NPR: Liberal Bias?

Let me state upfront my own bias. 

Some might perceive me as a progressive liberal far to the left of what is called ‘liberal’ in mainstream media and politics. Right-wingers likely would call me a ‘socialist’. But going by polls most of my positions seem to be more or less in line with the ‘mass opinion’ of the general public (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism).

I’m not a partisan or an ideological purist. I’m an Independent who doesn’t give allegiance to any specific party, especially not the Democratic Party. In fact, I don’t like party politics in general and I utterly despise the two-party stanglehold. On principle, I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils because that would still mean voting for evil. I’m more likely to vote Libertarian or Green. I would consider myself a liberal-minded small ‘d’ democrat. I put my value of democracy before all else. I’ve increasingly come to doubt all things ‘big’: big government, big business, big media, big think tanks, big special interests, big unions, big money campaign funding, etc. Grassroots democracy is always the safest bet.

I often listen to NPR while at work, but not because they represent my views. I just find them the least obnoxious of the choices available on talk radio. NPR makes good background noise. Public radio in general (NPR, IPR, BBC, and CBC) keeps me basically informed about the major events going on in the world and occasionally I hear an interesting interview. Unlike most talk radio, the annoying opinionated punditry (especially of the angry ranting variety) is non-existent on NPR. Even at it’s worse, NPR is just boringly bland in sticking so close to conventional wisdom and noncontroversial issues. However, I listen to NPR less and less as the years go by.

So, I’m biased against mainstream media in general. In this way, I’m biased against NPR for the same basic reason I’m biased against Fox News. I’m biased against the mainstream bias that excludes, dismisses, or criticizes alternative viewpoints and sources.

– – –

In this post, I’m responding to the allegation that NPR has a liberal or even a left-wing bias.

I’ve previously touched upon this in a previous post about media in general: Black and White and Re(a)d All Over. I’m not defending NPR. In fact, I’m critical of all mainstream media (i.e., big media owned and operated by big business or, in the case of NPR, funded by big business). It’s true that NPR doesn’t play the partisan punditry game such as Fox News or MSNBC. Instead, they are more in league with CNN. The game they play is defender of the political status quo and mouthpiece of Washington politics. The only bias NPR has is that of Establishment centrism and corporatism.

Some claim NPR is left-leaning. Others claim it’s right-leaning. It all depends on your comparison. It’s to the left of Fox News and to the right of MSNBC. More importantly, I’d point out how it compares to society as a whole. I don’t know if it is to the right or left of center in Washington politics, but admittedly it’s difficult for any news outlet to be much further right than what goes for centrism in Washington. Like most of the MSM, NPR is to the right of the average American, at least in terms of major issues such as health care reform and drug legalization/decreminalization.

This is significant considering that ‘Public’ is literally NPR’s middle name. If NPR doesn’t represent and fairly report public opinion, then whose opinion are they voicing?

NPR rarely has alternative voices, including internationally renown thinkers such as Noam Chomsky. As a liberal, the type of liberal media personalities I enjoy listening to (along with Chomsky: Thom Hartmann, Sam Seder, etc) tend to not be heard on NPR or in the rest of the mainstream media. This is interesting as these people aren’t necessarily radicals. Hartmann, for example, seems similar to me in being in agreement with the American silent majority. These people who are considered ‘far left’ aren’t radical in the way that Glenn Beck or Alex Jones is radical… and yet this supposed ‘far left’ gets equated to the far right.

NPR gives a platform for views that are considered mainstream (meaning the political center of the ruling elite: political elite, business elite, intellectual elite, think tank elite, etc). What NPR typically doesn’t do is challenge this mainstream status quo or invite guests on who will challenge this mainstream status quo.

In fear of being called ‘liberal’, some have argued that NPR bends over backwards in the opposite direction:

In its obituary marking the death of iconic liberal activist and historian Howard Zinn, NPR allowed right-wing hater David Horowitz go off on the recently deceased: 

“There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” Horowitz declared in the NPR story. “Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse.”

That brought a deserved rebuke from listeners, who were encouraged by FAIR. NPR’s ombudsman thenlooked back at how the radio network handled recent obits of other political players, who were all conservatives [emphasis added]: 

NPR was complimentary and respectful in memorializing [Bill] Buckley, who died in 2008. The network was equally nuanced in remembering pioneering televangelist Oral Roberts(who died in December) and Robert Novaka conservative columnist who played a key role in the Valerie Plame debacle and who died last August. NPR’s obituaries of these men did not contain mean-spirited, Horowitz-like comments.

