Thursday, March 3, 2011

Narcissistic NPR deserves its "whiny critics"

called NPR critics "pseudo-intellectuals" and "the stodgiest, whiniest, most self-importantly insufferable snobs of all time." (that sounds like a description of NPR's top personalities to me)  
   They "see NPR as their own," he added, "a 'safe,' high-minded palace that should never be sullied by" popular culture, celebrity scandals and other lowbrow, sensationalistic ephemera.
   I agree for the most part with those whiny people.
We don't need NPR to conduct deep, reverent interviews of 20-year-old pop sensations about their theories of music or "what is left to do in life" after three Number One hits in a row. We don't need NPR to probe Charlie Sheen's meltdown, or to review such films as "Spiderman" and "Knocked Up." NPR wastes way too much time on people and pop phenomena that are covered to death by the mass media, including the network news.
   I have listened religiously to NPR for more than 25 years, and I've been moved, provoked, and enlightened over and over again. However, I have never known the highly touted, very expensive news programs to "break" a story, or to provide investigative or original, in-depth coverage of anything. They rely on other media and on government probes and even on bloggers to do the digging, despite the $225 million gift from the estate of philanthropist Joan B. Kroc in 2003, which was the largest monetary gift ever to a cultural institution. When Renee Montagne, co-host of "Morning Edition," was asked how the money would be spent, she replied (and this is so typical of her), "Well, I hope the hotels we stay in will have sheets with a higher thread count." One staffer at NPR West described looking out his window at "a parking lot filled with Saabs, Volvos and BMWs as far as the eye can see." And they wonder why we stereotype them!
   I couldn't find any data more recent than 2007, but even then, the two hosts of "Morning Edition," and Robert Siegel of "All Things Considered," each made close to  $400,000 annually in salary and benefits. Scott Simon made $300,000 in salary for his Saturday morning gig. Then-president of NPR Kevin Klose made $465,994 from the network and $151,375 from the NPR foundation for a total of $617,369. Some 14 vice presidents raked in six-figure salaries. Josh Gerstein, then a White House correspondent for, questioned how NPR could justify such compensation when it was laying off employees and canceling programs to plug a $23 million budget hole. One might also question how they have the gall to plead urgently for more money from listeners, when they insist on paying themselves way more than most of those listeners earn. They are hypocrites, perched high above we "little people," and they must regard themselves as a breed apart from the rest of us.
    It seems to me, given all those fancy, pampered people, that we're entitled to expect high-minded and high-quality programming from NPR. But the morning and evening news programs are merely adequate, rarely excellent, in my view. It's the other programming from NPR and PRI that provides thrilling storytelling, provocative analysis and emotionally as well as intellectually satisfying perspectives.The people who run those show haven't been spoiled and screwed up by being overpaid and overexposed.
   These non-news programs have also generally managed to escape what apparently is some sort of NPR 'finishing school' for on-air personalities. During this indoctrination, I visualize that reporters and anchors are taught an absurdly unnatural and contrived rhythm of speech that involves odd pauses, obnoxious emphases and pathetically obvious attempts to sound spontaneous, when it is clear they are reading from a script -- even during what are disingenuously portrayed as unrehearsed interviews. (Don Gonyea has learned these lessons particularly well. Ina Jaffe is another.) These scripts are evidently not edited by anyone with a brain (although they do have a number of staffers whose title is "editor"): I once tried to keep a log of all the grammatical errors, redundancies, mangled syntax, misused words, misappropriated metaphors, misunderstood and/or misstated figures of speech,  and inane, naive or self-evident observations during each day's "Morning Edition," and I had to give it up because I couldn't get anything else done -- I just sat there scribbling. NPR personalities make the kind of errors that you are taught to avoid in Journalism 101, like not saying "armed gunman," because that is a STUPID thing to say, just as "pro-Mubarak supporters" is a stupid thing to say.
   For years, I didn't understand why some people make fun of NPR, but now I get it. There is a culture there -- that I guess dates back to the Bob Edwards, Susan Stamberg and Linda Wertheimer days  (Wertheimer describes herself as a "beloved figure" who has had a "profound" effect on public broadcasting, a characterization that Stamberg must surely feel belongs to her) --  which conveys such self-satisfaction and self-importance that it can actually be refreshing to listen to right-wing radio -- which is garishly straightforward about its ballsy macho ethic and conspiratorial fear-mongering -- or AM news radio, where they actually play it straight.When the utterly repellent NPR fund drives are on, I listen to KSL Newsradio, which is surprisingly informative and intelligent, with none of the egomaniacal preening that is so exasperating on NPR. Even the banter between Grant and Amanda seems genuine and mildly amusing -- it never makes you want to scream SHUT UP, GROW UP, I HATE YOU.
