I can’t really blame NPR for quitting Twitter.
The two organizations engaged in a back-and-forth spat last week when Twitter labeled NPR’s main account as “state-affiliated media” before moderating the language to “government-funded” last weekend. The “state-affiliated media” label is the same term Twitter uses for propaganda outlets in Russia, China and other autocratic countries.
But NPR soon decided to stop posting fresh content to any of its 52 official Twitter feeds. It is the first major news organization to abandon the platform.
“We are not putting our journalism on platforms that have demonstrated an interest in undermining our credibility and the public’s understanding of our editorial independence,” NPR Chief Executive John Lansing said in a statement released Wednesday.
Twitter has recently applied the “government-funded” label on other news outlets that receive some public support, including PBS, the BBC and Voice of America. “The BBC has also objected but continues to tweet,” The Washington Post noted.
The Post emailed Twitter seeking comment. Twitter responded with a poop emoji, its response to all press inquiries lately.
At issue is NPR’s funding, long a bugaboo among conservatives because the network receives a sliver of federal dollars. According to NPR, less than 1% of its annual budget comes from the federal government. The rest comes from listener donations, corporate sponsorships and programming fees, each providing about a third of its revenue.
Covering the flap last week, when NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn explained to Twitter CEO Elon Musk how NPR functioned (Musk didn’t quite know), Musk conceded he might have been mistaken.
I wonder if they’ll add the “government-funded” label to every business that took out a Paycheck Protection Program loan during the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s also worth noting that Musk boasted about moving his Tesla operation from California to Texas and Nevada for the tax breaks, arguably another form of public subsidy. Yet Tesla never left the Bay Area, maintaining a 325,000-square-foot headquarters in Palo Alto and an expanding mega-factory in Fremont, which Musk has called the most productive car factory in North America. California has provided Tesla with more than $3.2 billion in subsidies and other credits.
But let’s hear it for Made in America!
I’ve always found NPR useful, but I’ve never had much use for Twitter. I’m not sure any news organization needs to post on it. Less than 2% of NPR’s traffic comes from it.
“It’s not a surprise to people who work in media, but even before the labeling saga, there was a pretty strong business case that the game wasn’t worth the candle,” NPR’s Bobby Allyn pointed out.
Why go to Twitter to learn what media outlets are covering when you can just go to the media outlets themselves?
Perhaps Twitter used to be useful, but there’s no reason to continue using something that has lost its luster and is greatly diminished in what it was good at. Maybe it’s worth a scroll just to read funny tweet responses to the tweets of unhinged members of Congress. You know, the ones who think they’re tweeting something serious when they, themselves, aren’t worth taking seriously.
Some may boycott Twitter for whatever reason — there are several reasons, critics argue — but that boycott will eventually become a shrug as interest in the platform fades, much as interest in Facebook has waned and My Space before that. Younger social media users typically refer to Facebook as “what old people use.” That seems a likely fate for Twitter.
Musk seems to be speeding up that process. The more I hear about this guy, the less respect I have for the women who slept with him. C’mon, responding with a poop emoji to media inquiries? Seriously? He’s requiring an employee to send poop emojis in response to press inquiries? Either there’s (A) a professional PR person with a humiliating job or (B) an unprofessional PR person who finds that hilarious.
And “state-affiliated media”? Next you’ll tell me the National Socialist Party was socialist.
Twitter now seems less like a company, let alone a social media platform, and more like a plaything, a personal vanity site for a rich man-baby who uses it to throw public temper tantrums or get revenge on anybody who ticks him off. Kind of analogous to how the GOP no longer functions as a legitimate political party since a certain other rich man-baby grabbed hold of it.
Look, when Steve Bannon is calling Elon Musk a liar… Yes, I know: It takes one to know one. That’s like saying, “News flash: Cigarette Companies Issue Stark Warning about Heroin! Film at 11.”
