Listeners detect a different tone to NPR News recently. Is it simply the summer doldrums? Or could it be a conscious effort to make NPR sound different?
Where's the Domestic News?
Nancy Courtney asks:
Why am I hearing an increased amount of international coverage? Why has the amount of regional coverage of the United States decreased? Thanks.
In my experience, the flow of news tends to have its own form of seasonal affective disorder. Here's my response to Ms. Courtney:
Traditionally, August is always a slow month for domestic (and especially for political) news. Foreign news tends to fill up the gaps for news organizations. And this has been a reasonably busy month for foreign news as well.
In my experience, savvy freelancers overseas know that they can find a ready market in North America for their wares in August and at the end of December.
I'll ask the editors if they have noticed a similar tendency.
Bill Marimow, managing editor for NPR News, thinks the domestic hiatus is temporary and asks the listeners not to adjust their receivers:
...What I would theorize is this: With the president in Crawford and Congress in recess, there is, inevitably, going to be less breaking news from the federal government.
At the same time, we have the ongoing major foreign stories in Gaza and Iraq. Given the magnitude of those issues, I would say that foreign news would likely be dominant during late August. Of course, with the hearings on Judge Roberts starting in September, the base closings issue, "No Child Left Behind," soaring energy costs and other national topics, my hunch is that the balance will soon be shifting somewhat.
'Get That off the Radio!'
Robert and Barbara Meshanko wonder if the summer is a time of declining news standards. They object to a profile of a particular music group called "Tilly and the Wall" on Weekend Edition Sunday:
We get discouraged when hearing all the promotions for your (Ombudsman) function, but not much in the way of results -- to fix what we have often written to you about:
Why, this morning (Aug. 21), is NPR NEWS doing a biographical sketch and playing the mediocre music of a group called "Tilly and the Wall" from Omaha, Nebraska? In a few months, this group will disband and leave no lasting mark on our culture, while NPR NEWS overlooked really important global matters to focus attention on such an unmeritorious subject. What are they thinking?
The Meshankos' shot stings to the quick. But I thought that "Tilly and the Wall" had merits both as music and as a story. First, it was refreshing to hear about and from Nebraska musicians because they are not from the usual bicoastal haunts. Taste in music is subjective, as we know, but I thought that Weekend Edition Sunday managed to surprise the listeners by showcasing this group. Kudos to the producers. Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Meshanko. I hope you'll hear something more to your liking.
Religion and the Rise of Listeners' Ire
A number of listeners have written to protest what they perceive as an increase in stories about religion. Many specifically objected to an Aug. 7 profile on Weekend All Things Considered of an evangelical church that has become so large it is establishing branch campuses.
From Terri Dziekonski:
I have lately come to believe that the "R" in NPR stands for religion. Why do we have to have a comment from a conservative minister on almost every news item reported? And, why does everything that goes on of a religious bent have to be reported in great detail. The coverage of the Pope's death was not the only incidence of this. There seems to me to be a distinctly right leaning to the reporting on NPR these days and I, for one, am not happy with it.
And from Jo Sullivan:
I did not write last week, but I too am dismayed and disgusted by the outpouring of religion that you have put on your programs in recent months. I do not listen to NPR to be proselytized. Christians have their own stations, and spend billions to get their message out. Why give them a free venue? Are you catering the current administration?
Reporting Is Not Preaching
Walter Watson is the senior producer of Weekend All Things Considered. He disagrees that the aim of the report was to proselytize:
Religion -- and not just Protestantism -- plays an increasingly important part of American life in politics, education and culture. We thought it was important to show how some churches are growing quickly, and how they plan to extend their influence. Some public radio listeners may object to hearing about this, but we think that it's significant and we need to report it, even if it may make some of our long-time listeners uncomfortable.
It is true that NPR has deliberately increased its coverage of religion compared to a few years ago. The roles of religion in America and in the Middle East must be followed; they are news stories that affect the listeners. A complete list of stories on religion can be found on the NPR.org Religion topic page (see link below). Unquestionably, there has been a lot of reporting on the topic.
Too Much of a 'God' Thing?
I don't doubt Walter Watson when he says the church story was valuable. But the sheer volume of stories about religion is overwhelming many listeners. Perhaps NPR News should monitor the overall amount of airtime devoted to this one subject. (I am not counting the reports of NPR's Barbara Bradley-Hagerty, whose religion reporting is erudite and balanced).
Even as many listeners sense that NPR is giving too much airtime to prominent religious groups, they also ask that NPR report on developments in other religions that address the spiritual questions of the day.
To which, one can only say, "Amen."