Check Your Premises!

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Ah, NPR — how we love to hate you . . . and guardedly to love you. Love you for such gems as “Car Talk," “A Prairie Home Companion,” and “Freakonomics.” Hate you for the smug sanctimoniousness that passes for “objective” reporting, riddled with questionable premises axiomatically postulated.

It’s not that interviews with the likes of David Axelrod or public sector union bosses are slanted — after all, we expect left-wing boilerplate from them. It’s the public affairs programs, such as “Talk of the Nation” and the “Diane Rehm Show,” which, while pretending to be objective, are blinded by their own unquestioned assumptions. This is particularly evident when the host — be it Rehm or Neal Conan — in an effort to be balanced during roundtable discussions with a potpourri of commentators, plays devil’s advocate. The questions of these devil’s advocates often lack conviction or show a gross misunderstanding of the opposing viewpoint. And they are seldom followed up — after what are invariably short, pro-forma answers.

On Fridays, Rehm hosts a roundup discussion of the week’s news. Recently, the subject was the presidential campaign. At one point she asked the panel whether Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital was “fair game” — for an attack by the opposition, I suppose. Instantly, my BS radar quivered, since it’s a given that a candidate’s record should be analyzed and critiqued. The question turned out to be the opening salvo for a nitpicking attack on Romney’s Bain record, private equity in general, obscene profits, and “excessive” wealth. There was no parallel inquiry into whether Barack Obama’s record as a community organizer was “fair game.”

Examine the hidden premises.

In the first instance, the assumption is that work in venture capital and leveraged debt — making a profit by dismembering noncompetitive industries, extracting their residual value, and eliminating the jobs they provide — is problematic, perhaps nefarious. Never mind that failing companies might be better off dissolved, and their assets better employed in a different sector of the economy. Never mind that the benefits to the economy would likely increase employment by making business in a given sector more competitive, despite the short-term loss of jobs. To see this in another way: why should productive capital be wasted subsidizing a dying enterprise producing unwanted goods by overpaid workers at uncompetitive prices?

Although the companies that Bain Capital nurtured back to health and profitability — because, in the judgment of the investors, they showed promise — were dutifully mentioned, the focus of the discussion remained on the euthanatized companies and their lost jobs. Eager to administer the coup de grace, the commentators piled on “excessive” profits and wealth, ignoring whether or not these were acquired honestly through hard work and brains.

Why should productive capital be wasted subsidizing a dying enterprise producing unwanted goods by overpaid workers at uncompetitive prices?

In the second instance — the unasked question (and probably why it wasn’t asked) — the assumption is that work as a community organizer is always noble and beyond criticism. Perhaps it is, but does it qualify a candidate for the presidency, where judgment, leadership and knowledge are paramount?

Mitt Romney’s record — whatever you might think of his policies — at Bain & Company, Bain Capital, and the Salt Lake Winter Olympic games, as well as in the governorship of Massachusetts, demonstrates the sort of judgment, leadership, and knowledge that one expects from a first-class commander-in-chief. In contrast, Barack Obama showed a striking lack of judgment and a foolish naiveté when he promised to close the Guantanamo prison, to have the most open and accessible administration to date, and to do a lot of other things that he has not done, three and a half years into his presidency. The May 26 issue of The Economist displayed its inimitable sense of humor and irony when it reported that

“Barack Obama accepted an award honouring his administration’s commitment to transparency on March 28th 2011. It was given by a coalition of open-government advocates. But the meeting was closed to reporters and photographers, and was not announced on the president’s public schedule. Occasionally life provides perfect metaphors.”

The article then very seriously ups the ante:

“Yet perhaps none of Mr Obama’s transparency promises has rung hollower than his vow to protect whistleblowers. Thomas Drake, who worked at the National Security Agency, was threatened with life imprisonment for leaking to the Baltimore Sun unclassified details of a wasteful programme that also impinged on privacy. The case against him failed — ultimately he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge of ‘exceeding authorised use of a computer’ — but not before he was hounded out of his job. Mr Obama’s administration tried to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 that prohibits people from giving information ‘with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation’. Mr Obama has indicted six whistleblowers, including Mr Drake, under the Espionage Act, twice as many as all prior administrations combined, for leaking information not to a ‘foreign nation’ but to the press.”