There is one particular study I found interesting which claims to have measured a very slight liberal bias to NPR. What was interesting was what was being measured:

A caveat: The Duke team’s results don’t directly get at the ideologies of the entities themselves, only at the makeup of the networks that surround them. “We would say that our estimates relate to the perception of a given entity,” Sparks says. “However, for the purposes of our paper and possibly for thinking about the media, perceptions may be what is actually important.”

It’s an odd thing to measure perception. Whose perception is being measured?

I noticed the article gave a clear description of its bias: “The only surprises were how far to the left some mainstream entities, such as Katie Couric and the Washington Post, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with liberal bias).” This must be understood in context. One could equally say: The only surprises were how far to the right the entire mainstream media, such as NPR and Fox News, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with conservative bias).

Think about it for a moment. Where do you always here that the mainstream media is liberal? You hear it in the mainstream media. If the mainstream media were actually liberal, they wouldn’t constantly attack each other as being liberal and constantly deny their liberal bias when attacked.

So, in the context of mainstream media, NPR is perceived as ‘liberal’. That isn’t surprising. In the context of mainstream media, the stated public opinion of the American majority would be perceived as ‘liberal’. However, since the mainstream media controls the narrative of public debate, those who control the media (i.e., big business) controls the public perception. The real liberal bias is to be found among average Americans who are the silent majority. The more the media has become concentrated the further it has become distanced from average Americans. Most Americans get their news from the mainstream media and, as one would suspect, most Americans perceive themselves as ‘conservative’ despite their tending toward liberal and progressive views on key issues.

Perception, when controlled and manipulated, isn’t an accurate and fair measure of reality. Yes, as people like Chomsky understand, the propaganda model does work.

In this particular case, one must ask: Who is trying to control/manipulate the perception of NPR being liberally biased? It’s the conservative mainstream media.

There are a couple of relevant points.

First, since the entire mainstream media is far to the right of the majority of Americans and since the conservative mainstream media is far to the right of the center of mainstream media, then this accusation of liberal bias is originating from sources that are radically far right. So, it’s an issue of who is categorizing according to which labels and what is motivating their choices.

There have been notable recent attempts to study think tank coverage, including a problematic study by academics Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo (see Extra!, 5–6/05) and NPR’s analysis of its own use of think tanks (, 12/14/05). NPR ombud Jeffrey A. Dvorkin only listed eight think tanks, and counted Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (which has Henry Kissinger on its board) as “left” think tanks. (There are no centrist think tanks in Dvorkin’s universe.) Even thus stacking the deck, Dvorkin still found a 239–141 advantage in citations for the right—a result that he said, puzzlingly enough, shows that “NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Second, the sources (such as Fox News) making this accusation of liberal bias against NPR are measured as being less reliable sources of info than those they are making accusations against:

The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.

It isn’t necessarily helpful to think of media in terms of right vs left. The news, for the most part, is about profits.

Even NPR has increasingly become funded by corporate money (far more than any government funding). Profit or not, it’s a fact that the media has become increasingly concentrated. A few corporations have been buying up the media for decades. NPR, and other public radio, also has been growing in a similar fashion taking up the place that used to be filled with locally owned and operated radio stations. To the degree there has been a bias, it’s the bias of big business (which tends to be the same bias as that of conservatives or at least right-wing conservatives; and it should be noted that many right-wing conservatives incorrectly believe they represent both the average conservative and the average American).

Furthermore, the data shows that politicians and political activists are more polarized in their rhetoric than are most Americans. There is a minority of partisan true believers and these people will always see the media biased against them.

The hostile media effect, sometimes called the hostile media phenomenon, refers to the finding that people with strong biases toward an issue (partisans) perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality. Proponents of the hostile media effect argue that this finding cannot be attributed to the presence of bias in the news reports, since partisans from opposing sides of an issue rate the same coverage as biased against their side and biased in favor of the opposing side.

Presently in the US, the right is more radicalized than the left. It’s for this reason that we most often hear the allegation of a liberal media bias rather than the opposite.

