I hope not. Most of the e-mails to NPR are thoughtful, concerned and polite. But, disturbingly, an increasing number are not.
Some printable examples:
NPR has been co-opted by this "corporate-ocracy." Maybe it is because of the funding that you need to be such lapdogs? Maybe you have always been this way? I wish ya'll would grow some balls, but when you are on the leash of Wal-Mart, big oil, big pharma, I guess it is pretty difficult.
How unpatriotic and treasonous of you deceivers of the truth by both commission and omission, masquerading as superior, intellectual snobs when in reality you are nothing but elitist, self-serving hate mongers.
PS: Nasty letter to follow.
I won't go on, but I think you get the idea.
Occasionally I receive an e-mail so outrageous, that I am compelled to answer:
You should know that someone is using your e-mail to send rude and abusive messages.
And occasionally, the writer will respond, "No, that was me!"
At a public meeting in Jackson, Miss., last week, a listener to NPR programs on Mississippi Public Broadcasting asked me if I had detected a sense of outrage growing in the country.
If my inbox is anything to go by, I certainly have. The reasons for this cyber-outrage might be worth pondering.
NPR's correspondent on religious issues, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, and I spoke this past weekend at a church in the Washington, D.C., area. The topic: how NPR covers religion and spirituality and the response it gets from the listeners.
Barbara made the observation that, in her experience, conservatives are increasingly concerned that they are losing the "culture wars" in the United States. That anxiety, Barbara said, keeps growing even though Republicans control the White House and Congress and might soon control the Supreme Court. Even so, courts keep ruling against displays of Judeo-Christian symbols in publicly funded places, sex education is taught in schools and homosexuality appears to be increasingly accepted in the cultural mainstream.
From the left, I sense that some of the e-mail nastiness has to do with frustration over the re-election of President Bush. These listeners feel that the media was unwilling or unable to stop Bush's ascent to victory.
Civic and Civil Discourse
Barbara's comment, combined with the question from the Mississippi listener, made me wonder if the media in general, and NPR in particular, are failing to create an environment in which civil and civic discourse can take place. And if so, why?
First, technology has changed how we communicate with one another.
E-mail makes our natural sense of impatience more pronounced. We can write missives more quickly than ever, and we send them without first proofing for typos and problems in grammar and tone. I'm guilty of this myself.
NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, recently received an e-mail that called him a bigot. In his recent NPR online column "Political Junkie," Rudin politely answered the angry listener's question (about whether NPR had run an obituary for the former legislator Shirley Chisholm).
Then Rudin added:
But I ran your comments for another reason. I have been covering politics for quite some time, but I can't recall a time when my inbox has been filled with such vituperative name-calling, accusing me and NPR and the media in general of wholesale bias.
Second, these expressions of frustration mean that NPR must do more to ensure that a range of opinions and ideas are prominently represented in its programs and online.
This is a more complicated issue, in part because many people seem to have become accustomed or inured to the daily "attack journalism" that exists so prominently in other media.
Opinions Without Facts
AM talk radio and cable television slugfests have given many the sense that this is what journalism should be. It isn't. Opinions -- even strong opinions -- are necessary and important. But opinions without facts only leave us intellectually and informationally impoverished.
Like Gresham's Law in economics (bad money devalues good money), bad journalism makes people suspect that all journalism is corrupt. When we claim that we are not corrupt or biased, it is then suspected that we are in denial or must be adept at hiding our biases.
Hence, I believe, the angrier tone toward today's journalism.
Guidelines for E-mail Writing
But if you, dear listeners, would like your ideas to be received and considered, and not just dumped into a cyber-wastebasket, here are some guidelines:
· Keep your tone civil. I can take an angry complaint, but obscene or racist messages will get junked without being read.
· Try to keep it under three or four screens' worth of typing. Shorter is better.
· If you forward a prewritten letter from an advocacy group, please don't pretend you have composed it yourself. E-mails complaining about NPR's coverage of the Iditarod dog race have little credibility when 50 identical messages also arrive, albeit with different signatures. They clutter up the inbox and will not be read.
· No attachments please. They will not be opened unless I know the sender.
· Be specific. Items broadcast on the radio a few months ago are hard to track down.
· I have no sway over local programming, PBS or programs not produced by NPR, such as Marketplace or This American Life, although I am happy to forward them along.
Better Journalism Through Civil Discourse
As the listeners' ombudsman, I think the goal is simple, even though the process may be long: Together we must make NPR more accountable and transparent while also raising the bar for journalistic standards.
Your e-mails help us move in that direction. That's because journalism in general, and NPR in particular, must be committed to providing a place where ideas can be discussed and exchanged in a civic and civil manner.
Journalism can't do it without the input of the listeners, readers and viewers.
And you will (or should) hear ideas and opinions on NPR with which you disagree. NPR's job should never be simply to give back to the listeners their own opinions. That would be pandering, not journalism.
Listener Marie James calls herself a conservative and says that even though she senses some "liberal bias" on public broadcasting, she doesn't mind:
If I looked hard enough, I might find something on the Net that matched my outlook, but I don't EXPECT or WANT to have an entire news source that MATCHES my outlook exactly -- would you?
Politely and succinctly put, Ms. James. Thank you.
There is more to be said on this, but that will await another column.