Finally, to tie the ribbon properly, The Economist contrasts the Obama administration’s secrecy with the new sunshine policy of Georgia’s Republican administration, which opens vast public access to government files. All this from a newspaper that endorsed Obama over McCain in 2008.

As to leadership, President Obama abdicated any vestige of it when he ignored the balanced-budget recommendations of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission and subsequent Super Committee — both of which he had commissioned. And he left the design of health reform in the capable hands of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Obama’s knowledge of community organization might be beyond question, but if his role as a teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago meant anything, warning bells ought to have chimed in his head as he signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare — as became evident to constitutionalists on June 28 when the Supreme Court’s minority issued vigorously dissenting opinions to the majority’s ruling on its constitutionality.

His lack of economic knowledge is even more abysmal. The Diane Rehm Show referenced above was aired as a follow-up to the Democrats’ critique of Romney’s stint at Bain. TV spots, print advertisements, and an Obama address have caricatured private equity, financiers and of course the Republican candidate as “vampires” and “vultures.” A conflict between profits and unemployment was insinuated. Referring to these attacks, The Economist agreed with Romney’s oft-stated comment that Obama has no idea how the economy works or how jobs are created, and in its June 2 issue opined, “Mr Obama is guilty not of rhetorical excess but of economic muddle. That is far more worrying.”

But back to NPR.

The then soon-to-be-expected Supreme Court ruling on the legality of Obamacare supplied the theme for another recent Diane Rehm roundtable discussion. To the NPR powers-that-be, the constitutionality of the law must have seemed indefensible. So once again, they changed the premise and reframed the debate to stack the deck in their favor. Instead of focusing on the substance of the upcoming decision, discussion focused on the haplessness of five to four decisions and the desirability of broader consensus among the justices. This was chewing on the sizzle instead of the steak. Ironically, even though Obamacare was upheld, it was still a five to four decision.

Conan asked his audience whether NPR offered good value to its listeners, thereby subtly shifting the premise of the argument and justifying the subsidy. He received nothing but paeans of praise for NPR — from its own listeners, of course!

On June 15 President Obama displayed a presidential quality that is anathema to lovers of liberty: a lust for power. Bypassing Congress, he ordered the Department of Justice not to enforce certain measures of immigration law, in effect passing the so-called DREAM act by executive order. On the day it happened, Diane Rehm’s Friday roundtable discussion focused on the decree’s compassion, on Congress’s ineffectiveness, on the Republicans' immigration policy muddle, and on the consequences of the president’s move on the political campaign — in particular, how it stole the thunder of Florida Republican Congressman Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American vice-presidential hopeful whose modified DREAM act had a good chance of being enacted, in a conventional manner. In short, she focused on everything except the executive order’s legality.

A Fox News discussion, on the other hand — and virtually at the same time — questioned the constitutionality of the president’s decree, almost to the exclusion of every other aspect.

On another show, NPR itself was the subject du jour. Whenever the nation’s budget is up for discussion, NPR’s subsidy — relatively small as it is — becomes a point of contention for some Republicans. But the animosity conservatives harbor towards public radio for their leftward slant is almost beside the point. Their more basic concerns are twofold: is the subsidy a proper function of government; and can we afford it?

Those questions are about fundamental premises. Yet they were completely ignored when Neal Conan tackled the subject on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” Conan’s show is sometimes a Gatling gun of vox populi sound bites on whatever the current concern happens to be. During these broadcasts he poses a provocative question and solicits callers for their opinions, granting each of them only a few seconds, and seldom engaging them or directly commenting on what they say. On that day Conan asked his audience whether NPR offered good value to its listeners, thereby subtly shifting the premise of the argument and justifying the subsidy. He received nothing but paeans of praise for NPR — from its own listeners, of course!

Premises are not confined to words. Tone can convey its own hidden premises, and Conan is a master of the craft. Merely by the length of his silence and the inflection on the few words he uses to break it following a caller’s comment he can indicate his approval, disapproval or neutrality. The last is the quality he always strives to project, but the careful listener can often almost hear him muffling a censorious tut-tut-tut.

