NPR Syndrome

I don’t listen to the radio — I prefer listening to college lectures when I drive — but several times a year I find myself surreptitiously tuning in anyway, usually when I’m bored and wonder what other folks are listening to. Many times, after wondering around a sonic wasteland, I find myself on National Public Radio, or NPR.

NPR is mostly known for great classical music, at least where I live. Because NPR is partially funded by public funds, and because it sets itself up as an icon of shared common good, it always seems to be wanting to show that it’s smarter than the other radio stations. The classical music is many times deep dives, with an entire work examined and placed in context. The news tries to be level-headed, wide-encompassing, and neutral. The quiz shows are only for the erudite. Heck, even the car repair guys have degrees from MIT.

I used to love this. I could tune in at any time and feel like I was one of the few who understood and enjoyed Tchaikovsky the way he should be enjoyed. And lo, there were other people there like me! And why watch another episode of Jeopardy with it’s lightweight format when I could play along with quizzes that challenged my intimate knowledge of Russian literature? (Or lack thereof.)

This all changed when I finally figured out what was going on. It was NPR news that did it. It took many years, and my own experience working as a freelance writer, for me to figure it all out.

While not obvious to the casual listener, NPR does their news in a mechanical, ritualistic format. While I may get many details wrong here, the gist is correct. During the night, their fax machine churns with releases from various special interest groups. Save the kittens, eat the rich people, grow more bunnies, prevent hunger worldwide, eliminate nuclear weaponry, and so forth. Some are politically conservative groups, yes, but the vast majority are left of center. Sometimes far left. This is simply the reality of activist groups.

The editors sift through this pile of “Hey! This is really interesting! You should do a story on it!” material looking for something of value for their news shows. The vast majority of the releases are just the same stuff on a different day, so they get ignored. But every now and then one strikes the editors as unusual enough for their audiences. “Here’s one on how puppies are adversely affected by greenhouse gases!” an editor will say, and then they’re on to something.

First up, they come up with the hook. “Did you know that your puppy may grow an extra tail and try to eat you while you sleep? And the reason is greenhouse gases? According to a new study by the prestigious….” Next they call the people who issued the release, basing the bulk of the story around an interview with one of them. Extra credit points if this person has a good radio voice. Then they’ll dig through their academic contacts, looking for somebody to provide some context and background quotes. This will be the second part of their interview. Most academics lean left, but are able to backhandedly explain the other side of the opinion, so this counts as balance, I guess.

On a rare occasion they’ll look for somebody who may actually have an opinion that is different and deserves attention. Perhaps it’s an important issue and they want to devote more airtime. So they’ll go through their sources rolodex, finally coming up with some group named something like “All puppies must die” and find a PhD. who is willing to be interviewed. Usually this guy is so off the wall as to be laughable, so then they’ll go back to their pocket academic for some more context quotes before the reporter ends with a sort of “Well, you know, it’s all kind of the same, but it’s a very interesting subject, as you can see, so one thing’s for sure: the debate will certainly continue.”

I’m not trying to imply NPR is left-leaning. By no means. No implication needed. I’ll come right out and say it: they’re left-leaning. Worse still, everybody knows this, including NPR, so they try even harder to sound neutral. Their anchors adapt this singsong vocal style so lampooned on SNL’s skit “Scweddy Balls“. Their topics try to include something for everybody, including, presumably, those poor morons like myself who only pass through every now and then.

In their eyes, they are simply finding a story with a good angle, sourcing it, finding some context, maybe a little debate, and then presenting it in a completely anesthetic fashion. There’s no bias at all. It’s very sad, actually. In their efforts to try to be more neutral, because they don’t even understand what they are doing, they just make the product even worse. I’d rather just listen to a good rant from Olberman or Maddow. At least the entertainment value is higher.

It took me many years to realize this same pattern of news reporting happening over and over again. Not only was the fact that NPR had no idea what it was doing interesting, hell, people love this stuff. When fundraising time comes, they always ask “Where else folks are going to get this kind of high quality and informative news?” and the money just keeps pouring in.

But why?

To answer that question I need to broaden our scope a bit.

There has been a discussion lately on the need for a liberal education. College costs have gone through the roof yet graduates seem unable to find work. Outsiders see the cost going up and the results going down — some of us wonder if college is working as it should. It looks very overpriced and broken.

Of course, I’m a huge proponent of a liberal education and I love the arts as well as the sciences. But still, if you can’t get a job, whatever you have been studying, it was the wrong thing.