I’m not sure why this funding business matters to people complaining about it. Maybe it was a dog whistle by Musk to placate conservatives, many of whom reflexively argue that NPR is some leftist operation. Ah, that’s it! NPR must be in cahoots with the government since it’s not lying about the 2020 presidential election, voting machines or vaccines! Or maybe NPR can respond by labeling Twitter a fascist organization that never fact-checks the fanatics.
Seriously, does anyone really think 1% of NPR’s budget from a single entity is enough to sway its reporting? You might have a more plausible concern about how its Big Pharma donors influence its medical reporting, and no, it is not swayed by such donations. In fact, it always notes it. As all responsible media outlets do, if a corporate sponsor is even remotely connected to a story being covered, NPR informs its listeners that said corporation donates to the network.
Whether you want to call it funding, subsidies or tax breaks, one could argue that the difference between Tesla and NPR is that Tesla is making a product.
But the news is also a product and perhaps a far more important one.
Ask yourself: How valuable is the news a news organization provides?
Thomas Jefferson, ever a source of insights into the nature of government and remedies to correct its abuses, wrote that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Jefferson considered a free press of vital importance to keep government in check. If Jefferson were alive today and had to choose between Fox News and NPR, it would be no contest. Or a choice between Tesla and NPR, for that matter.
You want another no-contest comparison? Compare NPR to what passes for news on cable networks. I have always maintained that cable news isn’t news; it’s television. Like the commercials those cable outlets air, it uses tools, techniques and human psychology to attract viewers through hyperbole, melodrama and, in the case of one network, anger, hatred and prejudice.
Not NPR. With levelheadedness and intellect, it provides content that helps us to be better and more informed citizens. National Public Radio has always been a critical resource for me. It is not my only resource. I wouldn’t advise anyone to rely on a single media outlet for news and information. A rich bounty of healthy options — from general reporting to long-form journalism — is readily accessible online.
Yes, some of them require subscription fees. Many newspapers have established paywalls. That may irritate us, but that goes back to my question: How valuable is the news a news organization provides? The New York Times? The Washington Post? The Wall Street Journal? Are they worth the price of admission for their in-depth reporting or, as in the case of the Journal, its focus on business and financial markets?
The question is even more relevant in the face of increasingly lower standards in today’s media, where affirmation sells better than information, where the nation’s short attention span reflexively discards in-depth reporting and thoughtful analysis, where we’d rather be entertained than informed.
NPR provides everything that is good and right about journalism, at least to me. It’s not perfect by any means — what outlet is? — but it is far closer to perfect than imperfect. Hosts are calm and civilized. They have outstanding interviewers, like Steve Inskeep, Scott Simon, Mary Louise Kelly and Terry Gross. It’s never a gotcha question to trap the guest but a question intended to enlighten the listener. They assume their audience is smart, driven by an appetite that satisfies their intellectual curiosity rather than an addiction to confrontation and vindictiveness. And it’s an audience that is divided equally in thirds: conservative, liberal and independent. I’ve been told that by various public radio managers, the figures being based on an analysis of listener donations.
One of the nice things about NPR is how it uses time. Most stories on news radio are shorter than a minute. Reporters call that a “package.” NPR will take three or four minutes and sometimes as long as six or seven. They don’t tell a story; they explain it. They go beyond the who, what, when and where to prioritize the why. The “why” is always the hardest of journalism’s “Five W’s” to uncover. The first four “W’s” are mostly memorization. The “why” addresses motive, which helps us consider the choices of others and gives context that helps fill out the bigger picture. Devoting the time a story deserves helps us understand the complex narrative of a news event or the full scope of a weighty issue. News stories often have a lot of moving parts. Trying to explain them, whether in minute-long audio packages or through melodramatic provocation so common to TV outlets, doesn’t do it justice. NPR does the news justice.
Take, for example, the legal battle over the abortion drug mifepristone. As NPR reporter Sarah McCammon fleshes out the details, you get a comprehensive breakdown of how the drug became a legal issue, how judges have thus far ruled on it and why. By the end of the segment, the listener is up to speed on a knotty, controversial issue.
