NPR and FOX: The Pot Calls the Kettle Black

By Stephen Steinlight on December 11, 2009

The political/culture war waged against Fox News (part of a larger effort which includes stigmatizing opponents of mass immigration) has taken a surprising twist.

The campaign is now going after NPR journalists – representatives of the most consistently politically correct voice in the nation – for consorting with Fox. If one ever doubted the seriousness of the attack on free speech, this is a wake-up call. If NPR journalists aren’t immune, no one is. Politico reports that Mara Liasson, one of NPR's leading journalists, is being punished by the station's management for her appearances as a talking head on Fox's "Special Report" and "Fox News Sunday," just two Fox programs to which Liasson has contributed over the past decade. For the sins of adding political diversity, a center-left perspective and, worst of all, journalistic credibility to the Great Right Monster, Liasson will undergo an unspeakable penalty ordered by NPR management: She has been ordered to spend the next 30 days watching Fox television.

Liasson's punishment is a Monty Python version of Maoist political re-education, though it will be administered in the "comfort of her home." It doesn't necessitate spending time amongst the peasantry in the countryside. NPR's unforthcoming spokeswoman, Dana Rehm, remarking that the station does "not comment about internal conversations or about personnel matters," has failed to provide answers to a number of intriguing questions. She has not specified how many hours Liasson must watch each day, whether viewing can include "Family Man," whether her re-education will culminate in the writing of an essay of not fewer than 500 words on the theme "Why I Won't Have Truck With Fox Any More," and how, as in the case of federal programs supposedly excluding participation by illegal aliens, will her viewing be verified?

The reference to Monty Python isn't a loose one. The punishment is reminiscent of a scene in the "Life of Brian," a parody of contemporary political idiocy that parallels the narrative framework of the life of Jesus. A burly Roman centurion catches the eponymous Bryan, an inept, hapless, ideologically unreliable recruit to the Judean People's Liberation Front, on a nighttime initiation operation painting "Romans Go Home" in ungrammatical Latin on a wall in Jerusalem's central market place. The centurion who collars him then makes a demand recalling the classic behavior of many a sadistically punctilious Latin teacher. He orders the Judean Trotskyite to spend the entire night painting "Romans Go Home" in correct Latin 500 times in bright red all over the buildings in the market square.

Nor is Liasson the only NPR person who has run afoul of hitherto tacit station censorship. NPR’s ombudsperson, Alicia Shepard, informs us that Juan Williams' appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" where he made a disparaging remark about the First Lady's sartorial style commenting, "She's got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going" horrified dozens of NPR regulars who sent outraged emails to the station. Reading the comments of NPR spokespersons and journalistic fellow travelers make it clear that Liasson's sin is far greater than that of Williams.

Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, writes in Newsweek that "By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations…I'm talking to you, Mara Liasson – should stop appearing on its programs." Juan Williams sinned, certainly, by appearing on the most popular of all current affairs programs, but one that makes no bones about being all opinion all the time. Liasson's was greater, so the argument runs, because she acted as though Fox were an authentic news station, a view many liberal-left journalists reject because they exist in a parallel universe in which their identical behavior – usually more subtly camouflaged – is invisible, even to themselves.

It would be understatement, to put it mildly, to point out the self-evident: that NPR's hypocrisy is breathtaking. The station's left-liberal bias with regard to virtually any political issue or policy debate – not to mention social or cultural question – one might care to name is automatic and pervasive. It does not even bother with the fig leaf of having a single host for any of its news or current affairs programs that is not a card-carrying left-liberal. This is not only the case with regard to the transparent political predilections of NPR's commentators but it is also exhibited in the imbalance between guests invited to comment: the preponderance of those on the left-liberal side is nearly as bad as what one encounters among witnesses testifying before Democratic chaired Congressional committees.

The most insidious thing about NPR's bias is that is so widely acknowledged and taken for granted – not to mention shared by most of the nation's elite – it becomes in essence invisible; it is expected and accepted by its audience. What differentiates the bias of Fox, say, from that of NPR is more a matter of tone and style rather than content. Each picks an identity most attractive to its social class and cultural niche. Whereas Fox's hallmark is in-your-face, occasionally angry, populism, NPR's is its air of seemingly reasonable, genteel discourse. It's the guise of reasonableness that, indeed, makes NPR's influence so insidious. It's the same thing that leads Weisberg of Slate to take especially strong umbrage with Mara Liasson. It is her reasonableness that is seen as the danger. Weisberg isn't nearly as worried about those whose prejudices are undisguised. He would prefer if all his opponents had Glen Beck's level of testosterone.

