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NPR and the “educated elite” problem

The NPR galaxy is in shock following the resignation of its CEO, Vivian Schiller. She received a vote of no-confidence from NPR’s board following the release her development director Ron [no relation] Schiller’s off-the-cuff remarks with a conservative group pretending to be the Muslim Brotherhood.

Among Schiller’s comments, that the Tea Party isn’t  “just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

And that NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding.” It’s unclear precisely what Schiller meant by that, but obviously the comment is at odds with NPR’s official position as the organization fights to stop Congress from defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB funds NPR and NPR stations.

Then came this remark, which I found disappointing, but not surprising.

To me, this is representative of the thing that I guess I’m most disturbed by and disappointed by in this country which is that the educated, so-called elite in this country, is too small a percentage of the population. So you have this very large uneducated part of the population that carries these ideas. It’s much more about anti-intellectual than it is political.

One of my biggest concerns, not only with NPR execs who say things like this, but with a big chunk of university town/public media culture, is that it has really lost touch with ordinary people. I detected this in an interview that NPR station supported Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross did with the actor Will Ferrell. The latter described with great hilarity his going into a Marshalls-style store for clothes and a Supercuts to get a haircut—just so that he could look like a typical lower middle class person.

“I wanted to give myself a standard issue haircut,” Ferrell continued. “And I did go to a Supercuts in the San Fernando Valley and just walked in and got a standard haircut.”

“Did the hair cutter not know who you were?” Gross asked.

“She cut my hair for fifteen minutes,” Ferrell continued, “and then half way she didn’t say a word and then finally, towards the end of the hair cut she’s like ‘You’re one of the step-brothers, aren’t you’? [a reference to one of Ferrell’s recent movies] And I said ‘yes.’ And that’s all we mentioned. We didn’t talk any more. So, it was kind of funny.”

Gross thought this was really comical—the whole “just walked in” business, as if millions of ordinary Americans don’t just walk into haircut places like Supercuts every day.

The problem the college town/NPR world faces, of course, is not uneducated people, but a well-funded political movement that contradictorily defines “conservatism” as opposition to government—except when government furthers a narrow social agenda that includes support for abstinence only sex education, Christian fundamentalism, and the denial of a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

But none of that stems from uneducatedness. Indeed, the people who loudly proclaim these positions are usually just as educated as Ron Schiller. NPR makes real efforts to reach out to these folks, but it would help if its executives didn’t think they were stupid. In case you haven’t been watching Capitol Hill politics recently, they’re not.


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3 Responses to NPR and the “educated elite” problem

  1. Proforma_NYC March 10, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Your concern that “educated elite” is out of touch with ordinary people is not this issue.

    My real concern is that ordinary people are no longer educated.

  2. Lindsay March 10, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    The terms “educated” and “elite” are being confused with “wealthy.” The term “elite” has been used for a long time by right-wing conservatives as a put-down of college-educated liberals. These “educated elite” include many teachers and professors who shop at Marshalls and get hair cuts at Supercuts.

    As for the other end of the political spectrum, “fair-and-balanced” Fox News is funded by a billionaire conservative. Somehow I doubt that he shops at Marshalls, and gets his hair cut at Supercuts.

    And the term “educated” is subject to debate. Consider such icons of the right as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich (who thinks Obama grew up in Kenya) and George Bush (who never would have gotten into an Ivy League school without his daddy’s money). The truly educated person has a working knowledge of history, geography, science, English grammar, and current events. I do not consider a person to be educated if they don’t know the difference between North and South Korea, don’t know where the current U.S. president was raised, or can’t form a coherent answer when asked a question by the press.

  3. CB March 10, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    I thought this blog was about tough love for radio. What I’m seeing here is just more busy stoking of the culture wars. Elites being out of touch (somewhat true), average Americans resenting them for it (also somewhat true). What’s new here?

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