What passes for a “news analyst” at NPR

I’ve mentioned before that I try to avoid NPR as much as possible. It’s mostly the tone that bothers me, rather than anything about the content or political slant. If you want to hear someone peddling conventional wisdom in a self-congratulatory tone of voice, then NPR is for you. (Yes, I know that this is unfair to many thoughtful and decent reporters and interviewers at NPR — please remember that I see NPR the same way I see my beloved New York Times: indispensable and exasperating in about equal measure). No one embodies the things that bother me about NPR more than hosts such as Robert Siegel, and political analysts such as Juan Williams and Cokie Roberts.

I’m not very familiar with Williams’s early career. If people tell me that his reporting for the Washington Post and his work on “Eyes on the Prize” and his Thurgood Marshall biography were good, then I won’t argue. That doesn’t excuse his being a complete hack now, and it doesn’t excuse NPR for treating people like him and Cokie Roberts as if they are insightful analysts of the political scene. As background, here is something Juan Williams said to Bill O’Reilly and Mary Katharine Ham on Fox News on January 26th which has caused a fuss among some NPR listeners:

Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going. If she starts talking, as Mary Katharine is suggesting, her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim. If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross.

I won’t waste time explaining why this is insulting and moronic. It’s hardly a shock that this is what passes for punditry on Bill O’Reilly’s show, or that Williams is willing to feed cable news viewers and producers the garbage that they subsist on. What I will waste time explaining, however, is how Williams’s explanation exposes him as a hack even more than his dumb comments on Fox News did. When NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, questioned him about the remarks, Williams first dismissed the complaints as a “faux controversy.” After reviewing the video, he revised that, and explained that he could see how the “tone and tenor” of his comments might have distorted what he saw as “pure political analysis:”

I regret that in the fast-paced, argumentative format my tone and tenor seems to have led people to see me as attacking instead of explaining my informed point of view.

Ah, so when he compared Michelle Obama to Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress and shared his insights into what her “instinct” is, he was “explaining his informed point of view.” Apparently he knows Michelle Obama very well, to be able to explain what her instincts are with such confidence. How does he see into Michelle Obama’s psyche so perceptively? Well, let’s see what else he told the ombudsman:

When Williams was speaking of Mrs. Obama as a potential liability, he told me, he was referencing pieces in The Atlantic and Politico. A Politico article listed Mrs. Obama as one “Dem” her husband should watch out for. “She’s glamorous, she’s on message, she’s the nation’s favorite mom — and now she has nowhere to go but down,” said the article.

Never mind the fact that the Atlantic article that Williams cited in fact argued against the myth that Michelle Obama is a Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress whose “instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim.” What’s even more damning about Williams’s explanation is his admission that what he calls “explaining my informed point of view” is in fact just a recitation of some shallow caricatures that have become conventional wisdom among the Washington journalists who write for places like Politico.

In her column, NPR’s ombudsman implies that if he had cited the Atlantic and Politico in his comments on Fox News, then they might have been less problematic. In fact, citing those sources would have just undermined the pretense that he is offering anything more than recycled smears. By mentioning the Atlantic and Politico articles in his own defense, Williams is basically saying, “I present myself to Fox News viewers and NPR listeners as an independent-minded, thoughtful political analyst, but in fact the punditry I share is just warmed-over conventional wisdom that I have picked up from other Washington pundits.”

I’d love to hear Williams being introduced on “Weekend Edition” as an “NPR regurgitator of Washington conventional wisdom,” instead of as an “NPR news analyst.” It might sound less impressive, but at least it would be accurate.

15 Responses to “What passes for a “news analyst” at NPR”

  1. ng says:

    I’d love to see him put in storage.

  2. wordnerd says:

    After I listen to NPR all I can ever remember is the anchor saying “Thank you” to the reporter, and then the reporter saying “Thank YOU” to the anchor. Touches me every time.

  3. ruth gutmann says:

    According to Callie Crossley, a member of “Beat the Press”, the Friday evening program of Greater Boston on WGBH, Juan Williams takes credit for something he had no hand in, i.e.: “Eyes on the Prize.”
    He obviously has trouble being a contributor to both Fox and NPR (Jekyll and Hyde?)
    I recall that when Ray Suarez left NPR’s afternoon program, Juan Williams took over for a short while but was soon replaced.

  4. dc says:

    Ruth: I hadn’t heard that accusation about taking credit where it wasn’t due (or other accusations about sexual harassment at the Washington Post) until today. It sounds like calling Williams a hack might be quite an understatement.

    I thought Ray Suarez was very good on Talk of the Nation. The guy who hosts the show now, whose name I have forgotten, doesn’t impress me very much, so that has become another one of the many NPR shows that I never listen to anymore.

  5. Tom Walsh says:

    You hit the nail on the head! Roberts and Williams wouldn’t be able to haul down the gigantic speaker’s fees at political events if they did more than scratch our itch for information This especially disappointing given their backgrounds. I guess everyone here knows that Cokie is the daughter of former House Majority Whip Hale Boggs. It’s a shame that they have become such thin soup indeed.

  6. Carol says:

    Juan Williams wrote a book called “Eyes on the Prize.” It was the companion to the TV series. I wonder why he’s being dissed for not having done it. Crossley was a producer for two segments of the TV series. I just googled her and I can see why she would not like him; I doubt that he whispered any sweet nothings in her ear as he apologized for doing to some Washington Post women. Poor guy. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s not like he was their boss or anything.