Most Americans, on the other hand, aren’t radicalized. The average American, like the average NPR listener, is moderate. However, the issue is made complex for the reason that present-day American liberals are more moderate than present-day American conservatives (more moderate, for example, in being the demographic most supportive of compromise and the demographic most supportive of government no matter which party is in power). This means there is much more crossover between liberals and moderates (in recent history, liberals have tended to disavow the radical far left).

For one, when we described the right-wing media machine as NPR’s “long-time nemesis,” it was not to suggest that somehow public radio is its left-wing opposite. When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn’t left; it’s independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line. We’ve heard no NPR reporter — not a one — advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more. [ . . . ]

So what do conservatives really mean when they accuse NPR of being “liberal”? They mean it’s not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).

The most interesting part to me is how many of NPR listeners aren’t liberal and especially aren’t far left-wing:

The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

The right-wing media may attack NPR, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that the average conservative has any complaint:

Media critics and conservative commentators are responding to the recent controversy over NPR by praising the network’s reporting. In addition, some Tea Party activists say that NPR’s coverage of their group has been “fair.”

Even so, those who run NPR often seem clueless in thinking that appeasing the right-wing media will end the attacks:

In the When Will They Learn? department, incoming National Public Radio president Gary Knell seems to suffer from the same misunderstanding that has plagued public broadcasting executives for years.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports that Knell says he hopes to “calm the waters a bit” at NPR after recent political controversies, and to “depoliticize” debate over the future of public radio. Knell is quoted saying, “It’s not about liberal or conservative; it’s about fairness…. We’ve got to make the case we’re delivering a fair service.”

Sigh. It’s as if he doesn’t see the road behind him strewn with efforts to “depoliticize” the public broadcasting debate, which is code for appeasing public broadcasting’s conservative enemies by adding more right-wing content and censoring things they might not like.

But the thing is, politicians are political, and some of them want there to be no more publicly funded…anything, but certainly not broadcasting, which they demonstrate by voting to zero out its resources every chance they get. No matter how calm the waters are.

For the rest of the post, I’ll offer from various sources more evidence against and discussion about the allegation of a liberally biased NPR.

– – –

Debates over whether NPR has a vendetta against conservatives, though, miss the larger issue of the network’s financial strength. NPR says its finances have rebounded. NPR makes most of its revenue from program fees and dues that stations pay to broadcast its programs. Its second-largest source of revenue — and one of the reasons for its financial success — is that it allows corporations the chance to reach the its well-heeled audience through sponsorships, which it says has enjoyed “strong growth” over the past decade.

As journalism it is worthless: nothing more than an echo chamber for the views of the powerful interests and forces that control this country – large US and multinational corporations, departments and agencies of US military and foreign policy, and the national Republican and Democratic parties, etc.  As an organization, NPR never challenges or confronts the myth of US goodness in foreign policy, the belief in US exceptionalism, the supposed benefits of capitalism and market ideologies.

While the political right has been beating the drum for years that NPR is too liberal, Nader says that is not the true picture at all. He says that it is progressives on the political left, like him, who are being excluded from NPR’s airwaves.

“Progressive voices are not heard on NPR with the frequency of voices representing more corporatist and conservative opinion,” Nader said. “And progressive voices should not be confused with liberal voices and lumped into the same category for any frequency analysis.”

According to Nader, what NPR considers a liberal perspective is really middle-of-the-road. Among his examples are well-known Democrats like President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Progressives, he said, exist farther to the left on the political spectrum. They support things like a Medicare-type single-payer system for all Americans, and not the health care compromise passed by Congress.

Nader does make at least one good point. Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that the country’s political right, more than the left, is so peopled by true believers driven by principle that they reject political compromise and stay on message with such a strong voice that it attracts great media attention and exaggerates their real weight in the populace.

So who are some of these progressives on the left that Nader says are being ignored? Some are old war horses such as Jim Hightower, Gloria Steinem, Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West. But others are younger political players. They include Kevin Zeese and Robert Weissman. Nader gave a list, quickly scribbled; it is not exhaustive.

“Most of the Liberals in Congress voted for the Patriot Act and its renewal,” Nader said, citing another policy differentiator. He said progressives more than liberals also want to dramatically increase minimum wage and decrease the country’s military involvement abroad.

On story selection, NPR is more international in its focus, clearly. You are gonna hear somewhat more about policy. You are gonna hear somewhat less about political argument. Does that represent bias? Ultimately, I think these questions of bias may be in the eye of the beholder.

