NPR troubles, or: The reign of Lulu


photo by Amani Canada

I am an avid listener of National Public Radio (NPR), broadcast locally on KSTX. NPR is a bastion of quality journalism, or so it was. Lately, their journalistic standards are sliding faster than Trump’s toupee. And it is your fault.

I am kidding, sort of. Millennials and even younger people in Gen Z “” do not get me started on these generational absurdities “” have been blamed for the death of everything from napkins to cereal. (Google the word “˜millennials’ right now and I bet “˜are killing’ will come up in the search bar.) How could you possibly be killing public radio programming? Before I expand my theory, I want to explain the actual problem through three recent examples.

While listening to All Things Considered on NPR a few weeks ago, I heard a news story about the Catalonian separatists in Spain. (You might have read the Trinitonian’s own excellent reporting on this story by Kendra Derrig with photo by Soleil Gaffner.) The NPR story begins with a journalist in Spain “” so far so good. While having a reporter on the ground and familiar with the scene seems basic for professional journalism, international news is expensive to produce and more outlets are either outsourcing such coverage or skipping it.

However, the journalist soon begins to explain the thoughts of her family and friends in Spain to explore the issue. Remember, this was supposed to be a news story, not an editorial. This is such a basic violation of journalistic standards, such a conflict of interest that I did not even need to explain to my Mass Media class what was wrong with this situation.

The second example of decline also aired on All Things Considered. The news story marked the death of Hugh Hefner, the celebrity publisher of the Playboy media empire. While certainly newsworthy, the story was a total celebration of someone with a controversial legacy. They did not even use the word pornography, much less misogyny to discuss his actions. In fact, the most critical comment they could muster came from an advertising executive. He said that the Playboy brand had come to be perceived as cheesy to young people today.

I did not want a takedown of the man, despite my passionate feelings against him. What I expected from my previously most trusted source of news was a balanced story that took sober stock of this complicated influencer of our culture. Instead I heard a posthumous puff piece “” something for which journalists have a much more ironic, raunchy phrase.

The third and final example pertains to Weekend Edition Sunday, a purposefully more relaxed newscast from NPR. “˜More relaxed’ once meant more feature stories about books, music, and the like. The journalist formerly known as Lourdes Garcia-Navarro hosts the show, only now she is just “Lulu.” She joins the ranks of entertainers known by only their first names: Cher, Celine, Oprah. My teeth already on edge, Lulu wished happy birthday to her husband over the air several months ago. I tried not to smash my radio. No offense, Lulita.

I am willing to admit that my outrage could be overwrought. However, I do think that NPR should hold itself to higher standards, especially during a time when the President of the United States attacks the media on the daily. Why is this happening at NPR?

illustration by Andrea Nebhut

I suspect they are chasing the ears of millennials. I think they assume that you all do not care about objective reportage that attempts to be free from conflicts of interest, as well as grounded in a shared professionalism. Maybe they ran a survey or two to capture your supposed attitudes and beliefs.

Although my sample is not statistically significant, I can assure them that they are wrong about you. In my experience, you all care very much, and I hope you will do something about this when you assume positions of influence within your respective communities post-graduation.

The more astute among you might be wondering why NPR would be chasing any kind of audience considering they are part of the public, taxpayer-supported media in this country. In other words, they should not be subjected to the pressures of commercial media structures where the target audience of the advertisers is all mighty.

The fact is that the well-meaning producers and administrators of public media have little choice as the federal government perennially slashes government contributions, forcing public media to become more reliant on corporate underwriting and member donations. The corporations are definitely chasing marketing demographics, and the members are aging out.

Which brings us back to you and your coveted attention. NPR is arguably forced to chase you by altering their programming in a way that is supposed to appeal to you.

The public media system was founded in this country in 1967 as an alternative to commercial media. Newton Minow, a former chairman of the FCC, borrowing from T.S. Eliot, once infamously described commercial television as a “vast wasteland.”

This is not to say that public media are perfect, but even cranky 40-somethings like me recognize the vital role they play in our system. I do not have a solution, only a conviction that we need more federal funding for public media, and less money for bombs, to help diversify media ownership in this country.

Hopefully the leadership at NPR will stop chasing these imagined millennials and return to chasing the best quality journalism, but they will need the financial independence to do so.