The eulogies for Washington Post columnist David Broder and the chaos surrounding National Public Radio have coincided as an unintended commentary on what went wrong with the U.S. news media.
For different reasons, Broder, who died Wednesday at the age of 81, and NPR, which is scrambling to save its federal funding, came to reflect the timidity of American mainstream journalism, unwilling or unable to challenge the corruption of the status quo.
Broder personified the cult of centrism, a faith in "The System" that ignored how hollowed out its institutions had become, at least in terms of any moral or democratic values.
NPR, with its endless attempts to mollify conservatives, demonstrated how slippery the slope can be when a price tag is put on journalism. As NPR slides ever downward in its frantic attempts to appease the Republican House majority -- most recently with a cascade of resignations -- it's hard not to conclude that radio network may not be worth saving.
After all, the concept of news within the framework of government support only works if there is a genuine barrier between the professional journalists and the political partisans. In the U.S. system, that barrier was supposed to be the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
However, once that barrier breaks down -- and it has been under Republican assault for more than three decades -- then two things happen: the news bureaucrats cravenly reposition themselves to protect the money and the journalism is watered down and eventually sold out.
Since the 1980s, the Republicans have worked hard to transform the CPB from the institutional protector of honest journalism into the opposite. Mostly, that was done by placing political ideologues on CPB where they could pressure the Public Broadcasting System and NPR.
The Republican attack line, of course, is that PBS and NPR have a "liberal bias." So, to prove otherwise, PBS and NPR scuttle pretty much any programming that might offend the Republicans. And, once the networks crossed that line, an institutionalized self-censorship took over.
So, NPR, which demonstrated some guts in the 1980s by reporting aggressively about South Africa's white supremacist regime as well as on right-wing "death squads" in Central America, began its gradual retreat into mushier and mushier content.
NPR's stock in trade has become the off-beat feature, like a segment about what kinds of fish thrive in the rivers around Manhattan. Such fluff might be okay if surrounded by sharp-edged journalism, but NPR seemed determined to be as dull as possible, desperate not to offend the Right.
Yet, the Right came for NPR anyway with one of those hidden-camera tricks of James O'Keefe who had some operatives pose as Muslims interested in contributing $5 million. During a luncheon meeting, NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller criticized the Tea Party as containing "racists."
In the furor that ensued, Schiller resigned, as did NPR's chief executive officer Vivian Schiller (no relation). More than 20 NPR staffers (including stars like Cokie Roberts, Robert Siegel and Susan Stamberg) issued a letter saying they were appalled by Ron Schiller's comments.
"Those comments have done real damage to NPR," the letter said. "But we're confident that the culture of professionalism we have built, and the journalistic values we have upheld for the past four decades, will prevail."
However, the sad truth is that NPR and PBS have been in retreat on those "journalistic values" for many of those decades. They have added so many right-wing commentators and ordered up so many right-wing programs that it's hard to envision very many people fighting passionately to save them.
For instance, in 2007, PBS broadcast a neoconservative series in support of President George W. Bush's "war on terror," including one info-mercial on the Iraq War written and narrated by Richard Perle, a chief war architect. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Time for PBS to Go?"]
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