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Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Like many of you, I should think, I spend a certain amount of time listening to National Public Radio, in my case when I am in my car running errands.  Today, I took Susie to the dentist and sat outside in my car waiting for her.  I tuned in a show called “1A,” short for “First Amendment.”  It is the successor to the Diane Rehm Show which ran here in North Carolina for many years from 10 am to noon five days a week.   The show is hosted by someone named Joshua Johnson who sounds to me like a young man [although everyone sounds young to me.]  The topic was what to make of Trump’s recent rash of adoring statements and friendly overtures to a pretty fair sampling of the world’s dictators – Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Kim Jong-un.  In the course of the conversation, I heard something I had never heard before on NPR.  What struck me most forcefully was the spontaneous eruption it triggered from Johnson.

I should explain to my overseas readers that talk shows on NPR are almost always polite, informed, restrained, apolitical or if not that then politically balanced, the ideal fare for urban upper middle class college educated types who can be counted on to vote, to support good causes, to recycle, and to express sympathy for the poor, for the homeless, for the oppressed and of course for Native Americans.  Listening to NPR makes me feel clean, the way I have always imagined Catholics feel after finally going to confession.  The one thing missing from the typical NPR talk show is truth, naked, raw, unqualified, unapologized for truth. 

In the discussion today, the guests were being asked to speculate on the reasons for certain of Trump’s recent statements and actions:  the congratulatory call to Erdogan, the invitation to Duterte, the rather unanticipated statement that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim Jong-un.  Why would Trump speak in this way about rulers who murdered their own countrymen, even their own relatives, rigged elections, oppressed opponents, threw reporters in jail?
One after another, guests speculated that Trump was trying to upend long-standing American foreign policy, or was speaking thoughtlessly, or had some hidden negotiating strategy in mind.  To each of these guests, Johnson responded courteously, respectfully, clearly signaling that these were just the sorts of sober, serious, thoughtful comments he wished to encourage.

Then it happened.  One of the guests, I do not know whom it was, said quietly, “I think it is envy.”  Johnson erupted almost before the words had been uttered.  In a loud, flustered voice, he burst out, “But you cannot mean that you think he would like to do those things!  But, but, but, surely you do not mean that.”  Johnson went on in this way, speaking over his guest, who was trying, so far as I could hear, to say “Yes, I think that is just what he wants to do.”

It was so manifestly, obviously, undeniably true, and at the same time so nakedly partisan, that it made Johnson’s head explode. 

It was, in its simplicity, the truest thing I had ever heard on NPR.  I do not imagine that guest will be invited back.


Mark Tushnet said...

Mi guess is that the speaker was Mike Fuchs, senior fellow at Center for American Progress.

Chris said...

I honor your fortitude and equanimity professor!

"Like many of you, I should think, I spend a certain amount of time listening to National Public Radio, in my case when I am in my car running errands."

This sentence is true for me too, if you replace 'listening to', with 'cursing at'.

By the way, Chomsky was banned from NPR, and also has interesting comments regarding the station:

Unknown said...

I didn't hear that episode but I'm surprised. From what I've heard of Johnson so far, I've liked it.

Here's a feature about him from the Washington Post:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks for the link. I could not find anything about him

s. wallerstein said...

Instead of feeling envy for Putin and other strongmen, it could just be that Trump feels comfortable and at home with them, likes to be with them.

By the way, while Kim Jong-un is certainly a dictator, Duterte was just elected, Putin has been elected several times and Erdogan was also elected. I'm not a fan of any of them, but it could be that the majority of people in their countries prefer them as leaders.

It's incredible that they've banned Chomsky from NPR. He is certainly the most widely respected U.S. public intellectual in Latin America and perhaps in Western Europe.

Paul said...

The speaker was Thomas Countryman - identified as a career State Department diplomat who recently left the foreign service. The relevant discussion begins shortly after the 26 minute mark. Here's the link:

Danny said...

Maybe the point of the thread is opinions about Trump, but I have opinions about conservatives. My opinion is that they all think that registered Democrats are communists. They're...well, are they wrong? But this is not the point of the thread.

NPR's demographic is educated adults in the sciences and arts for certain. Anecdotally, I think NPR does have a liberal bias, not unlike how Fox commentators will skewer democrats on their show ("but how can you say we should limit NSA spying when OBAMA is already literally ripping up the Constitution???). Maybe much subtler and more respectful. It always *feels* like they're a clique etc.

Danny said...

