Public radio

At six o’clock on a freezing Chimayó morning last week, I dragged myself

out of bed and onto a porch, where a friendly B&B proprietor had left me

a cordless phone. The reason was that a radio program, Democracy Now, wanted

me on as a guest to talk about the New

York Times and Sudan. Seeing as how it was insanely early, insanely cold,

and I hadn’t had any coffee, I think I acquitted

myself reasonably well.

Gratifyingly, a couple

of my readers seem

to have heard me on the radio, so I must have reached a halfways-decent audience.

Later on in the week, I ended up listening to Marfa

Public Radio while driving through the desert: there was nothing else to

listen to, so it’s not hard to see where an audience can come from.

Democracy Now has a clear left-wing bias: indeed, NPR is cited in Jack Shafer’s

piece on media bias as

pretty much the archetypal left-wing media entity. (BTW, is there any demand

for a Report Report Report on the media

bias study?)

But the report I heard

about the French employment demonstrations, on a Public Radio program called

The World, was anything but left-wing:

GERRY HADDEN: Eleanor, if we compare this to the United States, no one would

even begin to expect such job protection that the French are asking for. Can

you explain what’s going on?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: A lot of it is ignorance. A lot of these young

people, maybe they just want to be out of class. I don’t think a

lot of them know what’s going on. They’re scared of globalization. I think

that globalization hasn’t been sold very well here.

Listen for yourself: the whole tone of the interview has no sympathy whatsoever

towards the demonstrators, who are portrayed as ignorant agitators who simply

need a bit of education and who would then understand that this law is all for

their own good. Really, it wouldn’t have been out of place on Fox News. That

the new employment law and globalization are essentially interchangeable was

never argued: it was simply taken as gospel fact.

Meanwhile, Lance Knobel has

found a much more interesting take on the whole affair, from Jean-Pierre


There is no valid case to be made in support of French Prime Minister de

Villepin’s first employment contract. I am totally in favour of far

more flexible labour conditions and contracts and also of longer working hours,

but I am definitely against picking on youth, among the most vulnerable and

traumatised segments of French society. What de Villepin is doing is trying

to show his machismo by bullying the weak. France is full, full, full of subsidised,

molly-coddled, highly protected sectors throughout the labour force. This

is what is responsible for the 24% youth unemployment in France and this is

what needs to be addressed. The farmers, the huge government sector, the civil

servants, who in France more often than not are highly uncivil, the transport

“workers”, plumbers, pensioners, these are the people who need

to be confronted.

Why, then, was the public radio report so simplistic, and biased against the

left? I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that the left in the USA would

be considered the center-right in Europe. After all, there’s no shortage of

anti-globalization activists in the USA, too, on both sides of the political


Rather, I suspect that NPR appeals to what you might call smug urban liberals,

the kind of people who congratulate themselves on being worldly enough to understand

the positive effects of globalization and even congratulate themselves on knowing

enough about the genocide going on in Sudan that they are appalled that the

New York Times would take the Sudanese government’s money.

If you buy Gentzkow and Shapiro’s theory of media, NPR then has every reason

to confirm such preconceived notions, unless there’s a chance that its listeners

will get a more nuanced and accurate view of the situation elsewhere. In the

case of the French demonstrations, there was very little chance that other media

outlets would run pieces more sympathetic to the protestors, so they were safe

going with the conventional wisdom. Those French students: it seems they just

can’t catch a break.

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7 Responses to Public radio

  1. David Sucher says:

    That’s very interesting. Your post seems to be both about the substance of the French labor unrest and the way it is reported in the USA.

    So on substance, what case _can_ you make for the demonstrators? You admit that French labor practices need change. No? So is it merely that de Villepin was politically clumsy? And that rather than starting with youth he should have tried to overhaul the entire French labor structure at one fell swoop? That would have been really astute politics. Get everyone riled up all at the same time so there can be no change at all. I don’t know how you change societies but when you try to take away privilege people howl. And the more you take away, the louder the screams.

    From the west coast of the USA, the modifications de Villepin was suggesting seemed tame and reasonable. What am I missing?

    As to the media, I too have little sympathy for NPR and its smug urban liberals, of which Seattle is probably the per capita world capital. I think I remember hearing that very Beardsley report and thinking to myself, “How odd. Some commonsense plain talk from NPR!” Of course The World is in fact _not_ from NPR but from PRI. Alas, not even a small bit of progress.

    Ultimately I guess I am confused by your post. You admit that public radio is left-wing (watered-down American style) but that it is not competent at being left-wing? NPR is left-wing but only when the right-wing is reporting the same story? (“NPR then has every reason to confirm such preconceived notions, unless there’s a chance that its listeners will get a more nuanced and accurate view of the situation elsewhere.”)

    Honestly, I have read this post several times now and i don’t quite get it.

  2. John T Unger says:

    Um, sorry, David, you’re right, I’m not sure I really had a real point to the post. But let me try to answer you anyway:

    What case can I make for the demonstrators? They are not the problem, and fiddling around with their future employment contracts is not the solution. French employment contracts — existing French employment contracts — are the problem. French employment contracts for people employed for much longer than a year or two are the problem. The French sense of entitlement is the problem; remember that the demonstrating youth aren’t actually entitled to anything, yet. They don’t want to be discriminated against at the expense of the cushy time-servers who are the real problem. This proposal is a bit like trying to pay down your debt by denying your children a credit card.

    Do I think that French students should be guaranteed a job for life the minute they get a job offer? No. But if you read Lance’s post, you’ll see that it is possible to sympathise with their cause all the same.

    As for public radio, yes, it is liberal, but my point was really that it’s often liberal in a lazy way. And that sometimes it’s not liberal at all.

  3. David Sucher says:

    John T. Unger.

    I don’t mean to pry but by any chance do you happen to hail from Hades, Mississippi?

  4. john t unger says:


    I think the comment above that bears my name was actually posted by Felix… I sent him an email about a comment that failed to appear and he posted it for me. Looks like the blog is now remembering my info for Felix?

    Anyway, No I’m not from Hades, nor am I the Houston Lawyer or the Senator. I’m an artist, designer, etc.

  5. Roger Salmon says:

    I was stimulated by the article, and failed to pick up David’s well-made criticism.

    In the words of a senior UK politician “You cannot over-estimate the degree to which people feel entitled to what they already have”. This seems to be true thoughout the democratic world, and particulalry so of the rich and powerful in the USA. Where it seems that there are also (as de Villepin’s) unfairly directed efforts to address deeply embedded economic problems.

  6. David Sucher says:

    Mr. Unger,

    And designing with diamonds, I assume?

  7. David Sucher says:

    Just in case my questions are too obscure:

Comments are closed.