    The part of NPR's 'finishing school' that is   reserved for news anchors is all about turning former reporters into celebrities, who understand that showmanship is everything. It's not a newscast -- it's a performance. When the producer says, "Go!" it is time for them to be "On." It's time to shine, and they are the stars. These anchors, our tiresomely debonair hosts and hostesses, have been ingrained with the exhilarating conviction that it is THEY -- their voices, inflections, exclamations and emotions -- which are THE STORY. They are our benevolent, omniscient tour guides as we, the ones down here who pay the dues, listen raptly to their carefully calibrated portrait of Life on Earth. They have apparently practiced ad nauseam how to hurtle and flutter their voices, seduce, dramatize, emotionalize and sickeningly PERSONALIZE their approach to the news, slipping effortlessly from hilarity to hushed, quivery tones of tragedy. They speed up and slow down for no apparent reason other than to give us a chronic case of aural whiplash. Their segues are tortured and silly. This 'finishing school' can take a perfectly serviceable, smart, likable reporter such as Andrea Seabrook and make her smug, overbearing, and overly animated, like some silly British dowager. Thank goodness Andrea has left the anchor throne and is back to being Andrea the Conscientious Reporter once again. Michelle Norris can't stop trying to steam up the studio with her smoky, get-over-here-baby approach (she has admitted that her own son complains when she uses her obviously put-on "radio tone" at home). Renee Montagne is all swoopy-voiced manipulation, coyness, cuteness, faux delicacy and eyelash-batting playfulness, interspersed with calculated pauses and stutters designed to suggest that she is thinking. Stamberg, Wertheimer, Lyden, etc., ditto. They sound like the dames in movies from the '40s -- society matrons in a clever bit of fluff that's all pose and banter. I would love to see a graph of Montagne's voice, compared to that of a normal speaker. Hers, I have no doubt, would shoot up and plunge down incessantly, like some show-offy little bird that is determined to hold our attention, grace be damned. Steve Inskeep is equally vain and pompous, and his explosive chortling, obviously timed precisely to keep the show right on schedule, is enough to make you lose your balance. Scott Simon is incredibly smitten with his own adorability. I am compelled to give him a pass, though, because he really is quite adorable, despite his giggling and his weakness for the melodramatic and the maudlin. He is full of himself, but the self he's full of (unlike others I could name) is deep, perceptive, smart and generous. He's a pro. (But I really do miss his outrageous flirtation with former NPR movie critic Elvis Mitchell.) Liane Hansen, host of Sunday morning's "Weekend Edition," is wise enough to balance her compulsive fascination with her own life -- and her rather too intimate relationship with that big microphone -- with a cloying, somewhat sincere fascination for others. Until recently, Melissa Bloch, of "All Things Considered," was a charming exception to all of this -- a real person, a woman, a BRAIN, with a sincere sense of dignity and fairness. I have always admired her modesty, sensitivity and professionalism. For some time now, it seems that her "minders" have been pressing her to get into the NPR "groove," and she has tried, with obvious reluctance, to comply. She sounds fake, and she knows it, and it bothers her. I think she might sneak back into her real self, but do it subtly -- which is one of her gifts -- so the Fools Upstairs won't notice.
   I would nominate the hosts of "On the Media," Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, as models for NPR anchor duties. I have been listening to them for years, and they have never even come close to making me cringe or roll my eyes. These two excellent people aren't just "news readers." They have somehow found a way to bring personality, vitality and wit to their program without making the program about themselves. They aren't shy about taking a stand, expressing cynicism or playing Devil's advocate, but the focus always remains squarely on the issues. They are provocative interviewers, tough yet respectful, and their fresh, vigorous perspective always gives me something to think about. When Brooke laughs, it is a beautiful laugh -- a soft, wise chuckle that you know is for real. (Anne Strainchamps, of "To the Best of Our Knowledge," also possesses the rare gift of a charming, genuine radio laugh. She and Brooke don't assault you with their laughter; they warm your heart.)
   Why can't "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" anchors just give us the news -- the very important, interesting, complex, profound issues of our world -- and stay out of the way, letting the stories speak for themselves, instead of brutishly elbowing their way into the spotlight?
   How many times each morning to we have to be reminded, "...and I'm Renee Montagne." 
   We know you're Renee Montagne. We don't care that you're Renee Montagne. We wish you WEREN'T Renee Montagne. Get over yourself, woman!