[ . . . ] Well, do I see proof of bias in the story selection? No. Do I see evidence in our tone studies that prove a liberal bias? No. Does this prove that NPR is not biased? I can’t say that. We don’t have tone for every topic. In the end, it’s very hard to establish, even if someone were to identify who’s on the air and what their political affiliations are. If you have a lot of people from one party on and the questioning is very tough, that goes one way. And if you have a lot of people on and the coverage are a bunch of softball questions, that goes another way. Bias, in the end, is often a matter of whether things are phrased in ways that I agree with or disagree with. In the end, you’re not gonna persuade anyone with data.

Allegations of ideological bias

Allegations of liberal bias

A 2005 study conducted by researchers at UCLA and the University of Missouri found Morning Edition to be more liberal than the average U.S. Republican and more conservative than the average U.S. Democrat. At the time Morning Edition was comparable to the The Washington Post, the CBS Morning ShowTimeNewsweek and U.S. News & World Report.[4] Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media watchdog group,[5] disputes the claim of a liberal bias.[6] 

Allegations of conservative bias 

A December 2005 column run by NPR ombudsman and former Vice President Jeffrey Dvorkin denied allegations by some listeners that NPR relies heavily on conservative think-tanks.[7] In his column, Dvorkin listed the number of times NPR had cited experts from conservative and liberal think tanks in the previous year as evidence. The totals were 239 for conservative think tanks, and 141 for liberal ones. He noted that while the number of times liberal think tanks were cited was less, in addition to think tanks the liberal point of view is commonly provided by academics.

In 2003, some critics accused NPR of being supportive of the invasion of Iraq.[8][9]

Allegations of bias against Israel

NPR has been criticised for perceived bias in its coverage of Israel.[10][11][12][13] The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a pro-Israel American media monitoring organization based in Boston, has been particularly critical of NPR. CAMERA director Andrea Levin has stated, “We consider NPR to be the most seriously biased mainstream media outlet,” a statement that The Boston Globe describes as having “clearly gotten under her target’s skin.”[13] NPR’s then-Ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, said in a 2002 interview that CAMERA used selective citations and subjective definitions of what it considers pro-Palestinian bias in formulating its findings, and that he felt CAMERA’s campaign was “a kind of McCarthyism, frankly, that bashes us and causes people to question our commitment to doing this story fairly. And it exacerbates the legitimate anxieties of many in the Jewish community about the survival of Israel.”[14]

Allegations of elitism and the status quo

A 2004 FAIR study concluded that “NPR’s guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.”[15]

Noam Chomsky has criticized NPR as being biased toward ideological power and the status quo. He alleges that the parameters of debate on a given topic are very consciously curtailed. He says that since the network maintains studios in ideological centers of opinion such as Washington, the network feels the necessity to carefully consider what kinds of dissenting opinion are acceptable. Thus, political pragmatism, perhaps induced by fear of offending public officials who control some of the NPR’s funding (via CPB), often determines what views are suitable for broadcast, meaning that opinions critical of the structures of national-interest-based foreign policy, capitalism, and government bureaucracies (entailed by so-called “radical” or “activist” politics) usually do not make it to air.[16]

Defenders’ rebuttals

Supporters contend that NPR does its job well. A study conducted in 2003 by the polling firm Knowledge Networks and the University of Maryland‘s Program on International Policy Attitudes showed that those who get their news and information from public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) are better informed than those whose information comes from other media outlets. In one study, NPR and PBS audiences had a more accurate understanding of the events in Iraq versus all audiences for cable and broadcast TV networks and the print media.[17][18]

With those values in mind, let’s consider the fundamental question: the accusation of “liberal bias” at NPR, which drives many critics calling to eliminate its federal funding. It’s not my job as a reporter to address the funding question. But I can point out that the recent tempests over “perceived bias” have nothing to do with what NPR puts on the air. The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

