An Open Letter to NPR on Why They'll Never Get Another Penny From Me
January 19, 2017
This has happened too often lately. In the morning, while brushing my teeth or shaving, I turn on NPR, hoping I’ll be informed about what’s going on in the world. Instead, I’ll get enraged by your coverage.
This morning, the day before the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, as we anticipate the horror of a Trump presidency, Morning Edition ran a piece about how Pres. Obama was responsible for the divisiveness in our country that led to Trump.
Here’s how it began:
STEVE INSKEEP: On this final full day of Pres. Obama’s term, we are of course far from history’s final verdict about him. But the first drafts are being written. One person who believes the president failed in what he set out to do is Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
OK, first: “Ethics and Public Policy Center” sounds anodyne. It isn’t. It’s a right-wing think tank funded by the usual sources: the Koch Bros., the Scaife Foundations, Castle Rock Foundation. Not sure why this isn’t mentioned. At least use the word “conservative,” as Wikipedia does. Let people know. But of course the Koch Bros. help fund you, too.
BTW: “history’s final verdict”? Ick. If history gets one (doubtful), it will fall on all of us. Right now, it’s falling heavily on the media. The lesson is obviously unlearned.
RACHEL MARTIN: Wehner served three Republican presidents, and this election year he was an outspoken critic of Donald Trump. His fellow conservatives railed against him for criticizing their nominee and their party. But Wehner had some tough words for Democrats, too—particularly Barack Obama. Wehner said the president contributed to the current divisions in this country. Here’s his conversation with our co-host, Steve Inskeep.
So at least we know why you chose this guy: Wehner doesn’t like Obama or Trump. He thinks they’re equally problematic. That means he’s ... middle of the road! He’s the rational person who can explain in non-partisan fashion what’s going on in the world. Even though he’s really a neo-con from a right-wing think tank.
INSKEEP: What makes it the president’s fault for the divisions in the country?
WEHNER: Well, I don’t think they’re all his fault, but it happened on his watch, and he’s the president, and he came into office promising to heal the divisions. And he knew the nature of the Republican party, knew what he was going into, and really the core promise of the Obama campaign in 2008 was to transcend the divisions, and that he would act in a post-partisan, trans-political way. I don’t think he did.
Journalism 101 students, what’s your follow-up? I might ask, “What is the nature of the Republican party?” That’s an odd phrase, isn’t it? Wehner, a Republican, is making it sound like Obama should’ve known better than to promise to be able to work with Republicans since: Republicans is crazy. I would’ve asked for clarification on that. We shouldn’t let that hang there.
I might also bring up whether the GOP worked particularly hard to ensure Obama couldn’t transcend divisions. Alex MacGillis suggests as much in his 2014 biography of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. See #18 here.
Inskeep’s follow-ups? Zero.
WEHNER: But it’s not simply that he wasn’t able to achieve common ground with Republicans on legislation. It is more broadly that the political culture is rancorous and divided and angry—I don’t lay all of the blame on President Obama for that—Republicans have their role in that, conservatives have their responsibility. But so does President Obama. He used rhetoric that for a president I think is unusually divisive. He constantly accused Republicans of putting party ahead of country.
Is that unusually divisive? It feels like it happens a lot. And when did Pres. Obama say it? And how often? Most important: Was it true? Did the GOP put party above country? I would argue they did. To be honest, anyone who has read Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money,” about the Koch Bros., knows they did. Conservative, moneyed forces first gathered in January 2009 to stop him. Sen. Mitch McConnell was an obstructionist from Day One. He wasn’t interested in economic recovery. Are you kidding? That would make the Dems popular. We might have another FDR on our hands. No, he was interested in making Barack Obama a one-term president. He said exactly that. So why deny it here?
But Wehner is on a roll.
WEHNER: And that rhetoric over a sustained period of time has consequences. And I think some of the failures of the Obama presidency, unfortunately, led to the Trump presidency.
INSKEEP: How so?
Glad to know Steve’s alive.