He doesn’t hold a candle, however, to the archly supercilious Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent. It’s never difficult to determine Totenberg’s likes and dislikes, which — you can be certain — are always evident, especially when combined with her East Coast Brahmin accent, which lends a certain emphasis to her tone. She can infuse with utter contempt the utterance of a name or story she disapproves; and she can manage to give weight and portent to anything she considers noteworthy, no matter how trivial or anodyne, by the intonation of her voice.

* * *

Writing is seldom objective; reportage never is. Putting an idea into prose requires choosing words to convey the thought, while even selecting what constitutes a news story, deciding how to report it, or how much context to include, invariably slants it.

This seems such a simple observation. Yet most news organizations are loath to recognize or admit it, and don a mask of faux objectivity that few people see through. With one exception: the aforementionedEconomist.

The Economist is an English weekly news magazine in continuous publication since 1843, with a circulation of 1.5 million. Itcalls itself a “liberal newspaper”, but it is not “liberal” in the American sense. Rather, it is “classical liberal”, sometimes advocating radical libertarian positions. Its June 11 issue carried a critique of charitable tax breaks as a cover story. It advocates the legalization of drugs and open immigration, has criticized the “corporate social responsibility” movement from an ethical perspective, and has strongly defended securities short selling and naked speculation as beneficial practices.

Ironically, the journal’s editorial stance results in much more objective reporting than that of an “objective” source such as NPR — for one thing, because a reader knows up front where The Economist is coming from. Contrast with The New York Times (the “newspaper of record”), with a print circulation of 1 million. The NYT has always considered itself the epitome of objectivity, yet a large majority or readers view it as “liberal” (in the American sense). This view was confirmed in a mid-2004 editorial by the then-public editor, Daniel Okrent, in which he admitted that the newspaper did have a liberal bias. But this bias is not the paper’s stated policy position. Both the NYT and NPR would benefit hugely from such a disclosure, as they would no longer draw accusations of hypocrisy. But don’t hold your breath.

One unexpected bonus from The Economist’s openly classical liberal bias is that they can use humor to drive the point of a story home. Reporting on Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections under President Robert Mugabe’s tyrannically corrupt administration, The Economist offered a photograph of an elderly, loincloth-clad shepherd leaning on his crook, next to a coffin under a tree; nearby, a cow grazed. The caption read: “Four votes for Mr Mugabe.”




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We're Still Here

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I’m writing this in June, about a month after the world was supposed to end, according to Family Radio’s Harold Camping.

Though I read Stephen Cox’s excellent articles on this topic, I did not listen to Family Radio on May 21. I was already experiencing an irritating weekend. The last thing I needed to hear about was the apocalypse.

I am a libertarian and a Christian. I am quite familiar with the passages in Revelation and the gospels, dealing with the end of the world. The only definite message to derive from these passages is that no one knows when the end will come. In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only"; “watch, therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Matthew 36:42).

In March of last year, I talked with my Dad (himself a Christian) about this. (As Stephen wrote in his December 2010 article, Camping had pushed his prophecy about May 21, 2011 for well over a year. And it was not his first prediction of the end.) We were watching television together one evening before walking the dogs. I started changing channels. My Dad said, “I don’t want to watch any more of that end of the world shit.” At the time, quite a few cable channels were airing an unusually large number of shows about Nostradamus, the Mayan calendar, and the Apocalypse. I said, “Dad, Harold Camping says the world is going to end in May 2011.” He said, “Harold Camping is full of shit.” After a few moments he added, “Every day the world ends for somebody.”

Indeed.

But today, we are still here. The popular attention paid to this incident, or non-incident, has begun to fade, as new natural disasters occur and celebrity and political scandals continue to break. Most of us go on as we did before, simply trying to get through the day. And, like Stephen, I believe that Family Radio will also go on, airing hymns, Bible readings, and inspirational segments. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But the whole episode can serve a greater purpose than simply mocking an old fellow who, despite making this mistake before, still succumbed to hubris.

As my father said, every day the world ends for somebody. It could end for you or me. The gist of the New Testament, in that regard, is to live according to God’s word as if each day were going to be your last. But what does that mean for libertarians, whether Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or anything else?

