People say you become more cynical as you get older. That hasn't been my experience. Maybe I'm flattering myself, but I think my view of humanity has got steadily sunnier since I was 15. I have a higher opinion of politicians, for instance, than I did when I first moved to Washington. Just the other day I met someone in the direct mail business who didn't seem all that evil. But no matter how old I get one thing will never change: I'll always be too cynical to listen to National Public Radio listener mail without feeling like I'm going to vomit.
Letters that come to most news organizations are, as far as I can tell, pretty straightforward: "Your story was fair"; "Your story was unfair"; "I agree"; "I disagree." (Or, as a reader of the newspaper I once worked for succinctly put it, "I hate you.") Such sentiments are far too simple for NPR listeners. People who listen to NPR are forever thanking the hosts for "sharing," or "initiating a dialogue," or "taking the time to explain this very important issue." It all sounds vaguely like a script from an intimacy-building manual by Leo Buscaglia (who, one suspects, must have done well with the public radio demographic). I keep waiting for the part about hugging.
Driving home tonight I listened as one of the hosts of All Things Considered read a letter from a man who had written to express his gratitude for the moving commentary of Max Aguilera-Hellweg, a photographer who has just published a collection of photographs of people undergoing surgery. Overcome by the emotional impact of Aguilera-Hellweg's words, the man wrote, "I had to pull over."
Huh, I thought, I wonder what it was about Max Aguilera-Hellweg (perfect NPR name, by the way) that rendered this guy unable to drive his Volvo? I heard the same story and made it home without even a detour. If anything, Aguilera-Hellweg struck me as kind of a weirdo. Watching a man get a penile implant, he told listeners, was a "uniquely if not mythically beautiful" experience. His explanation of how he prepares for work seemed particularly odd: "Often before photographing a procedure, I imagine myself as the patient. I fantasize that I'm the one having my leg sawed in half, or that the heart or liver being fondled by the surgeon's hands is my own. I close my eyes and breathe deeply until the trembling goes away."
As if this weren't disturbing enough, at the end of the commentary the host announced that Aguilera-Hellweg has just gone back to school with plans of becoming a physician.
In all, it wasn't the most appealing story I've ever heard. Then again, I'm no judge of what NPR listeners like to hear. My first experience on public radio still ranks among the most embarrassing episodes of my relatively short life. On Election Day, 1996, I got a call from a public radio producer in Los Angeles asking me if I'd like to talk about the presidential race by phone that night. Sure, I said, then forgot all about it. By the time I remembered many hours later, I was at a party in a suite at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington and very drunk. It was late, though unfortunately not too late to do radio commentary in California. I found a back bedroom and called the station. Some moron put me on the air.
"So, Mr. Carlson," began the host, "what's the mood in Washington?" I'm not sure I even answered. "Guess where I am?" I said. "I'm at the Jefferson Hotel. In the Dick Morris suite."
"You know, Dick Morris? The president's adviser? Who got caught with the hooker? I'm in his room. I mean, he's not here. But this was the room where he was with the hooker. Before he got caught. I'm here."
It went on like this, though only for a short time. Within about a minute, the host was thanking me for my insights and trying to get me off the phone. He had to say "Thank you, Mr. Carlson" four times before I got the hint.
It was a horrible experience, and I try to keep it in mind every time I'm tempted to judge the NPR letter writers too harshly. They may be dopey. But at least they don't slur their words.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for the Weekly Standard.