NPR has finally gotten around to responding to a column in Slate describing the network’s army of listener e-mail and letter writers as “snoots.” In March, Farhad Manjoo went medieval on NPR listeners who protest various items on popular culture aired on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. He was particularly incensed at listener tirades against a story on Justin Beiber fans—upset at their idol losing a Grammy to Esperanza Spalding and defacing her Wikipedia entry.
The post quoted several screeds: “Was it really necessary to spend any time, even four minutes, on one account of teenagers being mean to people online?” one NPR fan fumed. Another: “I hope ATC isn’t turning into a tabloid!”
The “stodgiest, whiniest, most self-importantly insufferable snobs of all time,” Manjoo called these complainants. But now NPR has come to their rescue.
“I don’t think that’s true,” responded NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos on Thursday. His commentary on how NPR picks which missives to cite in its letter section quotes ATC Executive Producer Christopher Turpin, who reiterates observations made in Manjoo’s essay:
Generally, criticism trumps praise; the letters segment is an opportunity for listeners to take us to task, not a space for patting ourselves on the back—not that we’re immune to a little back patting once in a while. When a story generates a lot of mail letters are selected in approximate proportion to the audience response. For example, Laura Sullivan’s recent story about Native American children taken into foster care generated hundreds of e-mails complementing her reporting, as well as a few dissenters. We aired three letters praising aspects of the story and one critic.
But it’s worth excerpting a little more of the Slate piece, which gradually morphed into quite a conniption fit. Here’s my favorite paragraph:
I’ve grown to hate these listeners. Oh, I hate them, hate them, hate them. Every time one of their narrow-minded, classist letters makes it on the air, I contemplate burning my tote bag in protest. The problem, for me, isn’t just that some people don’t like some things NPR covers. It’s that these reflexively snobby pseudo-intellectuals see NPR as their own—a refuge from the mad world outside, a “safe,” high-minded palace that should never be sullied by anything more outré than James Taylor (whom, of course, they love).
This screed reminds me of an observation that I made in my book about the early years of listener-supported KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California (Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network). Describing the philosophy of the station’s 1950s opera aficionado Anthony Boucher, I wrote:
From Boucher’s doorstep, the American people seemed incapable of preserving their democracy, and those in the know appeared powerless to hold the American people in check. . . . This genteel editor and his opera collection—embodied the culture KPFA helped create in the early 1950s, a culture of refuge. He represented a radio audience that experienced the world as a problem taken out of its hands, carved up between senators from Wisconsin and commissars from the Kremlin.
I am convinced that the reason why NPR is able to produce those funny little pieces about Justin Bieber and other tabloid-like subjects that Manjoo (and I) defend, is because of the support that NPR stations receive from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If not for the CPB, these stations would depend more on their “core” audiences, who see their donations as quid-pro-quo gestures entitling them to editorial oversight.
If Manjoo doesn’t like the attitude of these listener letter writers now, goodness knows what he’d say about those stations in a post-CPB public broadcasting environment.
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