Here's a news item that caught my eye last week: National Public Radio is changing its name to NPR.
Of course, with economic calamity devastating communities from Maine to California, environmental catastrophe in the Gulf and grinding occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, public radio's decision to re-brand itself is strictly small potatoes.
Still, I can't help thinking that NPR's re-branding efforts are one more indication that the public is being squeezed out of public radio.
"While the name change may be an accurate reflection of the evolution of broadcasting, the decision to re-brand public radio is cause for concern for some local NPR stations."
According to Vivian Schiller, NPR's chief executive, the name change is intended to reflect public radio's move from traditional broadcasting to the delivery of news, music and entertainment fare across a variety of digital platforms. "NPR is more modern, streamlined," said Schiller.
While the name change may be an accurate reflection of the evolution of broadcasting, the decision to re-brand public radio is cause for concern for some local NPR stations. A story in the Washington Post notes: "NPR's affiliates, which contribute about 40 percent of NPR's $154 million operating budget, are still primarily in the radio business. Some station managers have grumbled that NPR has invested in digital operations at the expense of more and better radio programs."
Based on NPR's performance of late, those station managers are onto something. Despite all the bells and whistles NPR has employed in recent years, from podcasts to twitter feeds, public radio's journalistic standards have declined in the digital era.
Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in NPR's political coverage. Consider public radio's reporting on the upcoming mid-term elections. Like their counterparts on network television and the rolling news channels, NPR favors horse-race coverage over substantive discussion of the issues and candidates.
Then there's NPR's reliance on pollsters and pundits whose "inside baseball" approach to electoral politics reduces this fundamental aspect of democratic culture to little more than a spectator sport. To make matters worse, the pundits are not all that insightful.
Take All Things Considered host Robert Siegel's July 7 interview with Stuart Rothenberg. As Rothenberg handicapped the Republicans' chances for winning a majority in either the House or Senate, he told Siegel, "Right now the Democrats are responsible for everything. The Republicans have such small numbers in both the House and the Senate that they're largely irrelevant."
"Despite all the bells and whistles NPR has employed in recent years, from podcasts to twitter feeds, public radio's journalistic standards have declined in the digital era."
Since this was radio, I can't be sure, but I bet Rothenberg said this with a straight face. All the same, any suggestion that the Republicans have been "irrelevant" since Obama took office is patently absurd.
The "Party of No" certainly left its mark on the insurance-company-friendly health care legislation that passed earlier this year. Ditto recent financial reform measures that do little to change the "too-big-to-fail" culture that led to our current economic crisis. And let's not forget that the Republicans' relish making sport of extending unemployment benefits for workers who can't find a job in these desperate times.
Rather than question this statement, or much of Rothenberg's analysis for that matter, Siegel listened earnestly to his empty-headed prognostications and left it at that.
But NPR's most egregious work of late has been in the realm of "business news." Consider this item from the July 8 broadcast of Morning Edition. Host Renee Montagne introduced the segment this way: "NPR's Business News starts with a defense of the Happy Meal."
This "business story" makes reference to consumer advocates, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who have taken McDonald's to task for its promotional campaigns aimed at children.
Montagne continued, "In a letter to a consumer group that have singled out Happy Meals in particular, [McDonald's] CEO, Jim Skinner, said they were 'a fun treat' and that it's 'appropriate to promote them with free toys.'"
Under the guise of news reporting, this item is nothing more than a warmed over public relations piece designed to deflect criticism against McDonald's. If this were a one-time offense, it would be one thing. But NPR's business reporting is full of this sort of corporate propaganda. What's more, this pro-corporate spin has infiltrated other aspects of NPR's reporting.
"Then there's NPR's reliance on pollsters and pundits whose "inside baseball" approach to electoral politics reduces this fundamental aspect of democratic culture to little more than a spectator sport."
The original story about the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) threat to sue McDonald's unless it stopped using toys to promote its kids meals is a case in point. Broadcast on June 22, the story begins with a sound bite from a McDonald's TV commercial: not coincidentally a cross-promotional spot pegged to the release of DreamWorks' Shrek: The Final Chapter.
In her set up to reporter April Fulton's story, Renee Montagne says, "a consumer group is trying to take the happy out of the Happy Meal -- or at least, the toy." Framing the story in this way subtly aligns the listener with the interests of fast food companies. But this is just a prelude to the soft-sell that follows.
Fulton's report opens with CSPI spokesman, Michael Jacobson, among others, who criticize McDonald's for its "unethical" marketing aimed at children. But the balance of the story goes to people who defend McDonald's practices -- including comments from Justin Wilson of the Center for Consumer Freedom, "a group that promotes consumer choice and takes some money from the food industry."
Throughout, Fulton incorporates sly references to McDonald's products, such as the latest Happy Meal toy -- a plastic watch featuring the cartoon character Shrek -- and to the smell of McDonald's French Fries that are "so tempting." Far from producing a "balanced" story on consumer activism -- and the legitimate concerns raised by consumer and health advocates -- the report morphs into a promotional piece for McDonald's products and a defense of the fast food giant's marketing practices.
NPR's recent emphasis on business news wouldn't be quite so troubling if the organization would make it a point to include labor news on a regular basis. Likewise, on those rare occasions when consumer activists do get a mention on NPR, it's typically framed as a business story. By doing so, NPR puts business interests ahead of the interests of workers, activists, citizens groups and others who, by definition, are members of the public.
Goodbye, then, to National Public Radio. Perhaps the public hasn't been completed evacuated from NPR. These days, those familiar initials might well stand for Nonstop Public Relations.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.