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Fresh Air and Gray Skies: An Even Hand at NPR

February 20, 2005

For the raging right, National Public Radio is the poster child for liberal bias in the media. From Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center to the National Review and Bill O'Reilly, NPR (or "National Palestine Radio" to its detractors), is the bete noir.
How very surprised, then, they must have all been while listening last week to NPR's Terry Gross on the Fresh Air program. Over three days last week, Gross brought in some of the heaviest hitters of the right and left to tackle two of the most controversial issues of the Bush second term. The result was definitely heat and light, but no smoke, not, at least, from NPR.
On February 17th, Fresh Air featured separate, detailed discussions on Social Security with the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner and Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
How surprised (or at least angered) many of the same conservative critics of NPR must been by some of Tanner's comments. Asked his opinion of the call by some Christian conservatives to withhold support for Bush's Social Security reform unless the President aggressively pushed the Federal Marriage Amendment banning same-sex marriages, Tanner stated bluntly:

"I would hope that we can get Social Security reform through without the aid of bigots...I don't see where there's any connection whatsoever between making a new and better Social Security system and denying some Americans their rights." [Exchange starts at the 19:50 mark of the interview]

These comments may not be out of place for a libertarian, but they certainly do show the strains in the often tenuous alliance between economic and social conservatives. (For more on this theme, see "Markets, Morality and Monday Night Football.")
Earlier in the week, Gross dedicated two entire shows to in-depth analysis of the controversy over Bush judicial nominees, including the renomination of 12 previously rejected in his first term. These programs featured Ralph Neas of People for the American Way on February 15th and C. Boyden Gray of the Federalist Society and Committe for Justice the next day.
This time there were no surprises for NPR listeners of any political stripe, especially from Gray. The aggressiveness, the bullying, the arrogant dissembling and the preening verbal semantics were all too familiar coming from the Bush family consigliere (White House counsel 1989-93, Bush 2000 transition chief).
Like an angry Thurston Howell III after too many gin and tonics, Gray verbally pummeled a composed Gross early and often. When she noted that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has decried the Democratic use of the filibuster to block a handful of Bush nominees, voted to filibuster Clinton appointee Richard Paez in 2000, Gray thundered:

"No judge has ever been defeated by a filibuster. That is an uncontrovertible fact. You cannot contradict my statement...Paez got confirmed. I don't know what you're talking about. No judge has ever been defeated by a filibuster." [Exchange starts at 6:20 to 7:40 mark.]

Moments later, asked about the Federalist Society of which he has been a leading light, Gray merely stated that it is "best described as a debating society," in a response humble at best or duplicitous at worst. [17:30 mark]
That "debating society" counts among its members 40% of George W. Bush's judicial nominees. The top ranks of the Bush administration has been staffed by Federalist stars, including John Ashcroft, Ted Olson, Spencer Abraham, Gale Norton, and Eugene Scalia, just to name a few. In addition to Antonin Scalia, Kenneth Starr and Ed Meese, other Federalist notables include Linda Chavez, Robert Bork and Orrin Hatch. As the New Republic, the Washington Monthly and the American Prospect point out, the Federalist Society seeks nothing less than the capture and redefinition of the American judiciary - a goal they are well on their way to achieving.
Which brings us to the last and perhaps most evasive Gray episode on Fresh Air. Terry Gross noted that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and later President Bush (aided by then White Counsel Alberto Gonzales) abandoned the traditional practice of using the "liberal" American Bar Association (ABA) to vet potential nominees, instead turning to the Federalist Society.
In an angry, deceptive response conjuring up "the meaning of is", Gray again emptied both barrels:

"I don't know what you're talking about...The ABA continues to play the role it has played for the last half a century. The Federalist Society does nothing like this...Your understanding is wrong, I think. The Federalist Society does not vet anybody...Vetting has a very definite meaning...People talk...There is no formal consultation mechanism." [Exchange starts at the 25:30 mark]

Perhap mindful of her earlier run-in with Bill O'Reilly, Gross remained calm and cool throughout Gray's taunts and tirades. As she did all last week, she let all the speakers, left and right, make their case.
Hopefully in the future, we can expect the same fresh air from the likes of Fox. I wouldn't hold your breath.

One comment on “Fresh Air and Gray Skies: An Even Hand at NPR”

  1. And don't forget her interview a year or so ago with Grover Norquist, in which he likened the estate tax to the holocaust...
    And re: the Federalist Society, imagine what would happen if a Demo prez drew a similar proportion of appointments from the National Lawyers Guild....


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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