This is not to let Weisberg off the hook for his attack on freedom of expression. It's deplorable. His piece is a major contribution to the political miasma in contemporary American where a small, smug, arrogant left-liberal elite over-represented in the media declares points of view with which they disagree and the institutions or news outlets that present them as outré – as dangerous, rank outsiders. By declaring Fox "un-American" we're witnessing yet another example of the new, politically correct McCarthyism whose purpose is to marginalize, censure, and ultimately censor opposing points of view. How this noxious atmosphere has disfigured the immigration debate has been expressed in several places, but nowhere as succinctly and lucidly as in Mark Krikorian's article at National Review Online. It's also the case that mainstream media coverage of immigration and immigration policy – whether network news (ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and affiliates) or any of the newspapers of record and those that syndicate their columnists – is so unitary in terms of point of view, style, and theme as to represent a caricature literary genre and what amounts to a tacit conspiracy when it comes to their imposition of one political point of view. (For a detailed treatment of the conventions of this "genre writing," see my Center for Immigration Studies Backgrounder "Immigration, Mainstream Media, and the 2008 Election."

Malign as is Weisberg's piece and the message sent by NPR's dressing-down of Marra Laisson and Juan Williams, infinitely more dangerous is the part played by the Obama Administration in seeking to control political discourse in America and determine what opinion is acceptable and what not. It is playing with fire by elevating its political agenda over constitutional protections.

In September, the White House went to war with Fox News, seeking to remove its legitimacy as a news outlet by claiming it is no more than an arm of the Republican Party. That the same could be said, in effect, of NPR or the New York Times or Washington Post with regard to the Democratic Party would come as news to no fair-minded person not suffering from dementia. The effort to marginalize Fox was spearheaded by White House Communications Director Anita Dunn – whose recent departure may reflect the fact that this crude attempt to wage war against a major media outlet backfired when the major non-cable networks unexpectedly showed some backbone and refused to go along with the White House threat not to invite Fox representatives to press conferences, briefings, etc.

But the attack was still underway in October – indeed it had become a full-blown campaign. Dunn declared on October 8 that Fox was not a bona fide news operation but "opinion journalism masquerading as news." (Policing that line would be a tough assignment with regard to any news outlet in America in 2009!) The campaign reached its high-water mark – that is to say its nadir – when White House Senior Advisor David Alexrod decided to escalate his battle with Fox by telling all the other networks what they should do. As Gerstein notes in his Politico story: "White House…officials became concerned that unfair stories were migrating from Fox to other news outlets, including the New York Times." It was at this juncture that NPR decided to reign in Mara Liassson for her appearances on Fox. While NPR denies the White House campaign played a role in forcing Liasson to spend an entire month (perhaps February for good behavior?) that assertion is questionable, to be kind.

Despite its many elements of absurd, unconscious humor, not to mention out-and-out idiocy, the campaign by the White House against an oppositional news agency – we are now far removed from the foibles of the laughable, preposterous NPR – reflects a profoundly serious threat emanating from a White House among whose guiding principles is policing strict adherence to political correctness and the vilification and demonization of enemies. Its response to opponents recalls the Nixon White House more than that of any other administration in recent American history.

The Administration's alarming attempt to create an atmosphere conducive to undermining First Amendment freedoms did not begin with the aggressive campaign against Fox. While some prescient observers may be able to identify prior incidents or cite earlier adumbrations, the most obvious starting point for this campaign was the frightening memorandum from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security that was made public – over opposition by DHS attorneys on the grounds that it threatened First Amendment freedoms – by Secretary Napolitano in April. Singling out law-abiding Americans with strong beliefs on a variety of third-rail issues such as abortion or immigration, it argued that the federal government needed to be especially cognizant of the predilection to violence on the part of such people on the basis of their beliefs. In the words of the memo, Americans that oppose illegal immigration because it is a wholesale violation of the rule of law – a position many would characterize as exhibiting admirable civic virtue – are described as exhibiting "anti-immigrant or strident pro-enforcement fervor" which has the "potential to turn violent." The language of this memorandum is unmistakable evidence we are already on the slippery slope where speech is being equated with lawlessness.

A strong reaction against the memo by key members of Congress in both parties and in many conservative organs – though there was little negative reaction in the left-liberal media which one would suppose would be extremely wary of such a serious potential intrusion on individual liberty by the federal government – caused DHS to make an effort to rationalize away the gist of the memo. But it never fully disowned it.

