You've been put on notice, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!
John Moore of Decatur, Ga., wrote to NPR: "Everyone is allowed one mulligan, and you just had yours."
Moore, who admits he might be an "NPR snob," was referring to the show's "Not My Job" guest appearance this past weekend of—gasp!!!—Kim Kardashian, where she was invited to promote her new book, Selfish, 448 pages of photographs of herself.
Kardashian's presence on the show sent several hundred listeners over the top. By the dozens, they say they are "disgusted" and "disappointed," and a handful are sure the show has "jumped the shark." Paula Poundstone's "exposition on the proper preparation of Pop Tarts" is OK, wrote Gary Miller of Charles Town, W.Va., but Kardashian? "She has no business in any civilized forum," he wrote.
The listeners are self-aware and unapologetic about their outrage. "I have enjoyed your show for years, but I found the inclusion of Kim Kardashian so misguided and offensive, I fear I will never be able to listen again (hyperbolic, yes, but vapid, talentless, and shallow individuals who have not earned fame or fortune through an ounce of hard work have no place on a show of such caliber)," wrote Brianna Frazier of Laguna Beach, Calif.
They are threatening to pull their donations, or claim they have already done so. Kerry Castano, of Burlington, Vt., wrote, "I recently gave a small gift to my local NPR station. Had I heard your Saturday show before I made my gift, I wouldn't have donated. The Kardashians represent much of what is wrong with America today — and I listen to NPR to get AWAY from Kardashian-like garbage."
Monthly sustaining donor Sharonn Flaucher of Tuftonboro, N.H., is "seriously thinking about dropping my 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. Just thought I'd give you a heads up. Have a sparkling day!"
I will admit it. In my not–quite five months as NPR's Ombudsman, I've found one reliable source of joy: the Monday morning email—there's at least one each week—from a listener outraged by whatever bad taste joke Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! has told on its latest episode. This Monday, the inbox was overflowing.
I am decidedly not mocking the listeners' devotion to the religion they hold sacred, to their gluten-free diets, to their right to own however many cats they want and not be painted as "crazy," to their belief that all 90-year-olds should not be lumped together as unsafe drivers, to defeating stereotypes of [insert ethnic group name here]—all the sources of unhappiness when Wait Wait dared poke a bit of fun.
But, well, it is a humor show and an equal opportunity offender. Many listeners seem willing to laugh until the comedy is turned on something that touches their own lives or sensitivities. Does the show occasionally seem sophomoric or cross a line? Perhaps. But rarely, if ever, does the fun come across—to me, anyway—as mean-spirited.
I'm still not sure what to make of this week's outrage over Kardashian, who was indeed a surprising guest, given how often the show has pilloried her and her clan in the past. She wasn't a great guest—she had a couple funny lines—but she was gracious. Or at least I think so. I'm in the camp of those who have avoided her other ubiquitous media projects and appearances, so I can't say I'm familiar with her normal demeanor. But I was far from offended by her presence on an NPR show. It was only eleven 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.
A handful of listeners agreed. "I admired Kim's daring acceptance of the 'Not My Job' gauntlet throw-down," wrote Lawrence Caring of Houston, Texas. "She knew what she was getting into and had the guts to subject herself to it anyway, albeit to plug her new book. Kudos to the WWDTM guest approval crew. If the NPR 'holier-than-thou' complaints had to be written on the backs of contribution receipts, well I'm sure the complaints would just trickle in.
But listener Mary-Lynne Peluso of New York City seemed to speak for many when she expressed her dismay: "Now, you've given that low-level, self-centered, ego-driven mentality a place in the 'public radio' world. Not a real, in-depth, look at 'How self-promotion today affects societal thinking,' or some such analysis, but a 'Hey, Kim, let's gab about your busy (full, but empty of socially uplifting value) life. Come play with us; we want to be popular like you, too!'"
Peluso added: "This is a real question, for which I'd appreciate a reply: 'What was your thinking behind having Kim Kardashian on as a guest?'"
So I asked Michael Danforth, the show's executive producer. When I talked to him earlier this week, he said, "Of course we tried to book her, because she's huge. She is a favorite in our lives." He called it "a totally normal booking. We always try to book people who are culturally relevant."
Danforth said the team was surprised Kardashian agreed to the appearance, and called her "self-effacing," although he added, "One thing we've learned is she's got a very polished and easy public persona" and isn't about to go off message. He seemed truly baffled by the strong listener reaction. "I did not anticipate it," he said.
Emmanuel Hapsis, writing on KQED's Pop blog, analyzed the outrage—smartly, in my opinion—in the thoughtful way that many people associate with NPR:
This preoccupation with identity and how one is perceived by others also happens to be something Kim Kardashian knows a lot about. 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.
Later, he concluded:
I went to grad school. My favorite writer is an experimental classicist. I've read Ulysses in its entirety. And I also know all the names of the Kardashians and why they're mad at each other. Learning that information didn't cancel out my degrees or any of my brain cells. Neither did listening to this radio segment. Kim Kardashian is a part of our culture, whether we like it or not. She doesn't have the power to destroy you or your favorite public radio show. But she could probably school some of us on how to lighten up.
Still, as one of my harshest critics likes to point out in the comments each time I post a new column, my job is to represent the public to NPR. So NPR, consider yourself told. Or, in the words of Max Planck of Centennial, Colo.: "I'll forgive you this time but don't do it again."
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