I hear these open letters — foisted upon the Internet with sickening regularity — are quite the thing. Figured I’d try it, Mara.
First off, I will preface this by saying that I don’t really know who I’m voting for at the moment. In terms of where I live — New Jersey — the two big political parties really don’t care about us until October before the presidential election anyway. The fact that we’re not a “First In Nation” or a “Super Tuesday” or “Swing” State takes the heat off of that degree of decision-making. By the time summer of 2016 rolls around, interest in us will be just shy of contractual. “Oh, New Jersey, okay. Sure, tell us who you think the nominee should be as we stare intently at our watches.” So at this point, I’m a blank slate waiting to be informed and possibly swayed.
But Mara, you are not.
I resisted writing an open letter like this back in late-2015 when it was clear to all but NPR that the populist movement cohering around Bernie Sanders was a real thing. I respect you and your work, which is why this lingering (and not at all imagined) perception is troubling. During those reports there seemed to be a calculated neglect to mention him even though his crowds were growing, not shrinking. I say “neglect” because what it felt like was bias. I mentioned something like this on my Facebook feed; something like “Bernie Sanders can’t become president because the establishment would never allow him to.” The polished phrase would be “party indifference, when aligned to certain media outlets, is at best fiercely indifferent.” The off-the-cuff reaction is “this game seems rigged.”
The reason that I have decided to go ahead and publish this time is because, even though Sanders is now the leading competitor to Hillary Rodham Clinton and it is impossible to overlook him, it isn’t for lack of trying. If someone walked in cold and completely uninformed and heard the debate wrapup that was broadcast on Friday morning’s Morning Edition broadcast, they’d have believed Sanders got no applause lines, that Hillary got all the adoration, and that the event began and ended with her, with some tussling in the middle somewhere. This is a problem.
I have respect for the NPR news team so it pains me to draw this comparison, but these very same blind spots bothered me once before. They’re the same blind spots I saw again and again on Fox News during the 2012 presidential election cycle. If that equation doesn’t bother you, then don’t bother finishing the message, because nothing I say next will matter anyway.
As I said before, I don’t know who I’m voting for, but I rely on reporting of these types of events to, if not do the impossible with reportage of complete objectivity, at least follow a framework where the individual inclination is minimized. In other words, if you have audience cheers for one candidate’s zap line of a certain length, you should have the same for both, or edit out the reactions entirely. Most of us know those reactions are elicited from the most calculated workshopping anyway, and that’s true of every public speaking engagement of any political nature. They’re as organic as a 3-D printed key fob.
Clinton got the first mention in the report and got the last as well, and as an isolated situation it could be rationalized that she had the wind on Thursday night, so of course she bookended the narrative. But this is always the case and not isolated. As a regular listener, and often not the most astute one, the fact that I see and am irritated by the pattern indicates the pattern is real. I’m a blank slate waiting to be informed and possibly swayed, but at this moment, NPR comes across as completely “in the tank” for Hillary, and it is affecting the credibility of an honorable news organization.
This is the weirdest time for political reporting I have ever witnessed. On the Republican side, the clear frontrunner has an all-or-nothing approach to courting the press, and it has worked. Donald Trump has parlayed his years as a public figure into ratings…not news-worthiness. Ratings. In that, he’s shown that the news outlets of today bear none of the DNA of Murrow or Cronkite or Huntley & Brinkley. They know he brings ratings that John Kasich never will. Jeb Bush, while being the second-most famous of this winnowing crowd of Republican hopefuls, is famous for being the brother of George W., mostly. Cruz, while being a darling of the Tea Party conservative set, is also best known for the night-long filibuster held open with a recitation of Green Eggs and Ham. Marco Rubio is hanging in, but his star, like Ben Carson’s, is dying out. And all of this matters very little because in the eyes of all the sponsors of these endless debates, “because Trump.” Because why? “Because money.” He’s been a bonanza in ratings for debates; something that television outlets used to run screaming from because they were ratings black holes.
What will Fox News do if Trump becomes president? Will Rupert Murdoch call for the ouster of its chief, Roger Ailes? Will Ailes be forced to break Megyn Kelly’s contract and get her off the network? It’s one thing for a candidate to trash a correspondent again and again in the public sphere. It’s another if a president does so from the Oval Office.
Because of Fox’s courting of the Tea Party factions and their preferred candidates, you could say they brought this upon themselves, Mara. Woe betide NPR for doing the same thing from the opposite ideological perspective.
We need to take this one step further. There’s tons of arguments saying that Bernie Sanders cannot get any of his great promises enacted. These arguments are correct, although not because of the reasons why so many claimed. The subtext is that when the richest 1% of the U.S. population is finally made to pay their fair share into the system, that’s what pays for all these programs and changes Sanders is promoting. That might be the case, but there’s still the Congress problem. His agenda is dead in the water, especially since these same politicians, if they are not already 1%-ers, really would like to be. In that, Hillary Clinton is correct.
But by that same token, Clinton is equally doomed and her policy ideas are just as dead-on-arrival. She claims she has friends on both sides, can compromise, and can get things done (when she’s not being hauled up before another hearing on Benghazi). The assets she’s counting on are equally dead. Oh, maybe twenty years ago that would have meant something and been a value, but what we’ve learned from nearly eight years of President Barack Obama is that the Congressional tactic of “cancel and hold” really works. Voting for the status quo, or not voting for anything and keeping the status quo as default, are the same thing. Mara, do you really believe that Hillary has any chance when faced with what has been for the Republican-led Senate and House a winning strategy?
Trump doesn’t fare well here either. The establishment Republicans don’t like him, and he gets much of his energy from their hate. The Democrats don’t like him because, in the pinch, he’ll be more Republican than Democrat (depending on who you ask or how the wind is blowing). Anyone who thinks Congress is going to be cowed by his insults and bullying is hopelessly naive. One imagines they’re going to really enjoy serving up loss after loss to someone who claims he can’t help but do “so much winning.” We hear Congresspeople say over and over that it is impossible to do legislation in divided government. How is Donald Trump going to do legislation over a divided Republican party…purportedly HIS party? (He did swear the oath, after all.)
I’ve blathered on too long about this, Mara, and I’m guessing you (like most of the readers) have already checked out of this rant. But if you have hung in, I want to leave with a thought. Fox is feeling the pinch of unintended consequences of creating bias under the cosplay of “fair and balanced.” It is coming back to hound them. If their frenemy Donald Trump becomes president, it will do more than that, and they will likely have to forsake internal loyalties to function in a reasonable fashion.
There is a perceived bias in NPR’s current reportage in the Clinton/Sanders horserace. That has to change. This is neither to benefit Sanders nor deter Clinton support, but to admit the obvious. Perception distorts reality. If NPR is seen throwing its considerable weight behind one, when it is clear that the other has a sense of momentum too, it cannot take the high road and presume to be the “anti-Fox.” So too, if Clinton or Sanders does become the president, they will deal with a Congressional strategy that will also hand them defeat after defeat because it works. Mara, for the sake of NPR’s stability and stature in the next four years, for heaven’s sake, remain cognizant of that.