Last weekend, the producers of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” — the NPR quiz show known for its cheeky, wonkish humor — committed a horrible, no-good, sacrilegious faux pas: They booked a particular celebrity for an interview.
Another listener angrily informed NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, that they found the show “so misguided and offensive, I fear I will never be able to listen again.”
“I think three horsemen of the apocalypse are now fully mounted,” a third commented.
The interviewee in question? None other than Kim Kardashian, television personality, mobile-phone game mogul, selfie aficionado, wife of Kanye, mother of North and apparent harbinger of the end of the world.
By Wednesday, Jensen said that the interview — a 10-minute exchange about herself and another famous Kim, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un — had elicited “hundreds” of angry responses. People were “disgusted” and “disappointed” by the choice of guest. Someone said they felt “contaminated through the speakers.” One accused the “NPR ship” of being “rudderless” and another urged, “NPR, you are supposed to be above this.”
Sharonn Flaucher of Tuftonboro, N.H., a monthly sustaining donor, wrote to Jensen that she’s thinking of dropping her NPR membership. “I thought NPR had a certain class/values and it looks like we might be heading in another direction that I’m not willing to go with you,” she wrote.
Granted, much of this outrage was expressed in online comments, an oftentimes socially acceptable repository for human frivolity, frailty and bitterness.
But still, the vociferous reaction seems a little over the top.
“I’m still not sure what to make of this week’s outrage,” Jensen wrote on the ombudsman’s blog. “She wasn’t a great guest — she had a couple funny lines — but she was gracious. Or at least I think so.”
Jensen acknowledged that she’s “in the camp of those who have avoided [Kardashian’s] other ubiquitous media projects and appearances,” but she didn’t find the segment offensive.
“It was only 11 minutes, after all, and now maybe I won’t be so lost at the next dinner party when the topic of Kardashian-mania comes up,” she said.
This being NPR — thoughtful, inclined toward introspection and organic arugula salads — other reporters offered their own takes on the controversy and its broader cultural implications.
Emmanuel Hapsis, a producer at San Francisco member station KQED, wrote that a certain kind of person seems to write off popular culture “as a badge of honor,” a way of conveying how smart and untrivial they are. It’s an attempt at cultivating their public persona, much as Kim Kardashian does, Hapsis argued.
She meticulously crafts how the public sees her (in full face, at all times, mostly) and what they find out about her. In this same way, the people leaving these incensed comments or posting about how they wish Kim would just go away on their Facebook pages are also maintaining some idea of themselves that they want to project or would like to believe about themselves. Kim puts beauty first, others lead with intelligence, but, in the end, it’s ultimately the same thing: a facade.
Mike Pesca, the ex-NPR reporter (but current Slate staffer) who interviewed Kardashian for the segment, elaborated in a piece for Slate. There’s a history of NPR listeners getting angry about popular or mainstream culture infiltrating NPR programming, one that goes back to the days when stations were moving away from classical music.
The man who helped precipitate that shift, a researcher and radio consultant named David Giovannoni, had a name for this particular persnickety brand of NPR listener: monks.
“These types are different from the regular news consumers, the typical news consumers who like debate and ideas, depth and logic. This different type of listener, not so dissimilar demographically, is vastly different psycho-graphically,” he said, according to Pesca. “Sharply differentiated by their needs and gratifications,” monks seek “to escape from the troubled exterior world and seek an interior serenity.”
People who only wanted to hear classical music on NPR? Monks. People who find Kim K. joking about Kim Jong Un so offensive that they fear “contamination through the speakers?” Also monks.
Here’s what Pesca had to say:
There is a type of NPR listener — and it’s a type of media consumer, it goes way beyond NPR—that defines themselves by what they are not. To some extent, we all do this. The bands we like, the foods we don’t eat. But with them, it’s a much huger deal. They’re closed-minded, they use affiliation with NPR or Fox or Christian Broadcasting not to experience a larger outside world but to congratulate themselves on the purity of their own world. Insularity does not wind up being an unfortunate by-product of striving for equality — it is the point of the choice in the first place.
Later in the piece, he continues:
A news consumer might not like the vapidity of Kim Kardashian on her e-show — but at least if they are a fan of this news comedy show, might be curious enough to see what a comedy show does with this figure, in the context of comedy. The Monk, on the other hand, is driven by a desire to achieve the inner state that allows him or her to make sense of the world. NPR or whatever media, for the Monk, is an escape from the sullied world. It’s crabby, it’s snooty and it hates the big booty.
Hapsis, for his part, has no problem with Kardashian. He even keeps tabs on her family and their incessant spats. And, amazingly, it hasn’t made him forget everything he learned in grad school, or prevented him from reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
“Kim Kardashian … doesn’t have the power to destroy you or your favorite public radio show,” he wrote. “But she could probably school some of us on how to lighten up.”