'By the way, Chomsky was banned from NPR,'

Is he considered uacceptable as an NPR commenter? Maybe. Is he considered the personification of what one might consider too fringe for NPR listeners? Maybe. Does he take it personally? Maybe. I nevertheless feel jerked around when I am told that he is 'banned from NPR'.

Unknown said...

Should a network strive for an equal balance concerning moral issues? Do proponents of racism, torture, and other obvious evils deserve a platform? Should the devil get equal time to refute God? NPR would probably answer in the affirmative.

Jerry Fresia said...

In the link suggested above, the writer says this about Johnson:

He wouldn’t discuss his personal politics and said listeners of “1A” will never hear him editorialize. He wears a bracelet that says: “I Believe” — more a statement of optimism than ideology.

That says it all, doesn't it? That a president of the United States is a wannabe-worldwide-celebrated-dictator is an unthinkable thought. Whenever I read about the range of "responsible" debate that is permitted by the "creative" class (the comfy professional, capital-gains-crowd that currently controls the Democratic Party), a line from John Lennon's Working Class hero always pops into my head:

But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill

Unknown said...

I listened to the podcast and heard Johnson differently. If I hadn’t read Prof. Wolff’s interpretation, I would not have batted an eye at what Johnson said.

He certainly did react more strongly to the “envy” remark than he did to others. But I heard that as a journalist’s challenge to the statement, not Johnson’s personal astonishment.

He produced a show that was anything but pro-Trump; all three commentators bashed Trump (deservedly) from start to finish. There was no pro-Trump voice at the table. Thus, I heard Johnson questioning them--as he should have done. But those guests wouldn’t have been there if Johnson hadn’t invited them.

The question of press bias is a difficult one. Trump finally seems to have destroyed the false equivalence of both sides to any dispute that was the traditional norm. Reports of his statements now routinely say that he said something without evidence or that it contradicts whatever he said the day before. I thought Johnson did his job in these circumstances--to question his guests. In the specific instance of the “envy” remark, the speaker came right back, forcefully, with a justification for it, e.g., Trump’s assault on the First Amendment. Johnson did not quarrel with that.

I think he’s to be congratulated for producing, on a network that depends for its existence on corporate and government contributions, such a trashing of Trump’s foreign policy in general as well as Trump’s attitude toward various thugs.

Chris said...

Jerry! That line always sends shivers down my spine. I actually heard that song on NPR once too. The sweet irony being lost on the host.

Since we are NPR journalist commentating:

Terry Gross and Kai Rysdol are insufferable.

David Brancaccio is pretty great, and once had a show on PBS that was almost completely dedicated to interviewing grass roots left wing activists in a positive lite. Needless to say his show was cancelled....

s. wallerstein said...

That's a great line.

Coincidentally, I was listening in Youtube to John Lennon's songs written after the Beatles broke up just about a week ago, and he replaced Bob Dylan as my favorite late 60's, early 70's song-writer. Lennon is more direct, less pseudo poetic, less pretentious, less exaggerated.

Chris said...

Is Dylan pretentious? Or just eccentric and aloof?

s. wallerstein said...

I don't know if Dylan himself is pretentious, but some of his songs from the Blonde on Blonde period are pretentious: he's competing with T.S. Eliot and he's not in that league.

s. wallerstein said...

This is very interesting: a review of Varoufakis's new book on the Greek financial crisis, etc.

In a conversation with Larry Summers, the question of whether one wants to be a insider or outsider comes up and is clarified. Varousfakis opts for staying an outsider himself.

Tom Cathcart said...

I'm not sure what it means that Chomsky was "banned from NPR." My local NPR affiliate airs the "Alternative Radio" show each Monday evening. It is hosted by Chomsky's frequent collaborator, David [Armenian name that escapes me] and Chomsky is sometimes the guest speaker. Maybe the network has stopped inviting him on news shows? Two cities I've lived in feature the "Alternative Radio" show.

Tom Cathcart said...

David Barsamian.

Chris said...

Sorry, he was heavily censored - as explained in the links.
It's the NYTimes he was banned from.

Jerry Fresia said...

Hi Tom, his name is David Barsamian.

Here is his Wikipedia entry:

Interesting guy.


LFC said...

Re Chris's remark upthread on Terry Gross:

I listen to her occasionally and think that she's a quite skilled interviewer. Many, perhaps most, of her interviews are not about politics (at least not directly) and those are perhaps the best. Happened to catch most of her recent interview w the novelist Richard Ford.