The Moment of Truth — July 25, 1998
Private Ryan Week on NPR
Welcome to the Moment of Truth, that single moment of sanity in a world gone mad under capitalism.
This week was Saving Private Ryan week on National Public Radio. Every once in a while NPR becomes the mouthpiece of some large corporation’s public relations wing. Earlier this year we were treated to Ben Folds Five week. I’m not going to debate the virtues or demerits of the Ben Folds Five. I think they suck, and I think Ben Folds is smarmy. But that’s just my opinion, others may have other opinions. But since at the time of Ben Folds Five week it was neither Ben Folds’ birthday nor the anniversary of his death, nor even the local anniversary of the birth of mediocre, overrated pop music in Podunk, Iowa, I was left to wonder why three nationally distributed public radio programs were celebrating the mildly annoying music of Ben Folds and his lamentable Five.
It’s possible that Ben Folds Five and what they pass off as music just coincidentally happened to capture the imaginations of three separate radio producers at exactly the same time, which also happened to be the exact time that the new Ben Folds Five CD was released. Another possibility is that when a publicly-oriented resource like Public Radio begins to develop national appeal at the same time as it must court more corporate funding than ever, it becomes a kind of whole-wheat extension of mass culture, a kind of Inside Edition or Entertainment Tonight that snobs can feel good about.
What, after all, is important about a public radio interview with Cher? Are we supposed to feel enlightened because Terry Gross of Fresh Air can give us a forty-minute interview with Cher instead of the short sound-bites that Inside Edition might limit itself to? After we heard that she was indeed sad about the death of Sonny, was there really that much more to find out? Is the sole advantage of public broadcasting that it can go more in depth into things, regardless of the fact that the subjects it deals with are increasingly coming to resemble the subjects of cable TV? Would five hours of Rush Limbaugh be any more dignified, noble, educational, or worthwhile than five minutes? Not that there isn’t something to be learned from studying such a creature – but I know where to locate him if I want him. I don’t need him sneaking up on me while I’m supposed to be educating myself.
Likewise, if I want to read Newsweek, I’ll go buy a copy. I don’t need to hear a radio version of it. I don’t need to hear an interview with a Newsweek editor masquerading as an alternative viewpoint.
Years ago, before George Bush’s war against the Iraqi people turned us all into patriots, if I wanted to find out what the Pentagon’s opinion was of a story like the one CNN recanted about Operation Tailwind, I would have had to read the Tribune or watch ABC news. Now my friendly, fuzzy, educational All Things Considered can give me the Pentagon take on things: presented uncritically and without rebuttal by a thinking dissenter. Just like on TV! I got to hear that US soldiers on a secret mission to invade Laos during the sickening and illegal war in Indochina were quote DOING GOOD unquote. Interesting revision of history. Just because they didn’t use nerve gas to try to kill American defectors doesn’t make the covert invasion of Laos GOOD. It was wrong. The Vietnam War was wrong. The Tonkin Gulf incident, manufactured in order to contrive US public consent to escalating the war was wrong. The My Lai Massacre was wrong. The bombing of Cambodia was wrong. These are not bizarre radical leftwing opinions, by the way. They are the opinions of even some fairly conservative historians. But they apparently aren’t germane to a discussion of the US invasion of Indochina – at least according to the editorial staff of All Things Considered.
Last night on Marketplace, the Wall Street Journal for the hip entrepreneur, we were treated to a little speech by Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican Party, spouting off about the need for a multibillion-dollar missile defense system. What this had to do with financial news, and why an alternative viewpoint wasn’t presented, I have no idea. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that General Electric, the show’s sponsor, whose name and jingle are woven into the Marketplace theme music, is a big defense contractor and is happy whenever military buildup is treated positively in the realm of public discourse. Who knows, maybe the editorial staff of Marketplace feel a tacit or even explicit obligation to chime in affirmatively every now and then on the subject of allowing the military to siphon even more resources away from schools, healthcare, and other luxuries of civilization.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. You’ll certainly hear a little anti-capitalist common sense on Public Radio now and then. They know they still have some idealistic donors to satisfy with a little sprinkling of token progressivism. And Ray Suarez of Talk of the Nation still hasn’t been taken over by the Bodysnatchers. But let’s not forget that it’s Saving Pvt Ryan week. On TV, in Time and Newsweek – and on National Public Radio – everyone is doing their part to publicize the new Spielberg movie. A glowing review on all things considered, followed by the wistful recollections of an old soldier, as if somehow the date of the release of a corny, shallow, commercial war movie were in reality the anniversary of D-Day. The attempt to dignify an advertisement of a Spielberg movie by calling in a veteran of World War II is even more nauseating and cynical than if they just got a tape from the studio and played it without comment.
To be fair, Fresh Air’s movie critic, John Powers, lambasted the film and the media’s regurgitation of the studio spin on it. He fell short, however, of pointing out All Things Considered’s part in the fiasco, their bending over backwards to even further legitimize the film’s "serious" and "classic" value – and worst of all, the way the discourse on the film fits neatly into Public Radio’s overall boosterism for war, military patriotism, and a revisionist view of Vietnam.
There’s an aphorism I would like to coin: there is nothing so noble, created by such caring and goodhearted people, that can’t, by a desire to please the owning class, eventually be perverted into an obscene caricature of itself. All Things Considered has certainly become such a caricature, and is threatening to drag NPR and the rest of Big Public Radio down with it.
Have a happy Saving Private Ryan week. The best way to celebrate is to turn on NPR and when Noah Adams says, "this is All Things Considered" say back to him, "No it’s not." Then rent the documentary Hearts and Minds, get drunk, and throw up on a picture of Richard Nixon.
This has been the MOMENT OF TRUTH, and I’m mejeffdorchen, and I’ll be back here again next week on National Beer Presents This is Hell Saturday from 10 am to noon on WNUR 89.3 FM Chicago’s sound experiment.