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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.