When NPR Goes on a “Real People” Safari

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my NPR.


My closet is stuffed with their tote bags, and I’ve shoveled dollars their way. Diane Rehm is the greatest thing since sliced bread, if you ask me. We wouldn’t be suffering through this campaign if we all had her dignity.

But: You know that you’re in election season when the flagship NPR programs go Real People hunting.  

A producer sends a reporter into the field to find a person who lives neither in New York City, nor in Washington, DC.

This Real Person, ideally in the South or Midwest, has only one or no smartphones. Many do not Twit. They have no followers. Every sentence out of their mouths doesn’t begin with, “I heard in the [Insert Approved Media Outlet here: the Atlantic, New Yorker, Jon Stewart, an MSNBC show, NYRB, or the NYT Magazine] that…” 

The real people NPR goes on a safari to find don’t consume each original HBO drama series, or drink Merlot until Pinot Noir became the new Merlot, until Malbec became the new Pinot Noir, which had become the new Merlot and… you get the idea.

The Real Person decorates her house with lawn trolls that would only appear as ironic camp in the reporter’s funky urban neighborhood.

And these Real People are in Real Pain. Or, they are Real People with Real Opinions about the election. These are the two main varieties of the story.

The NPR Real Person story begins at a local diner, fair, or truck stop, where the reporter first “paints a word picture” –many seconds of thick description about the indigenous culinary specialties that he’s stuffing into his mouth as he speaks to the Real Person.

Imagine this copy being intoned with the signature NPR dramatic pauses and inflections:   

“Here, at Joe’s Filthy SPOON diner, residents of Obscure Town in Swing State consume the local specialty of buttered, deep-fried butter, slathered with butter, which CRACK-les on the hot GRILL, whose ancient layers of GREASE…. GLINT in the early morning (dramatic pause) sun. It’s delicious. As I eat my fried butter, I chat with Jane Doe.”  She is a Real Person, in Real Pain.

The audio includes the authenticating background din of dishes clanging, and people shouting for coffee refills. You feel like you’re right there, you see. You’ve been put in the scene of this strange, non-Manhattan, non-DC land.

Real Person Jane is introduced. It’s hard to know what to say, I’d imagine, when you’re chosen as a real person index case, someone who is tacitly asked to illustrate millions of the unemployed, the uninsured, or the bankrupt. Jane Doe doesn’t usually think of herself as a synecdoche of a social problem.

Nevertheless, Jane gamely tells her story. Maybe she weeps. The reporter pauses when this happens, letting the tape roll her sobs along for us.

Likely, a phrase from this first interview will be used as the teaser to promote A Story on a Real Person in Real Pain or with a Real Opinion on Something (“‘I just don’t know where the next mortgage payment is coming from.’ More…. Today…. on All Things Considered”).

At this point, the reporter pulls back. This real person, we’re assured, is not alone. In other locations, neither Manhattan nor Dupont Circle, there are millions like her.

The reporter returns to more familiar climes and plucks out an academic expert and gets them to contextualize the voting patterns and habits of Real People, whom our subject symbolizes, and give the Big Picture.

This means we’re done with the fried butter, for a while.

Expert 1 reiterates campaign truisms, which is all that your typical NPR academic expert will venture to say, since he’s habituated to the “On the One Hand/On the Other Hand” qualifications and politic obfuscations that won him tenure in the first place.

“There are still some undecided in Obscure Town,” Expert 1 says [long pause]. “But not many.”  He speaks of how critical this Real Person is to the electoral map.

Expert 2 from Mighty Famous University next says, “Voters care about their JOBS, and their health care. But they’ve lost faith that the candidates can really address these big issues.”

The wraparound probably takes us back to that blasted diner, where we hear again from the Real Person.

The NPR reporter demonstrates what an adroit, sensitive listener and soul reader of the human condition he is.

The segment ends with the signature pomposity that all NPR reporters learn, apparently in their first five minutes on the job:  They pronounce their names sloooooowly and portentously, as if they are the Delphi Oracle: “This ….. is…. Joe….  Doe….   In… Obscure Town…. Swing State….

If the Real People safari isn’t careful they might get caught in the camera lenses of Mitt Romney’s campaign, which has been Real People tracking in the same places for some time.

Romney’s disastrous Real People safaris have featured him in stiff, would-be casual garb, and have revealed that he apparently doesn’t know what a doughnut is (calling it a “circular chocolate confection,” or something along those lines), and refused to eat a plate of Real Person cookies that his hostess laid out on her picnic table (“Did you make those?” he asked/accused. “I don’t trust them.”).

Okay, if you seriously want to hear Real Americans expressing extremely real, unexpurgated opinions from all over the country, unmediated and not stage-crafted by NPR’s national producers’ ideas of real people, then listen to a few hours of C-Span’s “Washington Journal” call-in show. It’s politically carnivalesque. It offers a dazzling spectrum of views, from all sides—and some sides that you never even knew existed.

C-Span’s morning show is as close to a political cross-section as I’ve ever heard. The hosts, perpetually on the brink of nervous breakdowns of despair, patiently tell each caller to “please turn down your TV.” Let’s just say it’s as real as it gets.

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