By Alicia C. Shepard
When Sen. John McCain won the Virginia Republican presidential primary on Feb. 12, some conservatives thought he was sending a subliminal message. It wasn't his victory speech. It was the people McCain brought on stage.
Instead of young conservatives, or even doctrinaire conservative George Allen, a former Virginia governor who was in the audience, McCain surrounded himself with moderate, liberal or aging Virginia Republicans, according to David Keene of the American Conservative Union.
"If you were a conservative Republican activist and saw that picture, a shiver went up your spine," said Keene, whose group rates members of Congress on how they vote on key conservative issues. (McCain has a rating of 65; a "true" conservative is 80 or higher, the group says.)
NPR listeners might have missed this conservative critique of McCain had they not heard Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interview Keene during NPR's recent Conversations with Conservatives series that ran in late February.
After former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dropped out of the Republican presidential race on Feb. 7, it seemed certain McCain would be his party's nominee. Pundits pointed out that McCain, generally described as a "maverick" Republican, would have a problem winning conservative support because of his positions on such issues as immigration and campaign finance reform. So Morning Edition (ME) decided to spend time (28 minutes total airtime over four days) with conservative stalwarts who represent different aspects of their movement.
"We wanted to look at the state of the conservative movement," said ME associate editor, Jordana Hochman, who coordinated the series. "Does McCain's candidacy show fractures in the movement since there are many reasons why conservatives wouldn't support him? His relationships with evangelicals. His position on immigration. His position on taxes."
Hochman aimed for a sample of what leading conservatives are thinking. She set up interviews for Inskeep with Keene, Richard Land, an evangelical leader with the Southern Baptist Convention, Grover Norquist, with Americans For Tax Reform, who favors cutting taxes and Glenn Beck, a controversial radio and CNN talk show host. Hochman tried to get conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox's Sean Hannity, both of whom have been highly critical of McCain, but they weren't available.
"I can't tell you how refreshing it is to hear so many reasoned, articulate -- and real -- conservative voices on NPR this week," wrote Mark Willis in an email. "I hope this move toward balance and objectivity continues well into and beyond the current John McCain crisis."
But Willis' email was one of only a few that praised the series. Judging by the anger and objections in over 60 emails and phone calls, one might have thought NPR was handing out applications for joining the Republican party rather than providing edifying conversations. One listener called it a "lovefest with the radical right-wing nuts."
"Your series of interviews with extreme right-wing ideologues was shameful," emailed another listener, Nanne Olds. "NPR should have interviews with thoughtful, truly intellectual people, not conservative talk show hosts like Glenn Beck who spew misinformation and aspersions. Nor should be you be interviewing Grover Norquist who sees everything in terms of one issue --reducing taxes for the wealthy."
"My morning drive time should not be devoted to the hate speech of the worst kind of conservatives," emailed John Wallenfeldt. "I don't want to empathize with racists and bigots and those who want to take away my civil liberties."
A California caller asked if NPR were outlining a plan to help listeners beat the Democrats in the fall.
"The most interesting aspect of your series is why anyone with any sense of history would even want to be a conservative," wrote another.
As the emails make clear, there is a swath of listeners who simply do not want to hear what people with different outlooks have to say. To truly be an active and informed participant in a democratic society, it's critical to understand all points of view, and not shut out opposing ideas.
Steve Inskeep may have said it better. He told me that after previous interviews with Muslims, foreigners or liberals, sometimes listeners will tell him to keep those voices off the air. Instead, Inskeep suggests listeners think of NPR as their personal intelligence agency.
"It's valuable when an intelligence agency brings you news and information about your friends. But it's even more important that we bring you accurate information about your enemies," said Inskeep. "And we may do the greater service when we find out about people you don't understand or never knew about before."
With the exception of Beck, Inskeep's guests were substantive, articulate and not argumentative. The Beck interview, unfortunately, was more about the over-the-top Beck than insight into conservatives. "Mr. Beck offered nothing more than his usual lightweight rhetorical flair, devoid of meaningful facts," emailed Dan Jamieson. "Mr Beck is an entertainer, who makes a living out of insults and misinformation. He is not a serious source."
While I found the series to be informative, (especially on how some Evangelicals and conservative Christians want to move beyond abortion and same-gender marriage), there needed to be, at the very least, a minority or female voice.
"It's a fair critique of the series and one we struggled with while assembling the series," said Inskeep."At the same time, let's be frank: if we assemble any representative gathering of prominent conservative thinkers, white men will be generously represented. I think we provided a reasonably broad sampling of what's out there."
Thomas Sowell, considered one of the most influential black conservatives, would have added far more than Beck. As would Tamar Jacoby, a leading conservative voice on immigration with the Manhattan Institute's Center for Race and Ethnicity. Or Samuel Rodriquez Jr., an evangelist with a large Hispanic and youth following. Or Shelby Steele, a conservative African American who specializes in the study of race relations. Or Janice Shaw Crouse, a conservative on women's concerns.
There are dozens of diverse conservative voices but NPR and all news organizations need to work much harder to bring them into the conversation.
DISCUSSION QUESTION: Who else should NPR have had on its Conversations with Conservatives?