Home > Current Events, Media > James O’Keefe, Sam Negus, and the defunding of National Public Radio

James O’Keefe, Sam Negus, and the defunding of National Public Radio

So I waited for NPR On The Media to complete their series on bias in news coverage at NPR [link, link, link] before I got back to this, but the series at On The Media ended with more of a whimper than a bang. I would still encourage readers to check out the various segments spanning those three shows that deal with the basic question, but I have to admit the results were rather less than satisfactory. I am not sure what the real problem is here; I think it’s partly that the folks at OTM discuss this in political Left/Right terms without really defining either one. They raise some interesting questions regarding what the purpose of NPR should be, but then settle into comfortable but unhelpful answers about how nobody is entirely unbiased, how particular examples can be contextualized as anecdotal, etc. and then suggest that because they can find media experts who think NPR is too far to the left or too far to the right that somehow the question has no meaning (or words to that effect). I have to wonder if the big surprise here is that there are people who listen to NPR who are self-described conservatives.

But enough about that. I’d encourage readers to have a look (or a listen) at the exchange between self-described “a libertarian evangelical Christian who listens to a lot of public radio” and This American Life host Ira Glass [link]. Why Glass is on On The Media defending bias in NPR news coverage isn’t entirely clear, but it’s really beside the point. Here are the things Negus picks out as being examples of “liberal bias:”

  1. Coverage of labor issues in Wisconsin
  2. Coverage of the 2006 midterm elections
  3. An appearance by members of The Jesus Seminar on Fresh Air with Terry Gross

Of course it’s the last point that I found most interesting, not least because I don’t think Glass’s response was sufficient and it’s close to what bugs me about NPR. Here are the pull quotes:

Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air was on and her guest was a cofounder of the Jesus Seminar. And the Jesus Seminar, for anyone who isn’t familiar, the short version of what they believe that’s offensive to me as an evangelical Christian is that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead as a bodily historical fact but that that’s a kind of spiritual metaphor. Now, he can believe that. That’s fine. I’m not about forcing anyone to believe anything. The point was that a cofounder of the Jesus Seminar was on that show, on a national platform for a solid hour, unopposed. It wasn’t a panel. That sent a message to me.

And I think the thing that I said in my email, and maybe this is what stuck out to you, Ira, 99.99 percent, almost everybody in the world and everybody in the history of the world since the time of Christ to now who would identify themselves as a Christian would be deeply offended and upset by this, by this perspective, and moreover, wouldn’t consider this person to be a Christian.

Christ himself said, you want to know who I am? The resurrection is who I am. I’m going to be killed, I’ll be in the grave and then I will rise again. That’s the heart of my religion, which is the heart of my being. It’s, it’s everything I am.And I don’t mind that that person was on NPR. But I’ve listened to NPR for years and I’ve heard many, many religious shows, and I have not once got to the end of the show and thought, man, I am so glad that that guy was on there. He said exactly what I wanted him to say.

And Glass responds by redirecting the discussion from what Negus is talking about to something more comfortable for NPR, possibly, but an odd direction for Glass to take:

So, so I understand that you’re saying that there’s this question of tone that you’ve, that you hear all the time on all the shows, the news shows and the non-news shows, the, the – more the – more the talk shows. But do you think the information that you’re getting by and large is reliable?

This is an odd thing for Glass to do given that the objection he’s gotten from Negus is basically two-fold: he doesn’t hear a voice like his on NPR, and he doesn’t like NPR’s editorial tone. It doesn’t matter whether the programming is “news” or “non-news” if the editorial tone is biased; the question is whether it should be publicly funded.

Negus reappears in the third episode, but he’s talking about NPR coverage of immigration policy in Arizona and Utah; it’s not an especially interesting question, but it fits more into an inside-the-Beltway, left vs. right narrative than his Jesus Seminary question above.

I am much more interested in NPR’s coverage of religious issues generally; I’d encourage readers to take a look at the news stories NPR lists as being about “religion” [link] themselves. NPR generally doesn’t do religion stories; they mostly do “religion in society” or “religion in politics” stories, and needless to say they rarely if ever have anything nice to say about conservative Christians. I’d encourage readers to listen to a recent story about sexuality and the Bible [link] and a story on Lent [link] and then try to find a balancing story on a similar topic at NPR from a conservative perspective.

But back to Ira Glass. I don’t understand why he was on On The Media to talk about bias, but I do think it’s worth looking at his show (This American Life) and asking where the conservative Christian voices are there. To my recollection there have been only two shows that have given significant coverage to issues of even remote interest to conservative Christians:

  • Episode 77: Pray [link], in which Alix Spiegel visits Ted Haggard’s church
  • Episode 304: Heretics [link], their coverage of Carlton Pearson

In the latter episode Glass seems surprised that in these modern times anyone thinks anyone is actually heretical, and actually suggests that the very concept is medieval.

This American Life ran several episodes from ex-fundamentalist David Ellis Dickerson [link], and he’s about as close as TAL has ever gotten to having an authentic conservative Christian voice. And of course most of his contributions are about how he outgrew his faith and learned to embrace, well, whatever he is now.

And that’s it. Granted I’m several episodes behind on my TAL listening, and maybe they’ve featured a great story with a voice I find familiar in the meantime, but I rather doubt it. TAL has recently featured a couple of stories with Mormon voices, but of course they’re ex-Mormon (Jack Mormon) voices. And they’ve featured one story on Rumspringa. But the basic story line is basically the same: “I grew up some sort of religious conservative; I went through a crisis of faith; I gave up my faith; and now if I’m not happy it’s my former community’s fault.” Well, except for the Alix Spiegel story.

I wonder if Ira Glass has any idea why this is problematic.

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