I’ve been an NPR junkie for years. I thought I was hooked forever on all that “in-depth news and intelligent talk” (my local station’s slogan). Then, one day I realized how sick and tired I was of the same repetitive news all day long and the incessant babbling on the topic de jour hour after hour.
How can they stand it? I wondered. Don’t Carl Kassel and Korva Coleman get tired of rearranging the words of the same headlines 50 times a day? Don’t Diane Rehm and Neal Conan and Robert Siegel get bored with the endless interviewees and callers after a while? And, most of all, don’t they wonder if the only things worth talking about are bleak, depressing, and enough to make one think the world is going to hell in a hand basket?
Suddenly, I thought, if I have to listen to one more commentary on the things people have been commenting since five o’clock this morning, I will lose my mind. And if I never again hear the words, “critics say,” it will be fine with me. Why do these people feel duty bound to tell us what critics say on every subject? Why must there be an equal and opposite side to every single issue? Why can’t they just report on one side for once and talk about the other side some other time? Perhaps this is their stab at balanced reporting, but, if so, it isn’t working. Most of the time I would be just as happy not knowing what critics are saying. Let the critics have their own stories. Why do they have to hitch a ride on someone else’s?
Why do we have to hear polarized opinions in every debate and why, for that matter, does it have to be a debate at all? This is not an original question. Author and sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., posed it in her 1998 book The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue.
“The argument culture urges us to approach the world—and the people in it—in an adversarial frame of mind,” Tannen wrote. “Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to believe that every issue has two sides—no more, no less … But opposition does not lead to truth when an issue is not composed of two opposing sides but is a crystal of many sides. Often the truth is in the complex middle, not the extremes.”
In other words, life is not a tidy, black-and-white photograph. It is many shades and textures of gray. I would love to buy several copies of The Argument Culture and send them to every newscaster and commentator on NPR with instructions to absorb its wisdom. Would it revolutionize talk radio if they actually put these principles in action? Or would they all simply be out of a job for not being fair and impartial?
If NPR did dramatically change its program strategy and begin to provide real in-depth news and intelligent talk; if every issue didn’t devolve into a war of words; and if the purpose was to promote full understanding of issues, rather than crowning the winner in each discussion, how much more knowledgeable and tolerant might we all become?
I can’t answer that question, but I know one thing for sure: I would turn my radio on and once again become a devoted NPR listener.