The memo also reveals an extremely troubling, incestuous, mutually reinforcing relationship between the Obama Administration and a cadre of left-wing propaganda mills/policy bodies/ethnic identity outfits who have played the largest role in demonizing those who oppose "comprehensive immigration reform" and on the basis of whose extremely dubious "research" the DHS memo relies. These organizations produce politically tainted, shoddy, even preposterous material; the DHS cites it, and their credibility rises in the minds of a large public: the majority undoubtedly those too lazy to question or inform themselves and others for whom accuracy isn’t important in the least but enjoy the spectacle of seeing their political opponents skewered.

The chief villain and "research" source is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), but the list also includes the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the Center for New Community, America's Voice, and others. In fact, data cited in the DHS memo regarding the potential violence of Americans who hold strong opinions about certain public issues originated in the Southern Poverty Law Center. That organization – which had an early honorable history such as its campaign against the KKK – has since metamorphosed into nothing more than an attack dog for political correctness whose "research" is appallingly shoddy as well as thoroughly tainted politically and whose overall practices have raised so many questions it has been the subject of numerous exposes even in the left-liberal and liberal press. The excellent publication by Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR), “A Guide to Understanding the Tactics of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the Immigration Debate,” focuses on the shameless tactics, bogus/bizarre "research." and money-grubbing reputation of SPLC. FAIR cites one exposé after another by such politically liberal publications as The Nation and Harper's as well as the Montgomery Advertiser, SPLC's hometown newspaper. The chief commonality in these investigative reports is the conclusion that "SPLC exaggerates and manipulates incidents of 'hate' for the sole purpose of raising vast sums of money."

To understand the danger of the DHS or, indeed, of any other department of government accepting data or analyses produced by any of these organizations – all of which are incessantly grinding ideological and partisan axes and are incapable of understanding, let alone producing, objective research – it is sufficient to look at what one document from NCLR cited in FAIR's exposé of SPLC and its fellow travelers. The following passage is cited in a NCLR publication as exhibiting the "hate speech" typical of opponents of "comprehensive immigration reform." This single example of supposed hate speech indicates beyond the shadow of a doubt we are either dealing with psychotically over-sensitive souls or else utterly dishonest, shameless political operators who will press anything – anything – into service to achieve their objectives:

We don't need illegal workers. We've got 18 million Americans who can't find a full-time job now. The economy has adjusted to the fact that there are 8 to 10 to 12 million illegal workers in the country, but it's something that has been harmful to the economy as a whole.

If that is hate speech, then the phrase has no meaning.

We don't know exactly how long Mara Liasson has already been watching Fox, whether she's kept a journal of her viewing habits, how her education is progressing, whether she's begun work on her term paper. Considering she's appeared on Fox for a decade, it's unlikely she'll experience a politically correct epiphany, see the light, and denounce the malefactors who disgrace the uniform (and uniformity) of American mainstream liberal journalism – assuming that's what NPR's executive leadership is anticipating.

But there's a very different plot line I'd rather see unfold, an ancient one. It parallels the story in the Hebrew Bible of the priest Balaam, found primarily in the Book of Numbers and in Deuteronomy. The Israelites have finally reached the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert and are now in Moab, east of the Jordan River. Moses will soon die, and the Israelites will cross into the Promised Land. Their military campaign against the local kingdoms is going well; they've recently defeated Sihon of the Amorites and Og of Bashan. The king of Moab, Balak, is frightened, and he sends a group of promient elders of Moab and Midian to the Priest of Baal, Balaam, to persuade him to use his powers and place a curse on the Israelites. The story gets more complicated when Balaam tells the king he will only do what God (meaning, somewhat inexplicaby, the God of the Israelites) commands. At first God speaks to Balaam in a dream and tells him not to go. The King then sends higher ranking priests and offers Balaam honours if he'll go. God tells him to go, but instructs him to do only what He tells him. (We'll omit the lengthy section about Balaam's experience with his donkey that's been given the power of speech and his encounter with an angel.)

The king then meets with Balaam and they go to the chief places where the god Baal is worshipped and offer sacrifices on seven altars. Though Balak repeats his command to Balaam to curse the Israelites, he tells the king he has been given a prophecy by God and he proceeds to bless Israel. When Balak remonstrates, Balaam reminds him that he can only speak the words God puts in his mouth. When Balak takes him to another high place at Pisgah to try again they first build another seven alters to the pagan god and make sacrifices to him, but all Balaam can do is provides another prophecy blessing Israel. They try once more, at Peor, following the same procedures. But scripture tells us the "spirit of God" comes upon Balaam and he announces a third positive prophecy for the Israelites and blesses them once more. The content of the final curse-turned blessing has become the first prayer of the weekly morning service in the liturgy of all denominations of Judaism, "How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwelling places, oh Israel."

Will Mara Liasson defy the kings of NPR bless the tents of Fox? Let's wait and see.