Two competing visions of the mission of public radio collided in a lively and contentious encounter last week between the general manager of WUNC radio and some 40 of the station's critics. The subject of the meeting, called by Balance and Accuracy in Journalism, was the quality of public radio's coverage of the war on Iraq. Frustration levels were high, and NPR programming quickly became a focus of the debate.
WUNC General Manager Joan Siefert Rose portrayed NPR as more mainstream than it had been, and flawed, but responsive and correctable. But despite her admission that the mainstream itself has raced to the right since NPR's founding, and her avowed sympathy for those who call the network "National Pentagon Radio," she said she will stick with its programs and avoid most of the alternatives that were proposed from the floor.
Most of the crowd characterized the network as not merely stuck inside the box, but as being the box. Where Siefert Rose defended the extensive use of government briefings by saying listeners want unfiltered news, critics called government a filter in itself, spinning away while Iraq burns. Where were the stories on the Wolfowitz-Cheney war plans that preceded Sept. 11 by years? Where was the challenging of oil barons who redraw Middle East maps and remold the United States as a rogue superpower? Who appointed themselves to filter those stories out? When Siefert Rose said, "We do not have a strong advocacy point of view," the group responded, certainly you do--you advocate acceptance of the government's framing of issues.
Siefert Rose allowed that WUNC has considerable clout with NPR. But the station seems unlikely to press the network, at least in part because of a perception of the audience as comfortable with pleasant programming that rarely dares to challenge either the government or the listener. Hopes of adding local programming that might help offset the lockstep of NPR values were blocked by Siefert Rose's demurral that international affairs is "not our expertise ... not what we do." And she declared flatly that the station would not offer programming such as Democracy Now! and Counter-Spin, and suggested questioners tune to WNCU, which airs Free Speech Radio News along with NPR programs. That station was represented at the forum by General Manager Edith Thorpe and news department head Kimberley Pierce, who are considering adding more programs that live up to the media's historical role of confronting and exposing government-think.
Like WUNC, NPR stations around the country are supported by people who Siefert Rose says would be "alienated" by programming outside the NPR "values" frame. But with a lock on the ears and minds of America's putative intellectual class, NPR affiliates need to take civic responsibility, not merely serve as a government echo chamber. If NPR can't be changed, nor alternative national programming introduced, what hope can we have for public discourse, for--in a word--democracy?
One suggestion made repeatedly from the floor did bring a positive response: broadcasting local speeches by well-known figures such as Robert Fisk, a noted journalist for London's Independent newspaper. This was brought up in Siefert Rose's last meeting with the group, a year and a half ago; we should watch closely to see whether WUNC decides to contribute to the strengthening of civic discourse in the Triangle, or sits by as we drift deeper into Orwell's abyss.