Sunday, September 16, 2012

NPR's real bias

The radio program "On the Media" aired this week highlights from a series of programs examining the charge that NPR is biased towards liberal positions.  The highlights of the highlights for me were these tidbits:

  • studies that compared NPR news programming to other sources found that NPR more frequently sited right-leaning sources (i.e. those self-identified as conservative and sited most by Republicans in Congress) than liberal ones at least 55% to 44%, both when Republicans dominated Wasington in 2003 and when Democrats did in 1993.  In the same study, the Wall Street Journal sited liberal sources much more frequently.
  • an extended set of interviews with an evangelical conservative listener to explain his perception of bias led to his keeping a journal of bias.  In the end, he admitted that the reporting was uniformly fair, high quality, and interesting.  He was willing to allow that his own sensitivity was causing him to hear a "tone" of liberal bias in the voices and questions of interviewers.  He sited Michelle Norris's question, "Can the nation afford that right now?" about a proposal to suspend corporate taxes.  Commentator Ira Glass suggested that she would have asked the same question to a proposal to increase spending, and he theorized that the same question from a FOX news anchor would have been perceived differently.
  • polling of media consumers revealed a 2-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans listening to NPR, compared to 4-to-1 for New York Times, and other higher ratios.  The outstanding result in that study was in the response to questions about why consumers are attracted to certain media outlets:  news accuracy?  in-depth stories?  commentary?  entertainment?  variety?  Only NPR was consulted for "all the above."  Also unique was the finding that 10% of each age category listened to NPR.
  • regarding the percentage of air time devoted to gay marriage, abortion, and other perceived liberal causes, coverage was two to three times more frequent on conservative programs (presumably because dramatisation of wedge issues attracts audience.)  While other media covered wedge issues of American politics, NPR was covering international stories and policy debates.
  • Coverage of the Obama administration was more neutral on NPR than other outlets, and much less frequent than on conservative outlets.
My own sense is that NPR is biased in two ways:

First, Reporters, commentators and interviewers search diligently for some common ground where opponents can meet with civility and goodwill.   This summer, for example, I was delighted to hear Romney's lead economic advisor say straight out that the candidates differ by degree, only:  a little more taxation one way, a little less spending the other.  Obama is not a socialist, he said, and Romney would not abandon the needy.   The voices I hear on NPR are unfailingly civil, if not downright convivial. 

There is another bias in the way that stories play up any angle that gives us a narrative of a small David facing a giant Goliath, whether it's a community of poor people against a giant corporation, or a small company against government regulation:  I've heard both.  Goliath always gets equal consideration, however. In another way, NPR favors the Davids of the world by devoting equal air time to interviewing up-and-coming popular artists, elucidating "classics," and bringing obscure artists and thinkers to light.

While I'm on the subject, I've come to rely on the program "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" for laugh therapy when the news has added stress to the week.  Listening on a long bike-ride through urban neighborhoods of Atlanta yesterday, I laughed out loud when Peter Seigel emphasized the amateurish quality of the repugnant video that provided pretext for anti-American violence last week.  "Reviews all over the world were uniformly negative," he said.  "Saudi Arabia gave it two thumbs off." 

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