Last week, I wrote about listeners who believe that NPR is going too far in its reporting on religion. I quoted from two of many e-mails whose authors think NPR's reporting has started to sound, subtly, like proselytizing. These listeners also worry that the increased presence of religion on NPR might be the result of pressure on public broadcasting from conservatives.
Religion is a "hot button" issue in the country these days and always one on public radio. I anticipated that my column would provoke outbursts of anti- and pro-religious feeling. But I am happy to report my e-mail this past week was brimming with thoughtful and reasoned comments from both sides.
Here are some examples of this outbreak of civic discourse:
Where's The Dalai Lama?
I just finished reading your column on religion reporting and I must agree with the sentiment of many of the listeners you quoted. NPR's coverage of religion, especially Catholicism, has increased at an alarming rate. Sylvia Poggioli's near-daily reporting of the Pope's schedule is disturbing. I cannot remember the last time I heard about the travels of leaders of the worlds other prominent religions. What's the Dalai Lama up to these days? Does anyone at NPR know?
NPR's Work on Religion -- On Target
I think there is less [religion reporting on NPR] than the mainstream press... see Time, Newsweek, CNN. There are always stories about faith. You are on target. Faith or spirituality is on the mind of folks these days. I appreciate NPR's work on religious issues.
Religion Is Deserving of Coverage
I have been fascinated, and disappointed, at comments from some listeners that say NPR is devoting too much time to reporting on religion. These comments seem to express two viewpoints: one, that NPR is intentionally spending more time on the topic for some improper reasons, and two, that religion is somehow less worthy of coverage. I disagree with both views. Religion is as deserving of coverage as politics and the weather and if the topic of religion currently demands more coverage because of current events, so be it.
'Not… Part of Every American's Life'
I agree with the listeners who indicated their unhappiness with all the conservative religious views. Religion does NOT play a part in EVERY American's life -- and NPR should not act as though it does.
Religion = Sex, Politics and Money = Newsworthy
As a former president of Religion Newswriters' Association, I obviously have a bias, but I can defend it. I commend your religion reporting and the fact that only NPR has a religion reporter among networks. My defense of religion reporting and damnation of editors who ignore it: More people are in places of worship weekly than all pro sports... I don't even have to mention faith-based initiatives... creationism/intelligent design/evolution, abortion, birth control, marriage, etc., as religion stories. In short, religion is sex, politics and money, and can you think of any subjects more newsworthy?
Not a Caricature on NPR
I, for one, have always liked the way that NPR treats religious issues, and I'm not just talking about stories relating to Christianity. They haven't treated religion as a caricature. I really don't understand those who think that if NPR has someone give a commentary from a religious viewpoint or if they do a story on a certain sect of Christianity means that they are endorsing it. They are not. I think that religion in whatever form is an important aspect of American life and should be presented as such. I hope NPR keeps up the good work and doesn't start caving in to those who have a strong bias against even mentioning religion.
(Rev.) Dennis Sanders
In the Midst of 'The Third Great Awakening'
Many listeners appreciate NPR's approach to covering religion. They are glad NPR is not overly deferential as it tries to explain how and why religion now plays such a strong role in our national life.
As Louis Menand wrote in The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, we seem to be going through a time of heightened spiritual awareness, which Menand and other historians have dubbed "the great awakening." Menand says it is the third time this has happened in American history.
If so, NPR is right, it seems to me, to be reporting on how this is affecting the country and the culture.
Should a Conservative Replace Dan Schorr?
A less-pleasant influx of e-mails came on Aug. 27 after Weekend Edition Saturday replaced the vacationing Daniel Schorr with Jonah Goldberg, a nationally syndicated conservative writer and editor at large of National Review Online.
I sensed a spewing of cornflakes across the breakfast tables of America shortly after NPR's Scott Simon began asking Mr. Goldberg about the week in politics.
But no, it was not a grassroots eruption but, largely, a blog-induced emetic that caused listeners such as Reed Tibbetts to protest:
Heard Goldberg on this morning and it confirmed my worst fears. I complained to my affiliate (and) stopped donating to my NPR stations in protest… today's appearance of Goldberg just confirmed my suspicions about NPR wimping out to the right wing…
It really is sad.
Well. Sadder still are the e-mails that arrive still with a link to the blog where this "outrage" was first reported. In this case, Mr. Tibbets was inspired by a blog called dailykos.com.
As far as can be determined, the bloggers' objections to Goldberg were not about anything he said on NPR (see "Week in Review" link below) but because of his conservative reputation.
'Opinions Do NOT Equal Facts!'
There were of course some listeners who were upset because of the actual interview with Mr. Goldberg. Paul Chadwick is one such listener, whom I unfairly accused to being under blog mind control. Mr.Chadwick's response:
I have listened to that program every weekend for the last 20+ years. It WAS one of the last bastions of THOUGHTFUL commentary left. What ideologue had the b***** to think that this vapid clown (Goldberg) could fill the shoes of a seasoned journalist? It's a sad commentary on the state of news in America.
I'm sure you too, have been strategically placed to protect the gate. Integrity is a rare commodity these days. Opinions do NOT equal facts.
As I wrote to Mr. Chadwick:
Jonah Goldberg's remarks were pretty even tempered on NPR compared to other things he has written in other media, and I thought that he made some points worth hearing, even if one may not agree with them. After all, isn't that what good journalism is supposed to do?
Schorr + Goldberg = Balance?
Jonah Goldberg has a track record as a smart, and highly opinionated journalist and his ideas may be worth hearing on NPR. Indeed, Goldberg sounded remarkably restrained on NPR unlike his usual "take-no-prisoners" style on his Web site.
But replacing Dan Schorr with Goldberg raises a lot of questions for listeners on both sides of the debate. That's because Schorr sees himself as a non-political journalist who analyzes the news on NPR. Goldberg describes himself as anything BUT non-political.
That's an opinion not shared by some listeners who see Schorr as an iconic figure from an earlier epoch of broadcast journalism from his days at CBS News. As such, Schorr is seen as a representing an implicitly liberal journalism. That's a view that neither Schorr nor I agree with.
Schorr's role at NPR is often the subject of debate by listeners. Last week simply confirms in the minds of many on the right (and on the left) that Schorr is NPR's unacknowledged house liberal. When Goldberg appeared in Schorr's usual slot, it sent a message that Weekend Edition Saturday was inviting a conservative in the interests of journalistic balance.
This was a disservice to Daniel Schorr, and to many listeners, even those not moved to outrage by the blogs.
Schorr's perspectives are, in my opinion, not particularly ideological because his journalist's musings have more perspectives from history than from party politics. A more appropriate replacement might have been someone closer to his stature. PBS' Gwen Ifill or Doyle McManus from the Los Angeles Times come to mind.
They, like Schorr, have no explicit partisan axes to grind, unlike that stalwart conservative woodsman, Jonah Goldberg.