Well, let’s each ask ourselves, "What have I done for liberty lately? If I were to die today, would I be able to say that I did all I could do to champion liberty in these dark times? Or that every day, even in a little way, I took a stand for economic or social freedom?” Most of us can probably do more than we have done so far.

What can we do? Attend a local zoning board meeting, a township committee meeting, a local school board meeting, a “town hall,” a legislative hearing, a Tea Party rally, a Libertarian Party meeting. Not happy with any of those? Start your own gathering of citizens concerned for liberty. Protest inane local laws, regulations, taxes, and fees. Talk to your families, friends, coworkers, someone sitting next to you on a plane — I'll bet that he or she will be particularly open to discussing liberty after dealing with the TSA. Run for office as a Libertarian or independent.

And we can still do more. If we look at the body of Reflections amassed by Liberty over its publishing history, it chronicles a relentless creep of the state into every aspect of our lives. Some Reflections concern local infringements on liberty, some concern giant bureaucracies brazenly seizing formerly ungoverned or unregulated spaces, some concern misguided progressive do-gooding, some concern surreptitious theft, such as legislative pay raises passed in the middle of the night. But the process has gone on for too long, and we have watched for too long. We need to draw a line in the sand and start pushing back.

Stephen recently wrote that Harold Camping has backtracked, adjusting his timeline to October 21, 2011. We can’t afford to backtrack. Liberty is at stake. When it comes to defending liberty and economic and social freedom, we must act as if each day is known to be our last.

Do not let this year be the end of the world for liberty.




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Doomsday Update

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May 21 has come and gone, and so far as I can tell, Judgment Day has not occurred. Whether that’s good or bad is a debatable question.

What is not debatable is the discrediting of one of the world’s best publicized prophecies, and one of the few prophecies specific enough to be fully disconfirmable. I refer, of course, to the Family Radio network’s prediction that the Rapture and the beginning of Judgment would occur on May 21, 2011.

Harold Camping, Family Radio’s “Bible teacher,” went down with his flag nailed to the mast. Throughout last week, he told callers on his daily call-in program that he wouldn’t even consider questions about the possibility that the Rapture wouldn’t happen on the 21st. On May 17, for instance, he remarked, “If you were talking to me three or four years ago, I would have said, well, there’s a high likelihood [of climactic events in 2011]. . . . But beginning about three years ago, God has shown us proof after proof and given us sign after sign. . . . I know absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt whatsoever, that it is going to happen on May 21. . . . It is absolutely going to be May 21. The Bible guarantees it, without any question. So we cannot countenance any other idea. It is absolutely going to happen.”

Liberty provided one of the first nationally published heads-ups and explanations about this matter in its December issue, in the article entitled "An Experiment in Apocalypse." Early this month I continued the discussion. The topic has proven surprisingly interesting to our readers, as it has to millions of other people, worldwide. I am receiving a lot of requests for updates, and I will provide them.

The really interesting thing, of course, isn’t the fact that Family Radio has been proven wrong. The interesting thing is seeing how individuals and institutions respond to the disconfirmation of ideas that they regarded as fully justified by reason and authority. Full evidence about Family Radio’s response will take a while to come in. Its offices were closed over the weekend (starting on Friday, May 20), and all or almost all programming from then till now has been prerecorded. (I write in the early evening of May 22.) The swarm of media attention simply washed over the recumbent form of Family Radio, occasionally sweeping out one or another follower who discussed his disappointment in vague, colorless terms.

But we can expect to learn more, and I have already learned some things. One interesting thing to me is the fact that throughout May 20 and 21 — even as late as 6:30 p.m. on the latter day — the station was still broadcasting invitations to call up and order “Judgment Day, May 21” pamphlets and bumper stickers — thus making itself even more ridiculous than it would have become, had it simply ceased all ads for mail-order material several days before.