Another somewhat surprising result is our estimate of NPR’s Morning Edition.  Conservatives frequently list NPR as an egregious example of a liberal news outlet.[27]  However, by our estimate the outlet hardly differs from the average mainstream news outlet.  For instance, its score is approximately equal to those of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and its score is slightly less than the Washington Post’s.  Further, our estimate places it well to the right of the New York Times, and also to the right of the average speech by Joe Lieberman.  These differences are statistically significant.[28]  We mentioned this finding to Terry Anderson, an academic economist and Executive Director of the Political Economy Research Center, which is among the list of think tanks in our sample.  (The average score of legislators citing PERC was 39.9, which places it as a moderate-right think tank, approximately as conservative as RAND is liberal.)  Anderson told us, “When NPR interviewed us, they were nothing but fair.  I think the conventional wisdom has overstated any liberal bias at NPR.”  Our NPR estimate is also consistent with James Hamilton’s (2004, 108) research on audience ideology of news outlets.  Hamiltonfinds that the average NPR listener holds approximately the same ideology as the average network news viewer or the average viewer of morning news shows, such as Today or Good Morning America.   Indeed, of the outlets that he examines in this section of his book, by this measure NPR is the ninth most liberal out of eighteen.

Tallying the Think Tanks

NPR often calls on think tanks for comments. But NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Here’s the tally sheet for the number of times think tank experts were interviewed to date on NPR in 2005:

American Enterprise – 59

Brookings Institute – 102

Cato Institute – 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies – 39

Heritage Foundation – 20

Hoover Institute – 69

Lexington Institute – 9

Manhattan Institute – 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

There may be other experts who are interviewed on NPR who present a liberal perspective. But they tend to be based in universities and colleges and are not part of the think tank culture. That seems to be where most conservative thinking on the issues of the day can be most easily found. Journalism in general — including NPR — has become overly reliant on the easily obtained offerings of the think tanks.

Liberal bias?

That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early ’70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that “all funds for public broadcasting be cut” (9/23/71), through House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s similar threats in the mid-’90s, the notion that NPR leans left still endures. 

News of the April launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already existed. “I have three letters for you, NPR . . . . I mean, there is liberal radio,” remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on NBC’s Chris Matthews Show(4/4/04). A few days earlier (4/1/04), conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline, “The liberals have many outlets,” naming NPR prominently among them. 

Nor is this belief confined to the right: CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (3/31/04) seemed to repeat it as a given while questioning a liberal guest: “What about this notion that the conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal radio network out there, namely National Public Radio?”

Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIR’s latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources—including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants—Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at the time of the 2003 study.

Partisans from outside the two major parties were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian Party representatives who appeared in a single story (Morning Edition, 6/26/03). 

Republicans not only had a substantial partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPR’s most popular sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance. George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each. 

Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell, all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white male government officials.

The Right Stuff: NPR’s think tank sources

FAIR’s four-month study of NPR in 1993 found 10 think tanks that were cited twice or more. In a new four-month study (5/03–8/03), the list of think tanks cited two or more times has grown to 17, accounting for 133 appearances.

FAIR classified each think tank by ideological orientation as either centrist, right of center or left of center. Representatives of think tanks to the right of center outnumbered those to the left of center by more than four to one: 62 appearances to 15. Centrist think tanks provided sources for 56 appearances.

The most often quoted think tank was the centrist Brookings Institution, quoted 31 times; it was also the most quoted think tank in 1993. It was followed by 19 appearances by the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies and 17 by the centrist Council on Foreign Relations. The most frequently cited left-of-center organization was the Urban Institute, with eight appearances.

Diversity among think tank representatives was even more lopsided than the ideological spread, with women cited only 10 percent of the time, and people of color only 3 percent. Only white men were quoted more than twice, the most frequent being Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (8 appearances), Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings (7) and E.J. Dionne, also of Brookings (6).

So would Republican presidential hopefuls agree with him, that a more diverse NPR would be a better use of public funds? Do the elephants care about the quality of news that’s accessible in the peanut gallery?

Or are they grandstanding and whipping up ill-informed Americans into a frenzy in the name of Muslim-bashing? Despite a desperate need to change course in the Middle East,  this fall the GOP laughed all the way into office as NPR war reporters joined up with the rest of the subservient national press to please the Pentagon with their favorable coverage.

Listen critically to NPR’s reporting of US foreign policy and you will hear selective storytelling shining favorable light on CIA activities, and so-called experts providing dodgy history lessons on Afghanistan. While popular anchors parrot unsubstantiated claims about Iraq, and others kiss up to conservative politicians, commentators smirk their way through reactionary antagonism of whistle-blowers.

To me, it is no wonder that the anti-Iraq War invasion contingent of NPR’s audience seems so totally placated, four elections later.