WEHNER: Well, I think there was so much alienation and anger in America, that it opened the way for a cynical demagogue like Donald Trump to rise up and win. I wish Trump had not won. I’m a lifelong Republican, I’m a conservative, and I was never [for] Trump from the moment he announced his campaign all the way through.
Wehner’s bona fides again: Right down the middle, folks!
WEHNER: But he wasn’t elected in a vacuum. There was a lot of acrimony, a lot of division. A lot of Americans, particularly blue-collar Americans, felt dishonored, and unheard and voiceless, during the Obama years.
Follow-ups: Why did they feel this way? What are the causes of it? How complex and myriad and how far back do these issues stretch? Nothing.
By now I’m pissed. I’m thinking, “What kind of mind frames the last eight years in this way?” And, amazingly, Steve reads my thoughts!
INSKEEP: Is this a description of what you think happened?
Wow, maybe I shouldn’t think Steve Inskeep is the worst journalist in the world! Maybe he is, as the NPR website suggests, “known for probing questions to everyone from presidents to warlords to musicians.”
Except I mishear what he’s saying. He’s not questioning Wehner; he’s actually giving him answers.
INSKEEP: Is this a description of what you think happened: This is a president who tried to think technocratically, analytically, about policy, and he would reach a conclusion. And if someone reached a different conclusion, he believed it must have been cynical. Because the facts were so obvious to him.
WEHNER: Yeah, I think that’s a fair description of it.
Good god. How many words did this “probing questioner” just put into the mouth of his subject? And why is he doing it in the first place? Does he think it’s reporting?
WEHNER: He’s a person who has enormous confidence, and he when he arrived at a position he thought it was the only reasonable and rational position. And if you didn’t share his conclusion, then it must’ve been informed by cynical—
INSKEEP: Because you should know better.
WEHNER: Because you should know better. Because I arrived at this position, and I arrived at it because it was reasonable and it was logical, and everyone who is reasonable and logical should arrive at the same position I do. I think that is exactly what happened.
And I think you’re both full of shit. I would like at least one concrete example rather than a vague description. A story. An anecdote. This was the issue: Obama thought X, McConnell thought Y, nothing was done. Surely Mr. Inskeep will ask for that.
The vagueness of this accusation—which, again, comes from the mouth of NPR's own reporter—is, I assume, the whole point. Defending against the vague is like punching out of cotton.
And by now we’re onto the second half of the equation.
INSKEEP: How has President-Elect Trump done in bringing the country together in your view? ... Let’s just talk about his time as President-Elect. How do you think he’s done there?
WEHNER: As President-Elect? I think he’s continued to divide the country. He’s continued his Twitter wars. He has this propensity to create enemies, and to go after them, and he seems to thrive in division. But this is supposed to be the easy part—the transition period—this is as easy as it gets. And normally the President-Elect takes advantage of that, and he acts in a way that unifies the country. Donald Trump has not done that.
INSKEEP: So as a person from the Ethics and Public Policy Center ...
Which is funded by the Koch Bros...
INSKEEP: .... what would you have political leaders do in this situation after Inauguration Day?
WEHNER: Well, I think political leaders need to give President Trump a chance to govern well, and to govern effectively. And for critics of President Trump like me, we have to give him the space and the room to prove us wrong.
Sure. Because what do we have to lose by waiting? Just safety, security, prosperity, civil rights, democracy.
WEHNER: On the other hand, I think he has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has problematic tendencies. I think, therefore, the political institutions in this country, and the leaders of those political institutions—in this case, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell...
INSKEEP: The House and Senate leaders.
WEHNER: ... The House and Senate leaders, and the people they represent, have to be prepared to act as a check on Donald Trump.
That’s the piece. A neo-con is presented as a middle-of-the-road ethics specialist who blames Pres. Obama for dividing the country (which has always been divided) without giving specific examples and with the interviewer actually leading him to other non-specific answers. And the solution he offers against divisiveness? Mitch McConnell, who obstructed legislation for the entirety of Obama’s eight-year term, and who has worked his entire career at keeping money, and dark money, in the political realm; and Paul Ryan, who wants to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding for the poor and elderly.
NPR: How is this not right-wing propaganda?