Nevertheless, even the most ridiculous things in life happen because somebody decides to make them happen. Somebody — and a number of people would have to be involved — decided to keep running those ads. Somebody scheduled them. Somebody provided them to local stations. Somebody at the local stations ran them. In only one instance (at 1:25 a.m., PST, on the purported day of Rapture) did I hear evidence that an ad might have been spiked by the national network or my local station, with four minutes of music substituted. As I write, Family Radio’s website still declares in bold letters: “Judgment Day, May 21, 2011: The Bible Guarantees It!”, and its clock says there are “00 Days Left.” Yet someone at Family Radio switched Camping’s prerecorded lecture, which runs on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, from one of his constant Judgment Day diatribes to a discussion of divorce (he’s against it) that was broadcast “25 or 26 years ago,” according to the prerecorded announcement — which also says that copies of the divorce lecture will be “available this week” if you call or write for them. Divorce is exactly what would interest you, on Judgment Day or immediately afterward, right? It should be noted that on May 10, a woman called in to ask Camping about that very topic, divorce, and he told her that “it’s all academic,” because the world was ending and her husband wouldn’t have time to divorce her anyway.

Absurdity upon absurdity. But what do these absurd contradictions mean?

They may show the depth of institutional inertia, even within a relatively small, voluntary organization, an organization, mind you, that is operated by zealots, not by the pension-pursuers at the DMV. The thinking may have been, “We’ll just keep running whatever we’ve been running, whether it makes sense or not. That’s what we do” — even if it makes our own cause ridiculous. If Family Radio can achieve inertia like this, imagine what a government can do, in the face of all the evidence against its theories and programs.

The contradictions may, however, indicate something exactly opposite to inertia, but equally significant. They may indicate that dissenters within Family Radio, of whose existence there has already been a good deal of evidence, decided to assist the organization in rendering itself absurd, thus making the ousting of its current leadership more likely. These people could have halted the post-Doomsday ads for Doomsday literature; they could have snaked out some lecture that wasn’t about (of all things) divorce. But they used their individual initiative to do something more complicated.

That’s a guess. But here’s the idea, in brief: what happens within organizations and individuals is a contest between inertia and initiative, each with its own set of rewards: security, stability, and conservation of energy on the one hand; new opportunities (for power, for revenge, for simple rightness) on the other. If enough data emerge, the next stage of Family Radio’s existence will constitute a fascinating experiment in conflict, institutional and individual.

I will keep on this beat. My own prediction is that Mr. Camping will be ousted from leadership during the coming week by irresistible forces of change in the organization he founded. But this prediction is disconfirmable. Stay tuned.




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Behind the NPR Fiasco

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“You who think that you’re so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves?”

— Frédéric Bastiat

When a fundraising scandal recently ensnared National Pubic Radio, some opinion-makers rushed to revel at the arrogant organization’s woes. I resisted not because I’m a spoilsport but because, living all of my adult life on the West Coast, I’ve absorbed enough Zen philosophy to give wide berth to schadenfreude. It can be a prologue to one’s own misfortunes.

Some weeks have passed, now, and it’s safe to consider what happened. And why it matters.

The facts of the scandal are fairly straightforward. James O’Keefe — the right-wing media provocateur — had a couple of colleagues pose as members of a U.S. Islamic group interested in donating money to NPR. These representatives of the “Muslim Education Action Center” were put in touch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s head of fundraising, who arranged a lunch meeting. The fake Muslims came to the meeting equipped with hidden audio and video devices.

Over the course of the two-hour lunch, they said outrageous things about Israel, Republicans, and the Tea Party. Schiller, practiced in the obsequious manners of big-dollar fundraising toadyism, agreed and agreed. He agreed to some things that implied NPR has an anti-Israel bias and other things that indicated he and his colleagues are insecure strivers with naught but contempt for middle America.

For all his sucking up, Schiller didn’t get the $5 million check. The fake Muslims said they had a few things to think over first. And they hustled out with their material.

In a telephone call recorded after the lunch, the fake Muslims asked Schiller’s lieutenant (NPR’s “senior director of institutional giving”) whether she could have the $5 million donation treated as anonymous. The fake Muslims claimed that they were concerned about being audited by the government; she replied that this was possible and that she would do everything she could to obscure the gift’s provenance.

O’Keefe whittled the two hours of video into an 11-minute excerpt. And he released his excerpt to the internet and television news outlets, which repeated snippets of the NPR fundraiser sucking up to the Muslim Brotherhood and calling the Tea Party a collection of ignorant bigots.

