After visiting Duke University to hear Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky deliver a particularly timely keynote address as part of the Globalization and Culture conference, I was surprised to hear National Public Radio's Robert Siegel, on his own, volunteer that independent thinkers like Noam Chomsky are not welcome on NPR's news and discussion programs.
It was the last day of a book tour for the co-host of "All Things Considered," and he was signing copies of "The NPR Interviews," which he edited, at Durham's Regulator book store. He was accompanied by WUNC General Manager Bill Davis.
After the first wave of books had been signed, I approached Siegel and expressed concern over the lack of range in political commentary on NPR. I explained that I felt that the public interest was not very fully explored, and that an "inside the beltway" mentality and bias prevails. Siegel made a token statement of agreement, saying that it would be worthwhile to find more voices, but quickly limited it by saying, "However, we wouldn't be interested in airing the views of such media and political critics as Noam Chomsky." I responded that when Chomsky was here a few days before, he made some important observations, to which NPR listeners have had no access. The example I cited stood in sharp contrast to the deferential treatment given to Newt Gingrich and company by NPR. Chomsky had stated that with our system of welfare for the rich and market discipline for the poor, a system supported by both major political parties, Gingrich can campaign against welfare, while his home district is the most heavily tax-subsidized district in the country (setting aside Cape Kennedy and the D.C. area). Siegel agreed that this was interesting, and that he hadn't heard anyone mention it on NPR.
The significance of the remark about "such... critics as Noam Chomsky," it seems to me, is that a senior NPR program host would so easily endorse the limiting of debate and access to ideas on public radio. This must be NPR corporate-culture speaking. It reminds me of an NPR feature at the time of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov's death. NPR's reporter, describing a discussion with her Soviet counterpart, referred with disdain to the Soviet reporter's admission that Sakharov's comments had not been allowed on the air in his own country during his lifetime. What an interesting indictment! How sad to see NPR earning the same criticism.
We live in an era of ferocious and far-reaching propaganda campaigns, where a conservative president like Clinton can be successfully painted as "ruling from the left" (Republican David Bernstein, editor of Diversity and Division magazine, in an ATC commentary Nov. 9, 1994). The public is "naked in the storm" without enough independent-minded criticism and commentary, and neither NPR nor WUNC management seem willing to accept their responsibility--enabling the public to defend its own interests in an informed way. This could be one reason why WUNC's fall fund-raising fell short a few weeks ago. Should listeners enthusiastically support those networks and stations whose lack of real analysis and range of discourse is politically and culturally debilitating? Will the new NCCU station be part of the solution, or just a new piece of the problem? We should soon know if the time has come to establish a new and more interesting public radio station for our area.