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Bill Deresiewicz’s Escape To America

How a liberal writer fed up with 'bullsh*t' left the mainstream media and discovered podcasting
Bill Deresiewicz’s Escape To America

A reader recommends this great Unherd piece by the liberal writer William Deresiewicz, who originally wrote it for an unnamed magazine that is “politically neutral in theory,” but had been drifting Left, like the rest of the media, and which ultimately, therefore, rejected it. It’s about “escaping American tribalism,” and it begins in a way that speaks directly to my experience:

One summer afternoon when I was 23 — this was in 1987 — I was twiddling the dial on the radio in the apartment I was subletting on 114th St. when I stumbled on a station that was unlike anything that I had ever heard before. They were in the middle of a story about the Appalachian Trail, profiling some of the people who were hiking its two thousand miles that year. The reporting was calm, patient, intelligent, allowing the subject to find its own shape, unfolding slowly, minute after minute, like the trail itself.

What is this, I thought? What portal had I fallen through? I’d been raised on 1010 WINS, “all news all the time,” blaring the same rotation of headlines, weather, traffic, and trivia, in 40-second increments, for hours at a stretch. The piece that I had happened on that day went on, improbably, for over 20 minutes.

The program I was listening to was called All Things Considered, on a network with the unfamiliar name of NPR, short for National Public Radio. I was immediately hooked. In no time flat, I’d put it on whenever I was home. Morning Edition as soon as I opened my eyes, All Things Considered when I got back in the afternoon, Fresh Air during dinner. I fell in love with Robert Siegel’s wit, Renée Montagne’s voice, Scott Simon’s charm. These people got me. They shared my interests, my outlook, my sensibilities. For the first time, I felt myself reflected in the public sphere. “NPR,” I put it to a friend a few years later, “is my home in America.”

And that’s the way it was for over 30 years, through the advent of Talk of the Nation and This American Life, of On the Media and Here & Now. NPR became the soundtrack of my life — when I drove, cooked, ate, exercised, did laundry — three or four hours a day, every day.

I’m about the same age as WD, and though I found NPR in high school, a bit earlier than he did, my reaction was the same. I was more liberal back then, but I didn’t listen to NPR because of its gently liberal politics. I listened for its sensibility — because I felt like I was being invited to a conversation with smart and kind people who read books, and who noticed interesting things. It was the soundtrack to my life, even through the 1990s and first decade of this century, as I became more and more conservative. I tried listening to conservative talk radio, but it said nothing to me. I would rather listen to, and disagree with, the liberals of NPR, because there was usually something interesting going on there, and they didn’t insult my intelligence.

Boy, is that over — for WD too. He writes about how the network has surrendered to progressive propaganda and advocacy, such that it has become unlistenable. This is really true. The only time I can bear to listen to it now is when I’m in the car, and can’t put on a podcast. And even then I can only take it in small doses. Inevitably the sob story about the plight of wheelchair-bound trans lesbian immigrants of color being erased by Republican evildoers comes on, and off goes the radio. It is hard to explain to younger people how good NPR used to be, and how far it has fallen into leftist propaganda. As WD writes:

Overnight, the network’s entire orientation had changed. Every segment was about race, and when it wasn’t about race, it was about gender. The stories were no longer reports but morality plays, with predictable bad guys and good guys. Scepticism was banished. Divergent opinions were banished. The pronouncements of activists, the arguments of ideologically motivated academics, were accepted without question. The tone became smug, certain, self-righteous. To turn on the network was to be subjected to a program of ideological force-feeding. I was used to the idiocies of the academic Left — I had been dealing with them ever since I started graduate school — but now they were leaking out of my radio.

I write about NPR maybe more than I should, but it is from a position of a spurned lover. Funny, but the friend who first introduced me to NPR back in the early 1980s ended our forty-year friendship because though I publicly supported Trump’s second impeachment (the post 1/6 one), in so doing I said that Trump had done some good things as president. That was enough to cause her to trash four decades of friendship, which she ended by sending me a text. She is a faithful NPR listener still, and is the kind of fanatic to which that network’s programming caters. Wokeness has ruined NPR as surely at is has ruined the mind of my former friend.

WD explains that he started listening to various podcasters, Left and Right, because they were interesting. More:

But I didn’t start listening to them because I felt I had a civic duty to expose myself to opinions I disagree with. I started listening to them because I couldn’t stand the bullshit anymore. Because I needed to let in some air. They make me think. They introduce me to perspectives that I hadn’t entertained. They teach me things, and they are usually things the Times or NPR won’t tell you.

I have learned about the lab-leak hypothesis before it became an acceptable topic of discourse. About the lunacy of transgender orthodoxy (“affirmative therapy” for small children, the “cotton ceiling”). About the real statistics on police killings of unarmed black people (according to a Washington Post database, the number shot to death came to 18 in 2020, 6 in 2021). About the truth about Matthew Shepard (who was murdered, by a sometime lover and another acquaintance, over drugs), Jacob Blake (who was shot while stealing his girlfriend’s car, kidnapping her children, resisting arrest, and trying to stab a cop), and Kyle Rittenhouse (who worked in Kenosha, had a father who lived there, and was out that night, however misguidedly, to protect property and provide medical assistance).

More broadly, I have learned of the emergence of an alternative ecosystem of independent-minded journalists, experts, and thinkers, many of them exiles, voluntary or otherwise, from the established media. They are free of institutional allegiances. They are unintimidated by the Twitter mob. They are committed to free inquiry and free speech. They are unafraid of debate. For the first time in a good long while, I feel myself reflected in the public sphere. I have a home, once again, in America.

Read the whole thing — there’s a lot more to it, all of it good. I am not much of a podcast listener, but I know that I am in the minority in that way, in my social circles. How about you? Who are the voices you listen to now as relief from the predictable “Four legs good! Two legs bad!” bullshit?

It’s telling that of the people that Deresiewicz recommends, only John McWhorter gets published regularly in a mainstream media source. All the rest are too independent-minded, too unpredictable to be placed among the herd animals of the MSM.

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