  7. nnyhav says:

    same general complaint about Frontline

  8. dc says:

    nnyhav: Interesting. I didn’t see the Frontline piece, but that critique rings true to me for a lot of what we get from PBS and NPR: just enough depth to make viewers/listeners feel as if they are getting “the real story,” but not enough to make them uncomfortable or make them think very hard.

    The parallels between the press’s inadequacy regarding the invasion of Iraq and the press’s inadequacy regarding the economic crisis seem pretty strong to me. Excessive credulousness in the lead-up, then slowness in recognizing the scope of the disaster, then acceptance of cozy explanations that spread blame around enough to seem comprehensive, but not enough to disturb anyone too much. The range of respectable opinion on public broadcasting seems to fall between, say, David Brooks and Tom Friedman. Anyone more provocative than them is often patronized as if they are some kind of curiosity.

    I don’t necessarily want pundits on PBS and NPR to be more partisan, but it would be nice to occasionally encounter a voice who makes me re-think something I thought I knew, rather than reassuring me that everything I already believe is right and good.

  9. grrljock says:

    Back when I used to subscribe to the NYTimes AND listen pretty regularly to NPR I was struck by how much overlap there was in their reporting. By this I mean that the angle, depth, and tone of reporting would be really similar, so that I would not learn anything new by listening to NPR after reading the NYTimes, and vice versa.

    So I quit listening to NPR and started listening to audiobooks instead.

    My main frustration with mainstream media is with their limitless ability to play along with the fiction that everything’s ok. Just like you stated above, dc, the excessive credulity, acceptance of cozy explanations, etc. I want news to actually inform me, not snow me over with platitudes.

  10. Carol says:

    This post and its comments are all about electoral politics, right? There are local stations in various places where a more critical (from the left perspective) analysis of what’s happening is available, but they are far and few between. There are many, many local and otherwise stations in various places where a more critical (from the right perspective) discussion – I can’t really say analysis – is available. On other subjects NPR has some interesting and incisive shows. At least its talk radio programs aren’t as tabloid press as BBC’s “World, Have Your Say.” Or as predictable as KALW at 10 AM, on which “activists” are always being praised. I suppose they don’t think James Dobson or Andrea Lafferty is one. So airhead.

    If you’ve ever driven across country on Interstate 10 or 40, you would get down and kiss NPR’s feet, I bet. That might be true even of the more northerly roads; I’m less familiar with them.

  11. dc says:

    Carol: “This post and its comments are all about electoral politics, right?” I honestly don’t think so (I can’t speak for everyone who left comments, but reading through them again, I see criticisms of NPR for its smugness, its superficiality, and its platitudes, but nothing about electoral politics). My criticism was not about Juan Williams’ political views, but about his shallowness and his belief that “explaining his informed point of view” means passing along cliches that he picked up from other Washington reporters. I’d rather have smart, informed, thoughtful analysis from a wide variety of commentators than reheated mashed potatoes from a vaguely liberal stable of analysts whose only purpose is to tell us what other vaguely liberal Washington journalists believe. If I just wanted radio that was more left-wing, then I could listen to Pacifica or Air America instead, but I don’t listen to them much either (in fact, I probably listen to right-wing talk radio as much as its left-wing counterparts, although neither one is regular listening for me).

    As for your second point, it’s well taken. I have driven across the country on I-40 and I-10 a few times, most recently in mid-2003 when the re-release of “God Bless the U.S.A.” (“And I’m proud to be an American/Where at least I know I’m free…”) was getting heavy rotation on the country stations that dominate the FM dial in parts of MO, OK, TX, etc.. The only alternatives were bible talk or NPR, so I switched back and forth between the country stations and NPR, and had a very enjoyable drive. I was glad to have NPR, although it wasn’t the insights of Juan Williams or Cokie Roberts that I was thankful for. As I said in the post, I think NPR is indispensable and infuriating in about equal measure; I don’t want it to disappear, because the alternatives are usually even worse.

    grrljock: I agree, although as Carol points out, not everyone lives in a place where home delivery of the NYT is available and where the radio dial is full of alternative sources of information. I’ll admit that if I didn’t read newspapers, magazines, and blogs, then I would probably appreciate the information and analysis available on NPR a lot more. For people like us who do read papers, blogs, etc, audiobooks seem like a wise idea.

  12. nnyhav says:

    If you want something about politics, there’s Paul Starr in TNR: “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption). But I find it largely disingenuous, evading the Old Era of Corruption at the institutional level (think access) among other things; for all that, part V is worth attention (despite its reference to NPR as “the last refuge of original reporting on the dial”).

  13. dc says:

    Thanks, nnyhav. Given “TNR” and “part V,” that’s probably not something I should start reading after midnight, but I’ll look forward to reading it later. The end of the age of newspapers is a subject I find myself thinking and talking about a lot; I’m surprised I haven’t written about it more here.

  14. nnyhav says:

    Did NPR ever not suck? [downscroll for comments]

  15. dc says:

    Who knew there were so many kindred NPR bashers out there? I’m a rank amateur compared with some of those commenters. They probably all spend time in their cars and end up listening to NPR for hours on end, which explains their vitriol. I’m blessedly radio free (Radio Free Oakland?) as I ride my bike around town soaking up the sights and sounds around me.

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