As part of that debate, which has gone on in multiple columns over the past few weeks, I came across an interesting one today. “Think Right, not Deep” It’s by a right-wing fellow, and he makes the standard arguments (true) that college is basically a training ground for young liberals instead of a place to actually learn a trade. So it’s mostly that blah-blah-blah stuff you hear from both left and right that has been going on for decades. But then he gets to an interesting point.

Finally, there’s the issue about whether people in the humanities and liberal arts are broadly educated. I don’t think they really are. My undergraduate degrees are in biology and biochemistry. Since I went to a non-elite public university I saw the full range of students, and those who were not science majors were often quite academically unmotivated and passed their classes through bursts of cramming. In the sciences the situation was different because failing was a much more clear and present option. Many people switched out of science majors when they hit organic chemistry or physical chemistry, because they failed them or knew they could not pass the courses.

When I met history or political science majors there were sometimes awkward moments because it was clear I knew more history and political science than they did. I have a strong interest in these areas, and in my naive youth I thought that someone majoring in history or political science would wish to discuss these topics. But usually the reality was that they’d rather drink a beer.

But is it better with genuinely smart students who went to the top schools? Unfortunately that hasn’t been my experience. As a specific example years ago I ran into someone at a party who turned out to have a background in classical Roman history from an Ivy League university. As a Roman history buff I was excited to talk to them about various issues, but I quickly realized that this individual was more interested in seeming smart than saying anything substantive (I wanted to discuss Bryce Ward-Perkins’ revisionist How Rome Fell, and my interlocutor seemed to lose all interest when I was not sufficiently impressed by their name-checking of scholars in the “Rome did not fall, it evolved” school of thought. They were not even prepared from what I could gather to defend that position on empirical grounds).

Too many smart liberal arts graduates remind me of the blonde douche in Good Will Hunting:



…4 – Those liberal arts graduates who are very bright are too often enamored of the latest intellectual fashion, and are keener upon signalling their ideological purity and intellectual superiority than actually understanding anything.

And there we have it: the difference between learning and social signalling. You spend a couple of years of life in your spare time learning Roman history, as this author might have, and you love history and want to learn more. You are excited when you meet somebody who majored in it because here is somebody who got all this stuff in school, taught by a real professor.

But too often, aside from name-dropping, perhaps an emotional rant about whatever the latest fad is, and plenty of signals to show that they think “correctly” about many issues, there’s nothing there. Like the guy said, they’d just rather have a beer.

We’re teaching people to put on the affectation of being smart, of having the right opinions, being upset at the right things, listening to the right radio stations, hanging out with the right crowd — without actually being smart. Being smart has become a brand.

NPR Syndrome is when there is a panache of intellectual fervor without the deep humility and curiosity that real intellectual depth brings. It’s a patina of understanding, the dropping of names, listing of book titles, the citing of experts, the glossing over of depth on both sides of key issues, the use of key words and phrases that signal I’m of the elite in this area.

The older I get, the more Socrates amazes me. One of the greatest philosophers of all times, and he insisted that he did not know much. I have a feeling he’d have a lot of fun today sitting out by the city gates, listening to the cognoscenti.

I don’t mean this rant as being anti-intellectual. Far from it. If anything, it’s a plea for true intellectualism; the pursuit of knowledge and treasuring of sharing and comparing views and opinions. But that’s not what I’m seeing when I look at large sections of the public. It’s not even what I read about when I read about how academia works on the inside. Instead I see people who wrap themselves in a little cocoon, listening to NPR and watching CNN, laughing at Stewart and hanging out at the Daily Kos, all the while feeling so superior to the common man and how easily he is manipulated and led. And yes, the right-wing does just as much of this as the left. But over on the right the intellectuals are mostly the tolerant ones. On the right it’s the anti-intellectuals that are intolerant. On the left the more education you have, the more isolated and bigoted you are. There have even been studies that show that the more education you have, the less economics you know, and the more sure you are of your own opinions about economic issues. It’s exactly the opposite from what we would expect.

Wonder why that is? And if people with college degrees can’t find jobs, and they’re actually understanding less and posturing more, could somebody explain to me as a taxpayer and voter I would want to pay for more of the same?


I had some comments on the clarity of this piece. My apologies if it rambled. To restate my thesis: what we’re getting for our tens of thousands of dollars of college education is a lot of graduates who have mastered the social signalling and habits of appearing to be educated, without actually being educated or having any sort of deep interest at all in the fields they are supposed to have majored in. NPR’s relationship to its audience, whether by design or accident, is illustrative of the power of social signalling and posturing in this manner.



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