YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 23, 2010

The Neutral State and the Williams firing

Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR

[Added 10-24-2010: On local NPR station KPCC, Brooke Gladstone took up the cudgel to beat JW. Her strategy was to play the neutral examiner of facts: 1. The media were wrong to truncate JW’s original comment on Fox, hence making him sound like a bigot; but 2. Given his record at NPR as transmitted [vaguely] by Vivian Schiller, he should have been terminated long ago.] What do Ilearn from the abrupt firing of “news analyst” Juan Williams by National Public Radio on Wednesday October 20, 2010, a day and a half after he expressed anxiety (on Fox News Channel) when persons in Muslim dress shared a plane flight with him? The dumping of NPR’s token black male excited the media, NPR listeners, and the political class–and the fallout continues as of this writing–but no one has attempted an explanation of what a “news analyst” does, nor has anyone made the connection to the supposed “neutrality” of the State, or to the “neutrality” of the arbitrator of disputes as asserted by the moderate men, i.e., social democrats and “progressives.”

   Apart from the astonishing control-freakiness of NPR management, it is worth noting what “analysis” means to a professional historian who also addresses a general public, and did so on another public broadcasting outlet before graduate school.

    I remember being chided by one KPFK listener when I was program director (2-81 through 7-82). This caller during my weekly live Report to the Listener complained that our News Department (headed by Marc Cooper) was not “objective.” I remember my answer very well. I asked her if she would not prefer an acknowledged subjectivity to the phony air of objectivity put forth by commercial media? I also recall that my happiest moment on the radio, ever, was not the broadcast of my own work, but that of a high school girl who had written a poem for one of our Peace Festivals, expressing her revulsion at the dominant war-celebrating culture. It ended with the defiant line “Hell no, we’re not objective!” It was a creditable effort, but what made the poem memorable to me was how I programmed it. During the news broadcast, I had her read the poem in between news reports, which one would be determined by chance. Entirely by accident, it happened that the report preceding her reading related to the purchase of a new type of airplane by the Pentagon. She read her poem live; I and two of her friends were in the control room when she read it, and my eyes filled with tears. (I think I must have gotten the idea from Cocteau’s movie Orpheus, when a strange message comes out of the radio, unexplained.)

     It was the opportunity to shake things up, form-wise, that endeared me to Pacifica, and made my firing so traumatic. I feel for Juan Williams, but neither he nor his former colleagues in public radio would ever have tampered with the categories as I felt free to do, let alone to stigmatize the phony objectivity of NPR, funded not only by the government but by tax-deductible donations from listeners, foundations, corporate grants, all of whom view themselves proudly as progressives on the side of the angels, and never, never taking sides.

     But though as an artist and troublemaker, I messed with the format, as an historian I am supposed to be objective, however much postmodernists like Hayden White deny the possibility of doing history altogether (we are supposedly incapable of telling stories that depart from literary genres).  Still, bowing to the limitations of my own intelligence and to the blinkered times in which I live, I try to be relatively objective. How? Let me count two of the obstacles to my omniscience.

1. We are limited by our access to facts, never more so than when we opine about current events. But governments are highly secretive. It may be decades before historians are allowed access to classified materials, or to the private papers of movers and shakers. For instance, I have written extensively about the elusive and low-profile Dr. Henry A. Murray on this website, but I was able to see only a tiny fraction of his Melville notes in 1991, and then denied access in 1995 to the rest of his immense cache of personal papers held by Harvard University Archives. His widow, Caroline Fish Murray, wanted to see an outline of a prospective biography before she would allow me to view his correspondence, although she had given blanket permission to his lubricious biographer Forrest Robinson some years earlier.  It costs Harvard money to catalog and maintain the Murray papers, and we pay for it indirectly because Harvard U., though exclusive and independent in its selection of overseers, is an educational institution like NPR, so bequests are deducted from the taxable estate of the donor. So how does this affect my writing on Murray? I must make inferences and read him with an eye to ideology, as I would do with materials of persons long deceased.

2. We are supposed to know the “context” of events so that our interpretations (or “analyses”) are not distorted. But the “context” is enormous and much of it is unknown to the “analyst.” But even when we think we have a handle on “the big picture” we must, as historians, locate the relevant context. That is, we must get inside the heads of the persons we “analyze” and present to the world, so that we can determine the precipitating event that cause the action we write about. Is this always possible? When I was in graduate school, I had to take an introduction to the various sub-fields of history. Our first assignment was to rank the causes of the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. Never one to change my spots overnight, I titled my paper “How Could White People Act Like This?”  I still don’t know how to rank the causes of this event, my point being that we can do our best to reconstruct a situation, but we are only making a stab at it, even when we have lots of data to work with. So much for interpretation by “analysts.”

   But some aspects of the context are determinable, for there are always, but always, visible or invisible antagonists (including their families: father, mother, siblings) addressed by historical actors. That is why I called my blog on Herder and Fichte a foray into dialectics. They were seemingly arguing against the mechanical materialists, those Jack the Rippers of the social fabric, who preceded them, and who would later be blamed for the excesses of the French Revolution. So when we learn the range of debates, of all the related social conflicts, we may possibly read texts with greater accuracy, finding ideology and propaganda in what we first took to be a sober account of the writer’s world. This is labor-intensive and not for the impatient.

   To conclude what should be a book, not a blog, I doubt that anyone at NPR, deep down, believes that they are objective. But they must say so, because that is the deal they made with the devil as middle managers. Progressivism, with its usually undetected co-opting of the Enlightenment and science, forces its followers to put on that impassive mask, lest their inner resentments at being managed, should reveal themselves. Juan Williams, ever since I have seen and heard him on Fox News Channel, has almost always raised his voice as if speaking to partly deaf people. I know how he feels. Or maybe not.

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