Whenever NPR is a topic of conversation, the inevitable random critic will claim it’s a liberal outlet. But when you ask them to cite an example, they can’t. Mostly what they cite is a story about an issue they don’t like. The mere fact a topic is covered at all suggests to the critic that the outlet must be biased. Transgender stories come to mind. When a person claims such stories have a liberal bias, what they’re really saying is they’re repulsed by transgender people. Or, in the case of the mifepristone piece, they despise abortion. The critic might feel that way about any NPR story on abortion.
There’s nothing wrong with being opposed to an issue, but disagreeing with a policy doesn’t mean the coverage of it is biased. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the story; it only matters that you understand the story. The news isn’t there to make you happy. It’s there to make you informed.
That’s why conservative voices are frequent guests on NPR. Their perspectives are newsworthy, and unlike so many other venues, guests share them without challenge or acrimony. That’s why so many thoughtful conservatives chose, without hesitation, to be interviewed on NPR and other public broadcasting airwaves. They know their point of view will be respected.
It would be amusing if everyone criticizing NPR as liberally biased shared what they relied on as a news source. I’ll bet most of those critics rely on sources like Fox News and talk radio. Not that they’d admit that, but ask them to share their views on various issues and you’ll get a sense of what side of the political aisle they’re on, by how much and by how much that serves as an arbiter in deciding what media outlets they think are liberal or not.
Can a politically biased person accuse a media outlet of being politically biased?
I’m not sure why people see public broadcasting as a threat. Public broadcasting outlets like NPR, PBS and Voice of America are crucial vehicles for presenting programming that commercial stations simply cannot afford to engage in or they choose to push an ideological party line. It may be why NPR consistently ranks as one of the nation’s most reliable, unbiased news sources.
The funding issue is nothing more than a political dog whistle. NPR represents 0.00018% of government expenditure. The cost to American taxpayers is pennies a day. But if Twitter wants to label NPR “publicly funded media” because it’s mainly paid for by individual donors, then label Fox News, CNN and the rest as “corporate-funded media” since they’re all mainly paid for by companies in exchange for advertising.
PBS has been home to some of the best documentaries of the era — “Baseball,” “The National Parks,” “The Civil War” — and iconic children’s programming like “Sesame Street,” “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” “Barney the Dinosaur” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
“Nova” is a pioneer in science programming while series like “Nature” offer insights into the world that cable news could do if it chose to be more of an asset than a shout-fest.
You won’t get that kind of programming in American commercial television. It simply cannot happen. Why? Advertisers. You need to pay for advertisements, which completely changes the game.
There’s a reason why things like education, public broadcasting, libraries, etc., are funded by the government instead of private corporations. It’s because you can’t expect for-profit companies to make a product that is solely for public interest. For-profit companies need to make a product that benefits them first. The public is secondary.
No one is saying that’s a crime, but public broadcasting is not that kind of business. It is first and foremost a public service, like roads, police and fire protection. A broadcasting license requires that a broadcasting outlet serve the community — “in the public interest,” reads the license.
The corporate structure of radio long ago dropped this obligation from its prerequisite. They see radio, in particular, as a delivery system for advertising. More cynically, they use radio to sell soap, not to inform or entertain. Yes, that also provides a public service, in that case, for the business community, which uses the vehicle of advertising to help drive business, which helps drive the economy. But there’s long been an imbalance. The primary customer, the listener or viewer, is no longer a priority.
It may be true that the time has come to cut federal funding for public broadcasting. There are people in public broadcasting who say go for it. But if it is true that the government should not be subsidizing a business like public broadcasting, then let’s be consistent and provide no corporate welfare for anyone. No more government subsidies for businesses or corporations. Not oil companies. Not car companies. Not banks. Not anybody.
When partisan elected officials agree to do that, when they eliminate federal subsidies for everything else, then pull NPR off the public dole.
Is that a fair trade-off? Ask your elected representative. That’s when you’ll find out why your lawmaker supports cuts for one and not the other. As if you didn’t already know that.