Vanity Fair: Conservatives Couldn't Possibly Despise NPR These Days

Last April, when the story was still hot that National Public Radio had deeply embarrassed itself when two of its fundraisers were caught on tape pandering to two men they thought were radical Muslim leftists eager to donate, David Margolick of the liberal glossy Vanity Fair called and interviewed me for more than an hour about NPR. Now, at this late date, the NPR-defending article appeared. I wasn’t in it. But conservatives were mocked – they couldn’t possibly believe what they were saying about liberal bias.

“Apart from the occasional stories about gays or Palestinians (and maybe even gay Palestinians), there’s precious little on NPR these days for conservatives really to hate,” he claimed. “For them, despising NPR and cutting off what amounts to the few pennies it collects from the federal budget has increasingly become more a matter of pandering, or habit, or sophomoric sport, than of conviction or serious policy.” His proof was bias-denying journalist William Kristol:


The editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, once confessed to former NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin that he really didn’t believe NPR was liberal; he just said so “to keep you guys on the defensive.” And that still seems true.

Googling around suggests that Dvorkin gave a speech in which he recounted a conversation where Kristol talked about liberal bias in general, not about NPR specifically:

I spoke to Bill Kristol a few years ago and asked him if he really believed that there was a liberal bias in the media in general. His answer: “Of course not. But it does keep you guys on the defensive about conservatism.”

One can bet almost precisely when this conversation took place: in 2000, when Brent Bozell denounced Kristol and other backers of John McCain’s liberal-pleasing presidential campaign against George W. Bush, the one in which McCain cartooned Bush and conservatives as a Darth Vader “death star.”

Alterman took glee in quoting Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who told The New Yorker "The whole idea of the 'liberal media' was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures." He noted Kristol said on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that "the press isn't quite as biased and liberal. They're actually conservative sometimes." Kristol didn't have an example of that alleged conservatism, nor was he asked for one, which neatly got him off the hook.

In other words, after Margolick spent an hour-plus on the telephone in 2011 getting an earful on NPR's liberal bias (and was e-mailed NewsBusters  links on egregious NPR bias), he decided instead to misquote some wink-wink conservative insider from about a decade ago. Here’s the funny thing. NPR people don’t believe conservatives aren’t serious about bias, or about defunding them. Margolick made that clear:

Frustration with impotent, ineffectual, absentee, and alien management at NPR first festered, then boiled over after the latest bit of bloodletting in March: when the chairman of its board, Dave Edwards of WUWM in Milwaukee, came to Washington to meet with staffers, he practically needed bodyguards. Suddenly, those folks who always sound so chipper on the air—a timbre known around NPR as “Minnesota nice”—were livid. “I don’t know if you realize it, but you’re up against some of the sharpest political minds in the country,” Peter Overby, the NPR reporter whose beat is power and money, lectured Edwards, referring to NPR’s right-wing detractors, the ones who are perpetually calling to cut off its federal dollars. “They’re using NPR as a fund-raising tool and a way to mobilize their base. This is a long battle, and it’s not going to go away. So my question is, do you and the board think you’re up to this fight?”

NPR sees itself as a liberal bastion fighting off "right-wing detractors," but Vanity Fair's writer has to pretend they're a bastion of centrism, a bland, inoffensive landmark of the establishment. It "retains a tincture" of elitism, but just a smidgen:

By all the usual yardsticks, NPR is more successful and important—more essential—than ever. As other news operations retrench or atrophy or vulgarize, NPR has grown more engaged and ubiquitous. Twenty-seven million people, urban and rural, Democrat and Republican, listen to NPR programming weekly...From an amalgam of amateurish college radio stations and stuffy classical-music redoubts, NPR has grown into a mighty journalistic juggernaut.

In the process, it’s gone decidedly mainstream. True, in story selection and sound, NPR retains a tincture of elite liberalism. (Anyone seeking evidence need only listen to the insufferable “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!”) But as its critics on the left contend (yes, there are lots of them too, every bit as over-heated as those on the right), on NPR these days there’s far more comforting the afflicted than afflicting the comfortable. NPR has traded much of its early edginess and eccentricity for reach and respectability, stability, and an almost compulsive inoffensiveness. (When, not long ago, Leon Panetta called Osama bin Laden a “son of a bitch,” NPR felt compelled to bleep out the “bitch.”)

Tim Graham's picture