Outrage — some genuine, some clearly manufactured — followed. And a couple of obsequious fundraisers weren’t going to satisfy the establishment Right’s partisan bloodlust. Besides, before his lunch with the fake Muslims, Schiller had already announced that he was leaving NPR to take a similar post with the left-leaning Aspen Institute. So, the Right turned its attention to a bigger target: NPR’s chief executive, a woman named Vivian Schiller (who is, as noted repeatedly, no relation to Ron Schiller).

Schiller’s boast that NPR didn’t need the government money that it normally receives played into the hands of NPR’s political adversaries.

Vivian Schiller had been an executive at the New York Times Company before moving to NPR and had been on the radar of establishment Republicans for some time. She rose to the top of their hit lists after firing NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams for . . . well, for splitting his time between NPR and Fox News.

On March 9, NPR released this statement from its Board of Directors’ Chairman Dave Edwards:

“It is with deep regret that I tell you that the NPR Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Vivian Schiller as President and CEO of NPR, effective immediately. The Board accepted her resignation with understanding, genuine regret, and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years.”

Edwards said the decision to part ways with Vivian Schiller proved the Board’s “commitment to NPR’s standards.”

While the organizational elite talked about standards, NPR’s trench diggers made like the Ministry of Truth — rewriting history to justify throwing Vivian Schiller under the bus. According to NPR’s own media correspondent, David Folkenflik: “some at NPR found Vivian Schiller’s leadership under fire wanting.” And he quoted one longtime network employee saying “we have not been well served by recent management. Many of our managers are talented and solid, but others have not been and have exposed us to some terrible, terrible hits.”

All of this was petty distraction. The big issue looming behind the quibbles over O’Keefe’s video antics—one Schiller’s embarrassing comments and the other Schiller’s shaky management—was, of course, money. When the New York Times reported on Schiller and Schiller’s fumbling pas de deux, it tried to set the frame:

“In the midst of a brutal battle with Republican critics in Congress over federal subsidies, NPR has lost its chief executive after yet another politically charged embarrassment.”

One of Ron Schiller’s most embarrassing comments on the O’Keefe video was a boast that NPR didn’t need the government money that it normally receives. This played into the hands of NPR’s political adversaries.

For years, establishment Republicans have been calling for cuts in the federal funds given to NPR and its parent entity, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These calls have grown louder since control of the House of Representatives changed hands in 2010. And they’ve changed from “cut the government funding” to “eliminate the government funding.” The day that Vivian Schiller resigned, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor released the following statement:

“Our concern is not about any one person at NPR, rather it’s about millions of taxpayers. NPR has admitted that they don’t need taxpayer subsidies to thrive, and at a time when the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we certainly agree with them.”

NPR has long played Enron-like accounting games when explaining how much government money it receives each year.

Like most flimflam artists, its executives prefer to talk in percentages than absolute dollars. They say that NPR only gets 2 or 3% . . . or maybe 5% . . . of its operating budget in the form of direct government assistance. Well, sort of direct; the money goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting first and then to NPR. Strictly speaking, this explanation is true. But it’s also incomplete.

NPR counts more heavily on programming fees collected from its “member stations,” in most cases low-on-the-dial FM operations affiliated in some manner with colleges or universities around the country. These fees — which account for somewhere between 15 and 25% of NPR’s operating budget — are usually paid with federal government grants made to the local stations.

It’s easy to rationalize an earnest, middlebrow radio network as, well, maybe not the worst waste of $40 or $50 million in taxpayer money.

If establishment Republicans like Rep. Cantor have their way and eliminate the federal subsidies of NPR and its member stations, the network will lose as much as a third of its revenue base. Despite the tough talk, that would make a major dent in its business model. In absolute dollars, NPR’s annual budget has ranged between $150 and $170 million in recent years; so the cut would be something like $40 or $50 million from that.

Establishment Republicans have an intricately-wrought animosity to National Public Radio.

As several sharp media observers (most notably, Timothy Noah of the online magazine Slate.com) have pointed out, Republicans have been calling for cuts to NPR’s government subsidies for decades. The cuts rarely ever take effect. Instead, the politicians and network dance a kind of statist tango in which the two sides exchange insults, realize a mutual utility and then decide to coexist rather than taking action against one another.

