those differing opinions.  But those Senators don't just come on and speak into a microphone.  You hire people to shape the discussion with them, even if they're never heard.  This is your opportunity to critique those in positions or power and influence, and I'm not seeing a hard hitting, independent perspective on most of your stories.

Maybe that's your point.  You wouldn't want to be considered hard hitting and independent, because as you see it, you'd lose credibility.  You take pride in being a mainstream, middle of the road news source, after all.  Arguably, by sticking to the middle of the road, your feel you'll get it right more often than those who linger at the sides.  I see your logic there, NPR.


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