The NPR of my childhood is no more. What passes for public sponsored radio and television is something truly foreign to its historical founding principles. Public radio and television like its parent institution the university are theoretically grounded in a philosophy of “liberality” which in its classical and historical sense implies the pursuit of truth and the celebration of the diversity of ideas and knowledge. In the classical sense of the term, “liberal” – derived as it is from the word “liberty” – implies freedom of thought and self-expression and with it a pervasive and deep tolerance for dissent and disagreement. Liberal education and a liberal society promote freedom of expression and dissenting opinions in the interest of promoting the pursuit of truth and liberty for all. Consequently, institutions such as public radio and television and the university who seek legitimacy within the community by touting their “liberality” disgrace themselves and delegitimize their mission whenever they fail to embody these values of free speech.
Sadly, the proud term “liberal” has been appropriated over a period of 50 years or more by a political elite who are increasingly intolerant of any ideas which fail to conform to or promote their decidedly socialistic and collectivistic vision of the world. Their pursuit of this illiberal agenda is all the more galling in that they hypocritically wrap themselves in the classically liberal rhetoric of openness, tolerance and free speech while their words, policies and actions belie a progressively escalating intolerance for ideas which the elite among them disagree with.
Anyone having taught or attended college or university classes over the last 50 years or so is very familiar with this dissonance between the stated values and actual professional practice, and those like me who have dared challenge the politically correct hegemony of academia have done so by risking our careers and livelihoods.
Today, NPR radio personality and commentator Juan Williams discovered to his and our chagrin just how illiberal the academy, and by extension National Public Radio, can be. While speaking on the O’Reilly program on Fox News earlier this week, Williams shared a sense of anxiety that many of us have experienced following the events of 9/11 whenever we travel on an airplane with fellow travelers conspicuously dressed in Islamic attire. Little did Williams realize that a frank and honest disclosure of this arguably widely held concern would result in his discharge from NPR.
Interestingly enough, Williams did not hear a critical word from his former employer until 36 hours or so following the broadcast when he was fired without benefit of meeting with his boss, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. Mr. Williams, NPR’s only African-American radio personality, had been with the company for 10 years during which he had won numerous awards, increased viewership and listenership and had raised a prodigious amount of funding on behalf of the network.
Clearly the response of NPR to Williams’ appearance on Fox is excessive and disproportionate to the content of his speech. Mr. Williams suspects, and I strongly concur with his suspicion, that in reality he was fired because of his regular appearances on Fox and because of his personal associations and friendships with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and other celebrities on the political right who are celebrities on the Fox Network. Despite repeated assurances to the contrary, NPR’s programming and actions demonstrates that the network harbors a deep-seated animus against the comparably conservative Fox Network.
This obvious faux pas on the part of NPR’s treatment of Mr. Williams will undoubtedly result in a serious effort within the Congress to cut all federal funding to NPR – and I would argue deservedly and appropriately so. It is senseless to fund an organization with taxpayer dollars that serves as a bulwark of illiberality and prejudice. However, curtailing federal funding exerts precious little leverage upon the company to change its behavior and attitude since federal funding amounts to no more than 1-3% of NPR’s overall budget.
Consequently, exerting leverage upon public radio and television necessarily involves urging local supporters to withhold their contributions to NPR not simply as a sign of protest, but as a permanent expression of dissent until such time as the current CEO is fired and the organization commits itself to embracing once again the classically liberal values of freedom of expression and diversity of thought.
Taking these steps will go a long way toward demonstrating that public radio and television can once again open windows to the mind, heart and soul for the edification and enlightenment of citizens across our state and nation. When public radio and television dedicate themselves to this mission with a commitment to classic and tolerant liberality then they deserve to be called “National Public Radio” and television. However, when political correctness and illiberal arrogance dominates the values of the network, as it would appear they do now, then I for one will continue to withhold my financial support and to contemptuously regard NPR as National Propaganda Radio.