To be sure, NPR has a left-wing bias. This bias is most evident in the network’s framing of topics in the news — the production-booth decisions about establishing the terms of debate on a particular topic, defining the parameters of coverage, formulating the questions asked of interview subjects. And, perhaps most important, determining which topics aren’t covered at all.

And NPR’s coverage of the present administration is a study in euphemism, rationalization, and justification. Every failure or setback is “unexpected,” any modest success is “profound” and “important.”

Despite this corporatism and institutional arrogance, NPR produces some good work. Its overall tone is generally earnest rather than partisan. And it puts on some damn good shows — including its weekend programming staples Car Talk and the documentary series This American Life. When you’ve listened to one of these — or a set of Ella Fitzgerald’s best work — it’s easy to rationalize an earnest, middlebrow radio network as, well, maybe not the worst waste of $40 or $50 million in taxpayer money.

Perhaps most important to establishment Republicans, the government subsidies give them influence with NPR. And its earnest, middlebrow listeners. As long as the network relies on government funds, it has to be “fair” to both establishment political parties. And, in this context, “fair” means perpetuating topics and coverage that serves the interests of the establishment parties.

So, why the difference this year? Why the executive resignations instead of another statist tango? Was the difference James O’Keefe? Or forces beyond his media trickery?

Probably the latter.

An NPR employee in a position to know told me that the organization elite worries that establishment Republicans aren’t interested in the tango this time around. Influenced by Tea Party activists, particularly in the House of Representatives, the GOP may actually cut NPR’s allowance significantly, if not completely. That’s why Ron Schiller’s boast about not needing government money and obsequious remarks about ignorant Tea Partiers were such a double-whammy. And why NPR’s Board wanted more than just the head of a middle-level executive who was already halfway out the door.

NPR’s institutional elite may still be as earnest and dedicated as the network itself; but it breeds monsters.

NPR fired Vivian Schiller to show true believers in the Congress that it’s still willing to dance the statist tango. Now, it waits to see if they’re impressed. We’ll find out this summer, when Speaker Boehner assembles his first budget.

One last point to consider, with regard to arrogance of institutions like NPR.

Here in the States, public radio is like your uncle, the charming communist who teaches sociology at the local community college. Earnest. Dedicated. Credentialed. Green. Reform-minded. Smart in a million minor ways. So, why do many of its employees make bone-headed decisions in the things they say and do?

Ron Schiller isn’t the only one who’s done something stupid. Last year, it came out that the publicity director for one of NPR’s larger member stations had posted to the left-wing Internet user group JournoList that she would “Laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out” if right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh were dying in front of her.

The publicity director, a woman with the Dickensian name Sarah Spitz, later issued a watery apology:

“I made poorly considered remarks about Rush Limbaugh to what I believed was a private email discussion group from my personal email account. …I apologize to anyone I may have offended and I regret these comments greatly; they do not reflect the values by which I conduct my life.”

That common weasel phrase “may have offended,” so fatal to the spirit of apology.

NPR took great pains to distance itself from Ms. Spitz. It emphasized that she had never been an employee of the network — although it had run a few pieces she’d submitted from her occasional on-air work at the local station where she was an employee.

The term “cognitive dissonance” applies here. Some small minds don’t like the confusion caused by holding conflicting or inconsistent ideas, so they flee to orthodoxy. Structure and agreement. Arrogant institutions offer these things; but decadent institutions (which can also be arrogant) aren’t able to manage their orthodoxy and structure. Counter-intuitively, they become more orthodox because they are institutionally decadent. So it is with NPR. Its institutional elite may still be as earnest and dedicated as the network itself; but it breeds monsters. Small minds that seek agreement instead of wisdom, tormented by insecurities that they barely perceive.

They can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with the institution’s orthodoxy. Just as they can’t imagine anyone voting for McCain. Or Barr. Or anyone other than the overwhelmed mediocrity now occupying the White House. This lack of imagination becomes a kind of mental defect; and the people become fruit ripe for plucking by someone like James O’Keefe.

I’d turn back to O’Keefe and tell him that such ripe fruit is also low fruit. But who am I to get between a man and his livelihood?

As for NPR, if it loses its government subsidies, the good programs it produces will find value in the open market. And value eventually finds a home.




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The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.


Editor's Note: Review of "Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age," by Adrian Johns. Norton, 2010, 305 pages.



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