It’s debatable whether those at the top of the right-wing echo chamber are in fact willfully misleading their audiences when it comes to funding radio with tax dollars. Either that or they’re afraid of what they don’t understand as usual.

Public radio station revenue is mostly made up of individual and business contributors, with less than 6% coming from direct federal, state and local government funding combined.

funding combined. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funds barely 10% of all public radio budgets. NPR itself is funded mostly by member station programming fees and corporate sponsorships, and receives no government funding for operation costs.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [ . . . ] As we waded in, we realized it’s incredibly complicated. Look no further than the terms themselves. What is bias? What do we mean when we invoke the word “liberal?” And even defining “NPR” is fraught.

First up, bias. It’s a moving target. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, communications professor Daniel Hallin drew a simple diagram depicting three spheres in journalism. They’re called Hallin’s Spheres. Picture a doughnut. The hole in the doughnut is the sphere of consensus, and here are issues and views we can all agree on – democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.

No, that’s reserved for the doughnut itself, the sphere of legitimate controversy. Here’s where the bulk of journalism takes place – gun control, interest rates, budget matters and abortion, issues on which reasonable people can disagree and where journalists are obliged to present both sides.

Outside the doughnut lies the sphere of deviance, limbo, where viewpoints are deemed unworthy of debate. The pro-pedophilia position, for example, does not get a hearing in mainstream media.

But Hallin created his spheres in the 1980s, before FOX News and MSNBC, the rise of talk radio and the blogosphere. Certain views that a generation ago would have been relegated to the sphere of deviance – for example, questioning the birth certificate of the President of the United States – Hallin says have now forced their way onto the doughnut.

DANIEL HALLIN: When I made my diagram there was only one set of spheres, let’s say, and everybody kind of agreed on what they were. The boundaries might get fuzzy. But now I think our media have become fragmented and pluralized so that you have different sub-communities that have different ideas of where the boundaries lie, right?

So a generation ago, the questions whether Obama can legitimately be president, this would have been rejected both by elites in Washington of both parties and by the media as just absolutely outside the proper bounds of political debate, and it would have been excluded. Today there’s just a lot less consensus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Hallin’s doughnut has been blasted into crumbs by a confluence of voices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but where does that leave NPR?

DANIEL HALLIN: NPR, like, actually, quite a few of the mainstream news organizations in the U.S., I would say still adheres to the old-style journalism that tries to stick to the center and tell both sides. But I think that this is a period in which it’s harder to do. I think it’s much more difficult to legitimize.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean it’s more difficult to legitimize?

DANIEL HALLIN: Well, you could convince people that you were in fact being neutral by sticking to a point in the center between Republicans and Democrats and giving them both a hearing in an earlier period. Nowadays that just doesn’t work as well because different segments of the population have different ideas of where the center really is, of what’s a legitimate political point of view. So I think that all of the news organizations that try and stick to the old-fashioned patterns of journalistic professionalism, they’re all a little bit on the defensive.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think mainstream journalists should respond to the fuzziness of the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate debate and the sphere of deviance, that which should not be discussed?

DANIEL HALLIN: At what point would we decide that global warming is not really a legitimate subject of controversy anymore? Because the truth is within scientific communities it’s not. Within the political public sphere there’s still a big controversy about it. And that is somewhat troubling, that gap.

You know, in many cases I think it’s going to be the right decision for a journalist to say, we’re aware that the science says that there’s not a controversy here and we are going to refuse to treat this part of it as though it were controversial. I think that that’s a responsible decision. I think it’s politically risky as well.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Hallin teaches at the University of California San Diego. Based on the remark we just heard, he’ll be labeled by some as a liberal. The word is applied broadly now to big-L Liberal politics and small-l liberal values, even liberal science, to the point where the word “liberal” itself means almost nothing.

And what does NPR mean? For most people, NPR is whatever they hear when they tune into public radio. But NPR itself produces or editorially oversees very little of that content. It’s directly responsible for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the weekend equivalent of those shows, and Talk of the Nation. It also distributes shows produced elsewhere – On the Media, Diane Rehm, Fresh Air and so on.

And then there are the shows that NPR neither produces nor distributes that are among public radio’s most popular – This American Life, Marketplace, A Prairie Home Companion. And finally there are the local shows produced by public radio stations everywhere. But does it even matter when most of the bias debate coalesces around federal support, the bulk of which goes to stations?



3 thoughts on “NPR: Liberal Bias?

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