There's no more scrupulous or versatile broadcast journalist than NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. He is one of those reporters who keeps his eye on the sparrow -- that is, on small details from individual lives that add up to significant issues of public policy. As he described in a special report this week how the United States Army is clarifying guidelines "that should make it easier for soldiers with traumatic brain injuries from explosions to receive the Purple Heart," it was mind-boggling to think that right-wingers in Congress were at that very moment voting to eliminate the modest federal funds that make such essential and authoritative reporting available to anyone in America who cares to tune in.
Zwerdling's collaborator on this report was ProPublica (the non-profit and equally independent newsroom that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for a harrowing account of deadly choices made by a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina). As a result of their reporting, the Army now intends to give special priority to reexamining the cases of soldiers who suffered battlefield concussions but who mistakenly may have been turned down for the Purple Heart, which historically has been awarded to soldiers injured by enemy action.
You may not think this such a big deal, but the symbolism of the announcement is potent. And it's part of a larger, ongoing investigation conducted by Zwerdling and ProPublica's T. Christian Miller into the military's widespread failure to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries, the "signature injury" among troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as they fall to roadside bombs and other explosives.
It's also typical of the comprehensive and essential journalism that has been a hallmark of NPR since its creation in 1970. Once upon a time, in the early glory days of radio, corporate media took on the challenge of providing Americans with the kind of information critical to citizenship. No longer. Conglomerates long ago bought up the country's commercial radio stations, closed down the news departments, and auctioned off the airtime to partisan polemicists or pre-packaged content devoid of journalism. Serious news on radio -- "the news we need to keep our freedoms," as the historian and journalist Richard Reeves once put it -- has become the province of NPR (Full disclosure: We two have spent most of the last forty years toiling in the vineyards of public broadcasting, although never for NPR.)
Take Zwerdling's investigations as just one example: Over the years, he has sorted out the complexities and secrets of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster and the warnings that preceded it, dangers posed to humans by the plant pesticide Chlordane (it eventually was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency) and the failures of the Corps of Engineers to maintain safely the dikes and dams around New Orleans -- among many other stories.
Multiply his efforts by those of all the modestly-paid but dedicated journalists at NPR and you have a forty year history that has given listeners a deeper and richer portrait of America and the world than any other broadcast news organization in the country -- with or without offense, as Byron said, to friend or foe.
In just the last few weeks, NPR has provided unique coverage of the job crisis in the United States, upheavals in the Middle East, and anxiety over the safety of nuclear power in the wake of the Japanese earthquake -- as a matter of fact, many of the issues the House of Representatives should have been debating instead of posturing and pandering to its rightward political base.
Hear Steve Benen of Washington Monthly on the House Judiciary Committee's vote the other day reaffirming "In God We Trust" as our national motto:
For months the new House Republican majority has wasted time on health care bills they know they can't pass, abortion bills they know they can't pass, climate bills they know they can't pass, and budget bills they know they can't pass. They've invested considerable time and energy on defending the Defense of Marriage Act, recklessly accusing Muslim Americans of disloyalty, going after NPR, and pushing culture-war bills related to vouchers, English as the 'official' language, and now 'In God We Trust.'
And yes, on Thursday, following a number of missteps by NPR executives, including what has now been indisputably exposed as a disingenuous and dishonestly-edited video by a disreputable right-wing smear artist of the network's chief fundraiser expressing some personal opinions, the House passed a bill cutting off government funding for NPR -- all of this part of the "vanity project," as Benen calls it, that House Republicans have been running in order to feed red meat to Fox News and the partisan talk radio hosts who have turned the public airwaves -- remember, the airwaves above our fair and bountiful land belong to you, Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. America -- into a right-wing romper room.
Opposing the bill to strip public radio of funding, Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas said, "My constituents turn to [public radio] because they want fact-based, not Fox-based coverage." The attacks, he continued, are "an ideological crusade against balanced news and educational programs."
And even Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss told an interviewer:
You know, an awful lot of conservatives listen to NPR. It provides a very valuable service. Should we maybe think about a reduction in that? Again, I think the sacrifice is going to have to be shared by NPR as well as others. But I think total elimination of funding is probably not the wisest thing to do.
Good for you, Senator. Because without public radio, the reactionaries among us will hold a monopoly on the airwaves.
And while we're on the subject of wise things, let's not forget NPR's other programming: the arts and entertainment coverage that plays its own distinctive role trying to keep our democracy spirited, diverse and imaginative. Think Garrison Keillor. Krista Tippett. Ira Glass. Think Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, Car Talk (yes, many of us are would-be grease monkeys). On the Media (the single best analysis and critique of media anywhere). And -- well, consult your local listings.
We're talking here about something essential to American life. President Kennedy touched on it in a speech at Amherst College less than a month before his assassination in 1963. Speaking in honor of the poet Robert Frost, who had recently died, the President's words were directed to the role of artists but can also embrace the importance of a public media whose obligation is not to a political or corporate paymaster but to the integrity of the work and the trust of the listener.
"The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state," Kennedy said. "... In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having 'nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.'"
Bill Moyers is a veteran broadcast journalist and managing editor of Public Affairs Television. Michael Winship, former senior writer of Public Affairs Television, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.