Did NPR Err in Matters of Religion and Race? : NPR Public Editor NPR treads carefully on matters of ethnicity, race and religion. These three issues set listeners' antennae aquiver if there is the slightest sense that NPR is not being sufficiently respectful. So it is with some surprise that this week's programming has provoked some angry e-mails about the ways NPR has handled these hot-button topics.
NPR logo Did NPR Err in Matters of Religion and Race?

Did NPR Err in Matters of Religion and Race?

NPR treads carefully on matters of ethnicity, race and religion. These three issues set listeners' antennae aquiver if there is the slightest sense that NPR is not being sufficiently respectful.

So it is with some surprise that this week's programming has provoked some angry e-mails about the ways NPR has handled these hot-button topics.

Handel's 'Messiah' as Parody

Weekend Edition Saturday aired a parody of Handel's Messiah. The spoof was by Jim Nayder who is known for his regular feature on "annoying" music. For many listeners such as Paul Schroeder, Nayder's parody was annoying:

Does Scott Simon or any one at NPR not know that this is one of the most revered pieces of music in the world, cherished by many millions of Christian believers for religious reasons and many more lovers of classical music for artistic ones? What in God's or anyone else's name was the point of this deliberately insulting, sophomoric parody? Even if these things mean nothing to you, why would you choose to urinate on someone else's altar?

Spoofing the seasonal omnipresence of this hardy perennial may have been a slight lapse of taste and decorum, but I don't believe it indicates disrespect for the religious or artistic sentiments of those who love Handel's masterpiece.

Not everything is always sacred, all the time, in my opinion.

Identifying Race in a Headline

A real lapse was found in an NPR Online headline about the killings of five hunters in Wisconsin. It motivated Alison Yang to write:

I recently came across a news title, "Accused Wisconsin Shooter Is Hmong Immigrant," and found it rather interesting. Is the most important thing about a crime the race/ethnicity of the alleged criminal? Would you put up a news title, "Accused mugger is an African American?" Of course not, that would be racist. But why then would you write such an article about Asian-Americans?

I agree. The story was about a killing spree during a hunting trip where ethnicity may yet prove to have been a factor, but for now it has not. The editor who wrote the headline said:

[The headline was a] quick but clumsy attempt to introduce the ethnicity factor in this story. The ethnicity is valid, since the suspect claimed to have been targeted by racial slurs, and since the reporter interviewed discusses the Hmong community and its relationship to the area. Nonetheless, I could have done a better job making the context clear in the headline. I have changed it to "Accused Wisconsin Shooter Claims Victims Used Racial Slurs."

Once a 'Father' Always a 'Father?'

An interview on Fresh Air with Father John Crossan moved listener James Kolan to write:

NPR's headlines and links for Professor Crossan's interesting talk on Fresh Air identified him as "Father John Dominic Crossan." As Terri Gross mentioned in her introduction of him, Professor Crossan was formerly a priest but is one no longer. Therefore, it is incorrect to provide him with the honorific title of "Father." For most Catholics, it is doubly insulting to so identify him as Professor Crossan denies any belief in all the relevant beliefs surrounding Christ Jesus. I do not dislike or disrespect Professor Crossan, because he is quite articulate and reassured in his disbelief. Although I recognize that NPR does not understand the feelings of its Christian listeners, it should at least strive to be accurate.

Technically, Professor Crossan's title is no longer that of an ordained priest, but I take exception to Kolan's admonition of NPR. As I wrote to him:

I would respectfully disagree with your contention that NPR does not understand the feelings of Christians and other religious listeners. My sense is that NPR -- more than most -- acknowledges the varieties of religious experience and expression. I hope you won't think that this one lapse is indicative.

So Long, Tavis

Finally, many listeners noted the departure of Tavis Smiley from NPR with dismay. I thought that Tavis brought something valid and needed to public radio as I noted in a column last year.

Listener Ed Graham wrote that Tavis' departure could be seen as a warning sign:

One of the problems that NPR... has had for many years, is the fear of expanding programming. Your June 18 piece points that out. The institutional fear of offending the existing audience by presenting programming that doesn't fit the NPR profile, has promoted an incestuous, elitist audience.

NPR offers the most interesting and best produced programming on radio in America, but has never given more than lip service to their stated desire to expand and diversify. I would love to hear NPR produced streams of programming of for all Americans. Naturally, I fit your target audience but unlike most of my peers, I think everyone should be served by public radio. NPR is established and should be the vehicle.

I couldn't agree more. I am only sorry that Tavis has decided not be part of that next important venture in public radio. NPR is, I believe, deeply committed to expanding its services to all its listeners and is making a solid effort to make sure that African-American listeners are part of that expansion.