Just As I Thought

NPR is starting to lean

I’ve often argued that NPR is not as lefty as the right-wing would have us believe. I tend to find NPR’s coverage pretty much balanced, sometimes to the point where I think they lean a bit right. I certainly don’t find them leftist at all, and nowhere near the wacky left-wing antics of, say, Pacifica Radio. And above all, I have been concerned with the corporate intrusion into NPR lately, which came to a head recently with the frequent underwriting credit for Wal*Mart, of all companies.
Now it seems that a study is confirming my suspicions of a right leaning, while showing that the public no longer seems to be a factor in Public Radio:

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.

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).

Told ya.

Update: The NPR Ombudsman responds to this report:

For me, I would take issue with FAIR’s assumptions and definitions about what constitutes a conservative opinion.

… FAIR refers to The Brookings Institution as a “centrist” think tank. This is, in my opinion, a trickily subjective adjective. Many would consider Brookings to be a solidly liberal organization whose scholars and pundits are frequently heard on NPR.

FAIR might also question, as some listeners have, whether All Things Considered’s weekly left-right encounter between E.J. Dionne and David Brooks is really pitting a “true” liberal against a conservative.

But conservative organizations tend in my experience to be unabashedly open about their ideology. Liberals and liberal organizations are less so, possibly because they are so often put on the defensive by a more aggressive and militant conservatism.

As examples — Brookings avoids describing itself as either left or right. It prefers to point to its “reform” roots going back to the early 20th century (see Web Resources below)

The Heritage Foundation (see Web Resources) on the other hand is open about its conservative roots and ideology.

… Listeners are quick to dash to their e-mails when they hear an opinion that is not their own. NPR’s role, it seems to me is not to provide listeners with intellectual comfort food.

FAIR is concerned whether the pendulum has swung too far. That’s my concern as well.

I think it may have and NPR needs to do a better job in general and especially in an election year — to make sure that the range is both wide and deep.

At the same time, FAIR’s study seems to reinforce the notion that what constitutes the center in American journalism is rapidly becoming an endangered species. For the left, NPR is never quite left enough. For the right of course, NPR remains a paragon of liberal bias.

NPR sees itself as a bastion of fair-minded journalism. But fewer media critics are able to agree with that.

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